A five-year project to fell, restore and protect woodlands in Almondell and Calderwood Country Park is finally bearing fruit. James Hendrie went along to find out more. 

ALMONDELL and Calderwood Country Park, in West Lothian, is located in a valley the River Almond runs through. The park is made up of the lands of two old estates.

Calderwood, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with ancient semi-natural woodland, and once belonged to the Lords of Torphichen, while Almondell was previously the ancestral seat of the Earls of Buchan and is semi-rural in nature. In the late 18th century, Almondell House was built and ‘policy’ type woods were planted to accompany it.

This saw species including beech, lime, horse chestnut, and specimen conifers such as giant redwood, planted, along with interesting shrubs and rhododendrons in large numbers. Further plantings of broadleaves were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, along what is known as the South Drive in the park. It is thought that the broadleaves planted on the steep eastern bank of the Almond, and much of the more recently planted woods along the South Drive, were felled during WWII when Britain was cut off from its usual timber supplies.

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These areas were replanted with faster-growing larch. Given the history of this tree planting at Almondell a good number of the trees are more than 200 years old, but in some cases they are now in decline.

Losing trees from the park through disease, storm damage, or removal, as they decline and potentially become a danger if not addressed, could have an overall detrimental impact on the park and its woodlands.

West Lothian Council decided that proactive management was required. Tree and woodland officer Jane Begg initially drew up the Almondell Woodland Management Plan in 2017, after much consultation and debate with the Friends of Almondell and Calderwood, council colleagues, wider community, and Scottish Forestry. Jane also set about gaining a Woodlands in and Around Town (WIAT) grant to support the costs of the works. She has been working on implementing the plan since.

As a local resident of the Calders area and having walked in Almondell during the times that the works were being carried out I was aware of what was happening. At the end of last year, I arranged to meet up with Jane in the park to find out more about the whole project. Jane explained that she had been in her post with West Lothian Council for 11 years.

Beecraigs Country Park, the council’s 360-hectare park in the Bathgate Hills, with 270 ha of woodland, attractions and a million visitors a year, has been prioritised, especially as it had suffered much devastation in January 2012’s storms. As less attention became needed there, Jane was able to move onto Almondell, and the plan after this is finally completed is to progress on to others of the 1,000 ha of mainly urban woods owned by the council, including the Calderwood element of the Almondell and Calderwood Country Park.

“After the initial tree safety survey was carried out there were a number of large trees that were identified as needing to come out. This, though, was only ever going to be reactive work and further actions were needed to come up with an overall action plan for the site. We secured a Scottish Forestry planning grant to develop a much more comprehensive plan for the park. We also worked closely with Stuart Appleyard, who is the chairperson of the Friends of Almondell and Calderwood Park, and others in the group. In particular, Sue Bedford-Visser who, as their communications person, kept the ‘Friends’ and the other 2,000 ‘followers’ of their Facebook page updated.”

Forestry Journal: South Wood where all the larch trees were removed and the paths were upgraded.South Wood where all the larch trees were removed and the paths were upgraded.

The plan suggested a number of actions. In the Larch Wood, which is on the park’s boundary with the new Calderwood housing development, all the larch trees were to be felled. Some thinning was to take place here of the other mainly broadleaved trees. The larch trees on the banks above the River Almond were also to be removed.

In terms of the mixed broadleaved woods, which are to be found on either side of the North Drive in the park, the plan was to retain the large, mature beech trees unless they had succumbed to root-rotting fungi and were a risk. 

Other wooded areas in the park were to be thinned, with the aim being to allow the stronger ones left to thrive and flourish. Alongside there was the intention to deal with the large numbers of Rhododendron ponticum, which had been under-planted in many of the woodland areas of Almondell Park. 

Hence, the desire to remove a lot of this species of rhododendron and to allow young trees to be planted in its place. The less invasive species of rhododendrons around the former mansion site were retained as they, along with the banks of daffodils, have been appreciated by locals from the time of the Erskine family. They still, to this day, continue to be a favourite sight.

Finally, after the initial planning, ash dieback (previously known as Chalara) was identified in summer 2019 as affecting many of the park’s semi-mature ash trees. Once again, as a lot were on or near footpaths, the decision was taken to remove those trees showing significant symptoms. 

