After the last ice age, Scotland was covered in woodland. “When the Romans came to Scotland they came as far north as they dared, which was not very far,” says Doug, “They looked across up to the north and described a huge wood, Silver Caledonia.”
But the effects of sheep and deer grazing in particular, over millennia, has been catastrophic for the trees. Now just 5% of Scottish woodland is native, and there are huge areas of upland where there are literally no trees at all. “It’s not just that there is a scattering, there are none,” says Doug, “And that’s an entirely false and denuded landscape, which we need to reverse.”
We know how essential forests are at a planetary level for their capacity to suck up carbon and help mitigate the climate crisis, but I ask Doug why they’re so important locally? “When there’s flooding if you look up in the catchment of where that water is coming from, you’ll find a landscape without trees, rain falling on moorland and grazing pasture, where run off is 50 times greater than in a woodland environment. Woods act like sponges and help water get into the ground and they capture an awful lot of rain by themselves.”
“Nature didn’t give a hoot about the virus. It just carried on doing its thing”
The Forestry Commission has planted lots of Sitka spruce, but it isn’t native nor is it great for soil or wildlife; monoculture is rarely good for biodiversity. “We’re currently in a biodiversity crisis which nothing is being done about,” says Doug. “Restoring native woodland supports varied and interesting habitats and provides a rich biodiversity, which makes the whole forest healthier, more resilient and robust.”
But for Doug there is also a deeper point to it all, which is that humans love trees. “It’s hardwired into us that we’re savannah creatures, but we want to be in woodlands. That’s where people go for walks, it inspires artwork. There is massive cultural importance in woodland and we’re missing lots of them from our landscapes. So many people in the country have never experienced a real native woodland.”
The biggest challenge Trees for Life face in their efforts to rewild the forest at Dundreggan is the roe deer, who love to eat the younger trees. “The species that have thrived here are mostly silver and downy birch, as these are the least palatable species to deer,” he says.