When I started Highland Titles in 2006, it was with a view to fund the planting of Scottish trees in Scotland. Years of government grants have expanded the number of exotic trees at the expense of native trees. Unfortunately most softwoods, planted at the densities desired by commercial forestry, provide nothing of value to any other animals or plants. A Sitka plantation is a sterile desert as far as Scottish wildlife is concerned.
But what to plant and where? The first question that we faced was what trees to plant and by that I mean not just what species, but where did the seeds come from?
It is important to use local stock for planting native species. Genetic adaptation to environmental factors has developed over time making it important to plant trees grown from locally sourced seeds. Even more important is to avoid imported trees, which are often available at a discount, but which can bring into the region pests and diseases that have no resistance in the local tree stock. An example of this is Ash Dieback – also known as Chalara dieback of ash. This is a disease of ash trees caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. (The fungus was previously called Chalara fraxinea, hence the name of the disease.
Since we planted our first trees in 2007, we have relied upon the professionalism of a local tree nursery, Taynuilt Trees. They are a small family-run nursery in Taynuilt, Argyll just a few miles from our Duror nature reserve. Taynuilt Trees specialise in tree species native to North Argyll. All their stock is traditionally grown in the open ground from seed they collect ourselves in the surrounding woods using a traditional rotational growing system. We will doubtless continue to make use of Taynuilt Trees, but this year we plan to create our own tree nursery to supplement Taynuilt stock – using seeds collected in our own woods at Duror and where we can get permission, surrounding native woods. We plan to collect seeds from at least 20-30 well dispersed parent trees.
Beavers are a native British species which were hunted to extinction for their meat, pelts and scent glands. The beaver pelt was valued for the quality of the fur. The fur pelts were used in three ways. The full pelt (fur and skin), leather or suede (the skin with all fur removed), and felts (removing the fur from the pelt, and processing it with heat and pressure to form a piece of pliable material). Due to the strength and malleability of beaver felt, it has long been used to make hats. The beaver was extinct in England and Wales by the 12th Century, but populations in Scotland held on until the 16th Century.
Not unreasonably, we wish to see them back living in their former range. Beaver are a ‘key-stone’ species that are fundamental to an ecosystem. Beavers are one of the few animals that actually modify the environment (humans are another) to suit their own purposes. In the process, they create standing water and marsh that benefits many other species. They also create coppice and clearings in woodland thus providing a habitat for many other animals and plants.
Wetland areas and coppice must currently be maintained artificially, at a cost to the public. Beaver damming activity has also been observed to filter pollutants out of the water. Wetlands are not only one of the more valuable and fragile ecosystems, but they can also act to reduce flooding, a very topical subject in Britain today. After heavy rainfall, wetland areas and flood plains act as a sponge, releasing excess water slowly, preventing sudden rises in river levels. They are part of our natural heritage, and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to restore them to their natural range as soon as we can.
Over the last decade, two populations of beavers have been introduced into Scotland. The official one is the Knapdale beaver trial in Argyll where 16 were released between 2009 and 2011 under license by the Scottish Government. The project is run in partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and hosts Forestry Commission Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) coordinate the independent scientific monitoring being carried out. The trial is now complete and the project has gone quiet. Nothing has been published on their website since 2015. The unofficial reintroduction is on the River Tay and is not part of any official reintroduction. this population of beavers, due to unauthorised releases or escapes from local collections, appears to be thriving and has grown to around 150 to 200 individuals.
Alan Watson Featherstone, director of Trees for Life’s (which is supported by Highland Titles), has said: “The beaver deserves to be welcomed back to Scotland with open arms. These remarkable ecosystem engineers can transform the health of our rivers and forest ecosystems, and could benefit communities through an estimated £2m tourism revenue annually. Reintroducing beavers to Scotland would be the right thing to do and a historic leap forwards for rewilding – the restoration of our damaged ecosystems.” I agree with him.
