In this second excerpt from Emily Warner’s Rewilding Diary for The Clearing in which she charts the course of a summer researching in the Scottish Highlands, she describes her planning visit to Glen Affric.
I visited Glen Affric during a mild week in April 2018. After a couple of months of planning, the realisation of my project rested on a scoping visit to the regenerating forest sites.
I had last been in Scotland in the autumn of 2015, and my only experiences of Glen Affric’s forest had been autumnal ones. Returning on what had been the cusp of spring in Oxford, I found myself in a landscape still held in the tail end of winter. The birch, previously aflame with the colours of their autumn leaves, showed their exposed skeletons of deep chestnut branches, with the bright green of the scots pine standing out against the deep oranges and browns of the landscape. Snow topped the surrounding mountains, turning to scattered patches on the lower slopes, which were periodically obscured by passing waves of fine mist.
Trees for Life’s fenced and replanted enclosures fit neatly onto an A4 page: “25 years of tree planting.” I had pored over this map: thirty-eight sites, established between 1990 and 2014, offering an amazing opportunity to look at the re-establishment of native woodland over almost thirty years. The difficulty lay in rationalising this to the scale of the landscape. The limit of my experiences in Glen Affric lay at the western end of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin (over nine miles of water represented by less than 10cm on the map), where the tarmac road ends at the final Forestry Commission car park. Most of the sites lie further west of this, beyond Loch Affric, forming a pathway of stepping stones for six miles down the valley, where Glen Affric then branches into Fionnglean and Gleann Gnomiadh.
I had identified a minimum number of sites that I would need to study to answer my questions robustly, and I now needed to work out whether a single summer would be enough. So, I found myself waiting with my supervisor, Owen, at the end of the road by Loch Beinn a’Mheadoinn for Doug and Alan from Trees for Life and our transport down to the western end of Loch Affric. Here we would be left to explore the sites for the next three days, using Trees for Life’s Athnamulloch Bothy as a base.
Driving west along the track to the south of Loch Affric there is a transition in the form of the forest. The shores of Loch Beinn a’Mheadoinn are cloaked in a thick tangle of mature forest, gnarled pines and birches interspersed with rowans. But as you travel west the patches of mature forest become scarcer. There are patches of mature forest to the south of Loch Affric and a huge enclosure has allowed birch, willow and pines to establish in the treeless areas. A scattering of smaller seedlings has sprung up, forming dense patches of young forest in many places. Travelling slowly through this in the minibus, the branches of the young trees scraped against the windows, allowing only glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Finally emerging at the loch end, we were greeted by the channel of mountains that stretches away ahead and a narrower valley holding the River Affric. The series of fenced areas of regeneration along the valley stood out as dark patches on the flanks of the mountains, dwarfed by the surrounding Munros.
The next two days were filled with walking. Ten kilometres from Athnamulloch Bothy to the furthest site at Camban Waterfall, passing the UK’s most remote youth hostel, still shut over winter. Dipping in and out of the sites and gaining an overview of the ones on the opposite side of the valley. The fences marking the perimeter of the sites were emphasised by a boundary of heather regeneration, the ground layer rebounding in direct response to deer exclusion.
Over three days in Glen Affric, an idea that had initially felt overwhelming slowly spawned into the possibility of an idyllic summer of fieldwork. I had had no idea of what to expect, and in reality the forest patches that barely filled a side of A4 covered a scale far more expansive than the limits of my imagination. Likewise, twenty-eight years of tree regrowth had generated patches of forest that a person could vanish within. Possibilities for fieldwork and for the forest itself seemed alive with potential. If a forest could regenerate beyond the bounds of my optimistic imagination, what did that mean for biodiversity and the ecosystem processes generated by the developing ecosystem? A scientific quantification of the intuitive positive effects of forest regeneration became a very exciting prospect.
Looking back, this short trip feels like a gateway to my experiences of the summer. Stumbling upon the dried remains of last year’s plants and the tiny seedlings destined for this summer; relative rarities in the wider heathland and indicators of ancient woodland habitat, such as lady’s mantle, bluebells and wood cranesbill. The buds were bursting on the birches and willows and the woods were just beginning to fill with the songs of breeding birds establishing their territories.
On the final day, as we set out to walk back alongside Loch Affric to the road, light rain began to fall for the first time, amidst bursts of scattered sunshine. Walking away from Glen Affric is hard, and as the track rose away from the floodplain valley where Athnamulloch Bothy sits we turned to look back: ochre and yellow snow-capped mountains, dark patches of the enclosures in the distance, the bothy a tiny white dot in the valley bottom, sitting perfectly at the end of a rainbow arching over the River Affric to the valley side beyond.
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.