Conventional wisdom will tell you that, however much you may like to, you just can’t grow trees on Shetland. But recent efforts have gone some way to bust that old myth. 

THE harsh conditions the landscape of Shetland endures, of strong winds – predominately salt-laden – and poor soil, have made it hard for the land to be used for anything other than the grazing of animals. Because of this, it is recorded there are only around 400 different plant species that survive there, with a distinct lack of trees.

Historically, the trees which have grown on Shetland have been restricted to isolated areas where they could not be impacted by grazing animals.

These facts have led to Shetland, in a similar way to Orkney, being described as treeless.

Despite this, some native trees have continued to grow, such as hazel, rowan and crab apples. Archaeologists have been able to reveal that in the past Shetland enjoyed other tree species, including willow, owny birch, and alder. 

Forestry Journal: New tree plantings have continued at Michaelswood.New tree plantings have continued at Michaelswood. (Image: FJ)

While animals, such as sheep, with their actions, helped to stop the natural regeneration of woodlands, it was also the need to cut down trees for firewood that added to their demise.

As a result, there are no recorded examples of ancient woodland on Shetland. Kergord Woods, at Weisdale, is the oldest and largest area of woodland on the island. This wood, or forest as some describe it, is in fact a series of different small areas of tree planting.

Tree planting here started back in the 20th century, when the estate owner, Dr George Munro, carried out around 3.6 hectares of shelterbelt planting during the period between 1913 and 1920.

He planted, in the main, Sitka spruce and Japanese larch, but these were accompanied by some plantings of silver fir, sycamore, rowan, downy birch, and alder. A feature of the plantings carried out was that they were mixed species with alternating rows of these different tree species. Weisdale is a sheltered valley, quite far from the open seas and with better soil than most areas of Shetland, so the trees did grow. But, unfortunately, strong winds and gales have meant many were lost.

While there are several plantations of trees at Kergord, the one that attracts most visitors is called Lindsay Lee. This is located a bit off the main road and access is gained by walking up a track through a field. Some of the oldest plantings at Kergord were made here. So people who make the trek up are rewarded by finding some really good examples of the spruce, larch and fir trees planted there, although some are now windblown.

Forestry Journal: The dinosaur trail at Michaelswood.The dinosaur trail at Michaelswood. (Image: FJ)

Kergord Wood is one of several managed by the Shetland Amenity Trust, founded in 1985 and long active in woodland creation and management. The Trust has carried out this work through a woodlands section, which has the aims of the conservation, propagation and the re-establishing of native tree species on the island. 

There has also been an aim to create an arboretum on Shetland to promote interest in trees and to allow the trust to participate in global conservation projects and strategies.

It has used a number of grant schemes to help to support its aims, including Forestry Commission woodland grant schemes, Shetland Island Council’s National Heritage grant scheme, and the Millennium Forest for Scotland Trust initiative, which is Lottery funded.

It employs teams of staff involved in planting and maintenance of trees at its existing sites and new ones. 

The trust is involved in woodlands at Burn of Valayre, Burn of Brae, Loch of Voe, Clickimin, and Sullom. Burn of Valayre is a one-ha woodland, which has been developed within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) off the B9076 road to Sullom Voe, soon after leaving Brae and close by to the Voxter Outdoor Centre. This woodland was planted with only native tree species of alder, aspen, downy birch, willow, and rowan.

For visitors there is an off-road area to park your car and a sign-posted gate that allows access to the woodland and a circular path to walk around it. On this site are two relict examples of rowan, dog rose and honeysuckle left over from a time when there would have been a lot more of them growing in this area. 

It is probably because the Burn of Valayre flows fast through a steep-sided gorge that these trees have been able to grow, clinging onto these steep sides.

Loch of Voe is a site that was first planted in the mid 1980s. Subsequently many more plantings have taken place. The woods here, still in Central Mainland, have been planted as shelterbelts of Sitka, alder, Alaskan felt-leaf willow and Japanese larch. There have also been plantings of black cottonwood, downy birch, common alder, and Shetland aspen and willow.

There are paths and some boardwalks to allow access to the site, and with the loch it is a popular place visited by Shetlanders. These woods are to be found just before Voe on the main A970 road, which runs north to south down the spine of Shetland. The original plantings here were as part of the Millennium Forest for Scotland project, which aimed to restore large parts of Scotland’s forests and to help link local communities with their surrounding environment, including the trees.

Burn of Brae or Brae Community Woodland is another example of a wood that was planted under this scheme. The plantings here were a mixture of conifers and mixed broadleaves. Because of its location between Brae school and Moorfield Estate and the fact that it has hardcore paths affording accessibility to wheelchair users, as well as a bridge over the burn, and with multiple access routes, it is popular with locals. 

Another community woodland is at Clickimin in Lerwick. Plantings here, in 2001, were carried out along the west and north shores of the Loch of Clickimin. A lot of Icelandic birch was planted alongside alder and native Shetland willow, as well as other native trees. Clickimin and the loch is also home to one of Shetland’s main tourist attractions, an Iron Age broch, and the Clickimin Leisure Centre, which is the main sports and leisure venue for Shetlanders.

The final wood, which the Shetland Amenity Trust has been involved with, is at Sullom, which is in North Mainland. This wood started as an experimental shelterbelt plant of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine in 1953. These trees, like the ones at Kergord, suffered from progressive losses due to windblow during the 1980s. This wood is to be found by driving north on the A970 from Brae and then taking the road to the village of Sullom.

