This month, Scotland’s foremost conservation volunteering charity celebrated seven years of forest restoration at their flagship Dundreggan Estate, where over 255,000 trees have now been planted as part of their vision to restore the ancient Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands. Just 1% of this previously rich habitat remains, and so Trees for Life has worked tirelessly since its foundation in 1989 by Alan Watson Featherstone, to regenerate this forgotten ecosystem and its unique wildlife. I was recently invited up to see their tree nursery and the surrounding area, and was impressed with the scale of the project and the progress they’ve made since taking ownership of the upland habitat which had lost much of its tree cover and was overgrazed by deer and sheep.
The tree nursery is at the very heart of their work at Dundreggan, where a variety of native species including Juniper, Birch, Hazel and Rowan are grown from locally sourced seeds, and then planted by volunteers. Collecting seed from the nearest possible sources ensures that a genetic continuity is maintained, which is vital in helping to protect the trees from disease outbreaks. They have also pioneered new methods of cultivating species which are difficult to grow, such as Aspen, and rare montane scrub vegetation such as Dwarf Birch and Dwarf Willow. Montane scrub is a precious habitat that once covered much of Scotland, but has almost totally vanished due to the general denudation of the land.
Alongside the growth of over 60,000 new trees at Dundreggan this year, there is natural regeneration of the existing remnants of ancient forest, through the installation of fences to keep deer out and controlled culls. Additionally, they have removed non-native species like Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. When these three approaches are combined, it optimises conditions for reconnecting the existing fragments of Caledonian Forest and has the potential to provide the habitat required to support future reintroductions and translocations of wildlife. It would also facilitate the creation of wildlife corridors for existing creatures such as Pine Marten and Black Grouse.
Black Grouse is one species that has been a real success story for Trees for Life and a strong indicator of the improving health of the ecosystem, as they thrive in mixed open woodland. A recent survey of the birds conducted in May 2015 showed their numbers had increased by almost 80% since 2011. The general biodiversity of the site is also impressive, with ten species discovered there that are found nowhere else in Britain, and over 3000 different species recorded in total. During my time there, I was immediately struck by the richness of insect life, which bodes well for the future ecology of the site.
New phases of tree planting are planned across the estate to establish three new native woodlands, and further conservation work will be undertaken to protect endangered species on-site, such as Wood Ants. Securing further funding for the charity will also enable them to increase populations of our rarest tree species, as well as leading the way in research projects that look at the relationship between grazing animals and forest restoration. Research is currently being carried out at Dundreggan into the effect their captive Wild Boar have on the vegetation.
Their long-term goal remains to create a large-scale mature forest that will accommodate viable populations of reintroduced animals such as Lynx, Wolf and Beaver. Some 2100 volunteers have already planted more than one million trees, and they have now set the ambitious target of planting a further one million by 2018. They already have plans in motion – in collaboration with the Highland Foundation for Wildlife – to create 10 new populations of Red Squirrels across the North-West Highlands where they are currently absent; primarily through the translocation of existing groups from areas where they are presently flourishing. This region has an abundance of prime habitat for them and the return of this species will, in turn, boost the health of the forests, through the natural seed planting behaviour of the squirrel, which instinctively buries seeds during the autumn and then often forgets about much of its cache.
Trees for Life has already established 38 tree planting sites across Scotland and is well on its way to transforming our degraded countryside into something that encourages biodiversity once again. With its ethos firmly rooted in volunteering, working with disadvantaged groups and engaging the community in their work, it’s certainly a conservation model that promotes a social reconnection with our wild spaces. Thanks to their efforts and continuing funding, in a few decades time, Scotland should have its own rainforest back again – benefiting our wildlife and our people.