Now that wild beavers are once more residents of Scotland, it is vital that they are given the status of resident, native Scottish mammals, to protect them from landowners who are currently free to kill them.
The then Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Aileen McLeod told BBC Scotland: “The minister will be taking time to consider the issue carefully and listen to the views of stakeholders before making a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland”. That is politician-speak for “We don’t really care and have no plans to do anything about it”. Aileen McLeod has been replaced now by Roseanna Cunningham, who previously held the post in 2010/11 and is remembered for having authorised the trapping of a young beaver on the River Ericht. This beaver subsequently died in Edinburgh zoo, apparently from the stress of capture. It is well known that beavers do not react well to trapping or to being separated from their family units. The return of Roseanna Cunningham to the politician with the power of life and death over our beavers is not reassuring.
The SNH report to Scottish Ministers can be viewed here:
Scottish Wild Beaver Group Website: http://scottishwildbeavers.org.uk/
The re-introduction of the lynx to Britain creeps slowly closer. This nice piece in the Geogrphical quotes Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Lynx conservation Trust and good friend, announces that there are two sites shortlisted for a pilot release of ten individuals in Aberdeenshire and Northumberland. The actual site to be used may be revealed as soon as July. ‘That’s when it gets really exciting,’ he says . ‘We will get to talk with the people who would actually be living alongside these amazing animals.’
More memorable is the quote from the Scottish Crofting Federation chair, Fiona Mandeville, who says ‘the most threatened species in the Highlands is the hill sheep and any threat to their viability must be resisted.’ I have rarely heard a statement less true. The removal of the feather-bedded hill sheep from our uplands is long overdue.
One of the nicest things about being me is meeting people that I would never have met in my previous life in academia. On the whole, I prefer to chat with people who love wildlife rather than people who want to create new medicines. They are simply more interesting IMHO.
I have just spent a few days with a couple of filmmakers who came to Scotland to see how we are doing conservation here, Highland Titles fashion. In return they introduced me to a quite extraordinary project underway in Holland – Oostvaardersplassen.
The Oostvaardersplassen is almost 15,000 acres of publicly owned land just north of Amsterdam, Holland. The land was reclaimed from the sea 50 years ago for industrial development. However the development never took place and the site was left to become a natural wetland area.
This was promptly colonised by greylag geese, whose grazing behavior kept the developing grassland open for other bird species. By 1983 the Oostvaardersplassen had been designated as a nature reserve. The site management team, including the ecologist Frans Vera, introduced herds of horses, cattle and red deer to diversify the ‘naturalistic grazing’ performed by the geese. These animals gradually ‘dedomesticated’, developing behaviours and creating ecologies that are claimed to be analogous with Europe at the end of the Pleistocene.
Vera suggests that during the early post-glacial, large herbivores such as wild horses, deer, bison an cattle (aurochs) had played a vital role in maintaining a mosaic of open grassland, regenerating scrub and forested groves; the so-called ‘wood-pasture’. These large herbivores determined and controlled primeval forest structure and composition, which is in contrast to the high-forest hypothesis, which assumes that forest structure influenced herbivore abundance.
Vera and his colleagues used Oostvaardersplassen to test this hypothesis. The land had no history as it was all literally made from the sea bed with dikes, pumps and diggers. As the site is contained by a fence, access can be controlled. The tarpan and aurochs are extinct, but Konik ponies and Heck cattle are able to act as functional equivalents, occupying a similar ecological niche. The only native large herbivores now missing from Oostvaardersplassen are the elk, the wild boar and the bison (wisent). They have managed to create a “Serengeti-like” landscape: a type of habitat unknown to Europe since humans abandoned their hunter gatherer lifestyle and started farming.
The cattle, deer and horses breed freely in the Oostvaardersplassen and, as in Scotland, in the absence of natural predators the rangers have to cull the animals that are unlikely to survive. About half the population dies in this way giving the vegetation some chance to recover. As with the position in Scotland, these is great reluctance to reintroduce the missing predators, but I am optimistic that they will return one day.