The Environment

Lockdown and Lynx | Rewilding In The Scottish Highlands

We speak to Doug Gilbert from Trees for Life about locking down in a wild forest & how important it is to restore native woodland to Scottish uplands

Pictured (above): Glen Affric // Featured Image Credit: Grant Willoughby 

In the middle of March 2020, while the rest of us were wondering if we had enough black beans or whether the neck gaiter we used for snowboarding would work at the local Co-op, Doug Gilbert was in the Scottish Highlands, with a more pressing concern. He had 100,000 saplings that he needed to get in the ground quickly or risk losing the lot.

“Nature wasn’t in lockdown… We stayed in isolation growing forest for the future”

 This wasn’t just any old tree planting mission, identikit rows of the same fast-growing species to tick off a target. These young trees were a mix of diverse native woodland species, including Scots pine, rowan, juniper, hazel, holly and oak, as well as rare mountain types such as dwarf birch and woolly willow. Saplings that Doug and his team on the Dundreggan Estate, where he is operations manager for Trees for Life, had been nurturing carefully for years.

Just sourcing the seeds in the first place is a lot of work. The goal is to use species that once thrived here, so they spend a lot of time in autumn collecting berries and seeds to grow in their tree nursery. One mission, for a seed called rock whitebeam, involved a boat expedition to the east side of Loch Ness and a lot of scrambling, and perhaps even monster dodging, to retrieve it. They also had other rare trees including Aspen, which were germinating and in need of constant care for future tree planting seasons.

Pictured: Scots pine regenerating in Glen Africc. Credit: Trees For Life
Pictured: Birch tree being planted. Credit: Trees For Life

Doug gave his staff the choice. They could return home and lockdown with their families or stay on the 10,000-acre Caledonian forest site with him and his wife and keep planting and tending. Two of the young trainees went home but the rest stayed, leaving six of them in total, alone in the wild forest until the country reopened in June. Their only contact was with the occasional supermarket delivery driver.

“We’re currently in a biodiversity crisis”

“Nature wasn’t in lockdown,” says Doug. “We had all these precious trees coming into leaf, and we needed to take care of them. Without regular watering, they would have all died.  We stayed in isolation growing forest for the future.”

Trees for Life is a charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands. They do this by planting native trees and encouraging wildlife and fungi to prosper, and Dundreggan is their flagship site. Located in Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness, it’s a biodiversity hotspot which is home to over 4,000 plant and animal species, including some which had never been seen in the UK before, and others that were presumed extinct in Scotland.

Pictured: The Trees For Life volunteers. Credit: Stephen Couling
Credit: Trees For Life
Credit: Trees For Life

After the last ice age, Scotland was covered in woodland. “When the Romans came to Scotland they came as far north as they dared, which was not very far,” says Doug, “They looked across up to the north and described a huge wood, Silver Caledonia.”

But the effects of sheep and deer grazing in particular, over millennia, has been catastrophic for the trees. Now just 5% of Scottish woodland is native, and there are huge areas of upland where there are literally no trees at all. “It’s not just that there is a scattering, there are none,” says Doug, “And that’s an entirely false and denuded landscape, which we need to reverse.”

We know how essential forests are at a planetary level for their capacity to suck up carbon and help mitigate the climate crisis, but I ask Doug why they’re so important locally? “When there’s flooding if you look up in the catchment of where that water is coming from, you’ll find a landscape without trees, rain falling on moorland and grazing pasture, where run off is 50 times greater than in a woodland environment. Woods act like sponges and help water get into the ground and they capture an awful lot of rain by themselves.”

“Nature didn’t give a hoot about the virus. It just carried on doing its thing”

The Forestry Commission has planted lots of Sitka spruce, but it isn’t native nor is it great for soil or wildlife; monoculture is rarely good for biodiversity. “We’re currently in a biodiversity crisis which nothing is being done about,” says Doug. “Restoring native woodland supports varied and interesting habitats and provides a rich biodiversity, which makes the whole forest healthier, more resilient and robust.”

But for Doug there is also a deeper point to it all, which is that humans love trees. “It’s hardwired into us that we’re savannah creatures, but we want to be in woodlands. That’s where people go for walks, it inspires artwork. There is massive cultural importance in woodland and we’re missing lots of them from our landscapes. So many people in the country have never experienced a real native woodland.”

