For those of you who think that the John Muir Trust (JMT) are probably doing the right thing in Assynt, and that some of the commentary around the argument is too provocative, this is an article that is going to cause you some problems.
I have worked as a woodland advisor for many years, and have had an interest in native trees since I was a student in the 1980’s, long before it was fashionable. I have had to regenerate woodlands through deer control in the past, and have advised many others on how to try and do this, including giving a presentation to the SGA AGM a few years ago. It is much easier in some places than others, and if we are serious about achieving an outcome on any realistic timescale, for climate, biodiversity or any other reason, then we have to acknowledge this. I don’t like fences because they are expensive to erect and maintain, and a lot of them do not remain effective for long, and if there is an alternative, you are usually better going for that. Indeed, properly implemented, effective deer control will give you a more extensive and more natural woodland than you can possibly ever design yourself. However, where your woodland habitat network is very small, you will almost certainly have to fence your woodlands to build up that critical area of trees that will give more options to generations in the future. These decisions should not be based on ideology, which is always damaging if followed without some level of self awareness. The critical mind must always be flexible and willing to act on both evidence and experience.
Regenerating forests requires a balance between the trees and threats to their growth. Deer are one of those threats, so reducing their numbers is one side of the equation. But the other side of the equation is important too, and actually much more so. Pioneer tree species can produce millions of seeds in their lifetime, and the reason they do this is that the vast majority of them will never survive. That is natural. Deer are just one of many sources of loss, including insects, fungi, competition from vegetation, fire, desiccation, waterlogging, and a whole host of micro- sites that are just not suitable for one reason or another. The most common and important herbivore of Scots Pine seedlings in the Highlands is not deer, but slugs, typically killing around 90 percent of seedlings. What this means in practice is that whatever number of trees it is that you want, you need to generate ten times that number to make allowances for this one source of loss alone.
To allow for the full suite of losses that you are going to have to face, it is likely that you are going to have to produce many hundreds of times the number of seedlings that you actually need to produce your woodland.
If you accept that you will suffer losses to these other factors, you have to accept that you will lose some trees to deer as well. You can reduce this loss by reducing the deer, but you can stack the odds in your favour by trying to produce so much regeneration that they struggle to keep up with it.
It follows from this that where you have extensive seed sources of the tree species that you want, that regenerating woodlands is much easier. If seedlings can get easy access to mineral soils, they grow much more quickly, and the quicker they grow, the less time they spend at a vulnerable size, and their prospects are much better. In Scotland, native woodlands on the eastern side of the country tend to get away relatively easily if they get half a chance, but even in the west, where you have very extensive woodland networks, such as in parts of Argyll or Dumfries & Galloway, you can make woodland regeneration work as an effective and practical proposition.
The north west is different. Native woodland fragments tend to be much smaller, with just little splinters left in the landscape, often unconnected to one another. Ground conditions are also more likely to be working against regeneration, especially if peat growth is taking you further and further away from the mineral soil that you need for rapid growth, or if compacted drainage gives you waterlogged soils which tree roots struggle to penetrate. Ground vegetation in the west can often be very difficult for birch and willow seeds to penetrate as well, especially if all grazing is removed. We see this in old fenced enclosures, where the seedlings present at enclosure might get away, but few new ones can get through the vegetation. And this is an important part of the “balance” on the Assynt peninsula. With few livestock now around, we need deer to be able to scarify the ground around our native woodlands. Too few and a new generation of seedlings will not germinate, too many and those seedlings will be eaten. Sometimes you don’t get it right, and things go backwards a bit, and you then have to re-set. There is no book telling people how to do this.
Trees get away when you can generate so much regeneration that deer struggle to keep up with it, and that tends to be in and around existing woodlands, where the seed fall is highest. Other factors such as dry heather habitats and south facing slopes are important as well, more so than many people appreciate. Away from such areas, achieving regeneration is much more difficult, and in many areas it is not really that feasible. In such areas, almost total eradication of deer is required. People don’t like this word, but it is the reality that we have to face, and we have to be honest about that in these areas. This is not the case where you have extensive seed sources and good growing conditions. In these circumstances, you can have your cake and eat it, within reason, although you will have sacrifices to make in the early years.
When JMT were applying for their night shooting and out of season (OOS) authorizations, they included some photographs to demonstrate that damage was taking place.
The title photo of this article is supposed to show the kind of damage that deer are doing, that woodland on Quinag is dying out, and the urgency to do something about this is now. Most people will look at this photograph, and instinctively agree with this.
But that is not what I see.
The holly tree in this picture is almost on the point of death, and will not have too many more years to go. There is nothing that can be done to save it now. It is the only tree in view. It is probably not that old, given its dimensions. There are a lot of signs of habitation in that area. It is conceivable that this tree germinated around the time of the Clearances or just before, close to a building or wall, and the people who lived there may well have protected it from livestock or deer in the landscape, enough to let it get away. At some point, the people will have disappeared, and the tree grew on, but grazing around it didn’t give any more a chance, and now the tree is old and almost dead.
It is the only tree in view now, but it may well have been the only tree in view when it germinated as well. Everything about this photo suggests to me that there has not been a woodland in this spot for many, many centuries, and this has not been something that has happened relatively recently.
