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A Forest Reborn: Ten Years of Restoration at Athnamulloch 1

Practical Results of our Work

Alan Watson Featherstone beside a planted Scots pine in the Athnamulloch 1 exclosure in the summer of 1996, four years after this tree was planted.

The same tree in August 2002, showing the remarkable growth which has taken place.

The 63 hectare Athnamulloch 1 exclosure, situated just west of the Athnamulloch bothy in Glen Affric, was fenced by Forest Enterprise in 1990, when the only living trees in it were a handful of mature downy birches near the Affric River. The presence of numerous pine stumps sticking up above the surrounding vegetation indicated that the area had been more forested until relatively recently, and it is thought that those pines were cut down, probably as a source of wood for Affric Lodge, in the late 19th century.

During the springs of 1991 and 1992, Trees for Life volunteers planted a total of 21,400 Scots pines there. I took part in most of those Conservation Holidays, and I experienced the site then as a bleak and barren place, with an almost-palpable sense of loss permeating the denuded landscape. I found it sad and depressing to be amongst the stumps of the vanished forest, imagining what the area must have been like just a hundred years earlier. However, the hard physical work of planting the young trees provided me with an important sense of hope, as I wrote in the Trees for Life newsletter at the time:

"I pictured in my mind what the forest we were planting will look like in 250 years, when these seedlings reach maturity. I know that people many generations from now will enjoy and appreciate the forest, as people in the past must have done. it is only those of us alive now, for this time which is short relative to the 10,000 year history of the forest, that see Athnamulloch bereft of trees."

Alan Watson Featherstone beside some of the planted Scots pines in 1999. Note also the naturally-regenerating rowan and eared willows in the photograph.

This photograph, taken in August 2002, shows how much the trees have grown in the past 3 years.

This summer, ten years after the planting was completed, I've spent a couple of days walking throughout the Athnamulloch 1 exclosure, and the transformation in the intervening decade has been dramatic. Some of the planted pines are now 4 metres tall and have been flowering for the past 4 years. Naturally-regenerating rowans are prolific, and some have been producing berries for several years, thereby assisting the further return of the forest. Bushy young eared willows have sprung up in various sites, and in the area around the mature birch trees, young naturally-regenerating birches up to 3 metres tall are growing so densely in places as to be almost impenetrable!

Grant McFarlane, a participant in our first ever Conservation Holiday in April 1991, about to plant a Scots pine beside a prominent pine stump.

The same scene in 2002 - the stump is now partially overgrown by heather and blaeberry, and the tree planted by Grant is over 2 metres tall.

The full impact of the changes only struck me, however, when I went to re-photograph the stump shown here in the picture from 1991. At first I couldn't find it at all, and it was only when I looked very closely at what I thought was a different and much smaller stump, and compared it in detail to the photograph from 1991, that I realised it was the same one! In the absence of grazing, heather has grown profusely and covered up the exposed roots, grasses have flourished around it and blaeberries are growing over the top of the stump. Without the old photograph to compare it to, I would not have believed it was the same site, so complete is the transformation - what had appeared a desolate wasteland in 1991 is now a healthy, vibrant and diverse young forest.

Taken on the north side of the exclosure, overlooking the Affric River, this photograph shows the dense regeneration of birch trees there.

Walking on through the exclosure, I saw various small birds perching on the leader shoots of the growing pines, and leaf-eating insect larvae on the leaves of the birches. Life has returned in abundance to Athnamulloch in the space of just ten years, and it provides a potent example of the land's ability to heal itself, when it is given some care and assistance by people. Although it will be 250 years before there are mature pines on the site again, the new forest at Athnamulloch can already be enjoyed as a living demonstration of what restoration can achieve.

Alan Watson Featherstone

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Published: Caledonia Wild! Summer 2002
Last updated: 25 August 2010

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.

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