Upland Rising

Published: 14th June 2016

The John Muir Trust’s work to restore woodland at Li and Coire Dhorrcail on Knoydart shines a light on the importance of healthy woodland

The John Muir Trust’s work to restore woodland at Li and Coire Dhorrcail on Knoydart, recently won a high-profile award – recognition that also shines a light on the wider importance of healthy woodland in upland areas writes Alan McCombes.

When the sun sparkles on Loch Hourn, or when dolphins dance in the clear blue water and eagles glide high over the hills, casual visitors to Li and Coire Dhorrcail tend to envy Lester Standen. As the John Muir Trust’s land manager on the tranquil and beautiful north coast of Knoydart, Lester is often told that he must have one of the best jobs in the world.

The reality is less idyllic. “Let’s start with the torrential rain, the high winds and the clouds of midges,” suggests Lester. “Then there are the hazards of navigating steep, tussocky slopes, with dense vegetation hiding deep holes. Or the constantly waterlogged soil which means your feet are never dry. And the logistics of loading heavy equipment and materials onto and off the boat, and then up the hill. Even when the weather’s wonderful as I’m sailing across, I don’t really look at the views because I’m too busy worrying whether I’ve forgotten anything vital, or working out what needs done most urgently when I reach the other side.”

On the face of it, this should be one of the last places in Britain where significant woodland regeneration might be expected. It is notoriously inaccessible: a five-hour drive from Scotland’s central belt, followed by a nine-mile walk in or a boat journey across the loch, then a steep trek up the side of a precipitous gorge, carrying heavy equipment. The landscape may be captivating to look at, but the terrain here is among the harshest anywhere in Europe. Not for nothing is this stretch of storm-lashed, volcano-blasted coastline known in Gaelic as Na Garbh Chriochan – the Rough Bounds.

Yet last summer, Lester travelled to Edinburgh to receive a plaque from Scotland’s then Environment Minister Aileen McLeod after Li and Coire Dhorrcail won the prestigious New Native Woods category of Scotland’s Finest Woodlands Awards. Speaking at the ceremony, one of the judges, John Gallagher, said: “This is an exemplar of sustainable land management. The John Muir Trust can be truly proud of its achievement over the past 25 years.”

Time the healer

When Lester first set eyes on Coire Dhorrcail in 1986 on his way to the summit of Ladhar Bheinn, he remembers a barren, ecologically-impoverished landscape, grazed almost to death by sheep and deer. A couple of years later, after the John Muir Trust had acquired the property, eminent plant ecologist Paul Jarvis visited the north side of Knoydart to study what was left of what was once a genetically unique outlier of the ancient Caledonian Forest. His report was bleak: “Both in Glen Barrisdale and Coire Dhorrcail there is virtually no regeneration of the wood taking place today. There are no young trees. The wood is dying.” He went on to call for “urgent, positive, active conservation”.

Lester’s involvement with the Trust’s regeneration work on Knoydart began almost a quarter of a century ago, after reading an “inspirational” magazine article about the charity’s vision for Li and Coire Dhorrcail. As a commercial forestry worker, he brought with him an abundance of skills and expertise. After participating in some volunteer work parties and carrying out contract work for the Trust, Lester was first employed as  a ranger at Li and Coire Dhorrcail in 2007, before moving on to become the land manager in 2011. During that time, he has witnessed up close the gradual transformation of this former sporting estate – progress that has been praised by the new campaigning charity Rewilding Britain as an example of what could be achieved on a wider scale across the Highlands.

“Over the decades since I first came here, I’ve seen dramatic progress thanks to the heroic work of scores of people, including John Muir Trust staff and volunteers, and local contractors,” he explains.  “Where there were only dying remnants clinging to the steepest slopes of the gorge, there is now spreading, open woodland of Scots pine, birch, willow, rowan, hazel and oak, elm and bird cherry.”

Progress up to now has been achieved mainly through tree planting, which is still essential. That has paved the way for natural regeneration, which in recent years has begun to accelerate, aided by birds, voles and other small mammals carrying seeds out from the gorge. The restoration of this natural cycle has only been made possible by controlling deer numbers to reduce grazing pressures. That in turn involves confronting major logistical and political obstacles.

Lester generally works with a local stalker from the village of Arnisdale. Even so, the struggle to reduce deer numbers in this environment requires formidable strength and stamina. There are no bulldozed tracks on this estate. During the summer stag season, when the deer graze high on the hillsides, the carcasses have to be dragged down over steep terrain to be transported across the loch by boat, and then loaded into the trailer before being driven to the deer larder.

Lester also has to face down opposition from some neighbouring landowners, who want to keep deer numbers high because they manage the land mainly for sport. “They have little interest in conservation so don’t really understand what we’re trying to do here,” he explains. “But we get on very well with and work in partnership alongside the community-owned Knoydart Foundation, which shares many of our goals.”

The stated aim of the Knoydart Foundation – the biggest landowner on the peninsula – is to “manage the Knoydart Estate as an area of employment and settlement on the Knoydart Peninsula without detriment to its natural beauty and character, and to seek and encourage the preservation of its landscape, wildlife, natural resources, culture and rural heritage”.

At its peak, before the Highland Clearances, Knoydart supported almost 1,000 people, but by the mid-20th century, under the infamous absentee landowner, Lord Brockett, only a few dozen remained. Even today, despite the success of the Knoydart Foundation community buy-out, this is one of the most sparsely populated tracts of land in Europe, with approximately one inhabitant per square kilometre, mainly concentrated around the village of Inverie.

People and place

In this geographically mobile age, where the bright lights of the big city exert a powerful pull, no-one expects the population of Knoydart to return to the levels of centuries past. But could the regeneration of native woodlands, not just in Knoydart but across the Scottish Highlands, help to repopulate the glens, while restoring damaged local ecosystems?

