Gleann Afraig and ‘Trees for Life’

by matthay44

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Last week, I finally got round to doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was refreshing. It was a week of tree planting in the remote western end of Glen Affric (gaelic Gleann Afraig), in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. The experience was organised by my longtime favourite charity ‘Trees for Life‘, and I was lucky enough to be joined by my mum for the adventure.

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It’s me Mam!

Glen Affric is unusual amongst Scottish valleys because it has retained a large chunk of native woodland, a fragment of the so-called ‘Caledonian Forest’ that once covered much of the Highlands. On the southern shores of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, the glen’s largest loch, mature stands of Scots Pine still carpet the hillside, interspersed with birch trees, aspen, willow, alder and even some sessile oak. Because of this, Affric contrasts starkly with almost every other glen in Scotland. It looks nothing like the traditional, heavily romanticised ideal of the Highlands as an empty, barren and hostile landscape but instead glows a rich green, with a view of trees in some places stretching to the horizon. It is widely accepted to be Scotland’s most beautiful glen, not in spite of its forests, but because of them.

To see Glen Affric is to understand two things: that Scotland’s Highlands support an outpost of the boreal forest – that great belt of high latitude woodland that stretches across the northern portion of our planet, from Norway to Canada – and that the Highlands have been ecologically ravaged on a scale that is hard to comprehend.

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Coire Lochan surrounded by native pinewoods

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Abhainn Afraig (The River Affric)

Since the 1980s, ‘Trees for Life’ have focused on trying to restore the Caledonian Forest to 1% of its former range. This may sound like a paltry target but, given the context of land ownership in the Highlands, believe me when I say that it is extremely ambitious.

It made sense for them to start their work in Glen Affric, given the sizeable fragment of Caledonian Forest that still existed there. Ever since their inception they have been working to weed out non-native trees and reforest the remote upper reaches of the glen.

A big boost to their project came in 2016, when they renovated the bothy ‘Athnamulloch‘, a former crofter’s house that sits in the hinterland halfway up the glen, just to the west of Loch Affric itself. Kitting it out with suitably ‘eco’ cons (solar panels, a compost loo, etc.) ‘Trees for Life’ transformed the cottage into a comfortable and environmentally-sound base for their volunteers, whilst also allowing the place to retain the ‘basic-living’ feel that is such a part of any bothy experience.

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Athnamulloch, nestled on the floodplain of the River Affric

Last week, Mum and I were two of the 12 volunteers who piled into Athnamulloch’s cosy, three-room interior for a week’s tree planting. We soon got used to the creaky bunk-beds, the strictly vegetarian cuisine and the very loud snoring of our fellows, becoming immensely fond of our wee abode.

It is an absolutely wonderful place, nestled on the River Affric’s floodplain, with its own little burn flowing gently beside of the bothy, which we used for water and for washing in (very cold). Whenever we stepped outside, the glen reverberated with the constant roar of wind and water. Overnight, if skies were clear, the stars were unbelievable. There is no light pollution in this part of the Highlands really, and some nights even the subtle colours of the milky way were visible. When the moon was out it was so bright that you could do away with torches.

My favourite thing about the bothy, though, was its collection of books. The shelves sported everything from the latest coffee-table reads on rewilding Scotland to thick, dusty tomes about mosses and lichen. It also had two copies of my favourite AA ‘Book of British Birds’, which was published sometime in the 1980s and is beautifully illustrated with painted impressions of our islands’ avifauna.

One evening, during the middle of the week, I counted no fewer than 8 of us sitting in the main room in front of the fire, reading. There wasn’t a smartphone in sight! A complete lack of mobile signal or wifi forced us to check out of the digital world and the result, for me at least, was relief, pure and simple.

During the days we’d wander (read wade) across boggy ground to our planting sites further up the glen. These journeys were often fairly arduous, taking over an hour as we carried a day’s food and water as well as spades, planting bags and sometimes saplings too. On our way, we would trudge past other fragments of forest, planted by previous volunteers, that are now starting to colonise the southern side of the valley. We’d then spend the rest of the day planting baby birch and willow trees, installing our saplings in a haphazard fashion across a section of hillside within a fenced exclosure.

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Young trees are now establishing themselves along the southern side of the glen

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Our motley crew

These exclosures, unfortunately, are utterly essential to the trees’ survival. The Scottish Highlands are overrun with red deer, a product of us exterminating their natural predators and of sporting estates bolstering their numbers artificially (so that more and more wealthy clients can come and shoot themselves a stag). Beautiful as these herbivores are individually, collectively they have become an ecological disaster; grazing every sapling to the ground and preventing Scotland’s forests from regenerating.

For years, environmentalists have found themselves in the absurd situation of calling for a mass cull of red deer, to reduce their densities down to 2-4 animals per square kilometre. If grazing pressures can be reduced to this level, trees can (and will) regenerate, recolonising the many hills and glens from which they’ve been extirpated.

Unfortunately, the balance of power in the Highlands still lies with the landowners and most of them are firmly wedded to traditional ‘sporting’ ideologies of land management. They refuse to reduce deer numbers significantly and will confront any neighbouring estates who undertake drastic culls. The result is that tax payers have to fund the creation of miles and miles of fencing. Anywhere we want trees to grow they have to be protected; isolated from the very animals they would originally have sheltered.

