The Once Vast Forest of Caledon
The Taiga is one of the largest ecosystems on the planet. This circumpolar forest wraps around Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska and Canada. This boreal forest exists between the tundra of the arctic circle and temperate forests. Taiga comprises a third of all the trees on Earth. It is characterised by a dominance of pines, larches and spruces. However, broadleaf trees are also found here around fringes of woodlands, along riverbanks and elsewhere at lower elevation.
Several thousand years ago there was a vast, dense Caledonian Forest that covered much of the Highlands of Scotland. This great forest was part of the circumpolar Taiga; it was our only Taiga forest in the UK. Today, only 1% of Caledonian Forest remains in locations too remote or inaccessible to be logged, cleared and converted to grazing. The vast, bald mountains that characterise much of Scotland today are not unspoiled. They are totally denuded of what was once there.
Today in rewilding, the conversation in the UK can focus on the concept of patchworks. Of course, Scotland would have always been home to peatlands, moorland, craggy hilltops, lochs, wetlands and other zones where there would have been open areas. However, it would have been home also to large zones of dense forests. Most of the landscape, by far, would have been forested. Important remnants of such forest cling on today on islands within great lochs, along steep gorges and on craggy headlands.
In some ways the concept of patchworks gets amplified in our consciousness if we do not wind the clock back far enough. In other words, if we do not wind the clock back to when there were predators in the landscape: bears, wolf, lynx, etc. The vacuum left by the eradication of predators has increased herbivore pressure, by red deer and others, which can loiter in an area for an extended period and create localised damage. So doing they can kill all tree saplings and prevent the forest from regenerating.
The other challenge today is that some of the granny Scots pine trees are so old that they are no longer productive. Again, this amplifies areas of open ground and can give the false impression, even in nature reserves, that the landscape had always been very open. Finally, of course, there is a significant presence of mankind when it comes to clearing land and converting it to grazing.
If we only imagine Scotland as an agricultural landscape, then conservation efforts would manage it like the Yorkshire Dales. I believe we need to be more imaginative. In other words, to imagine the landscape 8000 years ago, so that some areas can be restored to their former splendour.
Where did all the Highland trees go? Trees have been constantly removed from the Highlands for thousands of years. There have been various periods in history when this deforestation has accelerated. During the stone age, land was converted to farming. During the Iron Age, timber was used for smelting purposes as it was far more accessible than coal. Vast areas of trees were felled during the Middle Ages for timber to build villages, towns and cities. Any one cathedral can contain more than a thousand trees worth of timber! Great fleets of ships were built for the Royal and Merchant Navies. We even exported timber to build cities of the British Empire. During the Highland Clearances, people were forced off the land as much of the Highlands were converted to grazing and shooting. As recently as WW1, vast areas were felled by Canadian lumber jacks for wood to shore up the allied trenches.
Many of the forests that we see in Scotland today comprise timber plantations. This can give the false impression that many large native forests remain. Whilst timber forests do offer some benefits to nature, such as small mammals and raptors, they are not the same as the native forest that would have existed. The return of native forests still matters.
At times I have met people in the land sector in Scotland who decry pine forests. They have asserted that pine forests have low biodiversity and then champion an open patchwork landscape as the only option. I believe this thinking may be due to experience with pine plantations where there can be a localised monoculture of trees.
The reality is nuanced, not binary. It is the case that in the Taiga there are fewer tree species than in a southern broadleaf forest. However, the Taiga is home to a vast array of birdlife, mammal species and plant species. They are very biodiverse landscapes. A key tenant of landscape conservation is to conserve and extend exemplars of pristine habitats. The idea of replacing what would have been a dense pine forest with open grounds and sparse broadleaves is antithetical to that ethos and poor practice.
In short, the land has been so altered that it can be difficult to imagine what it would have looked like. The good news is that Scotland is exceptional in this regard. Much of the Taiga elsewhere on Earth remains intact. There are perfect examples of pristine, native Boreal forest today in Sweden, Canada and many other places. The video provided shows one such forest in Western Canada. In this case, the landscape would be home to predators such as grizzly bears, black bears, grey/timber wolves, mountain lions, Canada lynxes, bobcats and coyotes. Predators keep the herbivores on the move and maintain more dense forest.
Many of Scotland's rarest creatures depend upon pine forests: Capercaillies, Scottish wildcats, pine martens, red squirrels, ospreys, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles. Species being discussed for future reintroduction, such as the Eurasian lynx, are denizens of dense forest.
For our part, we are planting large areas of diverse native forests in Scotland, with a range of broadleaf, conifers and pine species. Highland Carbon is helping to return nature to what it once was like, at the end of the last ice age. Whilst of course, partnering with estates that also have farming operations and other needs.