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17 May 2021

Now is the time for pine

Written by Shaila Rao, Natural Heritage Advisor
An old Scots pine stands alone in a mountainous landscape. The hills behind are covered in snow and the sky is blue.
Scots pine with the Cairngorm mountains behind
After a long period of decline, we’re restoring the pinewoods at Mar Lodge Estate. The recovery and expansion of the pinewoods is key to fighting the climate emergency and preventing the loss of biodiversity.

A lonely Scots pine stands high on a steep scree slope in Glen Derry overlooking the dramatic Cairngorm mountains. It isn’t a large tree or a noticeable tree in particular, but this is a very special tree. This tree is 544 years old. It’s not just a granny pine but a great-great-granny pine. Dating back to 1477, this pine is one of the oldest known Scots pine trees in Scotland. It has lived through the Reformation, the Union of the Crowns, the Glencoe Massacre, the Jacobite Rebellion, the Clearances, the Industrial Revolution, the Independence Referendum, Brexit and now a worldwide COVID pandemic. This tree is living history.

This tree has also survived the land management changes that have occurred in this Highland glen. Mesolithic people once lived in this landscape, which would have been almost entirely wooded at that time. A wolf may have passed by this tree, as might livestock grazing in the glen as people spent the summers living in the shielings by the Derry Burn. This tree has survived the felling that took place in Glen Derry in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the river was dammed and later exploded to send hundreds of trees floating on their way downstream to lower-lying sawmills. It’s likely the small size of this tree – a result of poor growing conditions and its exposed location – may have saved it from the axe. This tree has seen the clearance of people from these glens to make way for the increase in popularity among the Victorian elite for hunting deer. The continuing trend for deer hunting among landowners has seen deer numbers rise in these glens and the vegetation become closely cropped all around this tree. And finally, more topically, this tree has lived long enough to experience climatic changes in Scotland influencing the nature and distribution of woodland and other habitats.

None of these changes have been particularly beneficial to the Great Wood of Caledon. The Caledonian pinewood has declined on Mar Lodge Estate as it has across many parts of Scotland. Woodland has gone from covering 70% of Scotland around 5,000 years ago to only 5% in 1900 and, thanks to concerted tree planting after the First World War, currently stands at around 17% cover. There had been no natural regeneration of the forest at Mar Lodge Estate for hundreds of years. What remained were magnificent but aged and dying ‘granny’ pine trees, a relic of the forest that went before – an old people’s home for trees. The younger generations of the forest were completely absent. Unnaturally high deer numbers and their relentless browsing, free from disturbance by long-exterminated wolves, lynx and bear, have prevented tree regeneration, with any tree seedling daring to poke its head up above the heather being nipped off by roving hungry mouths. The dominance of sporting estates has seen deer numbers rise in Scotland from 180,000 in the 1960s to 400,000 in 2010, and the current population of wild deer in Scotland is estimated at around 1 million. Across the uplands of Scotland, generally the only trees surviving are those that have outgrown the reach of herbivores (deer, and in some cases sheep) on steep slopes, crags and riverbanks, or those protected by fences or tree guards.

However, about 20–30 years ago there was a wind of change in relation to native woodlands and a clear recognition of their value for nature conservation. A value greater than just the commercial value found in plantation woodland of non-native species. This recognition resulted in the Caledonian pinewoods being protected through both national and international conservation designations with an obligation on the Scottish people, through the Scottish Government, to return these woodlands to a healthy state.

Back in 1995, the Trust set out a vision to restore and expand the 840ha of ageing Caledonian pinewood remnants they had acquired at Mar Lodge Estate. It was thought that this would be achieved quite simply through allowing the forest to naturally regenerate by reducing the deer population so that seedlings could escape browsing and grow freely. This was not quite as easy as expected and the last 25 years have been a rollercoaster journey for the Trust. Reducing the deer population has been both practically difficult and politically controversial. It has required flexibility, creativity and a new approach to deer management to be effective in reducing grazing pressure in such a large and complex landscape. Maintaining relations with neighbouring sporting estates and the local community has been challenging at times but these challenges have been overcome. It has been a steep learning curve and an ongoing process of adaptive management in response to the information collected from both habitat and deer monitoring.

The forest was initially slow to respond to the reduction in grazing pressure and it would have been easy to give in, change tack and perhaps even move to fencing the woodland. However, this is not rocket science and the Trust knew that by sticking to its guns (literally), grazing pressure could be successfully reduced and eventually the woodland would respond and do what it naturally wanted to do – regenerate. And thankfully it did (see photos below). By 2016, 835ha of natural regeneration had been recorded, almost doubling the area of native woodland on the estate. The response was noticeable first in the growth of pine saplings and was quickly followed by an explosion of birch and rowan seedlings. Now in 2021 young pine trees can be seen charging up the slopes, birch saplings tracking the riverbanks and willows and juniper emerging out of the heather. Particularly exciting is the appearance of juniper, willow, dwarf birch and other species at higher altitudes, indicating the potential for treeline woodlands, a habitat currently almost completely missing from Scotland. Mar Lodge Estate is now a dynamic landscape undergoing rapid change. Whether it’s called rewilding, revival or ecological restoration, what is clear is that the forest is coming back to life.

Very recently this wind of change has accelerated due to the declared climate and biodiversity emergencies. There is widespread recognition that woodland returning to the barren slopes of Scottish mountains, alongside active conservation and restoration of Scottish peatlands, will help to tackle these issues. This has driven the targets for woodland creation in Scotland, with the current aim of increasing woodland cover in Scotland from 17% to 21% by 2032 and a proposal that the rate of new afforestation rises to 15,000 hectares per year by 2024.

Woodland expansion will provide multiple benefits for Scottish wildlife and people. An expanding, healthy and connected forest will help secure and enhance the functioning of the forest ecosystem, providing a sanctuary for biodiversity and helping to halt biodiversity collapse. Vital forest processes such as the decomposition of organic matter, water retention and soil nutrient cycling will be restored allowing the forest to deliver a raft of important ‘ecosystem services’:

  • Provisioning services such as food and timber
  • Regulating services such as carbon sequestration and flood control through slowing down water
  • Cultural services such as recreational opportunities, aesthetic and spiritual benefits
  • Supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling
A shallow, stony river showing erosion at the riverside.
Riverside woodland establishment could prevent this sort of riverbank erosion

The role of forests in Scotland clearly has tremendous potential to counteract the climate emergency, prevent loss of biodiversity and improve people’s lives.

So the woodland restoration and expansion work at Mar Lodge carries even more value and significance now than when the Trust first acquired the estate in 1995. From the old tree dating back to 1477, the lifetime of a forest is immense relative to the short timescales we work in within our own lifetimes. We have a 200-year vision for the Mar Lodge woodlands. If progress continues in the positive way it has begun in the last 20 years, then in 200 years’ time we’ll have a healthy forest from valley bottom to a natural treeline, connected up with neighbouring forests across the Cairngorms, full of wildlife and delivering those all-important ecosystem services. And the old pine will not be so lonely as it finally dies and gives its nutrients back to the soil as the new flush of forest cloaks the hills once again.

Raise a glass to the pinewoods and support our work through purchasing a bottle of our Pinewood Conservation Gin.

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