Native woodland in Scotland has been contracting for 5-6000 years. Part of the reason has been man induced factors such as over felling, fire and overgrazing, but the other factor has been a long term change in climate to cooler, moister conditions which have favoured peatland production to native woodland. Much of this reduction in woodland took place while the human population was still fairly modest. It took place well before wolves and other predators became extinct, well before sheep came to the Highlands in big numbers, and well before “sporting estates”. There is evidence of this in the pollen record and old maps, and from a variety of other accounts. The ecologist James Fenton, who I think we should start to pay more attention to, has pointed out that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the areas largely devoid of people were also largely devoid of trees, and extensive woodland areas tended to have a significant human population nearby, not the other way around. This suggests that people were protecting and cultivating their woods, and that it was this intervention and the value they placed in them that ensured their survival. It wasn’t ”natural processes”
We have tripled our woodland cover in Scotland in the last 100 years. Much of that area has been with exotic conifers, but we have done it because we seen the value in having more forests, and we knew from the outset that we would have to intervene heavily to be able to get trees to grow in areas from which they had long disappeared. Over that century, we have lost native woodlands in some areas, despite the net increase in overall area, but we have seen an extension of native woods in others. Many Highland views have trees in them today that were not present before.
The area in the photo will have been denuded of trees by a mixture of all these factors. Even very light grazing today will be enough to keep it that way, because the number of seedlings present will be so small, but there is another reason too.
Many people will say this landscape is overgrazed, and some people will say things like it is “chewed down to the ground”, or words to that effect. But the ground here is actually in fairly good condition. It is well vegetated, there are no obvious signs of erosion, and the heather and grasses are a reasonable length, verging on the quite deep in places. Only a very small proportion of this vegetation is removed by deer each year, possibly only 1-2 percent. The landscape you see here is not overgrazed, it is actually grotesquely undergrazed, and the consequence of that is that dead organic matter will slowly contribute to the peatland depth, burying the mineral soils more deeply, and making tree growth more difficult. There is a natural dynamic within this landscape that is much more powerful than the grazing animals that are more obvious. It has taken me a long time to see this, but once you do, you look at things in a different way.
If you are interested in climate change and think that we need to manage our landscapes to help with our efforts to counter that, then you have to accept that areas such as this are absorbing carbon already. We know that because we can see that peat is accumulating. It has to be because so much of this vegetation is not actually being eaten. There is a pressure not to acknowledge this, because green finance requires habitats to be in poor condition, otherwise they have no value.
We are beginning to see now that native woodlands planted on carbon rich soils do not provide a positive carbon balance for many decades. If you plant trees by ground cultivations, you expose organic matter to the air and stimulate loss, but tree roots themselves stimulate activity in the soil that mobilizes carbon, and results in its loss to the atmosphere. What is gained above ground can be lost below ground, and more.
So woodland can worsen our climate conundrum. If this is all we are interested in, then we may be disappointed by the results. However, if we want woodland habitats for other reasons, including biodiversity, amenity, landscape and overall conservation, then we should try and do that. As a woodland advisor, I am all in favour of more trees.
The landscape in this photo is not going to regenerate with trees no matter how many deer are killed. If we want to establish trees here, we need to intervene in a very significant way, cultivating and planting, and almost certainly protecting the new woodland with fences to give them the best chance. This may harm our carbon balance in the short term, but we can deliver these other outcomes, as well as production too, which is important if we are to sustain human populations. Properly done, this can be more sustainable than we have seen in the past.
If your vision is to have native woodland around the lower slopes of Quinag, you could probably establish a thousand hectares or so, as the Assynt crofters did on their land in the 1990’s, with a scheme in every township. Those woods are now well established, resilient against deer, and showing themselves well in the landscape. In such a situation, if you want woodland, you have to intervene and provide it, as people in rural Scotland have known for centuries.
If seed sources were more common here, and the mineral soil more readily available, we would get the kind of response to deer control that you see in the Cairngorms and elsewhere. But we don’t have that here now, and we have to recognize that this is the case. We are a thousand years too late, maybe a lot more than that. Conditions within the landscape have changed, and this makes everything more difficult. The vegetation itself is working against us, and in ways that are very difficult to overcome. It is not just deer that are keeping this landscape open now. There are these other factors at play too.
If anyone is downhearted reading this, there is regenerating woodland in Assynt, and there is a modest amount showing promise on Quinag as well.
The photograph here is taken from the JMT website, among text describing how badly degraded the mountain is. This is the boundary burn between JMT Quinag and Ardvar Estate, who are doing reasonably well on the regeneration front, and managing deer in a more targeted way to achieve this.
You can see the young birch trees getting away in the heather. If JMT want to regenerate trees, they need to concentrate their efforts here and they will make some progress. Compare this photo to the previous one. Which one looks more promising to you?
That holly tree is going to die alone and we cannot save it now. We could intervene and establish new trees around it, but that will take more than deer control. Anyone with experience and professional integrity will tell you that.
JMT may or may not do this. The evidence is that they probably wont. In the meantime, it is important that they are not allowed to undermine the efforts of others who have 95 percent of the woodland resource, who have agreed contracts with Scottish Forestry for managing this, and who can evidence progress, both through fencing and by deer control over many years.
We will defend the progress and the approach used to achieve this. The people defending their deer are the ones who have produced most trees as well, counter intuitive as that might be for some people to understand.
If you are young and idealistic, but are struggling with some of the ideas put forwards here, don’t worry about it. It has taken me 35 years to properly understand what is going on myself.
Victor Clements is a native woodland adviser working in Highland Perthshire. He is secretary to a number of deer management groups and has worked extensively on deer management plans throughout Scotland over the past ten years, and on native woodland schemes for long before that. He provides advice to Ardvar Estate and, on occasion, the Assynt Crofters' Trust.