Trees for Life on Facebook Trees for Life on Twitter Trees for Life on Youtube Enable ReciteMe Toolbar
Email Update Sign up

Scientific Research in the Caledonian Forest
Possible Caledonian Forest Research Projects

At Trees for Life we strive to use up-to-date scientific research to inform our forest restoration work, to promote greater understanding of the Caledonian Forest ecosystem, and to further the science of ecological restoration. We have been working with a number of universities since 1989. We greatly appreciate the work that has been carried out for us over the years (see Scientific Research in the Caledonian Forest), and also feel that we suggest interesting and rewarding dissertation topics.

These projects are primarily aimed at BSc and MSc students, and the more in-depth ones are geared towards PhD candidates. If you are interested in carrying out any of the projects below, we would be happy to hear from you. We will refer you to the Forestry Commission Scotland where the proposal concerns land which they manage. Many of the projects have a degree of flexibility, so if you have particular areas of interest, there may be an opportunity to tailor the project accordingly. Others will need further thought to develop an initial idea. If you have any other proposals for dissertations related to the Caledonian Forest then please get in touch. How to contact us.

We offer initial and ongoing discussions around the research topic and possible leads/contacts for you to follow up. However, students will need initiative and a high degree of self reliance to develop their research. We assume that academic supervision is via your tutor and the project ideas will usually require further distillation by the student and their tutor to meet course requirements.

If it's a field based project we will have at least one site meeting with you. There would be ongoing contact if the work is based at our Dundreggan Estate. We can usually offer some free accommodation at Dundreggan, for a limited time, where research is based there or nearby; unfortunately we can't offer any direct financial support. Your own transport would be essential.

Possible Subjects for Research Projects:

Hazel Regeneration in Glen Affric
Hazel (Corylus avellana) is a comparatively scarce tree species in Glen Affric, with the main population occurring at the eastern end of the glen, in the gorge of the Affric River between Dog Falls and Badger Falls. Here there is recent successful regeneration of hazel, providing an ideal opportunity to quantify the dispersal distance of hazel seeds from parent trees and evaluate the site conditions where hazel seedlings are getting established. This data can then be used to predict where similar regeneration could occur adjacent to the other hazel stands in the glen. The resulting maps can be used to identify the gaps between existing isolated stands of hazel. This project would provide valuable data about the natural spread of hazel from its existing stronghold, and would also provide guidance for restoration measures, consisting of planting trees grown from seed collected in the glen, to fill in some of the gaps in the present-day disjunct distribution for the species. This work would build on a previous undergraduate research project studying the ecology of hazel in Glen Affric, which included mapping the distribution of the species at that time (1999), summarised at

Montane Scrub on Islands
In Scotland today there are few good examples of healthy montane scrub vegetation growing at the natural tree-line, due to past deforestation and current grazing pressure from herbivores, which prevents recovery of the vegetation. However, some higher elevation lochans in the Highlands have small islands in them where herbivores such as red deer (Cervus elaphus) rarely, if ever, are present. Such islands therefore provide an opportunity to evaluate the vegetation community that develops in the montane scrub zone in the absence of overgrazing. This in turn can offer a guide for the experimental work to re-establish montane scrub communities that is currently underway, for example at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Estate in Glen Moriston.
The research project would focus initially on four sites close to Dundreggan where high elevation lochs have un-browsed islands. Other sites, further afield, could be included. For each island-mainland pair of sites, a comparison should be prepared, highlighting any differences, and determining whether these can be attributed to the lack of grazing on the island. Associated fauna would be recorded, or sampled for identification in the case of invertebrates. The results should be summarised across all sites, with any differences between them highlighted, and any common factors indicated. From this, conclusions may be drawn as to the effects of the absence of grazing on the islands, and the lessons these may offer for experimental projects to restore montane scrub vegetation communities.

Strathfarrar Forest Regeneration
From the early 1980s a series of fenced exclosures were erected in the Glen Strathfarrar NNR for native forest regeneration. Some fences have now been removed, others will be left for a few more years and a further programme of new exclosures is now planned. What has been the success here and what lessons can be learned? In particular, an exclosure dating from 1985 had some 150 seedlings marked for future monitoring, while some areas were treated to aid regeneration and a series of photo monitoring points were established. It would be useful to see how these young trees have fared and to what extent the treatments have been worthwhile. The distribution and density of trees across the exclosure could also be analysed, to evaluate the dispersal ability of tree seeds from the nearest source, which is located just west of the exclosure. The results of this work would then inform further restoration work planned in the glen.

GIS Project: Mapping for Forest Habitat Networks in the NW Highlands
In recent years there has been increasing interest in the concept of ‘forest habitat networks’, aiming to enhance connectivity for wildlife and to provide resilience in the face of climate change. Significant progress in the expansion of new native woodland in the Highlands has also taken place, largely driven by grant support through the government’s Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP). A new and more comprehensive survey of native woodland has also been undertaken by the Forestry Commission (NWSS), with the results to be published imminently. Using our 2,500 sq km Project Area it would be useful to map these new initiatives to see where further work is most needed to build a more robust forest habitat network. Landowners can then be approached to discuss further native woodland creation.

