Ken Thomson

Quoich to Beinn a’ Bhuird © Mike Duguid

The question mark in the above title is hardly needed, since enthusiasm for more trees, in the Cairngorms and elsewhere, is almost ubiquitous. At national level, the Scottish Government has recently announced more ambitious national plans, with the annual national planting target rising to 15,000 ha by the mid-2020s. For native woodlands, the aims are: “to increase the amount in good condition; to create 3,000-5,000 hectares per year, and to restore approximately 10,000 ha of new native woodland into satisfactory condition in partnership with private woodland owners through Deer Management Plans” (Scotland's Forestry Strategy 2019–2029)

The Cairngorms National Park Forest Strategy 2018 aims at “Improving the condition of existing woodland and creating a more extensive, connected forest network …, including restoring the largely missing montane woodland habitat”. The five-year target for woodland expansion in the Park is 5,000 ha (the same as that for peatland restoration), against an estimated 2015 tree cover of 62,300 ha, and a target woodland area of 200,000 ha (about the same as the area of moorland currently managed for grouse shooting, or about 40% of the Park’s total area). With a 200-year time horizon, the Cairngorms Connect project aims to “restore woodland habitats and processes, including removal of non-native conifers from nearly 7,000 ha of forest and restructuring of over 1,700 ha of Scots pine plantation”, and the River Dee Trust has announced plans to plant a million native trees in the Cairngorms, to “recreate areas of landscape that have been lost for 2000 years”.

Map 3 in the Strategy shows areas “preferred”, “potential (with known sensitivities)”, and “potential montane woodlands” extending into almost all the Cairngorms glens, with only the higher areas and some wetlands etc shown as “non-target areas”. These “sensitivities” may be any (or several) of ten different types, including “key landscape views”, “peatlands/carbon storage” and “protected open moorland”. Higher grant payments are available in these areas, e.g. £3,600 per ha for Native Scots Pine.

It is thus clear that, if current intentions are translated into reality, the Cairngorms in 50 and 200 years’ time will look very different from now. Except on the plateaux and summits where convexity obscures the lower slopes, walkers will be faced with almost continuous tree landscape, albeit with some open areas where ground conditions prevent planting or regeneration, or where roads or water bodies offer more distant views.

Does this matter? Will it be an improvement? Some would say that part of the attraction of the Cairngorms is the large areas of open moorland, with their prospects of heather, cotton grass and deer grass leading the eye across many miles to well-remembered mountain profiles. Others will welcome a different and perhaps more varied experience when walking the glens.

The most common arguments for increasing woodland cover in the Cairngorms are the same as those applied elsewhere:

Each of these general arguments should be examined not only in its own terms but also in the context of the particular topography, wildlife and land uses of the Cairngorms, and indeed glen by glen, and site by site. Which types of trees are to be planted or are to be encouraged by regeneration, and how (e.g. by fencing, deer culling, ground preparation), are obviously also important. This short article summarises material collected in a longer (20-page) paper prepared in 2020 (see NEMT website), which considers information relating to the glens of the higher Cairngorms – roughly Wild Land Area 15. This excludes the main part of Glenmore with its roads and ski infrastructure, as well as lower Glen Feshie as far as Glenfeshie Lodge, Glen Tromie as far as Gaick Lodge, and the relative lowlands around Braemar, Blair Atholl, etc. The Lochnagar and Laggan areas are also excluded, though similar considerations may well apply to their higher glens. In many cases, the argument for more trees in this area takes on a special character, while for others, the advantages seem weak, or counter-arguments appear stronger. The following paragraphs summarise some of the conclusions in the longer paper:

Commercial Arguments: Given relatively remote locations, with often difficult access, the financial returns from tree planting – especially for Scots pine and birch plantations – are long-term and risky, even assuming high timber prices and lower farm subsidies. It is likely that commercial incentives to plant (regeneration is unlikely to allow commercially attractive silviculture) will be much stronger in “easier” areas. This will be reinforced by falling returns from agriculture as food production subsidies are reduced, and climate-change measures aim at reducing cattle and sheep numbers.

Economic Arguments: Beyond the level of the individual business, local employment is of some but not major concern in the Upper Deeside, Speyside  and Glengarry areas, and forest work is often carried out by contractors based many miles away. The significance of local softwood production in substituting for imports is negligible.

Biological Arguments: More tree cover would almost certainly improve the diversity of habitats and their associated species, especially if this is achieved via natural regeneration. There would be somewhat less habitat for eagles, grouse, and some other moorland species, but these would certainly not disappear. Species likely to benefit from more woodland – especially if naturally regenerated - include the pine martin, red squirrel, capercaillie, black grouse, siskin, long-eared owl, redwing, bell heather, blueberry, twinflower, and several types of insect, moss and lichen.

Hydrological Arguments: Water off-flows and quality (e.g. for salmon, and pearl mussels) would almost certainly be improved by more tree cover, especially if naturally regenerated.

Climate Change Arguments: Recent research suggests that no clear carbon-capture benefits from tree planting once soil effects (e.g. peat disturbance) and timber usage (if any) are taken into account. In addition, other aspects, such as tree disease, and the wider implications of a “net zero” economy, need to be considered.

Landscape Arguments: From a purely scenic point of view, the effects of increased woodland cover are probably slightly negative, as trees obstruct longer-range views, and create a more enclosed and less “wild” landscape. On the other hand, varied and patchy woodlands, with care taken over species and viewpoints, would create a more varied experience.

Luibeg © Mike Duguid

Recreational Arguments: A more diverse environment could be a positive benefit, e.g. from increased shelter and more varied wildlife, though with some obstruction both physical (fencing) and visual (views, as well as fencing itself). There are also implications for particular activities such as orienteering and deer shooting, let alone grouse shooting through loss of open land and increased predation.

Cultural Arguments: There is considerable scope for controversy over the (re)creation and ”wilding” of historic/pre-historic land cover. For example, the extent of the much-quoted Ancient Caledonian Forest is disputed, and our future climate, if wetter, windier and warmer, may not permit its re-establishment anyway. Arguments over long-lost mammals such as the wolf and lynx are too well known to repeat here. There would be some loss – at least visually – of built heritage, as building sites, dykes, etc. disappeared under trees.

The eventual outcome in terms of changing Cairngorms landscapes will depend on many private, governmental and agency decisions over the wide range of issues outlined above. It seems clear that “natural” regeneration is to be preferred to planting from many points of view, even if that takes longer to establish tree cover over a given area. Some hillwalkers will look forward to less monotonous routes into and out of the higher hills: consider the two ends of the Lairig Ghru! Others will regret the passing of long-valued scenery, whether in Glen Tilt or up the Avon.

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