Rare mountain forests set to return to the Scottish Highlands

A major rewilding initiative to restore unique high-altitude mountain forests and wildlife to areas of Scotland where they have been lost has begun – with plans to plant 100,000 more trees in 2020.

Moorland landscape

Once a landscape full of woodlands, Scotland’s hilltops are now largely void of tree-cover, due to centuries of over-grazing from sheep and deer.

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Tough, waist-high trees such as dwarf birch and downy willow used to be a common feature of the Scottish Highlands. Known as ‘montane’ species, these trees are able to withstand harsher conditions near mountain summits, and can support wildlife such as golden eagles, ring ouzels, and mountain hares.

Though rare, the golden eagle is Scotland’s top predator. © Mark Hamblin

In a bid to see Scotland’s wild landscapes return to their natural, tree-covered state and stop them from disappearing forever, conservation charity Trees for Life has launched a bold initiative to help these rare woodlands make a comeback in the Highlands in what is thought will be the country’s largest planted area of high-altitude woodland.

“Montane woodlands are a vital part of Scotland’s precious Caledonian Forest, but are often restored over only small areas if at all,” said Doug Gilbert, Trees for Life’s Dundreggan Manager. “To bring these special ‘wee trees’ back from the brink, and create habitats for the wildlife that depends on them, we need something bigger – and that’s what we’re setting out to achieve at Carn na Caorach.”

Bird on ground
Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatos) adult male with nesting material, Glen Tanar Estate, Aberdeenshire, Scotland/ Ring ouzel © Mark Hamblin scotlandbigpicture.com

Previously, Trees for Life planted 10,000 trees at a location on Dundreggan called Beinn Bhan, lying 500 metres above sea level. Starting next spring, volunteers working on behalf of the charity will plant an impressive 100,000 trees across 700-acres at another location at Dundreggan Conservation Estate. The site — called Carn na Caorach, meaning ‘sheep cairn‘ — lies 450-600 metres above sea level, and is thought to have been used as an important area for grazing livestock for hundreds of years.

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Donard Forest, Northern Ireland

Small trees such as downy willow and dwarf birch will be planted on higher ground, while Scots pine and juniper will be planted on lower slopes.

The high altitude woodlands could provide valuable habitat for animals such as mountain hares. © Mark Hamblin

Further planting of young trees is due to take place over the course of the next few years, and in order to protect them from grazing animals and give them the best chance of reaching maturity, Trees for Life have erected a large enclosure, supported by Scottish Natural Heritage Biodiversity Challenge Fund. Safe in the enclosure, self-seeded saplings will be able to thrive, enabling a new generation of montane species to succeed. Protection of these woodlands in the long-term is essential for their survival, as it will take between 50 to 100 years before the forest is able to become fully-established.

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As well as providing a habitat for birds and mammals, it is hoped that the return of these historic woodlands will aid the return of flora such as wood cranesbill, globeflower, and alpine sowthistle, in turn helping pollinating insects.