Dr Helen Armstrong, an ecologist who recently completed a review for the Forestry Policy Group, believes it could. Her paper, The Benefits of Woodland: Unlocking the potential of Scotland’s Uplands, sets out the environmental case for re-establishing diverse woodland and montane scrub across much more of Scotland’s landscape, as well as outlining the social and economic benefits that could flow from such landscape regeneration.

Helen states that at one time around half of Scotland’s uplands would have been covered with native woodland and shrub. Today, after centuries of felling, grazing and burning, that figure has reduced to just 4 per cent. “The uplands are very important to Scotland and cover about 70 per cent of the land area,” explains Helen. “Uplands are defined by conditions rather than altitude and so can extend in some places right down to sea level. Generally, they’re seen as cold, wet and windy places with poor soils. As a result they’re dismissed as inherently unproductive and only good for hardy sheep, red deer, red grouse and exotic conifers. In our paper, we challenge that, and say that the low productivity of the uplands is at least partly due to human mismanagement of the land.”

Naturalists have long recognised that Scotland’s bleak grouse moors, bare deer ‘forests’ and regimented conifer plantations are ecologically impoverished, and that large-scale reforestation with mixed woodland and scrub is needed to restore biodiversity. This would create a richer tapestry of flora and fauna from ground level up to the 2,000-foot tree line, enhancing the drama and mystery of the high peaks and ridges.

Bringing back landscape-scale woodlands, intimately mixed with open habitats, could also have far-reaching social and economic benefits, believes Helen Armstrong. “Fostering biodiversity and improving the provision of a wide range of ecosystem services has to come first. But ecological diversity then has the potential to help develop economic diversity by supplying a wider range of products for local economies.”

Small-scale sawmills, for example, could produce a range of timber products – from fuel wood to fencing and saw logs, depending on local conditions – without the need for clear-felling. “Small sawmills can be far more flexible than bigger scale operations,” explains Helen. “They don’t have to rely on large quantities of identically sized trunks, but can deal with variations in size, age and species.”

While timber is the most obvious woodland product, the expansion of tree cover across Scotland’s uplands has the potential to foster other small rural enterprises, from woodcraft to the harvesting of edible fungi, nuts and berries. It would also replenish Scotland’s depleted upland soils.

“Without trees and shrubs, our abundant rainfall washes soil nutrients away. If you bring back woodlands you improve the nutrient content and productivity of the soil. That’s because trees – especially deciduous species – will sink roots deep into the soil then draw the nutrients upwards. These are then dropped back onto the ground when the leaves fall.”

Paradoxically, reducing grazing pressures to allow the spread of woodland could even open the door to the eventual return of sustainable pastoral agriculture. And bringing down red deer numbers in the short term would allow the animals to thrive in the future.

“Domestic livestock do better on meadows set within a mosaic of woodland habitats,” says Helen. “In Norway, Switzerland and other European countries, it’s common to graze sheep and cattle in fields within wooded uplands. The trees stabilise the soil and provide shelter for the animals. Red deer also do far better in woodland settings, where they produce more calves and grow larger than on exposed hillsides.

“In the meantime, we need a transition period in which grazing pressure is reduced by bringing deer and sheep numbers right down for a while, until we reach the point where there is enough woodland cover to sustain higher densities of grazing animals. With lower grazing pressures, reforestation would come about through natural regeneration in many areas, though planting may be needed in others where there is no nearby seed source, or where the soil is currently too poor or the vegetation too dense.”

Reducing muirburn would also be necessary, argues Helen. “Burning prevents tree and shrub regeneration,” she says. “It also has a deleterious impact on soils causing loss of nutrients and erosion. The amazing thing is, we don’t even know how much of our land goes up in smoke every year, or whether good practice is being followed, because no monitoring takes place.”

The timescale for that transition would depend very much on the site, says Helen. “In some areas, especially where there’s a good seed source, woodland can start to get away within 20 to 30 years, by which time you may be able to cautiously bring back some grazing.”

Based on experience elsewhere, she suggests that, “after 100 years of careful management, we could have a very different upland landscape”. But that doesn’t mean everything is put on hold for a century. “By beginning the process, we can still get a lot out of the uplands in the meantime. But that will always have to be balanced against the need for continuing regeneration.”

For those not intimately involved, such grand timescales can seem daunting. But on Knoydart, Lester Standen is content to observe the small, individual changes that accumulate over time to transform an entire landscape. “From year to year, month to month, week to week, even day to day, I see little changes, sometimes so small you’re not even sure it is a change. For example, I might occasionally see a species I’ve never seen before – a woodland bird, for example, that’s just appeared. Or I begin to be aware that there are more roe deer, which is a woodland animal, so that tells me something is changing.

“There was a time when we didn’t know of any pine marten here – now we see plenty of evidence of their presence,” he continues. “The vegetation too can be revealing. You might start to notice a slight increase in the height of the heather, or the blaeberry, which tells you that the grazing pressures are reducing.”

Lester will never see the final result of the work he has personally spearheaded on Knoydart for much of the last decade. But then who will? Nature is not a painting that will one day be completed. It is in a continuous process of change that will continue as long as the planet exists. But whether that change is for the better or for the worse will depend upon the decisions we take along the way.

Further info

An overview of Dr Helen Armstong’s research can be downloaded here

About the author

Alan McCombes is the Trust’s Communications editor. He can be contacted at alan.mccombes@johnmuirtrust.org

Return to all the Trust's latest articles 

This article first appeared in the Trust's members' Journal. Inspired by this article and not already a member of the Trust? Find out more about becoming a member.