The preferred habitat of Dwarf Birch
How much is the current distribution of the montane species Dwarf Birch (Betula nana) affected by historical land management practices? In particular, what is the optimum habitat for growth of the species in relation to peat depth, depth of water table and other environmental variables? Most dwarf birch plants are found growing in wet boggy conditions, but it is suspected that it not their preferred habitat – plants growing on drier, well drained slopes appear to be larger and more vigorous. The populations at TfL’s Dundreggan Estate, on neighbouring land and elsewhere in the Highlands, provide a good opportunity to investigate the conditions for optimum growth, which would then inform future restoration and planting plans.

Dwarf Birch and associated invertebrates
A number of rare invertebrate species have now been recorded in association with Dwarf Birch (Betula nana) at TfL’s Dundreggan Estate. These include the UK BAP moth Swammerdamia passerella and 3 sawfly species, 2 of which have not previously been recorded in the UK. There appears to be an association between the moth’s caterpillars, which are restricted to Dwarf Birch, and flowering. There may well be a wider correlation between the presence and abundance of invertebrates and the vigour of plant growth, with the latter being affected by deer browsing pressure and habitat. At Dundreggan there are several differing habitat types in which the shrub grows, with some areas protected by deer fencing, and these could be investigated for presence and abundance of associated species, to determine if there is a correlation between size of the plants and numbers and diversity of invertebrates utilising them. This project would form a very useful adjunct to a 3 year PhD research project currently being carried out on dwarf birch, centred on Dundreggan.

Forest Habitat Networks: Oak Woodland in Glen Moriston
There are extensive areas of oak/birch (NVC 11&17) woodland alongside Loch Ness with some good remnants in the glens to the west, usually on the south facing slopes. Much of the lower part of Glen Moriston is afforested with maturing plantations interspersed with birch woodland, including oak, or with isolated stands of oak. There is a need to survey these stands, map isolated trees, identify whether Q. petraea or robur, research their history, look out for associated species (e.g. what are the agents of dispersal here, how far up the glen are the red squirrels found?) and propose prescriptions for restoration. The aim is to identify opportunities for linkages to develop an oak habitat network in the Glen.

An Archaeological Investigation at Dundreggan, Glen Moriston
The recent find of a ceremonial bronze age arrowhead at TfL’s Dundreggan estate in Glen Moriston has highlighted the need for both field and desk based studies to illuminate the history of the glen. From recent times to the prehistoric past, the glen offers much to discover and describe ….. the oak bobbin mill, remains of old field systems, mediaeval deer estates, a motte designated as an ancient monument and potential iron age links to forts above Glen Affric. Uncovering the past would both help with our interpretation and our conservation plans for the future.

Ecological processes which influence the restoration of W18 Scots Pine woodland
During 1995-98 Michelle Crowell PhD studied the ecological processes which influence the performance of Scots Pine seedlings, using those planted by TfL at Athnamulloch in Glen Affric in 1991-92. (See She noted two of the assumptions made in work to ‘restore’ the Caledonian Forest. Firstly that the basic conditions required for tree seedling growth into mature trees persist at treeless sites, and are facilitated by low-impact planting; and secondly that successful establishment of the trees will encourage the natural development of the other elements of the Caledonian Forest, including colonisation by native plants, animals and micro-organisms.
Her work focused on the first of these assumptions. The three-year period of thesis research was too short to investigate the second. However, some of the planted trees are now 5-6m tall and producing their own seed. How far have the ecological processes developed over the last 20 years? Michelle established a baseline for studying this assumption over the long term. All of the seedlings examined in the thesis were tagged with an identification number linking them to a GIS at the core of her research. Now is a good time to re-visit Athnamulloch to assess how far the ecological processes have developed. This could include an assessment of the success rate of tree establishment at the site, work on vegetation mapping, surveys for associated species, and soil and mycorrhizal analysis. As Michelle said “If anything, the most exciting results are yet to come! My thesis provides a 'snapshot' of seedling performance four to five years after planting. We may find that the patterns of both tree performance and ground flora change drastically in the years to come." Indeed, photos of the site at show a dramatic change in a relatively short time period.

Montane Vegetation Changes in the absence of Browsing
At TfL’s Dundreggan Estate we have an interesting range of vegetation communities on the higher ground described by botanist Ben Averis as unusual. How would the proposed reduction in deer numbers affect the current vegetation communities? What level of browsing would be a compromise between maintaining the current botanical interest and yet allowing the scrub components to be restored? After what length of time does browsing removal compromise the diversity of plant communities? There are a range of existing areas, some fenced, that can be used as research sites. Firstly a large native woodland exclosure fenced and planted in 2002; secondly a series of 4 smaller exclosures which date from 1997 onwards; thirdly, approx 30 permanent monitoring plots set up across the open hill land, established in 2008-10. These would give a good range of variables to explore, including varied vegetation communities which could be compared inside and outside of fences. This project would suit a botanist or ecologist, familiar with upland NVC communities. An important component of these communities is the lower plants and some familiarity with these would be essential; specialist help with identification of rarer species may be available.

For further information, or to discuss any of the above projects, please contact:

Mick Drury, Trees for Life, The Park, Findhorn Bay, Forres IV36 3TZ, Scotland
Tel: 01309-691292 Fax: 01309-691155 Email: Web site:

Back to Scientific Research in the Caledonian Forest

Last updated: Wednesday, 04-Dec-2013 12:58:00 CET

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.
VAT reg. No. 605079649
Photos © Alan Watson (unless otherwise indicated) - Banner Credits - Illustrations © Caragh McAuley

Website design by: The Digital Canvas Company - Hosted by: Anu

Copyright © Trees for Life. All rights reserved.