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3 Aug 2022

Evolving in the era of climate change

Written by Rich Rowe
A view from above the treeline along Corrieshalloch Gorge, with the river flowing towards Loch Broom in the distance. The sun shines through dark clouds in the ominous sky.
A view above the treeline along Corrieshalloch Gorge
We explore 12 ways in which the Trust’s work is evolving in this era of climate change and biodiversity loss – including a range of pioneering, landscape-scale projects.

1. Understanding our land

As part of our commitment to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, the Trust recently embarked on a Natural Capital Baseline Assessment that saw us map the full range of ecosystem services on the land in our care.

The assessment focused on quantifying ecosystem services and the many benefits they provide, such as clean water, carbon storage, flood prevention, recreational opportunities and crop pollination. This crucial exercise not only provided a health check on key areas of blanket bog, peatland, woodland, river systems and more, but also highlighted the potential for each area to be improved so that they can deliver more.

Such understanding will help us direct future conservation work to help ecosystems become as strong and resilient as possible.

Looking down along the A82, as it snakes its way through Glencoe in summer.

2. Connecting threads

An ambitious project underway in Glen Geldie on the Mar Lodge Estate highlights a possibly surprising connection between the health of Atlantic salmon, native woodland and peatland.

The River Geldie is a key spawning ground for Atlantic salmon, but with warmer summers and little woodland cover along its banks, near fatal water temperatures are now being recorded in the river. The habitat is further diminished by serious erosion of the riverbanks, with chunks of deep peat washed down the river during heavy rain.

Our plan is to plant the upper reaches of the glen with a scattered mix of native trees within a series of fenced enclosures. As they grow, the trees will stabilise the ground, slow the flow of water, fuel the food chain and shade the water – combined actions that will improve freshwater habitat and combat climate change in the glen.

Under a grey cloudy sky, a river runs through an empty glen, with only grass, scrub and small plants growing in it. There are mountains in the distance.
The river running through Glen Geldie | Image by Stephen Whitmarsh/Shutterstock

3. Peatland restoration

The value of healthy peatland is better recognised than ever, with a push to restore areas that are damaged and degraded throughout Scotland – including on land in our care.

Following previous work at Ben Lomond and Goatfell on the Isle of Arran, attention turned recently to an area of degraded peatland alongside Loch Skeen at Grey Mare’s Tail in the Moffat Hills. Here, skilled contractors have revegetated and reprofiled an area of eroded peat that had started to dry out and release its carbon.

And there have been additional benefits. Loch Skeen serves as a climate refuge for vendace, a rare, cold water-loving species of fish that relies on clean, nutrient-free water. Following revegetation, the peat is already far more stable, meaning that less silt now runs off into the loch. Good news for the peat and the fish alike!

The still Loch Skeen sits in the sunshine above Grey Mare's Tail
Loch Skeen at Grey Mare’s Tail

4. Freezing seeds

Informed by our world-leading monitoring of arctic-alpine plants at Ben Lawers, we have begun to collect seeds from one of Scotland’s most vulnerable species as insurance against its potential UK extinction.

One of several species in serious decline, mountain sandwort is considered the most likely candidate to disappear. It’s believed that a combination of milder winters and warmer summers has seen the plants retreat uphill as conditions at lower altitude become unsuitable. Already well above 900m, they now have nowhere else to go.

Last year, Trust staff collected seed from plants at Ben Lawers and sent them to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Further seeds will be collected after this year’s growing season and then frozen to see if that stimulates germination, while others will be exposed to different levels of heat, cold and drought as we explore what is causing problems in their natural environment.

Read more: Mountain sandwort in decline on Ben Lawers NNR

A close-up of a small plant, growing on a rock and surrounded by mossy and other small plants. It has pale green waxy leaves and pale brown seed capsules at the end of short stems.
Mountain sandwort at Ben Lawers

5. Seabird studies

As with our work on arctic-alpine plants, the Trust has a decades-long history of monitoring the health of seabird populations around the country, building up invaluable time-series studies that feed into a national seabird monitoring programme.

We monitor the breeding success of seabirds in part to better understand the birds themselves, but also because they serve as barometers of change in the marine ecosystem. Unfortunately, many of Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies are in serious decline, which is why the recent devastation caused by avian flu has been so unwelcome. One particular problem is a shortage of food due to climate change, with rising sea temperatures driving a redistribution of key prey species.

This continued monitoring is important because if we don’t understand what’s happening then we can’t measure the impact or inform policymakers about changes in our coastal waters.

A man in a life jacket looks through a pair of binoculars across the sea to the rocks and cliffs opposite.
St Abb’s Head Ranger Ciaran monitoring seabirds

6. Restoring an ecosystem

Kelton Mains Farm, a former dairy farm on the Threave Estate in rural Galloway, is home to an outdoor experiment on a grand scale that involves everything from letting nature take its course to training ‘smart cows’ where to graze.

The Threave Landscape Restoration Project is exploring how to combine once intensively farmed land with some of the richest ecologically protected habitats in the south of Scotland to create a self-sustaining woodland-wetland ecosystem.

To date, much of the effort has focused on undraining the land and restoring the flow of water in the surrounding wetland. And then there are the smart cows. As stock fences are removed, we are transitioning herds of Galloway ‘belties’ to a freer form of conservation grazing using smartphone-controlled collars.

