The wide open vistas, heather moorlands and dramatic landscapes of the Scottish Highlands, and the deer that roam there, provide an iconic image of wildness.
But how natural is this landscape and how healthy?
Only 5.1% of the land in the Highland area is native forest, and just 4% of this lies above 400m asl (see Native Woodland Survey of Scotland 2014). Forest would always have expanded and contracted with changing climatic conditions, especially at higher altitudes. Today at the upper margins we usually find a clear line between forest plantations at the timberline, with open land above; or where native woodland survives outside of fences, a few gnarled old trees clinging on, often in the inaccessible burns or on crags.
There is a missing ecotone ... the treeline (sub alpine) and scrub (lower alpine) zones, where there would be a gradual change from the forest through krummholz (‘twisted wood’ in German) to the open land of dwarf shrubs above. Raising awareness of this situation is what the MSAG have been working on since 1996.
The Benefits of Mountain Woodland:
Main photo: Creag Fhiaclach, Cairngorms. By Will Boyd Wallace.
Britain’s best example of a natural treeline.
Montane Scrub Action Group
The MSAG was set up in 1996 following a seminar organised through the Millennium Forest for Scotland project. A further conference in 2001, subtitled ‘the challenge above the treeline’ brought awareness of the situation to a range of stakeholders (see Gilbert 2002).
The group is chaired by Dr Diana Gilbert and is a partnership of individuals supported by their organisations:
Biodiversity Challenge Fund Awards - Sept 2020
Trees for Life have again received funding from Nature Scot, this year in partnership with NTS, to enlarge three exclosures on the West Affric Estate principally for planting montane species. Nearby Glen na Ciche holds important remnant willow populations, with seed and cuttings from Salix lapponum and lanata collected and grown on at TfL’s nursery. They will be planted out, together with dwarf birch, Betula nana, at locations chosen to provide future seed sources for the crags above. Meanwhile work from last year’s fund continues at TfL’s Dundreggan Estate where planting of treeline woodland up to 650m asl within the new 285 ha Carn na Caorach exclosure is due to begin.
In the ‘Wild Heart of Southern Scotland’ the Borders Forest Trust also received funding, to undertake the re-establishment of montane scrub across some 70 ha at BFT’s three sites - Corehead & Devil’s Beef Tub, Talla & Gameshope and the Carrifran Wildwood. Species will include Juniperus communis, Betula nana and the willows Salix lapponum, phylicifolia and myrsinifolia. The grant also helped with pioneering work to establish bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi at Carrifran; the species proved challenging to propagate but early establishment has had reasonable success. Covid 19 has delayed some work but the hardy high elevation campers are ready to get out there again!
Best Practice Guides for Montane Scrub and treeline establishment and management of existing remnants are now available.
Scotland’s Forestry Grant Scheme: Woodland Creation, Native Low Density Option.
This option, under Scotland’s FGS, offers support for treeline habitat creation. There is an initial planting grant and annual maintenance payments for five years; capital grants for fencing are also available. A maximum area of 10ha is eligible as a stand-alone option, or up to 25ha if in association with another option. MSAG would support interest in these applications.
Comparisons with Norway
There is growing interest in a comparison between the Scottish Highlands, lacking in treeline and montane scrub habitats, and SW Norway which is a well-forested mountainous region where these habitats are ubiquitous. The two areas are very similar geologically and climatically but have a different land use history and current land management practices.
|Montane Scrub Action Group||
Montane Scrub Action Group