During 1995–96, the Shetland Amenity Trust cleared most of these windblown trees and started a replanting programme of mixed broadleaved trees. The tree species involved included aspen, downy birch, Japanese larch, juniper, and rowan. Such has been the success of these plantings that some thinning work has had to be carried out. This is a long-strip plantation and as it grows next to a house called Gaza it has been nicknamed by some the ‘Gaza Strip’.

East Burns Woods, also in North Mainland, is another plantation wood, but this wood is quite young in age, and over recent years has been growing and developing nicely. The trees here are a mixture of native and non-native. They have been planted alongside the A970 and are at the head of Ronas Voe. Unlike some of the other woods, the access around the wood here is more difficult and only possible by following narrow grass trails.

Returning to Central Mainland, there are two other woods, at Voxter Centre, north of Brae, which consists of a plantation of Sitka spruce and Norway spruce. Given this is a plantation woodland, it becomes much more difficult as you head further into the trees.

This is because they become much thicker and closer together in growth. Sandgarth wood is near Voe, and it is a mixture of broadleaves and shrubs, but is more attractive for visitors because of its benches and a summerhouse, which is to be found at the top of the wood.

There is small woodland on Unst, at Halligarth House, of mixed deciduous species, but two of perhaps the most interesting woods on Shetland are to be found on West Mainland. Starting with Michaelswood, at the village of Aith, where the trees were planted in memory of a young man who died from cancer aged 21. Plantings started in 1996 and there are over 60 different types of trees to be found there.

There is so much more at Michaelswood and that is why it attracts visitors. Information boards are to be found, a dinosaur trail, which involves a series of dinosaur models situated amongst the trees, as well as a philosophers trail. There is a children’s play area, Captain Blackbeard’s pirate ship, a bird hide and indoor and outdoor picnic areas, as well as seating and benches. The wood is accessible to all through a wonderful arch with a wooden sign carrying the wood’s name. This was carved from a piece of a Swedish whitebeam tree grown on Shetland.

Forestry Journal: East Burn Woods is a relatively new plantation.East Burn Woods is a relatively new plantation. (Image: FJ)

Michaelswood is around five ha in size. Apart from the fact that this woodland has been created in memory of Michael Ferrie and is an obvious labour of love by his family, its great appeal is that you are never sure what you are going to find around the corner.

There is always something to stop you in your tracks.

In addition, with so many different tree species on show, it is a real tree paradise in every sense of the word. There are around 10,000 trees on the site, with 2,000 of these only just having been planted in June 2022. The species planted then included Swedish whitebeam, Scottish oak, hybrid larch, aspen, and red alder. The funding for the trees, which were planted by volunteers, came from wind farm developer SSE.

It is perhaps not surprising that Michaelswood is award winning. In 2019, the woodland won two national awards from an independent woodland charity. Michaelswood was awarded the finest small community woodland award and the best winning project overall. The judges of Scotland’s Finest Woods Awards were impressed by the fact that the woodland has been developed in Shetland.

Da Gairdins, at Sand, in West Mainland, is another example of a woodland and garden that has been developed privately. Alan and Ruby Inkster established this 25-ha site in 1997, and it is now a registered charity, with the aim of maintaining the site for the good of the local environment. Some describe it as the best-kept secret in Shetland. A third of the site is given over to woodland, and there are a number of woodland walks.

Forestry Journal: Kergord is a series of plantations that form Shetland’s oldest woodland.Kergord is a series of plantations that form Shetland’s oldest woodland. (Image: FJ)

This area of Shetland benefits from a mildly less harsh climate, due to the North Atlantic Drift, which comes up the west coast of Scotland. Planting of conifer trees to form a shelterbelt has allowed the two woodland gardens on the site to be protected. The walks through them reveal grasslands, wildflower meadows, masses of rhododendrons, ponds and a notable number of Southern Hemisphere plants, including New Zealand flax, as well as a collection of many different species of willow.

These woodlands show that trees have been growing in a place where many said they could not. There are also many examples of trees growing in many private gardens and villages in Shetland. This has been helped by the fact that trees have become more readily available for the public to buy in garden centres. 

Without doubt, though, the work of the Shetland Amenity Trust cannot be underestimated in helping the recent growth in tree plantings. Council and housing associations have also supported the initiatives to plant more trees, as have farmers and crofters.

Private householders have seen the benefits of tree plantings both for their ornamental value, but also, as landowners, crofters and farmers have found, to provide shelterbelts to stop the fierce winds from blowing right through their properties and gardens. The Trust’s Woodlands Horticultural Unit and Nursery is based at North Stanley Hill, Lerwick, and there are stock beds and a nursery area in Weisdale. These aim to propagate plants for research, community projects, and wholesale selling.

Forestry Journal: Brae Community Woodland is a tree-planting scheme in the heart of the town.Brae Community Woodland is a tree-planting scheme in the heart of the town. (Image: FJ)

The Shetland Amenity Trust also carries out trials and has recently been conducting one for short-rotation coppice willow, to assess whether it can be grown sustainably for wood fuel. This has involved introducing two Alaskan willow tree species not yet grown in the UK. 

Finally, with the trust’s long-term aim of trying to establish an arboretum in Shetland, this could see trees and shrubs from around the world being planted there. The arrival of this would surely put to rest the myth that you cannot grow trees on Shetland!