Tree regeneration, a 60-year experiment

Luibeg Bridge conservation enclosure, Cairngorms, with fence removed

Look Ma! No fence. The Luibeg Bridge enclosure with the fence removed

It’s not so long ago I was happy to see much of the deer fencing being removed from the Mar Estate.
Leaving aside the fact that they were replaced by a giant electric mega fence – a development which may not have been entirely of Mar Lodge Estate’s choosing – it’s maybe worth taking a look at the origins of some of those fences.
Back in the 1950s, when the Cairngorm National Nature Reserve was established, it was recognised that overgrazing by red deer was killing the forest, with new trees cropped to the ground as soon as they showed their heads above the heather.
The Nature Conservancy Council recognised the problem but it was to be several decades before the estate came into the ownership of anyone prepared to tackle the problem in the most obvious way – cutting the deer numbers to a level that allowed natural regeneration.
As with so many instances of vested interests fighting against the public good, it was even disputed whether the deer were causing the problem.
One of the first jobs, then, when the NCC appointed a warden in the Mar Lodge Estate, was to obtain proof that the problem was overstocking of deer. (The numbers were kept artificially high because of the income the estate obtained from shooting.)
The warden, Malcolm Douglas (now 90 and living in New Zealand), said: “I manually erected a small plot within the Derry wood on Creag Bad an Seabhaig opposite Derry Lodge. [That’s the south-east spur of Carn Crom so prominently visible from Derry Lodge]
“Then there was one on the flat upstream from the Derry Dam and another by a solitary tree farther up the flat. The purpose was to determine whether pine seed would germinate and survive.”
These plots, fenced in 1956 and 1957, were tiny, ranging from 0.04 to 0.07 of a hectare but, in 1959 Malcolm was able to tackle a larger scale trial, encircling a whole hillock.
Tom Dearg (NO 042 943), meaning the red hillock (Malcolm remembers it as An Toman Dearg, which would be the plural) covered an area of 2.5 hectares, bare of trees save at the foot.

Tom Dearg in Glen Derry in 1959

Tom Dearg when it was first fenced off in 1959

“An Toman Dearg was completely fenced in against deer, and the few surviving seedlings were also protected from voles with small mesh wire cages.”

Malcolm Douglas, NCC warden, on Tom Dearg, Glen Derry, in 1959, protecting seedlings against voles

Malcolm Douglas in 1959, fixing a ‘vole cage’ to protect pine seedlings from rodent damage

I can recall passing the fenced-in hill in my childhood in the late ‘60s and, even then, you could see young trees shooting up thickly inside the fence. I remember, too, the small gate, which was set near the north-east corner of the boundary.

Gate to the NCC Tom Dearg enclosure in Glen Derry

The gate to the Tom Dearg enclosure. I recall walking past this in the late ’60s

The success of the experiment is plain to see today, even though the fence has been removed for a number of years now (possibly during the ‘80s or ‘90s?). Where Malcolm Douglas once parked his Land Rover you’d be hard put even to land one by helicopter, never mind drive it up there. Even climbing the hillock by foot can be a struggle.

Land Rover on top of Tom Dearg, Glen Derry.

Malcolm Douglas’ Land Rover parked at the top of a bare Tom Dearg

Current photo of Tom Dearg showing tree growth

Tom Dearg in 2013 – covered in trees

What Tom Dearg showed was that, with the deer excluded, the old forests of Mar were perfectly capable of regenerating.
The following year Malcolm had three hectares enclosed beside the Lairig Ghru path opposite Luibeg Cottage (approximately NO 033 935).
He also had a plot erected in Glen Geusachan, where he sowed pine seeds, but this was a failure: frost destroyed most of the seedlings and the fence was wrecked by stags, apparently as they scraped the velvet off their antlers, finding the larch fence posts ideal for the job. Can’t win them all.
I’m not sure what happened with the Luibeg enclosure either. The trees currently there don’t look to be 50 years old and there is a record of roughly the same area being re-enclosed in 1981. (The 1981 fence is also away now.)

Deer fenced enclosure in Glen Derry, opposite Luibeg Cottage, 1960

The enclosure opposite Luibeg Cottage in 1960

Tree plantation at Luibeg, 2013

The same area in 2013

Malcolm eventually emigrated to New Zealand, where he continued his nature conservancy work, and experimental plots continued to be fenced off in the reserve, both in Mar Lodge Estate and in Glen Feshie.
The most obvious of these, perhaps, was the large enclosure covering the whole Luibeg Bridge area, with deer-proof gates to allow walkers and climbers free access through to Glen Dee and the Lairig. This was only removed in the most recent purge of fences in the wake of the almost complete cull of the Mar Lodge Estate deer population.
So, while many of the deer fences which have been such a prominent feature of the landscape were erected to protect Forestry Commission plantations, some of these played an important role in proving that native pinewoods could and would regenerate naturally if given the chance.
And, as I’ve stated before in this blog, that’s exactly what has been happening in Mar Lodge Estate since the National Trust has cut deer numbers to virtually nil over some areas. There are certainly those who argue that it was an extremist reaction and that a more gradual reduction in numbers to find a sustainable balance should have been undertaken. I have a degree of sympathy with those arguments – the hills seem empty without the deer – but what’s done is done and I hope that numbers will be allowed to gradually rise until that balance is found and a healthier environment is reached for all.
A graphic reminder of the bad old days came when I visited Loch Muick a couple of weekends ago. All along the Loch Muick shore were sections fenced off, signposted to indicate that this was “necessary” to allow regeneration of the native birch, rowan, holly, aspen and willow.

Estate notice explaining deer fence at Loch Muick, Cairngorms

An admission of poor estate management: having to fence off an area for regeneration

Deer fence and trees at Loch Muick, Cairngorms

Nice view, shame about the fence

The good news for Balmoral Estates is that it’ll work. The bad news for us all is that it will only work until they remove the fence. It’s time someone told Mrs Windsor that the real solution lies not in more unsightly, bird-killing deer fence, but in cutting the gross overstocking of deer which is destroying the land she claims to love.

Young tree on Carn Crom, Cairngorms

This one’s for Malcolm: a young pine growing near the summit of Creag Bad an t-Seabhaig with no need of a fence, just a few hundred feet up from where Malcolm fenced off his first experimental plot, a story coming to fruition after more than half a century

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6 Responses to Tree regeneration, a 60-year experiment

  1. Tom Cunningham says:

    Excellent Neil, a fascinating history of the Scots pine management, probably a pioneering project by Malcolm. What a living testament to his work..

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks again Neil.
    As you so rightly say the area does seem empty without the deer these days.
    Experimentation is just that. Alas in my opinion the removal of the land rover track up the east side of Glen Derry is not one experiment that is succeeding. Frankly there was nothing wrong with leaving it to grow over and yet be used for vehicle access when required up that glen.
    Everything is cyclical or so they say.

    • Can’t agree, Dave. No need for it (ATVs and sno cats can still get up if necessary) and the slimmed down version is nicer to walk on and nicer visually. The old jeep track there was quite a scar.

  3. Joe Dorward says:

    Good stuff – the squarish Luibeg wood is clearly a hand-planted plantation it’s much too uniform to be regeneration. Also, I believe the new electric fence was built to keep Mar Lodge Estate’s own deer out of their Regeneration Zone rather than keeping Mar Estate’s deer out of it

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