The Ancient Caledonian Forest – A Woodland in Crisis

The Caledonian Forest is the name given to the small pockets of ancient, native woodland left in Scotland. A few hundred years ago, it would have covered the vast majority of the Scottish mainland, giving home to wolves, bears, wild boar, lynx, red squirrels, deer, golden eagles, osprey, beavers, badgers and barn owls, to name a few. 

Today, it is almost all gone. There is >5% of what there once was, made up of disconnected patches all over the country. Humans have hunted many of the large mammal species to extinction or near-extinction, destroying the food chains and decimating biodiversity. Our woodlands are a distant shadow of what they once were.

So how did it happen? Where have our great forests gone?

As Britain industrialised, the growing population needed building materials. Two World Wars demanded lumber, and space was needed to raise farm animals. The huge scots pine, oak trees and birch were felled in their millions, replaced by grassland for animals or – my worst enemy – sitka spruce. 

Sitka spruce plantation started during the Second World War. It’s a fast-growing pine tree which is great to build with. Soon the hillsides of Scotland were covered in it, and most still are today. Anywhere you go in Scotland you’ll see sitka. Those dark green, perfectly straight lines of pine trees are a death sentence to any hopes of a biodiverse ecosystem. 

Nestled in amongst thick sitka spruce plantation is a canopy of scots pine. (Glen Orchy Caledonian Forest reserve).

It’s almost impossible to walk through a sitka spruce forest. As you can see in the featured image, they’re intentionally planted close-together to reduce the number of knots in the wood. And because they’re non-native to the UK (from Canada), our wildlife isn’t adapted to live alongside them. 

The result is a lifeless monoculture – devoid of any hint of the natural world. Sitka forests can be beautiful to look at – trees are inherently – but pose absolutely no value as a habitat. The fact that the vast majority of our countryside is planted with – and is continuing to be planted with sitka spruce –  is a tragedy. 

This is the work of a for-profit branch of the Scottish government – The Forestry Commission. They plant, manage and harvest almost all of the sitka spruce plantations in the country. It is a business worth billions of pounds per year. 

The SNP pledged to increase woodland in Scotland by 50% in the recent election which is promising, especially given forestry is a devolved power. But it’s unclear whether this means native woodland, or whether they will continue to plant sitka spruce. If it is the latter, they are wasting their time and taxpayer money.

What can we do to re-establish the Ancient Caledonian Forest? 

In a word – rewilding. 

The idea is essentially to rebuild ecosystems back to their original glory. This would mean planting trees such as scots pine, oak and birch as well as reintroducing native animal species. You build a habitat from the ground up. And it works. 

A walk through what once was.

There are a few good projects underway in Scotland, the biggest of which is Trees for Life. They’ve already planted millions of trees in an attempt to regrow the Caledonian Forest. It’s a great charity. 

The biggest private landowner in Scotland – a Danish billionaire called Anders Povlsen – is now committed to “restore our parts of the Highlands to their former magnificent natural state and repair the harm that man has inflicted on them”.

There is hope for the Caledonian Forest. As long as pockets still exist, it has been proven they can spread through rewilding efforts. Work is underway to link up as many of these pockets as possible, and start to restore the forest to its former glory. One day there might even be wolves running through the highlands, but that’s a discussion for another blog post. 

No one reading this (unless you’re from centuries in the future), will see the forest as it once was. But we can all help to build it back for future generations to enjoy.

So I’m running 50km on the 5/6/2021 to raise money for Trees for Life. Please donate if you can afford to. Here’s a link to my JustGiving page.

If you can’t afford a monetary donation, you can:

– Volunteer your time with Trees for Life planting saplings.
– Write to your MSP about the plight of the Caledonian Forest and ask how they plan on helping our woodland.
– Read ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot. It will give you an idea of just how much damage we’ve done.
– Share this post on social media to raise awareness.
– Visit the pockets of Caledonian Forest and talk about it with your friends and family.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in the shade of which they know they shall never sit.” – Greek Proverb. 

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