From September 9th to September 16th, I had the privilege of participating with Trees for Life. Specifically, I was on a Rewilding Week, which blended Trees for Life’s signature tree-planting activities with activities designed to teach us more about the forest’s ecological relationships, and was based at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate in Glenmoriston.
For those of you who don’t know, Trees for Life is a conservation charity based north of the Great Glen. Their primary work is forest restoration, and their aim is to restore, over a period of 250 years, 1000 square miles of the Scottish forest sometimes called the Great Wood of Caledon.
If hearing the phrase “Great Wood of Caledon” conjures an image of a continuous blanket of pines stretching from coast to coast, discard that image. Go back 5,000 years, and what you would have seen would be a patchwork of habitats, including closed-canopy pine forest, coastal oak forest, open land, alder carr and scrub. Unfortunately, centuries of deforestation by everyone from the Vikings to 20th century foresters have reduced this forest to 1% of its original cover- a state maintained by stocking of artificially high numbers of red deer for shooting. In the place of this rich and diverse habitat, an open, simplistic and largely barren ecosystem has sprung up across much of the Highlands.
But I think I’m getting sidetracked on the subject of this blog- what about my week at Dundreggan? What was it like? What stood out?
Well, one thing that really stood out was biodiversity: from the strawberry spider, whose population at Dundreggan constitutes nearly half the British population, to the wild boar we never saw, but whose signs were everywhere, and a host of creatures in between (including my first badger), Dundreggan is teeming with life. The latest surveys recorded 2,815 species, including eight species never recorded before in the UK. Yet Dundreggan is far from pristine; it’s a habitat in transition, having been much like the ecologically poor habitat already mentioned, until its purchase ten years ago by Trees for Life. The vegetation has had a resurgence in many places thanks to deer control and fencing, but still shows little signs of a canopy. Even so, the natural richness of the area demonstrates how much potential is in the Scottish Highlands, not to mention all of Britain’s uplands.
The actual conservation work was fantastic, including work in Dundreggan’s tree nursery, removing invasive weeds (rosebay willowherb, which outcompetes tree saplings) and surveying Forestry Commission woodlands for red squirrels. But the best part, of course, was the tree planting. Our first day in particular stands out in my memory: we were above the natural treeline planting dwarf birch and goat willow. These shrubs are the main indicators of montane scrub, a habitat that is almost extinct in Britain, but is the natural habitat of a host of species on continental Europe. The rain was grey and drizzly at best and bucketing down at worst on that day, but we kept at it the whole day, because nothing can beat the feeling of resurrecting a nearly-dead habitat.
But the best aspect, in my opinion, was the people. Whatever our interests, we always have times when it feels like there’s nobody to share it with, or that we’re saying the same things to the same people, or groups of people. Meeting like-minded individuals, being able to hear their experiences and points of view, and being able to discuss issues that we all cared about, was refreshing and much-overdue.
The best way to finish this post, I think, is the point that was raised by one of my fellow participants: saving the environment often focuses on what we can’t do: we can’t eat meat, fly abroad etc. But this is an example of something we can do: we can plant trees for the future. I couldn’t have put it better myself.