Our vision is to restore a wild forest, which is there for its own sake, as a home for wildlife and to fulfil the ecological functions necessary for the wellbeing of the land itself.
We are not aiming to regenerate a forest which will be utilised sustainably as an extractive resource for people, although we recognise the need for this in Scotland. We endorse the efforts of other organisations in seeking to establish a new, ecologically-sustainable system of forestry, but we strongly believe that this utilitarian approach must be complemented by the restoration of large areas of wild forest. Trees for Life is unique in being the only organisation working specifically towards this end.
Scotland is a prime candidate for ecological restoration work, as it is one of the countries which has suffered most from environmental degradation in the past. The Highlands in particular have been described as a 'wet desert' as a result of the centuries of exploitation which have reduced them to their present impoverished and barren condition.
With most other countries now repeating the same ecological mistakes, we believe that the onus is on Scotland to provide an example of reversing the damage which has been done here. Thus, at Trees for Life, we envision our work to restore the Caledonian Forest as not only helping to bring the land here back to a state of health and balance, but also having global relevance, as a model for similar projects in other countries.
The Caledonian Forest
The Caledonian Forest originally covered much of the Highlands of Scotland, and takes its name from the Romans, who called Scotland 'Caledonia', meaning 'wooded heights'. As the map at the top right shows, the native pinewoods, which formed the westernmost outpost of the boreal forest in Europe, are estimated, at their maximum extent, to have covered 1.5 million hectares as a vast primeval wilderness of Scots pines, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and other trees. On the west coast, oak and birch trees predominated in a temperate rainforest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens. Many species of wildlife flourished in the forest, including the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and the wolf, as well as several notable species of birds - the capercaillie , the crested tit, and the endemic Scottish crossbill, which occurs nowhere else in the world apart from the pinewoods.
However, there has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland, and clearance of the land began in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate 'vermin' such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.
Today only a tiny percentage of the original forests survive, and the native pinewoods have been reduced to 35 isolated remnants (marked in black on the lower map). Gone with the trees are all the large mammals, with the exception of the deer. Species such as the brown bear and the wild boar had become extinct by the 10th and 17th centuries respectively, while the last to disappear was the wolf, when the final individual was shot in 1743. The shaded part of the map also shows the target area of over 1000 square miles where Trees for Life are working to restore the native forest.
The Forest out of Time
The surviving fragments of the native pinewoods are links with the past; they are the last vestiges of Scotland's forests as they were from the end of the last Ice Age until two thousand years ago or so. However, those remnants are running out of time, as most of them consist only of old trees. About 150 years ago, the forest reached a critical point of no return, since when there have been too few trees and too many deer eating them, so that no young trees have become established. As a result of this human-created imbalance in the ecosystem, the remnants have become 'geriatric' forests, composed of old trees reaching the end of their lifespans, with no new ones growing to take their place. As the trees die, the forest continues to shrink, and without protection from overgrazing, most of the remnants will disappear in the next few decades. Thus, we are the last generation with the opportunity to save the Caledonian Forest and restore it for the future.
In the last 30 years work has been done to protect some of the remnants, and where the deer numbers have been reduced, or where they have been fenced out of the forest, natural regeneration of the trees is taking place. The results of these initiatives are encouraging, but they only cover a small part of the original forest area, and have been largely uncoordinated. While they are enabling a new generation of trees to grow and take the place of the old ones, they will still result in just a few relatively small scattered stands of pinewoods. To restore the true Caledonian Forest, however, requires vision and action on a much larger scale. The forest is a complex, living community of interdependent plants and animals, many of which require large areas of habitat in which to live.