In this third excerpt from Emily Warner’s Rewilding Diary for The Clearing in which she charts the course of a summer carrying out research in regenerating woodland in the Scottish Highlands, she describes her first full week in Glen Affric.
Having left Glen Affric at the end of April, full of anticipation for the prospects of my project, I then had a month to make plans for my fieldwork before the start of June. To me it seems that periods of intense intellectual activity, and I suppose stress, are condensed into short spans during a PhD. After a fairly meandering period of defining my research project over the winter, I suddenly found myself faced with the need to finalise my methods and gather all of my equipment in just four weeks. This was accompanied by a keen sense of personal responsibility for the success of my project: I have a real hope that my research will provide objective support for the expansion of native woodland in upland areas throughout the UK. It is therefore crucial that my research methods have the maximum possibility of capturing the ecological changes driven by woodland regeneration.
As the weeks passed the piles of equipment in my office grew: wooden stakes to mark the corners of my plots, plates and cups to make pitfall traps to sample ground dwelling beetles, tubes to collect specimens, quadrats, soil augers, a midge net. And in no time I was driving out of Oxford, heading northwards to put my plan into action.
Returning to Scotland was also in itself the fulfilment of some personal passions. A chance to engage with Trees for Life’s work in a new way, and hopefully spread their message to a new audience. An opportunity to spend a prolonged period in a ruggedly inspiring landscape. All whilst reconnecting with the friends I made in Scotland three years ago whilst volunteering with Trees for Life.
For my first week in Glen Affric I was joined by my friend Tony, who had agreed to a week’s retreat to the wilderness and volunteered to help me to set up my plots. Tony was my supervisor during the time I spent volunteering, and during two months working alongside this patient and practical character we became good friends. Arriving in Glen Affric in his company made a huge difference to my mindset, and the potential to enjoy my fieldwork as an adventure in itself was clear, whatever the scientific output.
Glen Affric in the throes of summer was a very different landscape to its April incarnation. Shades of orange and brown had been replaced by a spectrum of greens. The birds that had just been beginning to gather in spring had reached a climax, breeding willow warblers, robins and chaffinches had been joined by stonechats, cuckoos and siskins. The calls of the cuckoos echoed and re-echoed from woodland patches up and down the valley. Rowan trees were laden with huge umbels of white flowers. The grassland was filled with orchids and hundreds of bog asphodel spikes were just waiting to flower.
This first week felt like the moment of truth. I had produced idealised, cartoon-like diagrams of the proposed layout of a plot, and a map of these plots scattered across the landscape. Whether this would work in the physical reality of Glen Affric was less clear. My main research aim is to compare the regenerating forest to the surrounding deer-grazed heathland and demonstrate the positive effects that woodland regeneration can have. To do this I wanted to set up paired plots at 16 regenerating sites, with a plot in the young woodland and a matched plot outside the fence in the treeless heathland at each site.
Within each plot I would measure a number of response variables, each relating to an aspect of ecosystem function or component of biodiversity. These included tree and soil carbon stocks, tree regeneration, plant community composition and diversity, the height of the shrub layer, ground beetle community composition, decomposition rates, and rates of soil invertebrate feeding. Next year I plan to survey the bird community and soil microbial community during another round of fieldwork.
The scramble to set up my plots took me from one end of Glen Affric to the other, and up and down the surrounding hillsides, bringing me into unexpected contact with a range of its occupants. Golden eagles soaring above the surrounding peaks, an adder sunning itself at the side of the path, a freshly emerged northern eggar moth hanging in the heather, floodplain meadows dominated by orchids. Personal excitement came from sightings of four species of orchid that were new to me, early marsh orchids, the marsh fragrant orchid (worth bending down to catch the honeysuckle scent), a lesser butterfly orchid and a small white orchid.
By the end of the week I felt a sense of relief with the progress I had made in plot establishment. As an individual on foot a huge swathe of Glen Affric was surprisingly accessible. On Tony’s last day, the glen opened itself to steady rainfall, the dried moss absorbed the water after weeks without significant rainfall, and the burns and waterfalls rose from a gentle trickle to a brimming rush of water.
EMILY WARNER is a PhD student based at the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology at the University of Oxford. Her research aims to understand the benefits of replanting native forest, with a particular focus on the uplands of the United Kingdom.
PHOTOGRAPHY by the author.