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Scotland’s lost trees.

Scotland’s lost trees.

by The blog at woodlands.co.uk, 17 April, 2023, 0 comments

Several thousand years ago, Scotland was extensively forested.  As the Ice Age came to an end, so the glaciers retreated and Scots Pine, birch, rowan, aspen and juniper populated the land, forming the Caledonian* Forest.  Pollen records indicate that Scots Pine was present in southern England some 9000 years ago, it then moved into Scotland.  Scots Pine is one of the UK’s three native conifers; the other two being Yew and Juniper. As the climate warmed, Scots Pine was lost from most of England.  The pine woodland that formed in Scotland was the westernmost part of the boreal forest that extended across most of Northern Europe.  At its peak, (about seven thousand years ago), the forest covered some 1.5 million hectares in Scotland.  It was a ‘home’ to beavers, wild boar, brown bears, elk and wolves.  These have since been ‘lost’, though in recent times, the European Beaver has been re-introduced. However, with the arrival and establishment of neolithic farmers, areas of heath and woodland were burned to encourage fresh growth of heather for their cattle and goats. Some time later (about 3000 years ago), there was period of cold and wet weather, peat bogs spread and the tree line was lowered. In places, broad leaved trees replaced Scots pine.  Throughout historical times, the felling of trees for timber and fuel continued, as did the grazing of livestock.  Later came extensive sheep farming and this was followed in Victorian times by deer and grouse shooting.  All of these limited woodland regeneration.  So what was once an extensive forest was reduced to a fraction of its former size. Remnants of this once great forest can still be found and even today these woodlands offer a rich habitat that supports a diverse flora and fauna, where pine marten, capercaillie, red squirrel, Scottish crossbill and wildcat can be found.  Glenmore is a National Nature Reserve with many mature Scots Pine, Glen Tanar is another area of Caledonian* pine forest, set within the Cairngorms National Park.  The woodland floor provides a habitat for many plant species typical of the Caledonian Forest - twinflower, creeping lady's-tresses.    Rare and unusual insects are also to be found such as the bumblebee robber fly. According to a recent study by “Trees for life” many of the the remnants of the ancient pine forest are on a ‘knife edge’. Large numbers of deer have and are damaging the woodlands.  The deer eat pine saplings and damage bark. This can result in birch replacing pine. Whilst there have been efforts to exclude deer in some areas by putting fencing in place, the fenced areas were often not big enough or over time the deer were able to breach the fencing and continue to forage.  Pine trees need time to establish themselves free from the impact of grazing. Some areas of pinewood suffered from the planting (in the 1950s) on non-native conifers, such as Sitka Spruce.  As these grow they can crowd out Scots Pine.  Many others areas are small and ‘isolated’. This leads to a reduction in biodiversity, so it is more difficult for natural regeneration to occur.  It also means that resilience is lost in the face of threats like climate change.   * the roman name for the area now Scotland was Caledonia.   Scots Pine is sometimes described as an ‘honorary hardwood', as it grows slower than certain conifers and produces better quality timber. The loss of forest across the Earth is a cause for concern - see https://theconversation.com/how-forest-loss-has-changed-biodiversity-across-the-globe-over-the-last-150-years-140968    

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