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
In 2019 Trees for Life were awarded Biodiversity Challenge Funding from SNH to fence 285 ha around Carn na Caorach (“Sheep Cairn”), up to 650m asl, at the Dundreggan Estate. This large area of potential mixed montane scrub (NVC Sc7), along with other scrub habitats, plus the potential for Scots pine (W18), makes this an exciting prospect for mountain woodland creation. Its geographical position also fits well with ambitions to gradually link Glen Moriston and Glen Affric/Strathglass with woodland habitats stretching over the watershed.
Fencing is now in place and we hope to move ahead with planting soon, a mix of montane willows, juniper, birch and dwarf birch, and a selection of other broadleaf species as soils allow. Pine will be planted on the north-facing slope of Carn na Caorach itself. The trees will be grown at the Dundreggan nursery. Planting density will vary with willows in single species clumps and birches planted as a scatter of trees. Final densities will be around 500 stems per hectare, perhaps around 140,000 trees in total.
The BFT also awarded funding to Borders Forest Trust for planting 20,000 montane species at Corehead, Carrifran and Talla & Gameshope. The work will also include the translocation of bearberry to Carrifran, currently very scarce in the Southern Uplands, with plants being grown on from cuttings by Alba Trees.
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