Trees for Life magazine, Caledonia Wild! Summer 2001
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Restoring the Balance
During the summer I spent 3 weeks travelling in Norway, and this provided an ideal opportunity to experience the pine forests which are the closest, both geographically and ecologically, to those of Scotland. Although most of the Norwegian forests are differentiated from our own by the presence of Norway spruce, this species is absent from certain areas, such as north of the Arctic Circle and some western parts of the country. The forests of Scots pines which grow in those locations share many characteristics and species with the remnants of the Caledonian Forest, and they give a good impression of what much of the Highlands must have looked like prior to deforestation.
While I knew beforehand that Norway was much more forested than Scotland, the reality of travelling there was still overwhelming at times. The sheer profusion of trees, wildflowers and other plants stands in stark and exuberant contrast to the depleted state of most of the Highlands. Twinflower (Linnea borealis), for example, is considered a rare species in the pinewoods here, but in Norway I saw it everywhere in the forests, often in such numbers that it was hard to avoid stepping on it.
The relative absence of deer and sheep was also striking. Deer live in the forests and the farmers have sheep, but their numbers are much lower, relative to the amount of forest cover, than in Scotland - in fact, I saw no deer at all and very few sheep during our travels. Also conspicuous was the lack of fences, as they're simply not needed in most places, because the animal populations are more in balance with the vegetation. It is this balance which we need to restore in Scotland, by reducing the numbers of sheep and deer, and by greatly increasing the extent of native forest.
However, for all its green lushness and extensive tree cover, Norway still has some way to go in reestablishing true ecological sustainability in its forests. Most of the country's trees are relatively young, because few forest areas are protected from logging, and the large native carnivores - wolf, brown bear, wolverine and lynx - have been virtually wiped out. That, together with the fact that, up in the far north, modern vehicles such as snowmobiles are allowing the native Sami people to herd reindeer in greater numbers, is creating problems of overgrazing and lack of tree regeneration.
Thus, while Norway is much closer to ecological health, and provides a good example for Scotland to follow with regard to the extent of its native forest cover, there is another crucial step still to take. To restore a true balance, in which ecosystems are self-sustaining into the indefinite future, we humans in Norway and Scotland alike, and everywhere else around the world, will have to find a new balance in our own lives. This will necessitate reducing the demands we place upon the planet and learning to share the Earth once again with all our fellow species, and especially with the top predators, which are essential for maintaining the balance in natural ecosystems.
Alan Watson Featherstone
The Burgeoning Summer
The Return of the Natives
This is the name of the Millennium Forest for Scotland Trust's recently installed exhibition in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh. It is a resume of the projects funded by the Trust throughout Scotland and illustrates the environmental, social and economic benefits of native woodland.
The exhibition celebrates the completion of the Millennium Forest for Scotland Project and I was privileged to be invited, as a project manager, to its launch in June and to meet the patron of the Trust, Prince Charles. The event culminated in Prince Charles planting a Scots pine in the Scottish native garden to celebrate the occasion.
Grudie... what's afoot in the oakwood?
I wrote in our last magazine that a planting project had been proposed at Grudie to extend the woodland up the hill and diversify it with pine trees on the higher ground. The management plan for the area is under review so it was not felt that this could be accommodated for next spring but the idea will remain on the shelf for future consideration. Meanwhile, a survey this spring confirmed the presence of two scarce species of butterfly: the pearl-bordered fritillary, Boloria euphrosyne, and the small pearl bordered fritillary, Boloria selene, as well as the more common dark green fritillary, Argynnis aglaja.
This is good news, as anything which increases the conservation value of the site will strengthen the case for environmental designation, which in turn will ensure the long term security of the woodland. (Incidentally, the small pearl bordered fritillary has also been observed in two locations in Glen Affric this year.)
Paul Kendall, our Assistant Field Officer, and Dan Puplett, Long Term Volunteer, have just completed a survey of the Grudie oakwood, and the extensive non-native plantations amongst it, to map the distribution of tree species there. After spending several days braving the midges and wading through two metre high bracken, they emerged, grinning, with news of four aspen stands on the site, several patches of hazel and having determined that birch/oak occupies about 60% of the total area. Single specimens of hawthorn and bird cherry were spotted and a group of half a dozen non-native southern beech, as well as the less surprising occurrence of rowan and willow. Oak was planted here 200 years ago but there were several trees of about half that age which appeared to be naturally occurring, as were the handful of young trees on disturbed ground.