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A fence, separating two different visions of the Highlands

Walking alongside the exclosures, it was astonishing to witness the differences that now exist on either side of the fences. The western reaches of Glen Affric have basically become a natural experiment in land use, with the increasingly wooded southern side (owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by ‘Trees for Life’) contrasting ever more starkly with the barren ground on the northern side (owned and managed by the North Affric estate – a traditional, deer-stalking outfit).

Inside the fences, hundreds of saplings are pushing up through the heather. These trees are mixture of volunteer-planted and self-sown, from seeds that have naturally landed in the exclosure and were able to germinate safe from the biting mouths of deer. But it isn’t just the trees that have benefitted from protection. The many grasses, shrubs and heather that are growing inside the fence are all far larger and bushier than their cousins on the outside.  The floral diversity too, is visibly greater. All these healthy plants in turn are attracting birds like coal tits and, when we were there, migrating thrushes like fieldfare and redwing.

Even the land itself benefits. Peat hags, the ‘open sores’ that scar much of the rest of the glen are not evident inside the deer fencing. Vegetation has recolonised the bare soil, stabilising it and protecting it from future erosion.

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Peat hags, like open sores, scar the land in the bottom of many Highland glens

Midweek, we were all given the day off, to relax and explore the glen with its many surrounding hills. I tried my best to take it easy with a late start and several cups of coffee, but, after poking my head outside, decided that the light was too beautiful for me to remain indoors. A patchwork of showers was hurrying down the glen, splintering the sunlight into shards that picked out individual crags and corries with a rich, warm, autumn light. Perhaps inevitably, I soon found myself climbing a nearby mountain called Mam Sodhail, ‘the Hill of the Burns’.

I can confirm that its name was well chosen. For the entirety of my walk, the ground was wet underfoot, visibly flowing in places as the land struggled to shed the water from four weeks of near-constant rain.

Despite damp boots, it was a wonderful day out. It was Highland Scotland at its elemental best; tumbling streams and squally winds. All around the corries, the roars of rutting stags reverberated. As showers blew through, the hillsides were adorned with brief rainbows and in the steep gorges and ravines, safe from the mouths of deer, stands of birch, rowan and aspen burned red and gold, their berried branches thronging with noisy flocks of fieldfares, which had just arrived from Scandinavia for the winter.

Up on the summit ridge the wind was fierce and the showers were falling as snow. In between, the views were dynamic; a constantly shifting array of mountain peaks poked through the mist and cloud. The feel of the place was rugged, raw and empty – in some ways the very essence of wild. But the more I looked, the more unhappy I became. I glanced back down into Glen Affric, where the tiny fragments of forest were visible. Everywhere else the scenery was scarred and denuded. It felt like I was looking out across the skeleton of a landscape. The bare mountains were its bones. The peat hags and barren earth its rotting flesh.

When you’re standing in Glen Affric the trees seem plentiful and the woodlands endless. But now, looking down from a mountain, the real balance became clear to me. ‘Trees for Life’s wonderful work, over three whole decades, has created a tiny oasis of hope; an example of what a restored Highland landscape could look like. But 99.9% of the land remains unchanged, kept in a perpetual state of ruin so that rich people can shoot animals for fun.

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A Forest Graveyard: The stumps of former pine trees often litter exposed bogs and peat hags in the Highlands, hinting at the forests that once stood here.

Planting trees the following day helped my bitterness to subside slightly. It was uplifting to see so many little Scots Pine poking out of the ground, flying in the face of an old gille’s insistence that trees were not able to grow in this glen. For sure the climate is harsh, and even after 20 years the tallest pines in the exclosure were only 3 metres tall. But those same trees are now producing cones and starting to seed the next generation (without human help).

I was inspired by my fellow volunteers too. They had all given up their time, money and energy to help restore the Caledonian Forest. Instead of treating themselves to a holiday abroad or a quiet few days at home they had decided to come to the wild northwest of Scotland and stand in a bog all day planting trees. Their commitment to the cause was both reassuring and refreshing. In a world awash with vitriol, it was a delight to be surrounded by people who just wanted to get on with the job.

I was particular struck by the words of one of our group, during our final evening in the bothy. Reflecting on the week he broke down in tears, explaining how important ‘Trees for Life’s work was for him. This was his 14th week of volunteering with the charity. He will have single-handedly planted nearly a thousand trees in that time.

He noted how inspiring it was that the founder of Trees for Life – just one person – had decided to dedicate their life to restoring Scotland’s forests and now, 30 years later, an entire glen is full of trees because of them. He confessed to his near constant feelings of despair regarding climate change and the continued degradation of our planet. How one often seems completely powerless, as an individual, to take on the forces that prevent radical change. This, he explained, was why planting trees in Glen Affric was so important. It represented an antidote to his lack of agency. A morsel of hope to counter the despair.

To him, Glen Affric was proof that one person can successfully challenge the status quo and make a tangible difference to the world around them.

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Baby pines, springing up through the heather

I remain less optimistic. More combative in my stance. Glen Affric is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, but it is just one glen amongst many. If we are to have a hope of preserving the Highlands’ ecology in the face of climate change then we will need restoration on a different scale; one that is an order of magnitude greater than present.

For now though, I feel grateful to have enjoyed such a fulfilling week in a remote and beautiful part of Scotland. New Age as it sounds, planting trees is definitely good for the soul. It is about as gratifying as manual labour can be. Aldo Leopold hit on the reason why, in his now very famous A Sand County Almanac. He noted that, “acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.”

I look forward to further acts of creation in the years to come.