Caledonian Pinewood Forest

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 31st October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

It gives me great pleasure as species champion of our national tree—the Scots pine—to introduce the debate. The Scots pine is symbolic of Scotland. It is a majestic tree whose distinctive silhouette on the horizon tells the Highlander that he is home. If we close our eyes and imagine a Scots pine, we will most likely visualise it solitary against the sky. However, several millennia ago, the Scots pine did not stand alone; it was part of what the Romans later called the great wood of Caledon. At one time, it covered 1.5 million hectares. It was Scotland’s rainforest. The forest contained other trees including birch, rowan, aspen and juniper, and it was carpeted with a lush variety of ferns, mosses and lichens. It sheltered a vast array of wildlife, some of which—the lynx, the brown bear and the wolf, for example—are long extinct.

The ancient Caledonian forest itself is now threatened with extinction. Only 1 per cent of the 1.5 million hectares survives, in 84 fragments, some of which are very small. Although that is a tragedy for my species—the Scots pine—it is also potentially heartbreaking with respect to the animals and plants that continue to depend on our pine forests. The capercaillie, the red squirrel, the black grouse, the golden eagle, the Scottish crossbill, the pine marten, the wildcat, the twinflower and the wood ant are all found in the forest, and they have a stake in its survival.

Another purpose of the debate is to allow other members to champion their species and illustrate just how biodiversity works in practice. Although the 84 areas of ancient woodland that I mentioned have been identified by the Forestry Commission Scotland as part of the old Caledonian woodland, there are other pine forests elsewhere in Scotland, particularly in the south of Scotland, my area, that are hundreds of years old and are home to many of those species. In particular, I mention Shambellie wood near New Abbey, which is certainly worth a visit.

There is international recognition of the richness of Scotland’s pinewoods. They receive protection from the European Union habitats directive and are included in the Scottish biodiversity list. Despite that, they face enormous challenges, including overgrazing by deer, climate change, invasive non-native species, and diseases such as Dothistroma needle blight, which can cause defoliation and even death. Foresters have to be very vigilant to it.

When the Trees for Life charity approached me to help to promote its Caledonian pinewood recovery project, which is a partnership project with the Woodland Trust, I immediately agreed. I am delighted to welcome Trees for Life representatives Alan McDonnell and Fiona Holmes to the gallery. The project focuses on the 84 surviving fragments of ancient forest and is supported by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates. It offers owners a free survey of their woods to assess their ecological health and resilience to the threats that I have mentioned. Ecologists can then suggest ways in which the challenges can be met. It is a really positive collaborative venture that we all hope will contribute to the Scottish Government’s aim of meeting the international biodiversity target to restore 10,000 hectares of native woodland.

How does one go about assessing and addressing the ecological health of a pinewood forest? I decided to see for myself by visiting the Dundreggan conservation estate in Glen Moriston near Loch Ness, which is Trees for Life’s 10,000-acre flagship restoration project. It was purchased 10 years ago entirely through fundraising, and has been described as

“the most ambitious rewilding project anywhere in the UK.”

Through natural regeneration and planting more than 1 million saplings, Trees for Life and its volunteers aim to create an unbroken native woodland link between Glen Moriston and the magnificent Glen Affric to the north. That directly addresses the fragmentation that afflicts pinewoods and will create a corridor to allow birds and animals that depend on the woods to increase their range and to flourish.

Natural forest regeneration is hard work. My visit allowed me to see how enormous the task is. Doug Gilbert, who is the operations manager at the Dundreggan estate, walked me up Glen Moriston to see a small clump of picturesque but very gnarled Scots pine, which he said dated back to the time when the glen was cleared of people after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. That is a poignant and romantic story in itself, but as Doug pointed out, those 18th century survivors are poignant for another reason. The trees are known as geriatric trees. Once the estate was given over to sport in the Victorian era, few trees survived to maturity, because deer devour saplings and young trees. Only the geriatric or granny trees survive, and they eventually become infertile.

To combat that, Dundreggan has an impressive tree nursery that allows conservationists to collect and grow pines and other trees on site. That is very important for biosecurity, not only because of the diseases that I have mentioned, but because it is more natural to propagate from local stock. The nursery workers spend a lot of time recreating the conditions in which wild tree seeds are fertilised and dispersed by birds and animals. They also grow species that they can then sell on in order to earn an income to sustain the charity. The work is labour intensive, and it illustrates that forest regeneration can help to sustain other species that we all want to prosper in rural Scotland—particularly, human beings.

Natural regeneration is considered to be vital, but young Scots pine trees are very vulnerable, especially in winter, when they pop up through the snow, advertising themselves as a tasty snack to any passing deer, who apparently prefer them to birch, which is the last tree they will eat.

The charity has begun using special clip-on shields to protect the saplings. There is also fencing, but it has a finite lifespan and is not foolproof. Furthermore, there is a view among ecologists that fencing cages woodland and the creatures who live in it and prevents natural spread.

Dundreggan employs a gamekeeper, whom I believe it inherited from the previous sporting estate, and it uses innovative ways of keeping the deer out, including using groups of noisy volunteers to disturb them. I am told that bagpipes are particularly effective.

Commercial monoculture is another threat to forest regeneration. Some of the ecologists whom I spoke to asked whether it is right that natural regeneration attracts smaller grants than commercial planting attracts. That debate is perhaps for another day.

Today is an opportunity to focus on the Caledonian pinewood recovery project of Trees for Life and the Woodland Trust. I hope that members will promote it—and their own species—in their constituencies. I hope that we will dwell on how best to ensure that the ancient Caledonian pine forest does not become extinct.

As the writer Ali Smith once said, the Scots pine may be

“noble and solitary ... sculpted into aloneness by the wind.”

Our pine is not lonesome, but a much-loved companion to the crossbill, the red squirrel, the marten, the capercaillie and many more. That is why I hope that it will flourish.