In this fourth extract from Emily Warner’s rewilding diary for The Clearing, she reflects on her work comparing and documenting regenerating plant communities in the ungrazed heathland and forest, in Glen Affric in the Scottish highlands.
With my survey plots established, the transition from the physical work of hammering in marker posts to the methodical collection of data was mirrored by a transition in the weather. My expectations for a Scottish summer had been realistic, and a fortnight of heavy rainfall, a thunderstorm and glimpses of sunshine had conformed perfectly to my expectations. The beauty of our isolation was that the arrival of the heatwave was something we could only guess at. Subtle shifts in the ambience of the glen hinted of what was to come: the wind slipping round to blow from the east, clearing the sky and bringing with it a noticeable influx of campers, setting up tents at three or four points down the valley.
I swapped the assistance of Tony for that of an undergraduate, Ro. I had recruited Ro before leaving Oxford, offering him the opportunity to experience scientific research first-hand in exchange for his practical help with data collection. The extra help proved invaluable in getting the fieldwork done, but a shared enthusiasm for ecology and Scotland’s remote wildness made the process a joy.
Phase one of the fieldwork focussed on the plant communities. Differences in the plant species present in each plot and the structure of their communities will allow me to document some of the effects of deer exclusion and tree regeneration. The plots established in regenerating woodland, ungrazed and grazed heathland, and grazed and ungrazed mature woodland, allowing me to make comparisons between the habitat types present in the glen. Strikingly, and intuitively, the height of the shrub layer responds dramatically to the reduced grazing pressure. The heather, bilberry and bog myrtle rising in a complex tangle, precisely marking the fenced boundaries of each site.
As the days progressed and we moved deeper into the heatwave, the unexpected warmth brought a euphoria to the everyday tasks of fieldwork, as we revelled in the simultaneous eruption of life around us. Stepping through the grassland, frogs would leap from our path, as dragonflies flickered past with clattering wings and bees thronged to the exuberantly flowering patches of bird’s foot trefoil. The floodplain meadow surrounding the bothy, and at the river and loch shores, was not part of our surveys, instead offering a source of delight at the start and end of our commute. Combinations of wildflowers that I associate with the carefully managed and fragile meadows that are rare gems in lowland Britain lifted my heart. Fields of orchids, yellow rattle, eyebrights, bird’s foot trefoil, red clover and a diversity of fine grasses.
The quadrats that we put down in each plot provided a focus for our surveys. But more sparsely distributed in the reforested sites were plants hinting at the past presence of woodlands in these locations: bluebells and wood cranesbill making an auspicious appearance in the westmost site. In the quadrats themselves we found common cow-wheat, cowberry, bilberry, heath bedstraw, chickweed wintergreen and one cluster of intermediate wintergreen.
The heatwave brought us closer to the streams and rivers in the glen. The River Affric was our constant companion, a place to refresh and refocus at the end of the day, and our source of drinking water. Even becoming the object of our fantasies as we scrambled up and down the hillsides in 30oC heat. Despite this, it took some courage to enter the ice-cold water: we developed a trick of crouching in the shallows, before slithering incrementally down the slope of smooth pebbles to stand immersed on the peat riverbed. Gasping at the cold before gradually being released to the felt-like feel of the peat beneath our feet, the whisper of shoals of fish at our ankles and the tug of the water around our chests. And what a world to unlock: diving below the surface and detaching from the warm buzz of the sunlit landscape above, becoming isolated in the throb and rattle of the flowing water. Revealing to us perfect translucent vistas, tinged sepia by the peat, of tumbled stones, shelved banks and shoals of speckled fish sweeping past. For me these moments in the river perfectly captured the tranquillity and bliss that Glen Affric provided.
Two weeks of plant surveys later and part of me wondered if my quadrats perhaps provided an unfair constriction on the bursting life in the glen. But I am, and am learning to be, a scientist, applying objective methods to a landscape that up to now I had best understood by the influence it has on my mood and senses. The rush and breath of gazing at acres of regenerating trees, the simple elation of passing a canon of rowan trees, unbrowsed and proudly displaying their frothing white umbels, the joy of a stonechat clacking from the top of a young birch. But equally, my elating eye as I walk through a regenerating enclosure is drawn to the successes that I hope and desire to see, so in many ways the more impartial focus of the quadrats is what I need. A key allowing me to explore the changes in plant communities with reforestation and the species that may be gained or lost.
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.