Carolyne Locher speaks with Steve Micklewright, CEO of Trees for Life, a conservation charity working to restore native Caledonian pine across the Scottish Highlands.

IT could be a sign of the times – public interest sparked by the climate emergency and political commitments to tree planting – or the efforts of CEO Steve Micklewright to raise the profile of Trees for Life, a conservation charity dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands with native Caledonian pine forest. Either way, with multiple references to Glen Affric in conversations, their nomination as one of four recipients of Guardian/Observer climate emergency fundraising and seeing ‘shares’ on my personal social media feeds for the five annual trainee places available, their profile has never been higher.

So, who are Trees for Life and how do they do what they do? At the start of our phone call, taken in his office in Findhorn, Steve Micklewright takes a deep breath and offers some headlines. With the help of almost 10,000 volunteers, “Trees for Life has planted 1.7 million trees, [rewilding] 4,000 ha.” That is “2,750 ha in Glen Affric. One glen over in Glenmoriston, at our model estate Dundreggan, we have rewilded 470 ha (fenced and planted), including 22.5 ha of high-altitude montane scrub (Beinn Bhan P2019) and reduced deer numbers to enable natural regeneration to begin to take place.”

Forestry Journal: Steve Micklewright, CEO, Trees for Life (picture copyright Alex Baxter).Steve Micklewright, CEO, Trees for Life (picture copyright Alex Baxter).

Trees for Life was started in 1986, following Alan Watson Featherstone’s commitment to launch a Caledonian pinewood forest (CP) restoration project to reverse centuries of decline. These forests once covered 15,000 km² of the Scottish Highlands. Glens abundant with forests of Scots pine, rowan, juniper and aspen, and bens topped with dwarf birch and willow, ecosystems and habitats humming with wildlife: black grouse, crested tits, bluethroats, capercaillie, red squirrels, beavers, wild boar, wolves and red deer.

The CP forests were first felled for fuel, and during the Highland Clearances (1750–1860) vast tracts were cleared for farming. Aside from red deer, the larger native wildlife was shot to extinction. With little remaining native habitat, smaller wildlife dispersed. Any timber remaining was used in shipbuilding or cleared by deer-stalking estates. Red deer came to symbolise the Highlands, as immortalised in the painting ‘Monarch of the Glen’ by Sir Edward Landseer (1851).

By the 1950s, only 1 per cent of a once extensive CP forest remained. In the 1990s, the (then) Forestry Commission identified 84 isolated pockets growing within a triangle between Ullapool (north), Aberdeen (east) and Loch Lomond (south). One of the best remaining examples was at Glen Affric.

Trees for Life (TFL) began by rewilding at Glen Cannich in 1989, protecting Scots pine seedlings from grazing deer with tree guards. In the early 1990s, they moved to Forestry & Land Scotland’s (FLS) Glen Affric, where fundraising paid for fencing to be built around 50 ha of ‘granny’ pines and to plant the first new trees to grow there for 200 years. “Some planting projects started in Glen Affric over 25 years ago, you would need a very good eye to see that it is not native regeneration,” says Steve.

Forestry Journal: Dundreggan Nursery (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).Dundreggan Nursery (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).

Steve joined Trees for Life in 2016. “I thought the charity had an inspiring vision which delivered in a limited way, doing practical works at Glen Affric and Dundreggan but not on a big enough scale.”

As TFL’s first CEO, Steve’s remit was to lead the charity through the next stage of development. “To restore a forest that once covered such a large area, we needed to diversify our portfolio and work more closely with other landowners and organisations to help them to think about Caledonian pine forest. As well as making sure the charity is well-run and that we have the right resources, I oversee our strategic direction and diversify projects in order to create a bigger impact.”

Answerable to a board of directors, Steve and 22 staff work within administration, fundraising, finance, conservation (including practical project work such as pinewood recovery or red squirrel translocation) and Dundreggan Estate teams. Aside from the Estate team, all are based in Findhorn.

In 2008, with public appeal donations and grants, TFL paid £1.65 million for 4,000-ha Dundreggan, an old hunting estate with plantation woods and now its model conservation estate, in order to showcase what native forest restoration is all about.

Infrastructure (for humans) is minimal: a lodge (with basic accommodation), a tree nursery, Caledonian Research Centre (processing seed and plant material), and an estate manager’s cottage. This minimalism is possibly one reason why TFL are able to build a Rewilding Centre that will most likely feel authentic.