One solitary oak was estimated at being in excess of 300 years old judging by its girth of well over 5 metres. This information will be useful in targeting our felling programme to priority areas, identifying the best sites for regeneration and as base-line data for monitoring progress.
Allt na Muic - the latest news
Once the foot and mouth disease access restrictions were lifted, our application to the Forestry Commission for a Woodland Grant Scheme for this project was processed quickly and we now have the contract in hand ... at last! Contractors have just begun to put up the fencing, orders for trees from nurseries are confirmed and two Conservation Holidays are scheduled to plant the area with 10,000 young trees, beginning on 15 September. All we need now are the volunteers to do the planting and an important phase of the project will be completed this autumn.
Camping in Scotland in September may not, at first, seem a very attractive proposition. However, thanks to the support and generosity of a neighbouring land owner, we are able to camp in his garden and make use of the facilities of his holiday flat. This means good cooking facilities, a warm, dry place to eat and meet, a room to dry wet clothes and a hot shower! If this 'soft option' camping in Glen Moriston for a week, with the opportunity to help by planting trees, appeals to you or anyone you know, give us a ring - there may still be a few places left.
Flutters of delight - our aspen project leafs out!
Aspen Saproxylic Insect Survey
It's not always easy for small creeping creatures. Without the charisma, or obvious appeal of, say, an eagle or a red squirrel, they tend to be overlooked at best, or at worst reviled. Yet obscure invertebrates play a crucial role in the health of forest ecosystems.
In recent years the importance of saproxylic insects - those which depend on dead or dying wood - has been of growing interest to conservationists. These woodland recyclers tend to have very specialist requirements, some, for example, relying on streams of leaking sap (sap runs), or decaying branches of a certain thickness for their survival. Many are endangered because of the removal of dead wood from forests, woodland fragmentation, and a shortage of really old trees. As part of our Aspen Project we decided to explore this issue and act on it. There is a whole community of dead wood insects which depend exclusively on aspen (Populus tremula) in various stages of decay. This insect community is thought to be a remnant from the boreal forests which colonised the Highlands following the last glaciation, and is similar to those found in Scandinavian countries. Among these insects are the aspen hoverfly (Hammerschmidtia ferruginea), a Red Data Book species, along with 31 others. The full community of aspen-dependent insects requires an aspen stand of at least 4.5 hectares (roughly four and a half football pitches) in size, and there are only 14 of these throughout all of the Highlands.
In May we commissioned a survey by the Malloch Society - a respected group of entomologists - to be carried out on selected aspen stands in Glen Affric, on the RSPB's Corrimony Nature Reserve and in Glen Cannich.
The aim was to discover if any particularly rare insects were present, as their presence would then enable us to prioritise appropriate management of aspen stands within the Trees for Life target area for forest restoration.
Alan Watson Featherstone accompanied Graham Rotheray and Iain MacGowan, two experts from the Society, on one of their survey days, when they found some of these insects' larvae in aspen stands at the eastern end of Glen Affric. The larvae were later raised to adulthood to discover exactly which species they were.
In Glen Affric, a number of Red Data Book species and specialist saproxylic insects were found, including several flies such as Xylota tarda and Systenus pallipes, both of which are Notable species, and Medetera inspissata, which is a Red Data Book 3 (RDB3) species. The presence of the large poplar longhorn beetle Saperda carcharias, another Notable species, was observed from the exit holes which the larvae leave when they come out of an aspen trunk, and the rare aspen bracket fungus Phellinus tremulae was also found on an aspen near Badger Falls.
In Glen Cannich only one aspen-dependent insect species was found, but the greatest diversity of saproxylic species was seen at Corrimony, and this included the fly, Homalocephala biumbratum, which is a Red Data Book 1 (RDB1) species.
The Malloch Society's report also provides recommendations for managing the three sites to benefit the insect fauna present, including measures to facilitate regeneration at existing aspen sites, targeted planting to link sites which are near to each other, and, at Corrimony, ensuring there is a regular supply of dead wood habitat for the insects to live in.