There were exceptions; a number of mature ash trees, which showed only slight symptoms, were retained to be monitored, while many within the ancient and semi-natural area above the River Almond, away from paths, were left to collapse naturally.

Finally, the plan foresaw the fact that there would be disruption in the park, a need to keep visitors informed, and safety would be paramount.

“Keeping the public informed was something that we knew was going to be really important in implementing the plan. Almondell is a much loved and well-used park with the local people having been used to unfettered access even when the estate was in private ownership. “Enlisting the Friends’ support and trying to keep them fully informed and then together communicating with the wider community was vital. There was also the misconception that the trees were being removed because of the adjacent housing development, which needed to be addressed as well.

“It was important to explain fully what was being done via social media, park notices or even myself and rangers being visible in the park talking to users while the work was taking place. Add to all of this that the park is set in a river valley with steep sides on either side of the River Almond, has poor access routes, and had a number of wildlife considerations and then it becomes understandable as to why the plan implementation was challenging.”

Forestry Journal: Jane and Stuart.Jane and Stuart.

There was a consultation process carried out by the council and this included presentations to the Friends of Almondell and Calderwood Country Park, local community councils and the public at large. The visitor centre in the park had a series of information boards set up explaining the plan and there were notices displayed right across the park itself.

“One of the key points was to get across that the trees that were being removed were actually because they needed to be taken out for good reason. Unfortunately, some members of the public thought they were being cut down unnecessarily. These reasons, whether it be for safety, or because of likely disease, or windblown, or in a location where future access was going to be very limited by the approaching new development, had to be explained. People also had to understand that in some cases it was just to allow other trees to thrive and to establish the next generation of woodland.

“The other big thing was to make the point that new trees were being replanted. This meant that the site would continue to sequester CO2. Most folk I talk to do not seem to realise this and think it is like deforestation, for agriculture, in the Amazon! It is hard for people to understand that, although we would normally favour a continuous-cover approach to woodland management, in some circumstances felling and replanting with more stable and resilient species will actually help to keep the woodlands of the park thriving and vibrant. In doing so, we’re making the park a resource for the public to be able to enjoy well into the future.”

This was a time-consuming task as, with much of the park area being accessed on a daily basis, there was a lot of public interest and visibility of the work being carried out, not to mention keeping everyone safe. In all, the process for getting the grants in place for the project and the consultation phase took a long period. This could have been speeded up if the full attention of Jane and other staff involved was able to be concentrated on this one project but, unfortunately, that is never the way with these things.

There was also the need to inform the contractors who were to work on the site of the importance of the public access. Also, to point out that their involvement in the process could allow them to be ambassadors for the plan as well and talk to members of the public if necessary. 

“We managed to gain access through the land of a local farmer, which was great, but with a lot of the land surrounding the park being built on there would be no guarantee that this route would be useable in the future. This again validated the rationale that we had to get all of the trees dealt with that were at risk of disease and removed from this area of the park at the one time. For in all probability this was potentially going to be the last time when the opportunity was there to do on a relatively straightforward basis.”

Forestry Journal: Two Rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparea) have been planted to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.Two Rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparea) have been planted to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.

Perhaps not surprisingly the ‘hardest sell’, in Jane’s words, was the work that was carried out along the South Drive. This is a well-used entry and exit route to the park from East Calder. It seemed very difficult for people to comprehend that the two were not linked in anyway. The fact that a lot of Rhododendron ponticum removal was carried out in this area added to the questioning of the plan by the members of the public who were visiting the park.

“Part of the way I found was to highlight at every opportunity the type of replanting that was going to take place, once the felling and removal phase of the plan had been achieved. There was also work planned on a number of the paths and routes through the park, trying to make them more accessible with upgrades and by removing steps and re-routing them in places. Sadly, we got a mixed response to our plans, I guess because at that time all the public could see was the removal of trees and rhododendron.”

A start was made on dealing with some of the smaller trees and the rhododendron, but then another issue, this time on the wildlife side, came up, namely badgers. There were known active setts on the site but as soon as the rhododendron was cleared they started to explore these areas, excavating new “holes” just beside proposed tree and path operations. Work was stopped in these areas until a badger expert could confirm that they were just exploring and they were not new.