A grazing area is designated for each herd and when an individual cow strays from that area the collar emits a sound. If they still keep going the collar emits a pulse, much like traditional stock fencing. Cows are pretty smart and soon learn where they can and cannot go!

Read more: Threave landscape project progresses

An aerial view of farm fields, divided by hedgerows, pockets of woodland and a couple of roads. Occasional white buildings can be seen in the landscape. A river winds in the distance.
Kelton Mains | Image by Mike Bolam

7. Woodland wonders

Establishing the right tree cover in the right place is another important way of tackling climate change and boosting biodiversity – something that we continue to work on at properties around the country.

Work is nearing completion on re-establishing natural woodland cover on the lower Ptarmigan slopes of Ben Lomond. Once heavily grazed by sheep, the slopes have seen good recovery of a whole range of plants that were removed a decade ago. However, with browsing by deer still a problem we recently completed installation of deer fencing to protect the growing and established plants.

Similar work has taken place in Glen Rosa on the Isle of Arran, where fencing has been used to protect an area of replanted and regenerating native woodland. The trees include the Arran whitebeam – an incredibly rare hybrid of rowan and rock whitebeam species that is only found naturally on the Isle of Arran.

Read more: Reforesting Glen Rosa

A closer view of the mountain Ben Lomond, from the west side of Lock Lomond. The mountain is capped in snow, against a pale blue sky. A large area of the lower slopes, just above the existing treeline, is marked out by a red line.
An outline of the Lower Ptarmigan project on Ben Lomond

8. Fighting disease

One impact of warmer, wetter weather is an increase in pests and plant disease. Often the only solution is to remove the affected trees and plug the resulting gap in tree cover with alternative species that are better adapted to the changing conditions.

And that is exactly what is happening at Arduaine Garden near Oban. Due to increasing occurrence of larch disease, we are having to remove around 900 of the Japanese larch trees that were planted by the original owners as a shelterbelt to protect a remarkable range of exotic plantings from around the world. It’s an incredibly complex felling operation, not least because it must be undertaken in a way that does not impact the many other plants that have relied on the larch for so long.

Sadly, the gardens are currently closed to the public, not because of this work but because of storm damage from earlier in the year – a further example of how climate change is affecting our operations.

Read more: Storm damage to Arduaine Garden

Felled tree trunks being sawn up by a sawmill to make wooden planks
Felled trunks from the Arduaine shelterbelt

9. Surveying and protecting historic buildings

It’s clear that warmer, wetter conditions, and an increasing number of extreme weather events, are having a profound impact on our built heritage.

To help our built estate become more resilient to a changing climate, we have begun an external condition survey of the more than 1,500 structures in our care – from castles and historic houses to bridges, monuments, ice houses, gates, sculptures and more.

Such a comprehensive assessment will enable the Trust to understand how even the oldest structures can ‘perform’ better in our changing climate. And from 2023, this survey will be extended to include equipment such as boilers – an assessment that ties in with our wider ambitions for sustainability as we move away from the use of fossil fuels.

A view of the Hill House Box from the garden on a bright sunny day. A sprig of laburnum hangs in the foreground.
The Hill House Box, an architectural feat to protect the house from the Scottish elements

10. Future-proofing new builds

With all built structures now facing far more aggressive climatic conditions than perhaps at any time in their history, we are designing new builds in line with conservation strategies that both future-proof buildings against climate change and reduce their carbon footprint.

And we can already point to some shining stars. Opened in 2010, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway has sustainability built into every square metre, while the new Corrieshalloch Gorge Gateway visitor centre near Ullapool – currently under development – will also have the strongest possible eco-credentials.

Read more: Work begins on Corrieshalloch Gorge Gateway

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway

11. Coastal archaeology

With more storm events and the sheer physical energy being unleashed on Scotland’s coastline now greater than ever, the sad reality is that much of our vast coastal archaeological resource is under threat.

As part of the Trust’s Archaeology on the Edge project, our archaeology team are now busy identifying coastal sites that are most at risk from climate change. We care for some 13,000 archaeology sites across Scotland, and the initial phase has focused on those within 50m of the coast. Using a range of modelling tools, the team have since drilled down to create a shortlist of properties identified as being particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion, flood, landslide and sea level rise.

The next step is to visit the sites to determine which ones are actively in danger over the next decade. Once pinpointed, the task then will be to gather as much information about them as possible before they are lost forever.

A view of the coastline at St Abb’s Head, with the sea coming in between the cliffs.
St Abb’s Head

12. Working together with Scotland’s Landscape Alliance

Of course, no organisation can do everything on its own – it’s always better to work together. That’s why we are delighted to be a lead partner in Scotland’s Landscape Alliance, a collaborative forum that aims to ensure that Scotland maximises the economic, social and environmental benefits of its varied landscapes.

Increasing Scotland’s resilience to climate change and associated environmental challenges is a key part of this joint work. So too is recognising the cultural value of landscapes and the benefits that protected, well-managed and well-planned landscapes can bring to individuals and society.

Of course, much has happened in the world in recent years. The climate and biodiversity crises, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have all had implications for how our landscapes are managed in the future. More than ever, this feels like a moment to take stock and appreciate the contribution that our landscapes and outdoor spaces play in the health of our nation and all who live within it.

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