We are grateful to Graham Rotheray and Iain MacGowan of the Malloch Society for carrying out the survey, and to Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and Forest Enterprise for helping to fund the project. With this information we are now able to focus part of our aspen project on restoring the habitat for the saproxylic insects, thereby reweaving another subtle thread in the complex and wonderful ecosystem of the Caledonian Forest.
In practical terms, we are already well underway with expanding and linking up stands of aspen within Glen Affric. During the Spring Conservation Holidays this year, our volunteers were busy planting aspen within stock fences along the north shore of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin. This work will continue in our autumn volunteer weeks, and will be extended to the south shore of the loch next year. Not only will this benefit the insects, but it will also increase the suitability of the area for the possible reintroduction of beavers in the future.
Surveying and monitoring
Staff in the Field Office have also been continuing the ongoing (and highly enjoyable!) task of tracking down new aspen sites. We've found quite a few more, particularly near Grudie oakwood in Strath Bran and also in Glen Affric, and we are now developing a really comprehensive database of aspen stands. Many thanks to Matthew Earl, a student from Leeds University, who carried out a very useful project linking the aspen database to our Geographical Information System (GIS).
An important principle of ecological restoration is to monitor the progress of work carried out, in order to gauge its success. In June we visited a number of aspen sites in Glen Affric which were planted in previous years, to see how they're getting on. They are mostly thriving, and we've pinpointed those which need their protective tubes replaced. We are grateful to placement students Vicki and Fran from Stirling University for their help with this work.
In May four Trees for Life staff attended a special day-long aspen seminar organised by the RSPB. This featured talks from a number of specialists on various aspects of aspen ecology and management, along with a field visit to see some of the rare fungi, mosses and lichens associated with aspen, and to witness aspen management in action. The day proved to be very interesting and educational, and many useful contacts were made amongst aspen enthusiasts, which we hope will lead to more widespread action throughout Scotland for the return of this important native tree.
Botanical survey of Coille Ruigh na Cuileige
On July 8th, members of the Inverness Botany Group carried out a survey of Coille Ruigh - the first site in Glen Affric which we fenced for natural regeneration, in 1990. Clare Cummings joined them for the day, and wrote this report about her experience:
"The forecast was showery. I met the group in the car park - a conglomeration of be-hatted, waterproof-clad, note pad and penned folk, with lumpy day sacks and walking sticks. Everyone was slapping on midge repellent and comparing notes on the different brands (Coille Ruigh na Cuileige means 'wooded slope of the midges' in Gaelic!). Margaret, the group's secretary, introduced herself and said we were waiting for two people who were always the last to arrive.
We set off in a straggle and very slowly made our way up to the exclosure, sharing information about wood ants and pinewood flora on the way. The path was muddy and the stile over the fence, with its usual pool of mud, presented challenges to stiffening limbs.
I told them a little about Trees for Life and the location of the different vegetation communities inside the exclosure. Small groups went in different directions - some to the wetter, lower areas, some to the south facing slope, while others went along the high ridge.
We clustered around various specimens commenting on the genus and the features that identified, for example, one sedge from another. People shared floral keys and knelt in bogs peering through hand lenses. We stopped and ate lunch at the far end of the exclosure, amidst the prostrate juniper and alpine flora. For me, the highlight was finding some lesser twayblade (Listeria cordata), a rare orchid in the pinewoods. Although I have seen the leaves before, this was the first time I had seen the flower - a delicate pinkish spike tucked among the boulders and heather. Old favourites like creeping ladies tresses (Goodyera repens) - another orchid - and lesser wintergreen (Pyrola minor) were admired, but the rain and the midges ensured we didn't linger for too long. Altogether, the group identified more than 50 plants on the site, and the list they generated has now been added to our web site.
It is such a pleasure to go around with enthusiastic botanists and share the wonders of nature. I think they should be given their own genus, Homo botanicus, with the classifying behavioural feature that of being found in huddles in a wide range of habitats, with a penchant for crawling through midge-infested bogs!"
See Caledonia Wild! magazines, for excerpts from other editions.
Published: Summer 2001
Last updated: 07 March 2012