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15 Février 2014

Concerted action will secure future of Scotland's national tree

ROBERT MYLES

Digital Journal (Royaume-Uni) [Chronique]

Forres - Amid much fanfare the native Scots pine was declared Scotland's national tree, end January, but a leading conservation charity is calling for concerted action to ensure the iconic species has a secure future.

The Trees for Life charity, which played a pivotal role in the campaign leading to the Scottish Parliament naming the Scots pine as Scotland's National Tree on Jan. 30, warns that higher priority must be given to the conservation of Scotland's woodlands if the accolade awarded to the Scots Pine, which once covered much of Scotland's hills and glens, is to be anything more than symbolic.

The Scots pine — pinus sylvestris — once ranged across north-western Europe, from Portugal to the British Isles and eastwards into Scandinavia and Siberia. Its coverage migrated north as the polar ice sheet from the last Ice Age retreated back to the Arctic around 8,000 years ago.

As the ice retreated and temperatures warmed, so the Scots pine disappeared from most of the British Isles, except Scotland and a small area of northern England, around 5,500 years ago. Pockets still remain in Spain and Portugal so that, now, the habitat of the Scots Pine, the only tree named after Scotland, traces a wide arc on the periphery of western and northern Europe, up beyond the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia and eastwards through the Siberian tundra as far as the Okhotsk Sea.
Scotland's hunter-gatherers of five millennia or so ago would have wandered a landscape very different from today's Scotland.
As Scotland's national anthem goes, "the hills are bare now," although often, these days, the rambler on Scottish hills may be faced with a dark, impenetrable barrier of fast-growing non-indigenous Norway spruce whose properties seemed such a good idea when timber was in short supply after the major wars of the 20th century.
But ancient Scotland's earliest nomads wandered through a much prettier picture; their world teemed with wildlife under the abundant arboreal canopy of what is now Scotland's national tree.
The Scots pine is the largest and longest-lived tree in the Caledonian Forest which once carpeted much of Scotland. Pinus sylvestris, once a key part of Scotland's forest ecosystems, grows to well over 30 meters in height. Many other species depend on the Scots pine. It provides a habitat for a range of wildlife including red squirrels, capercaillie and crossbills. The Scots pine's large canopy also provides perfect nesting sites for ospreys as well as shelter for deer and pine martens. The shady forest floor provided ideal conditions for many native plant species such as twinflower, one-flowered wintergreen and blaeberries. The Scots pine deeply crevassed bark even has a part to play as host to a variety of lichens, mosses and insects.
But as the centuries have passed, forest clearance, principally for sheep, overgrazing both by sheep and deer, nipping out the shoots of young Scots pine at birth, disease and neglect have all played their part in almost annihilating the Scots pine as a feature of the Scottish landscape.
These factors contributed to a situation where, just a few years ago, what remained of Scotland's former Caledonian Forest cloak was just 35 isolated, threadbare patches.

Trees for Life started reversing the centuries-old trend of deforestation of Scotland's native woodlands in 1991, planting its first trees at Glen Affric, near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Since then, the conservation charity has planted over one million trees, in the process creating 10,000 acres of new Caledonian Forest and collecting numerous awards for its restoration work, including, most recently, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Nature of Scotland (RSPB)– Outstanding Contribution to Nature Award 2013.
But the work of Trees for Life is very long term and recent events have highlighted just how easily external factors can, literally, blow its conservation work off course.
Since early December, the conveyor belt of Atlantic storms which have battered Britain, causing weeks of flooding in areas of southern England, have also highlighted how even well-established Scots pines are vulnerable to extreme weather.
The effects of a North Atlantic storm that raged over Scotland in early December 2013 illustrate the problem. A number of giant Scots pines at Trees for Life's Dundreggan Conservation Estate near Loch Ness were uprooted and blown over, and others badly-damaged. The age of some of the trees lost was put at over 200 years.
While losses due to weather events are part of the natural cycle of forest regeneration, creating gaps for new growth to flourish, that Trees for Life is starting from such a low base of forest cover which takes decades, if not centuries to re-establish makes its task all the harder. Loss of trees means loss of habitat since large mature Scots pines are such a mainstay of woodland diversity. When trees are lost, species of both flora and fauna dependent on them have no place else to go.
With Scots pines taking well over a century to reach maturity — the average age of mature trees is 250 to 300 years — Trees for Life is embarking on a pledge to establish a further one million more trees both by planting and natural forest regeneration by 2018.
That may sound a lot but according to the conservation charity's Executive Director, Alan Watson Featherstone, while welcoming the Scots pine's award as a national symbol of Scotland, much more needs to be done if the Scots pine is to re-establish itself as a living, breathing part of the Scottish landscape and not languish as a tartan totem.
It was Mr Featherstone who'd accompanied Trees for Life supporter Alex Hamilton, at the start of the campaign for the Scots pine to be designated Scotland's National Tree, in presenting the original call to the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee in January 2013.
In a subsequent poll, the Scots pine emerged victorious garnering more than half of the votes, well ahead of the rowan tree (mountain ash) on 15 percent and holly tree (seven percent).
That the Scots pine gained an absolute majority in that poll makes it a strong candidate to feature in any debate over land use should the present Scottish Government, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), be successful in achieving its declared aim of doubling the amount of land under community ownership by 2020 to a million acres.

 

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