Only a few tattered scraps of woodland in the Cairngorms provide evidence that a vast forest once covered the Scottish Highlands and much of the rest of the nation. This vast arboreal canopy provided homes for wolves, lynx, elks and many other species.
Land clearances for farming, and felling trees for timber, destroyed most of that habitat hundreds of years ago, leaving only a few disconnected fragments of land to provide shelter for dwindling numbers of animals.
But conservationists believe they may soon be able to restore a substantial chunk of this lost landscape and bring Caledonia’s beleaguered forest back to some of its ancient glory. A £23m Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP) has selected the remains of the Caledonian Forest to be the focus of a key restoration project – along with seven other major regeneration schemes – to restore Europe’s most threatened environments.
“The aim of the Scottish project is to connect up the fragments of Caledonian Forest with land that is no longer degraded – as it is at present – so that threatened species can communicate and move around,” said Jeremy Roberts, of the RSPB, one of the major groups involved in the Cairngorms Connect project.
“We are also going to provide restored habitats for threatened species that include rare sphagnum mosses, sundews, dragonflies and damson flies. It is going to be the biggest habitat restoration project in Britain. We will be working on more than 600 square kilometres of land.”
Apart from the money donated by the ELP, which is backed by Arcadia, a charitable organisation established by billionaire philanthropists Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing, other backers of Cairngorms Connect will provide further inputs of cash.
“About £9m will be provided for this renovation work in total,” said Roberts. The other backers include the RSPB, Forestry Enterprise Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Wildland Limited, a private conservation organisation set up by the Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen.
The Caledonian Forest was given its name by Pliny the Elder, who noted that Roman armies found it difficult to travel beyond the “silva caledonia” that then covered much of the north of Britain. Over the centuries, it was eroded by farming as well as by sheep and deer that ate young shoots and stopped native trees – mainly the Scots pine – from re-growing. Then in the 20th century, dense plantations of non-native trees such as cypress, Norway and spruce pines were planted in vast, uniform blocks, creating inaccessible barriers for wildlife. In the end, only a few scraps of the old Caledonian Forest were able to hang on in the most rocky and inaccessible of places.
It will be the task of Cairngorms Connect to find ways to open up the landscape to allow its native plants and trees to return in sufficient numbers. One priority will be to cull numbers of red deer to stop them eating shoots of Scots pine and other important native plants.
“We will also block the ditches in the drained peatlands so that their water levels are restored and they return to bogland,” said Chris Donald, operations manager for Scottish Natural Heritage. “Non-native plants will be removed. We will be creating space for native animals and plants to move back into their former territory.”
For example, the Cairngorms Connect area has half of all the nation’s population of lekking capercaillie. These distinctive large birds are now at real risk of extinction. One of the aims of the scheme will be to provide safer habitats for them.
Other bird species targeted as potential beneficiaries include white-tailed eagles, crossbills, dotterel, and ptarmigan. Similarly, rare insects that might find sanctuary include pine hoverflies, aspen hoverflies, narrow-headed ants and shining guest ants, while mammals could include pine martens.
“The crucial point about all these projects is that they are big. They aim at making major changes to landscapes, not little patches of habitat,” said John Lawton, who chaired the ELP programme. “The Cairngorms Connect project covers 600 sq km of land, for example, and is one of the largest, in area, in our programme.”
Other schemes backed by the ELP – which is managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – include a Summit to Sea project to re-establish a stretch of wildland from the top of Wales’s Pumlumon massif, down through wooded valleys to the Dyfi Estuary and out into Cardigan Bay. Another will target Polesia, a vast region in the heart of Europe straddling the borders of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia that is home to bison, bears, wolves and lynx, but is now the centre of unsustainable hunting, mining and logging.
“We are going to restore major areas of degraded land across Europe and connect places where habitats have been fragmented to recreate some of Europe’s most important natural landscapes,” said Lawton. “The crucial point is that these are intended to be long-term, long-lasting projects.”