A future for the forest

Derry woods

The Derry Woods: the recovery starts here.

A good article appeared in The Scotsman last week (which is a story in itself!) based on an interview with the new property manager at Mar Lodge Estate, the core of the Cairngorms National Park.

The meat of the piece is the still controversial deer cull which saw deer numbers more than halved between 1995 and now, and the positive effects this has had on tree regeneration.

It’s a message worth getting across, because only last year I was walking with someone through the Derry Woods when he commented on the cull, remarking with considerable cynicism that it had made “no bloody difference at all”.

He couldn’t have timed his pronouncement better, for I was able to prove him wrong just by telling him to open his eyes.

Scots Pine seedlings on the bank of the Derry Burn

Scots Pine seedlings, flourishing even on the gravelly banks of the Derry Burn.

There. There. There. All around us, when you looked, were Scots Pine seedlings poking their heads above the heather.

I pointed out to him that, before the cull, when deer numbers were artificially high and kept that way deliberately, none of these seedlings would have survived. Just look through the Derry Woods (as just one example) and see how overgrazing has robbed us of many generations of these marvellous trees. In the open forest, wherever it has been unfenced, there are no trees other than the new seedlings and fully mature trees.

Until you look down at the fresh growth at ground level, the Derry Woods look very little different from how they were when I was a child way back in the late 1960s. I didn’t remark on the lack of new trees then – you don’t when you’re a kid – but seeing the explosion of new growth in these last few years makes me long for more years on this earth to see how this already beautiful woodland will turn out. It’ll always change, of course, but I’d like to see it at least well on the way to recovery after what has been a long illness.

How will it look? I’ve seen rodden (Mountain Ash) and birch seedlings too, so it won’t be monoculture, but how thick will it be? Will all the new seedlings flourish? At what stage will they squeeze out some of their smaller or slower rivals?

Natural regeneration in Glen Derry

Natural regeneration: the result of being a deer-free zone for several decades, this hill shows what can be achieved by mother nature.

There’s a wee hillock beside the footpath up the Derry, about halfway between Derry Lodge and the rise onto Derry Dam, which maybe gives a clue. Around the tail end of the 1950s (I think) it was fenced off and left to get on with things on its own, with no interference from deer. Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s you could see the difference, and there’s no mistaking the hillock when you pass it now: it’s the one with all ages of tree (including three roddens still wire-shielded from browsing) where sometimes it’s a tyauve to push through between the trees.

There’ll still be pressure from deer in the ‘reborn’ Derry Woods, of course, but that’s natural and, from current signs, won’t stop regeneration the way the last umpteen decades has.

It’ll be interesting, too, to see how high the treeline goes. Reduced pressure from grazing, combined with global warming, might see trees growing higher than you might expect. There are already solitary (and rather poorly) trees growing high in the coires of Derry Cairngorm, just as there’s a tree can be seen silhouetted a third of the way up the Devil’s Point, round where Glens Dee and Geusachan meet.

The Cairngorm pinewoods – the ‘natural’ ones – are already places of beauty and tranquility. But just as I’m reaching an age to really appreciate some of that, suddenly I find them exciting too.

Another view of Derry Woods, Cairngorms

Just because… another view of the Derry Woods.

The Scotsman article can be found here, by the way, and is well worth a read. http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/features/Rules-of-the-game-Mar.6765431.jp

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5 Responses to A future for the forest

  1. Alistair says:

    Nice to read a balanced and enthusiastic view of the outdoors. The cull was given a lot of publicity but the people who caused the situation in the first place melted away in the background, back to their tax havens no doubt

  2. Bill Linton says:

    As much a pleasure to read as it is a comfort to know that entrenched ideas are changing, Neil.

    The argument that ecological imbalance is perpetuated through artificially high deer counts on Scottish shooting estates to the degree that a massive deer cull is the first link in the chain of recovery and reforestation was first mooted by Dr Adam Watson, BSc, PhD, DSc, DUniv, CBiol, FIBiol, FArcticINorthAmerica, FRSE, FCEH, AFRMetSoc -I’ve probably missed some-, but predictably ignored… in fact, rubbished by Scottish estate owners, the value of whose land was, and in some cases still is, calculated per head of deer/grouse. It’s no surprise that they believed the Divine Right of vast wealth outweighed academic excellence!

    Many have waited a long time for news of this ilk, but not so many for as long as Dr Watson and it’s a satisfaction to know it’s happening in his lifetime.
    Man, that must feel good!

  3. Fraser says:

    It’s one of the things that cheers me up when the weather is bad in the Cairngorms – to see the new growth coming through all around. The is plenty of evidence in Derry, Feshie, Abernethy and Rothimurchus. The estates seem to be doing a pretty good job in that regard.

  4. Bill Linton says:

    Yes indeed Fraser, and standing in stark contrast against the naked braes to the north and west, or the swathes of forestry plantations, the term “Land Improvement” takes on a whole new meaning!



  5. entangledentomology says:

    A fine piece. It is indeed heartening to see that in some parts of the Cairngorms some regeneration is getting underway. The efforts in controlling deer at the Glen Feshie estate has also provided a nice flush of young pine. I hope to see more emphasis on bringing populations down rather than the widespread use of deer fencing. After all the complete exclusion of grazing is just as bad from a conservation point of view as overgrazing. As with many things though it is a fine line between too much and too little!

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