Ancient Caledonian forest

Sowing seeds for the future

A project to preserve and extend an ancient forest in the Scottish Highlands offers a lifeline for wildlife. It can also help tackle climate change.

By Claire Daly in Glengarry, Scotland on Oct 9, 2019

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“There’s not much use looking at that,” says Jim Mackintosh, who has been a forester in this Scottish Highland glen for more than 40 years. He has little time for smartphone weather apps. “You can often see it coming.” He points across the valley at the rain sweeping down the mountainside, drenching the peaty soil and tufts of heather and thistle.

Mackintosh and his fellow foresters skip up the mountain paths with the ease of men that do this every day. From this height they can look down on their office – 120 square kilometres on the banks of Loch Garry, north of Fort William. By his side, his black Labrador Bran sniffs the air for wild boar or maybe a biscuit, his ears pricking up as a stag bounds over the horizon.

Bull in Highland forest

Described by the Romans as the Great Wood of Caledon, the ancient forests on the banks of Scotland’s immense fresh-water lochs west of the Great Glen are some of the oldest in the UK. But while much of Scotland was once covered in trees, today native woodland covers less than 5% of its original 15,000 square kilometres. Grazing animals and human demand for timber have played their part in its demise.

Here in Glengarry forest, one of the largest remaining areas of native Caledonian pine still exists - magnificent gnarly dark-trunked trees – some hundreds of years old sit beside birch, alder, rowan and juniper. And a large-scale plan is under way to make sure the decline of this precious forest is reversed.

Man in Scottish Highlands with his dog
Jim Mackintosh and his dog Bran check on the growth of pine saplings
Young saplings on the hills

Sapling survival

Over the next five years, Forestry and Land Scotland is working with Shell UK to preserve and extend this native woodland, including a scheme to plant more than 200,000 trees in the first two years alone.

The foresters in Glengarry take seeds from the Caledonian pine trees – some dating back to the middle of the eighteenth century. They replant the healthiest seeds and nurture them to maturity. The foresters walk these hills regularly, watching over the young saplings, as they battle against diseases such as needle blight and the threat of hungry deer.

Shell is supporting the Glengarry forest scheme because forests and ecosystems such as these can play a vital role in helping tackle climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This work will generate independently certified carbon credits. 

Carbon credits allow Shell to offer an option for customers to offset CO2 emissions from their fuel purchases in the Netherlands and, most recently, in the UK.

Squirrel in tree
Red squirrels are returning to this part of the Scottish Highlands

Wildlife returning

Regenerating Glengarry secures the future of the forest, offering a lifeline to wildlife such as pine martens, ospreys, black grouse and red squirrel. And while deer pose a threat to the survival of saplings, not all the local wildlife want to eat the young trees. Highland cows roaming within a fenced area can help growth by chewing on surrounding foliage, allowing saplings more daylight and nutrients.

Despite being on these hills all year round, Mackintosh and Bran do not seem to tire of the elements. “Once planted, the young saplings need abundant rainfall to thrive on the thin soil,” Mackintosh explains. “It’s what we need here.” As well as a lifetime’s knowledge of the land he surveys, Mackintosh also knows where all the Wifi spots are.

“The signal might be patchy, but the work-life balance is exceptional,” he grins through driving rain.

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