When we first arrived at our remote cottage to live there was a large forest of conifers up the slope of the fell on which we lived. The fell is 599 metres, which is just short of being a mountain. We live on the lower slopes but we are the highest dwelling of the valley. We saw two winters of snow covered fells and the forest of conifers was like a Christmas Card. We thought it was wonderful to see each day. Then it was chopped down, which was a shock to us. Apparently it was 30 to 40 years old. It took 2 men with specialised machinery working night and day in a bad winter to cut it down within 3 months. They lived in an RV during that time, but it must have been grim. Certainly the devastating scene they left was grim. The dark gash on the fell remains an ugly scar to this day although they have dug it over and cleaned it up as best they could. This taught me about the work of the Forestry Commission which I did not know existed until we moved to Scotland.
Our original landlord had his estate planted with Sitka Spruce, Scots Pine and Larch (as advised by the Forestry Commission) and a large area of broadleaved trees to cosmetically conceal the growing pine forests. Then a new owner took over and she planted broadleaved trees over most of the estate. She chose Oak, Birch, Rowan, Hazel, Willow. She has covered the tops of the fells too, only leaving the peat bogs and marshes and other unsuitable ground free of trees. She had sought advice about the Ancient Woodlands which once existed here and her plan is to re-introduce those trees and thus increase the biodiversity of the land.
This caused me to take an interest in those ancient woodlands.
Apparently, after the last Ice Age, a gradual process of tree re-colonisation began in Scotland. The, in botanical terms, pioneer tree, was the Birch. It was the dominant tree and used for everything imaginable by the humans who began to resettle in this country when the climate permitted. At one time, the great Caledonian forest stretched across 3.7 million acres of the Scottish Highlands.
Around 5 thousand years ago the Caledonian forest initially consisted of birch, hazel, pine and oak. This woodland cover extended to Shetland and the Western Isles. Ancient woodland is directly descended from the original woodland that developed after the retreat of the ice sheets in Britain 10,000 years ago. Early agriculture led to clearing land and the invasion of Scotland by the Roman legions of Agricola in 82AD, having the greatest impact in the Lowlands, led to at least half of the natural woodland disappearing.
Temperatures were warmer when the ice was retreating, but became cooler again, and wetter which, combined with human activities, led to woodland being replaced by peatland. During the 17th and 18th centuries many of the remaining woods were heavily exploited for timber, charcoal and tan-bark.
Major changes in land-use in Scotland occurred after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 with consequences for woodland extent and distribution, including the Clearances (where people were replaced by sheep), the switch from a cattle-based to a sheep-based economy and the rapid increase in commercial plantations, which had only occurred on a small scale until the work of the ‘Planting Dukes’ of Atholl around 1740. The Perthshire website proudly boasts:
The seat of the Dukes of Atholl is at Blair Castle, north of Pitlochry. Generations of these so-called ‘Planting’ Dukes shaped the landscape seen today, especially around Dunkeld. Between 1738 and 1830, the family planted around 27 million conifers in the area. Some even say some of the rocky faces of Craig a Barns, just north of Dunkeld, were planted using cannon loaded with larch seed! Also in 1738, young European larches were collected in the Tyrol to be grown on at Dunkeld as the source of seed for these large scale plantings. One of these original trees survives – the Parent Larch, planted near the west end of Dunkeld Cathedral and the ancestor of many of those trees seen on the Atholl estates. See it as part of a gentle ramble – signposted and waymarked – from Dunkeld.
The Military Survey of Scotland, compiled by General Roy around 1750 has helped verify the continuity of woodland cover across the whole of Scotland.
At the beginning of the 20th century, woodland management was at a low ebb in Scotland. For the woodlands as in much else, the First World War changed everything. Lloyd George said in 1919 that Britain “had more nearly lost the war for want of timber than of anything else”. The date of that quote is significant – in 1919 the Forestry Commission was created with the primary aim of preventing such a strategic weakness from arising again. Since the 1940s the area of woods and forests in Scotland has increased from perhaps 4% of total land area to a current figure of some 17.8% mainly as a result of large scale afforestation. These quick growing timber forests became notorious when cut down they left barren landscape scars. Such plantings continued to wreck the scenery until the mid 1980s when the PR improved by the Commission becoming more sensitive to landscape, biodiversity, recreation, rural development and community involvement. Now timber is not as much in demand, wind farms are the new money maker for investors. They cause dreadful harm too to the once wild landscapes of Scotland, but they give investors a good return as they are subsidised by us, the ratepayer.