The biggest challenge Trees for Life face in their efforts to rewild the forest at Dundreggan is the roe deer, who love to eat the younger trees. “The species that have thrived here are mostly silver and downy birch, as these are the least palatable species to deer,” he says.  

Credit: Trees For Life

Midway through our zoom chat we’re interrupted by the site’s deer stalker who comes in for chat. Scotland has the largest population of roe deer in Europe and managing the deer population at Dundreggan is both difficult and costly. One idea being mooted across the Highlands at the moment by charities including Trees for Life is the reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx.

I ask Doug how that would help? “One of the missing parts of our ecosystem across the whole of the UK is apex predators. Other than humans, the biggest land predator we’ve got is a fox, which is a bit disappointing since we used to have bears, wolves and lynx.”

“Other than humans, the biggest land predator we’ve got is a fox… we used to have bears, wolves and lynx”

He tells me reintroducing lynx is not just about the deer they would actually kill, which would probably only be one a week per lynx. It’s about the effect the cats, which are about the size of a labrador, would have on the ecology of the whole system from the fear factor they would bring. This would change how the deer behave, which would help the plants that the deer usually browse on to grow.

Research from the US shows that when they brought wolves back to Yellowstone National Park there was a cascade effect which benefited the whole ecosystem. “It restored woodland near rivers, as the deer no longer felt safe grazing there, which had a positive effect on stream beds and water quality, which in turn had an effect on salmon and other fish populations.”

Pictured: The Glen Affric landscape. Credit: Chris Aldridge

I ask Doug if lynx would be dangerous to people hillwalking in the Highlands, but he doesn’t believe so. “Lynx are ambush predators, who are quite secretive and don’t usually operate outside woodland. They have small populations of lynx in France, Switzerland and Scandinavia, but no one ever sees them.”

There is quite a bit of resistance to bringing back lynx coming from many quarters, not just farmers, who worry about their sheep, but Doug says: “The last top predator we lost was the wolf in the 17th century, so people don’t really understand what they are and how they operate. They see a big carnivore think that’s going to eat me, but that isn’t what happens. As an example, there are no recorded wolf attacks in Europe for the past 500 years.”

“The pressure from the outside world disappeared”

Aside from dealing with deer, Trees for Life don’t plan to manage their woodland in any specific way, instead adopting a more natural, rewilding ethos. “We want to give it a big start and let it do whatever it wants to do,” says Doug. They plan to open a Rewilding Visitor Centre to the public in 2022 so people can learn more about this.

Even though Doug thought he knew Dundreggan pretty well, the experience of holing up there during lockdown still brought fresh insight. “There was a very strong feeling that we were isolated. We usually have heaps of volunteers passing through, but nobody was coming to visit. And the road to Skye, which isn’t very busy anyway, went totally quiet. It was amazing actually, the pressure from the outside world disappeared and we felt officially in this bubble of just growing trees and keeping ourselves mentally healthy.”

The group kept a loose eye on the virus developments but avoided reading too much news and Doug doesn’t have a tv anyway, preferring to read books. When we spoke, he was midway through Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, a book about underground fungal networks and he delights in telling me about a tropical fungus that has evolved to control the minds of ants and make them its slaves.

Pictured: Scots pines growing at Dundreggan. Credit: Chris Aldridge

Doug felt their time in lockdown brought them into nature even more than usual and gave them more time to notice what was going on. His wife did the same walk up a hill every day and documented the colour changes of the vegetation and how the plant and flower structures shifted subtly over time. They found rare orchids, noticed new and fresh rooting behaviour from the feral pigs, and sometimes saw owls, though the highlight from those days was undoubtedly finding the first golden eagle chick on the site for over 40 years. “That whole day is burnt in my memory,” says Doug.

The team also had their own Olympics with potato sack races and cycling to make up for the actual Games being cancelled, which was a great morale booster. Are they closer as a group now? “We’re like a little team anyway but I do think there was an extra bond.”

“I learnt a lot,” says Doug, “And one thing that struck us all the time was that nature didn’t give a hoot about the virus. It just carried on doing its thing, which brought it home that this is a human problem.”

“We got more of a feeling of how vulnerable we are and how reducing our contact with nature is a big problem for us as a species.” By restoring native woodland in the Scottish Highlands and educating visitors on the benefits of natural forest at their Rewilding Centre, Trees for Life, at least, are doing their best to help turn that around.

Credit: Trees For Life
Credit: Trees For Life
Credit: Trees For Life


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