Forestry Journal: Scots pine growing in Trees for Life’s polytunnel (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).Scots pine growing in Trees for Life’s polytunnel (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).

Rewilding is not cheap. “We say, excluding VAT, from growing to planting, to fencing and ongoing protection, it costs about £5 per tree to ensure that it gets away. Once you own the land, the highest cost is fencing – £10 per metre – to exclude the deer.” To date, 10 per cent of the estate has been fenced.

To qualify for grant-funding, Dundreggan has a 10-year woodland plan with planting and felling schedules. In 2009, works began with riparian plantings. “Between 2017 and 2019, 300 ha of lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce have been removed from a plantation area. We have to wait five years to make sure that the weevils have gone before we replant with a native mix.

“Before planting over large areas, we survey the terrain, identifying what is suitable to plant [in non-linear clusters] according to the ‘Native Woodland Model’, and try to mimic how nature works and reacts. The percentage of species planted is variable because terrain is variable. The amount of Scots pine at (low altitude) Alt Ruadh (2016–2018) was high. At high altitude, it is mostly low-growing montane specialists.”

Carn na Caorch (P2020–2022) is a significant example of high-altitude montane scrub habitat.  “At Carn na Caorch we will fence 270 ha.” There is one area of Scots pine, “the rest are mostly montane specialists; rare dwarf birch and two types of willow. This project is significant because above the natural tree line, we should have a scrubby habitat of low-growing trees where black grouse and bluethroat can live. It is missing in Scotland and we are trying to bring it back over a large area. High-altitude scrub habitat helps to lock away carbon too. How much has yet to be assessed: FLS have said ‘significant’ but we would like Forest Research to put some figures on it.”

Forestry Journal: Regeneration over time.Regeneration over time.

The tree nursery was established at Dundreggan in 2010. Each year, approximately 60,000 trees germinate and grow on in five long unheated polytunnels, before being moved to outdoor beds to harden off. “We focus on rare and specialist trees, willows which have become rare because deer love to browse them and are thus now mostly found in gorges and steep gullies where deer cannot reach them. We go out and take cuttings to grow on. Without our help, these wild populations will not recover. Scots pine is grown from locally sourced seed, reducing the risk of Dothistroma needle blight spreading into the ancient pinewoods. Aspen, the ‘panda’ of Scotland’s tree world, is grown undercover. It spreads through suckering, which introduces a problem with genetic diversity. We grow them, stress them into flowering and collect seeds to plant out.” It makes financial sense to bulk-buy birch from a commercial tree nursery.

Planting survival rates are variable and restocking occurs when necessary. “Maintenance is about keeping the fences secure and removing deer when they have breached an enclosure.” TFL has moved deer on with natural disturbance, even employing night-time bagpipe playing!

Forestry Journal:  Scots pine regenerating in Glen Affric. Scots pine regenerating in Glen Affric.

Studies indicate that upland deer densities of 4–7 per km² allow successful regeneration of birch and Scots pine (Forestry Commission publication FCIN035). “The right density is the density that enables the forest to recover. Every year, we do vegetation surveys and adjust our deer management appropriately. We have adopted a moderate approach to deer control. The neighbouring stalking landowners do not suffer and we do see regeneration because deer pressure is reduced.”

Not all rewilding is forest restoration. It is also about reintroducing key species (red squirrel, beaver, golden eagles) back to the forest. “Red squirrels should be at Dundreggan; there is plenty of native habitat. It is a bit of a mystery as to why we don’t see them. Maybe we should consider a reintroduction.”

Forestry Journal: Volunteer planting Scots pine.Volunteer planting Scots pine.

Running nearly 40 conservation weeks a year, ten volunteers per week, almost 10,000 volunteers have passed through Trees for Life’s doors, at both Glen Affric and Dundreggan. While most pay a contribution to join, “some weeks are focused on people we think could benefit, including formerly homeless people and refugees. A week’s planting in the beautiful Scottish Highlands – as long as it’s not raining – is good for one’s health and wellbeing and impacts positively on the way people think (and feel). Currently, people feel very powerless and planting a forest that will be here in 200 years is very empowering I think.”

