conservation environment

Restoring Scotland’s ancient forest

Having read a little about rewilding in the last few weeks, I’ve been looking into charities and groups specialising in that area. An obvious place to start is the Scottish re-forestation charity Trees for Life, which George Monbiot describes as Britain’s most ambitious rewilding project.

The Caledonian forest once covered most of the Highlands. It gave the country its name in Roman times, Caledonia, which means ‘wooded heights’. That’s not a name visitors to the Highlands would choose today. Centuries of deforestation have taken their toll. First the trees were cut for fuel, then for timber to ship to England, and the bears, wolves and beavers disappeared with the trees. Sheep farming and deer stalking now keep the hills bare, and only tiny little sections of forest remain – about 1% of the original forest cover. The Wikipedia page for the Caledonian forest actually refers to it as ‘the former boreal forest of Scotland’.

temperate rainforestTrees for Life believe that the ancient temperate rainforest can be saved, that there is just enough of this ice age ecological heritage left to build from – but time is short. Sheep and deer roam in the woodlands and destroy saplings, so there’s an absence of young trees. Some places haven’t had any new trees for 150 years, and when an old tree falls, there’s nothing to take its place. The forest shrinks, and Trees for Life argue that within a generation, there won’t be enough left to work with.

For 25 years this year, Trees for Life have been working to protect and expand the Caledonian forest. They vision is to create a 1,000 square mile forest near Loch Ness. So far they have planted a million trees, working almost entirely with volunteers.

One of the things I find interesting about this sort of forest rewilding effort is that it is so low key in the environmental movement. A lot of energy is invested in stopping deforestation in the Amazon or in Indonesia, and rightly so, but there is no similar drive at home. Britain cleared its forests centuries ago, and there is relatively little interest in putting them back. Given the importance of forests in an age of climate change, you’d have thought reforestation could be a real priority.

Reforestation projects like Trees for Life are a major opportunity to lead by example, and we’d look a less hypocritical when we encourage developing countries to protect their forests. It shouldn’t be particularly controversial either.


  1. What a great idea. Your forests will absorbe carbon, just like Amazon forests. In New England most of our old growth forest was cut before 1900, much of it before the Civil War. With the drop off in farming much of it has grown back.
    Not every project needs a celebrity spokesperson. Local ownership of a project like this may be more effective and enduring.

    1. Yes, and there is quite widespread support for local tree planting schemes. I don’t think we need big celebrity backed projects, but it would be nice to know there are more re-forestation projects out there and to hear more about it from the big environmental agencies.

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