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Newsletters Caledonia Wild! Spring 2004

Trees for Life magazine, Caledonia Wild! Spring 2004

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Simon Dures, the student from Edinburgh University, with the ant nest we discovered at the top edge of the forest. Visible in the distance below is Loch Beinn a'Mheadhoin.


Still leafless in early spring, this blaeberry plant clings on to life about 8 metres above the ground, on the sheer trunk of a mature Scots pine.

The Tenacity of Life

A few days ago I was out in Glen Affric with a student from Edinburgh University, who's doing some research on wood ants there. We were visiting some places where I knew there were good concentrations of ant nests, and I was particularly keen to return to a site where I had found a small nest some years ago, at the highest altitudinal limit of the old Scots pines in the glen.

This involved a long walk up the valley of the Allt Coire Beithe ('stream of the corrie of the birch' in Gaelic), which contains a lovely, secluded remnant of old Caledonian Pine Forest in the midst of the forestry plantations on the north side of Loch Beinn a'Mheadhoin, just west of the hydroelectric dam. As we walked amongst the beautiful old pines, we were surprised and delighted to find a succession of ants nests up the valley, generally occurring wherever there was a small opening in the forest canopy, near old pines growing with a southerly aspect. Remarkably, as we got higher and higher, and patches of snow became more common, there seemed to be as many nests as there were down near the loch, although we were almost 200 metres higher by then.

With a growing appreciation of the ants' ability to thrive in the harsher climate this far up the hillside, we stopped to document a particular group of nests. While we were doing this, I noticed something strange growing straight out of the trunk of an old pine, about 8 metres about the ground. Looking more closely, I was astonished to discover it was a blaeberry plant! Previously I had only ever seen blaeberries growing a short way up the trunks of pines, and always in places where their roots could reach the soil. There was no opportunity for that in this case, and I was really touched by the sheer tenacity of this plant in growing in such an unlikely situation.

Continuing upwards, we finally reached the last pines, at an elevation of 450 metres, and just below the line of solid snow cover. These trees border the deforested slopes above, which stretch over the hill north to Glen Cannich, and they form the rearguard of the forest, after its retreat from higher up, due to past deforestation. Where we stood, there were only three widely-spaced old pines, a bonsai pine about 3 metres tall and a few broadleaved trees in the gully of the stream nearby. However, despite the exposed nature of the spot and the seeming lack of adequate habitat, we found a small ant nest, close to where I had seen one before. This nest seemed like a miracle of life amidst the adverse conditions, and I find it hard to imagine how the ants survive there. However, survive they do, tenaciously playing their part in the forest ecosystem, at the front line of its diminished extent.

Walking back down towards the loch, it seemed to me that the ant nest and the blaeberry plant were both classic exemplars of the irrepressible life force of Nature. For me, their simple demonstration of the tenacity of life in finding places to grow is a powerful symbol of hope for us all, as we strive to help restore the Caledonian Forest, and by extension, the Earth, amidst the increasingly destructive effects of our present-day industrial society.

Alan Watson Featherstone

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The Hills Are Alive....

Anne Matthews


Dwarf birch in flower on the Achlain Estate in July 2003.


Bryan Cosgrove beside a small lochan on the Achlain Estate in the summer of 2003. The landscape here is typical habitat for dwarf birch.
Photo: Anne Matthews

We had a very successful fieldwork season last summer for the mountain woodland project, surveying on the Achlain estate in Glen Moriston - this is the site of the new native woodland/mountain woodland exclosure which was the subject of our last appeal. This exclosure is exciting as it will be the first Trees for Life fence which will protect both mature woodland and montane scrub species such as dwarf birch and juniper.

Achlain lies on the high ground between Glen Moriston and Glen Garry, both of which hold areas of Caledonian Pinewood. Therefore any mountain woodland habitat which can be protected up there will provide the potential for the reinstatement of a natural woodland/scrub/heath continuum going over the hillsides.

Our survey showed that there are some extensive stands of dwarf birch, in blanket bog, often close to a lochan and often with cloudberry and large hummocks of the brown sphagnums. Sadly, in one area, we found only one tiny dwarf birch, growing in the fissure of a rock out in the middle of the river. This last survivor of a local population was a startling reminder of how much these plants need our help, and now!

There were a couple of small stands of tea-leaved willow, on steep river banks, protected from grazing animals by the terrain. These were sites of nutrient enrichment, which are unusual in this location due to the predominance of acid heath and bog, and therefore exciting botanically, and we found other locally-unusual plants such as bog blueberry, wood cranesbill, water avens, marsh hawksbeard and starry saxifrage. Again, the size of these stands emphasised their fragility in the surrounding areas of heath, tucked away from grazing teeth. It would be very rewarding to see these areas protected and able to spread outwards instead of slowly receding.

