One of my favourite places to be in the World must be Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Pinewoods. Although now reduced to a few remnants, these distinctive forests used to cover more extensive tracts of the Scottish Highlands. In the words of pioneering forest researchers and professors, Steven and Carlisle, who first undertook surveys of these forests back in the 1950s,
“…to stand in them is to feel the past”.
Back in the 1990s, after completing my Masters in Natural Resources management, I was fortunate enough to spend one blissful summer as a Ranger/Naturalist working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust at the Pass of Ryvoan Pinewood in Glenmore Forest in the Scottish Highlands. My days were spent out and about in the Great Outdoors, recording wildlife populations, surveying vegetation and forest regeneration and showing visitors around the Reserve.
For the visitors who attended my guided walks and talks, my job must have seemed like a dream job indeed; spending time in those ancient woods with the ever present backdrop of the Cairngorm Mountains and their snow bedecked peaks which beckoned tantalizingly on the horizon every day. Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing – I remember days spent fending off swarms of biting flies or maddening plagues of midges as I struggled to measure and record the woodland trees and wildlife, amidst the dense undergrowth and on steep and precipitous slopes. Despite these minor inconveniences it must surely have beaten the average 9 – 5 office jobs of the visitors whom I had the pleasure of showing round the Reserve.
Many years later, I still find it a joy to periodically get back to the Pass of Ryvoan and the stunning landscape of Glenmore, Strathspey and the Cairngorm Mountains; I love the sights, sounds and smells of the woodlands. The ancient Scots pine trees themselves, known as the “Granny Pines”, are the veritable OAPs of the Forest, with some of them reaching up to 350 years old. Like moody old forest trolls or goblins, many have unique, contorted and distinguished forms; each one possessing its own distinctive personality and spirit – far removed from the monochrome uniformity and boxy outlines of today’s industrial forestry plantations.
One of the greatest pleasures in recent years has been showing my own kids, the Scottish Pinewoods and encouraging them to appreciate and explore the wonderful places that I was able enjoy when I was growing up in Scotland. Whether its scaling the old trees, listening to the bird sounds of the forest, investigating a wood ants nest and getting sprayed with formic acid or looking for insect eating plants like sundew and butterwort amongst the heather and sphagnum moss; such experiences are priceless and special for developing minds and help to engender a sense of responsibility and stewardship for nature and wilderness.
One of the real highlights of the Pass of Ryvoan is Lochan Uiane, or the Green Loch, which is a real gem; its turquoise green waters reflecting the colours of the surrounding woods and hills, particularly in autumn when birches and aspen are turning gorgeous yellow and amber. Local legends say that the Loch is this colour through the work the mischievous fairies who dwell nearby – apparently the “wee folk” come down from the nearby “sìdhean” or fairy hill to wash their clothes after dark, thus staining the waters their wonderful hue. Science, however offers alternative explanations, which I’m sure can’t be true…
Although the Loch is much more visited these days than 30 years ago, it’s still a wonderful spot to chill on a fine day and enjoy nature. My favourite hiking route, the “high path”, leads back from Lochan Uiane along the higher slopes through the heart of the forest reserve. It’s along there that I spent happy hours recording vegetation profiles in the 1990s to help gain a better understanding of the woodlands, their natural regeneration and their conservation.
Fortunately, the future of the forest is looking a bit rosier these days; with each successive visit I’m literally amazed with the way the young pines are spreading out across the landscape and starting to colonise the once barren ground on the higher slopes and the area between Ryvoan and the adjoining Abernethy Estate, an extensive reserve managed by the RSPB. This is the result of concerted attempts by conservation organisations to regenerate the Caledonian Pineforest through sensitive management, particularly through reducing deer numbers which have caused significant overgrazing of the young trees in recent years.
There are now more ambitious plans afoot to regenerate considerable areas of the pinewoods around the Cairngorms, to establish more robust, functioning ecosystems over large areas and to reestablish the extent of natural treelines, reaching from the valleys up towards the mountain summits, themselves. The Cairngorms Connect project, for example, has the ambitious goal of ecologically restoring 600km² of the Cairngorms over the next 200 years.
Whilst some of this appears simple and obvious, it also raises difficult questions and challenges about how much of the Highlands have been managed in the past and how far “rewilding” concepts can be taken, whilst taking into account the constraints and concerns of land managers and the wider public as a whole. Do we for example want to reintroduce large preditors such as wolves and bears again in the future ? How would that change our view about visiting the Cairngorms and how might it affect the overall ecology and functioning of natural systems ?
Despite all these difficult conundrums, I’m sure that pioneer foresters Steven and Carlisle would be happy to see the Caledonian Pinewoods once again valued and expanding: perhaps now we can not only “feel the past” when we walk in these forests but can also see a future…