Bat surveys were required to check out some of the bigger trees with features indicating the potential for roosts. One of the contractor’s climbers had previously worked for the ecology company used by the council and so was able to undertake the inspections under their supervision. Work continued after the shutdown for Christmas and from January to March 2020; the plan was being followed reasonably well. Then the news came from Boris Johnson that the country was going to go into lockdown because of COVID-19.

While work carried on for a short period after that to ensure the park was being left safe and to complete blocks of felling, there then followed a complete stop to operations.
The council had previously decided not to work over the school holidays when the park is at its busiest. Therefore, it was into the autumn and winter of 2020 before Jane was able to start work again on the plan and get contractors back on site. Perhaps only to be expected, this was not the best time of the year for weather conditions. This period of 2020 was especially wet and there was a lot of stormy weather and poor conditions for long periods, which made working difficult.

Forestry Journal: Paths have been upgraded as part of the woodland plan. This is the Larch Wood path.Paths have been upgraded as part of the woodland plan. This is the Larch Wood path.

“It can be a tough task working in the woods in Scotland during that time period of any year. Also, Almondell with its steepness of terrain added massively to the issues with the health and safety of both the contractor teams and also the public. There were times when we simply just could not work on these areas of the park, and that in turn pushed the programme back time wise. Then, as we moved a year on into the programme, we found ourselves back full circle to having to be aware of the wildlife constraints as well.”

The other impact of the work that was being carried out was the increased numbers of the public that started to use the park during and after the lockdown as the country was being encouraged by the government to take exercise locally. This had the double impact of more people in and around the work areas or trying to access paths that were closed. Here, a banksman, with a stop-go system, was used to allow controlled access on this main active travel route. This was always going to be tricky but even more so with the annual visitor numbers doubling over 2020–21.

During 2021, it became clearer to those visiting the park what had been achieved, with the felling and removal of the trees. Once into the autumn months there was the start of the replanting programme and supporters, including many of the Friends group, and several of those who were unhappy to see the felling, came along and volunteered to help plant the next generation of trees. In November, to mark Almondell and Calderwood’s 50th year since becoming a country park, a special planting event took place. This involved 80 local schoolchildren and saw 400 trees planted in South Drive Wood on October 22, 2021. Over the weekend 1,000 trees were planted.

Council leader, councillor Lawrence Fitzpatrick, assisted with the planting of two specimen rowans in the park. These were the first of many, which it is hoped will be planted by the council and other organisations and individuals across West Lothian, as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy initiative to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.

“The weekend was a great success and wasn’t just centred on the tree planting. Keith Threadgall of Keith Threadgall Sawmill Services was present with his mobile sawmill, milling some of the trees that had been felled into way-marker posts and fencing to be used in the park.

“While Johnny Stableford, of Chainsaw Carving Scotland, demonstrated chainsaw carving, and Jean Nairn of Woodland Breathing led taster sessions in ‘forest bathing’. Heritage walks and scavenger hunts were organised by rangers and The Friends, along with games to educate folk in respectful access to the countryside in a fun way. These events were designed to engage with local people and park users.”

The implementation of the plan has taken over three years. Now this tree-planting phase has started it will see 8,000 new trees planted in the park. On the site of the Larch Wood, native broadleaf species, including aspen, alder, oak, and birch, will be planted, with the existing willow and birch regenerating and new plantings of rowan, holly, and wild cherry, which will be good for the bird population of the park.

Forestry Journal: Councillor Fitzpatrick and helpers at the tree-planting event.Councillor Fitzpatrick and helpers at the tree-planting event.

Along the South Drive, the replanting will consist of pine and mixed broadleaf species to replicate what broadly was removed. A significant number of individual ornamental trees will also be planted along the drive to add seasonal interest and colour to the area. 

Stuart, from  Friends of Almondell and Calderwood, said: “Although emotions ran high as the Almondell community watched our beautiful woodland being felled, it was really pleasing to see the Friends group, park visitors and neighbours come together to support the replanting of thousands of trees to help secure the park environment for future generations.”