Up on the high ridges, where the soil is thin and even the heather is only a few centimetres tall due to the high winds, we saw some special alpine plants. The dwarf willow was a special treat - a willow species which grows as a mat over the gritty soil, and it was often accompanied by trailing azalea (in the same family as the rhododendron and heather), which again only grows to a centimetre or so, growing over the rocks, with tiny, but gaudy, pink flowers, surprising in this seemingly austere environment. We also saw alpine bistort and goldenrod, dwarfed by the conditions, and mountain everlasting, sensibly covered in dense white hairs. Fir clubmoss, whose ancestors ruled the plant world many aeons ago, is common up here, taking extremes of weather in its stride.

We were lucky enough to see an eagle soaring over the site a couple of times, and often we heard the "pee pee" call of the golden plover. A ptarmigan was very surprised to see us on one of the higher ridges, and vigourously twitched its bright red eyebrow at us before flying off.

We often see a lot of tiny caterpillars on the dwarf birch, so this year I sent some to the local moth recorder Duncan Williams, at Forest Research, who identified them as the moth caterpillar Swammerdamia passerella (no common name, as it's so rarely seen). Dwarf birch is its food plant, so it is found only in the north of Scotland and the mountains of Scandinavia. It has very few records in Scotland, and in fact has only been seen in flight by one person, so it is exciting to know that they are present in Glen Moriston and satisfying to be able to add some more records.

The map place names on Achlain are mainly Gaelic, with one Norse name: Lundie (Loch Lundie) which means 'sacred grove'. In terms of the natural history of the area there are references to a few oakwoods and groves, a corrie of the bear and another of the birds, which perhaps refers to golden eagles as there was a pair nesting on Meall Dubh until recently. Certainly it can be inferred that there were some rich areas of woodland here in the past, along with the animals and birds that lived in them.

Interestingly, there is a hill named after a hermit called Ronald, who inhabited the hill about 300 years ago. As the local legend goes, the landowner banished him to a small island in a lochan where you can still see the furrows from where he tried to eke out a living, and the yew tree which he planted on the island. Not surprisingly, he wasn't too pleased at having been confined to the island, after the joys of his hilltop with fresh breezes to keep the midges at bay and glorious views on which to meditate, so he placed a curse on the family. Apparently several of them were barren or met with untimely deaths and there is now one sole survivor of the family, in her eighties.

Following the survey, we drew up a series of proposals for the protection of the remnants of the mountain woodland habitat on the property, particularly the dwarf birch and tea-leaved willow and their associated species, hoping that the landowner will agree to one or two of them. Achlain Estate is currently considering the options and we are quietly optimistic that they will decide to implement some of them, in time. There's a windfarm application on Achlain which will be going ahead soon, and maybe the extra income from that will fund some protection for the mountain woodland habitat.

As part of the Montane Scrub Action Group we have designed a Dwarf Birch Recording Card, so that interested individuals can send in records of dwarf birch from around Scotland. The information will be put on a database, to be held by Trees for Life, so that we can have a better idea of how much dwarf birch is currently present in Scotland, and what state of health it is in. A similar card was drawn up last year by another group, for the dwarf willows. Cards are available from the Mountain Woodland Project at the TFL office, and are also downloadable (PDF) from our website. Thanks go to Scottish Natural Heritage for funding the production of this card.

Grateful thanks also go to Lisa and Geoff Sharp for funding this project, and to Steve Hull and Bryan Cosgrove for their enthusiastic help.

Anne Matthews

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Guisachan Wild Boar Project

Over the winter, we've been very pleased to be involved in helping to establish an innovative project involving wild boar in the Tomich area, not far from our field base at Plodda Lodge. Here, local resident Liz Balharry, an ecologist and producer of educational resources, introduces this exciting initiative.

Wild Boar logo

Liz Balharry at one of the sites near Tomich where the wild boar will be kept - the felled Sitka spruces are visible around the old Scots pines.

Wild boar (Sus scrofa) are a natural component of European forests where their unique rooting and scarifying behaviour breaks through ground vegetation to create seed beds for the regeneration of trees and other woodland plants. However this important animal has been lost to Scottish woodlands for several hundred years.

The Guisachan Wild Boar Project is a local initiative based in Tomich, working in partnership with Trees for Life and helped by Forestry Commission Scotland and two research institutes. The aim of the project is to manage farmed wild boar, within purpose-built enclosures, for the following objectives:

  • To reduce the dominance of bracken and increase biodiversity
  • To aid regeneration of native trees
  • To provide an income from farming boar

The project is being financed by the European Union-funded Leader Plus Programme and HIE (Highlands and Islands Enterprise) and will provide annual reports over the next four years on the feasibility of using farmed boar for this combination of objectives. Local people, schools and visitors to the area will have the opportunity to visit the boar enclosures, meet the boar at close quarters and learn about the value of these native animals.

The inspiration for the project started a few years ago when I visited a number of boar farmers in Scotland. I wanted to find an effective, non-chemical way of controlling the spread of bracken on the hill behind my house. Rae Grant, a local stalker, was interested in keeping pigs and we wondered if the two objectives could be combined. Wild boar became the preferred option because, contrary to their fierce reputation, they were found to be approachable, sociable and hardier and more self sufficient than domestic pigs. The project grew from there and is supported by a large number of individuals from the surrounding community, including farmers, land owners, teachers, restaurant owners, individuals involved with local tourism and other residents who are just interested to see the boar.