With many volunteers wanting to stay longer, TFL introduced lottery-funded rewilding traineeships in 2018. “We recruit five trainees a year. They begin by doing a bit of everything, then focus on nursery and horticulture; deer management and stalking; forest planning, management and monitoring; or community engagement. Without each element we could not rewild. By the end, they are ready for the next step, maybe a degree, further work experience or taking a rewilding job.”

Forestry Journal: Young Scots pine planted at Dundreggan.Young Scots pine planted at Dundreggan.

TFL Woodland Services was also launched in 2018. Forester Georgie Brown, a volunteer inspired to retrain after joining a conservation week, is consulting for a dozen native woodland restoration projects on mostly privately owned land. Steve says: “We identified that no one was specifically supporting landowners who want to pursue native woodland restoration. Most want to restore the woodland for its own sake, some would like productive areas to make a small future return, possibly with birch.”

“For Woodland Trust Scotland, we will do the planning for their Ben Shieldaig Estate’s woodland plan, enabling them to secure grants. On a nearby estate, we are developing an ambitious native woodland restoration project; hundreds of hectares rather than dozens. Similarly, working with a traditional grouse moor estate client who aspires to move away from driven grouse into woodland grouse, we are helping them diversify how they approach land management.”

Scaling up the remit of what is essentially a smallish charity in the north-west of Scotland, TFL network, and work, with a range of strategic partners. They are members of Scottish Environment LINK (volunteer organisation), Scottish Land & Estates (landowners and rural businesses) and the new Scottish Rewilding Alliance (rewilding at scale). “We have good relationships with organisations with a similar remit (Woodland Trust Scotland, FLS) and try not to overlap.”

Protecting the initial 84 CP remnants identified by the Forestry Commission in the 1990s “involves working with a range of landowners (and Woodland Trust Scotland) to see how their priorities for the land can be used to try to protect the forests. Seeing what we can do together as partners is quite a different approach.”

The aim is to model forest restoration by illustrating how grants and securing income through the emerging carbon market could help a landowner’s bottom line, ensuring forest restoration really happens on the ground. “In general terms, over its lifespan one pine tree secures a tonne of carbon. Alt Ruadh (P2016–2018) has been accredited and 52,200+ tonnes of premium CP forest carbon product placed on the Carbon Registry.”

Forestry Journal: Scots pine growing at Dundreggan nursery (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).Scots pine growing at Dundreggan nursery (picture copyright Chris Aldridge).

East West Wild, a landscape-scale partnership project covering 140,000 ha and 40 landowners, is TFL’s most ambitious idea to date. “Not everyone will join the partnership, but like farm diversification a few years ago, some are willing to look at how nature recovery could drive social and economic recovery in the Highlands. A small group of stakeholders are looking at the business side of rewilding: deer management and branding of venison products; creating maximum value from timber sustainably harvested in a natural landscape; nature-based tourism around the wildlife of a restored landscape. There are plenty of good examples happening around the world. We now need it to happen in Scotland.” A socio-economic study of the project’s potential will be released in the summer.

TFL believe that rewilding and productive forestry can co-exist. “It would be good to not have polarised arguments. The Scottish Government identified a problem with future timber supply. Imports are not a good idea. There should be enough local timber to support the industry. Along with the forestry industry, we need to identify where to grow forestry plantations and those landscapes where natural woodlands are preferable.” Steve believes that lowland released from agriculture (primarily from moving towards more plant-based diets) could be suitable for plantation forestry.

The impacts of rewilding at Dundreggan are just starting to be visible and neighbouring deer-stalking estates have not been aggrieved. “They were worried that reducing the number of deer would reduce their ability to stalk and make an income. They acknowledge that we have been respectful despite having very different objectives.”

Profile-raising and increasing the scale of projects costs money. TFL will receive a quarter of the funds raised through the Guardian/Observer some time this year. Social media (mainly Facebook) has encouraged significant increases in direct donations, especially during the last two years. “Upgrading our website and using videos – forest restoration is very visual – has also played a part.” Stats show that more people finish the process of setting up a (virtual) grove. “We then plant those trees in the area being worked on.

“Carn na Caorch is our planting focus for the next few years. Approximately half the trees grown annually in the nursery will be planted up there by volunteers.” Eventually, a 4,000 ha Caledonian Forest will provide the backdrop for the world’s first Rewilding Centre, set to open in spring 2022.

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