My summer this year was spent living in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands, quantifying the benefits that restoration and regeneration of native forest can bring. My existence has been idyllic: combining purpose, productivity, rugged scenery, simple living and the chance to be a part of a positive conservation project.
Glen Affric, where I have been based for my research, contains one of the largest remnants of Caledonian forest. Now reduced by centuries of human exploitation to scattered pockets, this habitat is home to a host of the UK’s wildest and rarest plants and animals. The deadwood habitats harbour internationally important bryophyte and lichen communities, the structure of the understorey provides food and nest sites for birds, insects live throughout the forest matrix, rare plants grow amongst the ground layer, and red squirrels and pine martens spring through the branches. To visit these forest fragments is to see a type of habitat I wouldn’t typically associate with the Highlands: huge contorted pines fringing the lochs and framing the sky. Yet these remnants of the forest are dying, the damage inflicted by an inflated grazing pressure from deer over recent decades is likely to show its true extent in the years to come. Deer are woodland animals, and with their high population levels, the remaining forest areas struggle to provide enough food for their herds. These beautiful ancient forests lack something therefore: the next generation of trees that should be pushing up through the shrub layer, filling the gap between their ancient ancestors and the understorey.
I first heard of Trees for Life, who work to protect and restore the Caledonian Forest, in 2014, when rewilding went from a subculture of ecology to a more mainstream concept. To many, the Scottish Highlands stand as one of the UK’s true areas of wilderness: miles of predominantly uninhabited land, wild and untamed. To others, the influence of humans is clear, and the potential for the enhancement and expansion of a previously dominant forest ecosystem is stark. The Caledonian forest in Scotland once covered a huge swathe of the Highlands, supporting a rich and diverse ecosystem within the shelter and structure of the forest, in contrast to the bare and blasted heathland that dominates today.
It takes courage and inspiration to tackle a problem of such magnitude, and Trees for Life started their mission over 25 years ago to not only protect what remains, but also to expand these areas of forest. Thus, across the landscape in Glen Affric lie a string of newly planted and fenced areas of regenerating forest, spanning from 6 to 28 years of age.
These areas of regeneration are the focus of my PhD. What can this new woodland provide? How does it alter the ecological quality of the landscape? And how do these patterns of change develop over time? The idea is that this could contribute to the endorsement of similar planting projects in other parts of the UK uplands, enhancing the diversity of plants and animals and resilience of ecosystem processes in these areas.
This summer my life has been driven by the push of fulfilling carefully planned fieldwork aims, and simultaneously synced with the rhythm of a raw and natural landscape, providing a level of fulfilment that I couldn’t have predicted. It is hard to describe what it has been to live and work for two months in a remote and exceptionally beautiful part of the Scottish Highlands, conducting research that I am wholly invested in and working with an organisation whose vision I admire. I’m looking forward to sharing these experiences, both scientific and wild, in these occasional pieces for The Clearing.
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.