Initially the project will consist of two enclosures sited near Tomich. Site A will be in former native pine woodland which was under-planted with Sitka spruce and the Sitka have now been felled. This 12 hectare enclosure will have two 0.25 - 0.5 hectare mobile electric fenced pens. Each pen will have 4 sows and one boar in residence and the animals will be moved onto fresh ground every 4 months. Site B will be for the young boar (from weaning at 4-6 months to slaughter at 12-15 months). Again replicate experimental plots will hold 5 animals each. The young boar will have larger pens (1-1.5 hectares) and will remain in the same area. Site B is an area dominated by bracken with several stands of birch and other native trees.

Rae and I will be responsible for the daily feeding of the boar and checking the fences. We will also monitor the experimental and control plots, before, during and after the presence of the boar. Trees for Life volunteers will also be able to play a part in monitoring and husbandry of the boar over the next 4 years. The results gained from this project will be able to tell us something about the effect of wild boar on bracken regeneration and tree seed regeneration, and will also give guidelines for the management of boar in forestry (density, time scales and seasonal movement). We will be able to determine the size and species of young trees which are vulnerable to boar, when they are farmed at these low densities, and we may also find out if the presence of boar can actually deter browsers (hares and deer) from nibbling trees in the boar enclosures.

Liz Balharry

Pages about Wild boar on this site

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Wild things! becomes an Independent Charity!

Jennie Martin.
Photo: Michael Sharpe


School children enchanted by a lizard, during the first Wild things! Forest School trip.
Photo: Jennie Martin

After a fair few months of research and hard work, Wild things! has finally evolved out of its years at Trees For Life to become an independent charity. This feels like a natural progression from all the environmental education work that has taken place at Trees for Life over the past 5 years, during which time we have worked with over 3,000 children and young people! The umbilical cord between the two projects was cut with much appreciation and love a couple of weeks ago and here we are, a new organisation ready to fly.

Wild things! is new Scottish charity, seeking to encourage a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and their natural environment. We seek to improve the quality of life of young people and adults in the Highland and Grampian regions of Scotland by offering various inspiring nature educational programmes. Our various activies encourage an appreciation of our natural heritage as well as offering the opportunity for active caring custodianship of our planet and her resources. At the moment we have three programmes running: Our first season of Forest School activities with primary school children from Forres is already underway, our Wilderness Skills trainings for teenagers and adults are around the corner and our day trips to Glen Affric for 8-11 year olds are starting up in May.

80% of the schools we work with are from 'social inclusion partnerships', meaning that they are in areas that lack the resources of many other schools. We are also working with projects that help teenagers who are struggling in mainstream education.

It was over 10 years ago that I came on my first Trees for Life Conservation Holiday and as the saying goes, 'things were never the same again!'. My breath was just taken away by the absolute beauty and wilderness which Glen Affric offered, and by the positive vision Trees for Life held. I spent that first week filling my London lungs with pine-scented mountain air, waking up my office-bound body by bounding over heathery hummocks, and hanging upside down on rocks (so I could see the glen from a different angle!). I also planted over 5,000 trees in the several weeks that followed.

I made a choice to put my will behind the vision of Trees for Life: to physically do something that put all my awe, love and appreciation for the natural environment into action. To be honest I don't think I could have done anything else. I had been given such a gift from the wilderness in those few weeks. In my quiet moments out there, answers came to some of my long-held personal questions, as well as answers found to some questions I didn't even know I had. I had come home, and the relationship continues to this day - I am still constantly enriched by my time out in nature. It therefore just felt like the natural thing to do ... to offer this experience to other people and to offer gratitude to the hills and mountains by trying to take better care of them.

I have so many fond memories of my Conservation Holidays and my time in the office at Trees for Life, from being a volunteer in the early days to being employed as a Conservation Holiday focaliser, Conservation Holiday coordinator, working with Jakki Brown and the lovely greeting card folk on fundraising initiatives and finally as environmental education project coordinator. It has indeed been a rich time and one in which I have gained as well as learnt a lot.

Wild things! has a fantastic board of directors, of which Alan Watson Featherstone is one, so this isn't really goodbye to Trees for Life, it is just au revoir as they say!

Trees for Life is a very special project offering a positive voice for the care of our ancient woodlands and other natural habitats. It has a bold and compassionate vision that offers the opportunity for everyone to get involved, so I encourage you to come up on their Conservation Holidays, to get your hands in the soil and breathe the air that is full of hope which surrounds the work that Trees for Life and its dedicated staff team offers.

See you on the trail sometime!

ps: If you want to find out more about the work of Wild things! please see our web site:

Jennie Martin

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See Caledonia Wild! magazines, for excerpts from other editions.

Published: 15 June 2004
Last updated: 14 December 2011

Trees for Life is an award winning conservation charity working to restore the Caledonian Forest
and all its species to a large contiguous area in the Highlands of Scotland.

Trees for Life is a registered charity Scottish charity No. SC021303, and a company limited by guarantee No. 143304 with its registered offices at Forres, Scotland.
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