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13 Oct 2021

Project Wipeout has arrived in the North East

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens & Designed Landscapes Manager, Aberdeenshire & Angus
A close-up view of a rhododendron bush growing beside a driveway that leads up towards Fyvie Castle, seen in the background.
Rhododendron ponticum at Fyvie Castle
Important work to remove invasive plant species at a series of Trust sites has now started to move into Aberdeenshire this autumn.

After a sustained effort across other regions of Scotland, from the far north to the west coast, Project Wipeout and its mission of invasive species control is now continuing into the north-east of the country.

Contractors will be clearing Rhododendron ponticum from the grounds at Crathes Castle and Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire over the winter months, as part of the push to remove non-native plants from Trust places and give native species the chance to flourish once again. We hope that the sustained effort across all regions of Scotland will tackle this increasing problem and ensure that we can protect our woodlands and native wildlife.

Funded by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery, the Nature Scot Biodiversity Challenge Fund and Baillie Gifford, Project Wipeout aims to tackle species including Japanese knotweed, American skunk cabbage and Rhododendron ponticum.

Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, Laura Chow said: ‘It’s fantastic that players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting the National Trust for Scotland’s important work to protect and restore Scotland’s native species, making them great habitats for wildlife and beautiful places for people too.’

Efforts commenced in August 2020 with work in Wester Ross, at Balmacara, Kintail and Torridon. Secondary phases of work will tackle regrowth and new seedlings.

A person in a woollen hat is drilling into a rhododendron bush on a hillside overlooking a bay.
Invasive species control at Torridon

Problem ponticum

The Rhododendron ponticum that is present at many places in the North East served a very different purpose in the past, before it started to spread and move out into the wild. When many of the grand castles and estates were used as summer residences for wealthy families, shooting was a popular sporting pastime. The game birds that were shot were used to feed the family and staff of the great houses, as well as providing entertainment for guests and visitors. Rhododendron ponticum was planted as sheltering cover for game birds, as well as to provide a place where young birds were raised. Amid the rhododendrons, they were better protected from predator wildlife such as birds of prey or pine martens. The plants would have been managed by estate staff such as ghillies, foresters and grieves (farmhands).

Whilst the activity of sport hunting still continues today on many private estates throughout the UK, it no longer takes place at National Trust for Scotland properties. Consequently, the use of our wider policy woodlands has changed immeasurably, with the primary focus on recreation for much of the land. In addition, estate staff numbers have shrunk, with relatively few team members attending to the landscape elements of our properties.

Additionally, in more recent times (from the mid-1800s to the pre-war years), many hybrid rhododendrons were planted as landscape improvements and to beautify estates in the early spring. Many of these hybrid rhododendrons were grafted plants. This means the showy and colourful flowers needed to have vigour; to achieve this, the plants were grafted onto rootstocks of stronger varieties. The plant of choice – Rhododendron ponticum! After a few years, the weaker top growth died away and the vigorous and bulletproof ponticum took over, growing unfettered into the landscape.

A rhododendron bush grows beside a driveway which passes through a woodland.
Hybrid rhododendron that has reverted to ponticum on the driveway at Fyvie Castle

And so ... the rhododendrons have got out of control! With few natural diseases and pests to attack them, they are growing far beyond their initial intended purpose. Project Wipeout is needed to correct their path.

  • At Brodie Castle, Rhododendron ponticum is being weeded out from the woodland walk area around the pond, giving native woodland plants more space to grow.
  • At Brodick Country Park on Arran, Rhododendron ponticum is being removed from around the grounds to protect the castle’s other rhododendron species from disease.
  • At Culzean Country Park, the focus is on areas close to the coastline, where Rhododendron ponticum has taken hold and crowded out important native species.

We hope that the works starting this year will be Year One of a longer-term strategy to tackle not just the rhododendrons but also the other invasive species that can be found in and around our estates. We aspire to making sure that we can protect and develop our woodlands for all to enjoy, and that they are abundant with plants and animals for future generations.

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