This area of bog and cotton grass used to be a conifer plantation. Who’d have known?
Thirty- three years ago when I first worked in the Flow Country of Sutherland and Caithness I often drove along the road north of Lairg which heads past Crask Inn to Altnaharra where you have the choice of continuing north to Tongue or east along Loch Naver. From Lairg to Crask one drove through a tunnel of dark thick conifers – planted years before and before the great afforestation of the wetter parts of the Flow Country.
I was back there last week and had the benefit of a tour of the Dalchork plantations with a local forester – who is now very much a local deforester and bog restorer. There have been great changes and they are mostly for the better.
The point of commercial forestry is usually to provide timber, and that means felling the trees at some stage! Once they are taken down then a wide variety of options open up: replant, replant with completely different trees, leave as open space, restore to the previous habitat and many others. Look at this image…
A few years ago, and for decades before, this view would have been a forest track with the tall trees on either side and ahead and behind us. But the trees are gone.
Look right and we see the mess of a clearfelled coupe…
Just because it’s a bit of a mess doesn’t mean there is no wildlife, in fact there were a lot of Redpolls in these felled areas – really, a lot – as well as the Meadow Pipits and Skylarks that were more expected.
But look left and we see this…
This area was a full-grown plantation a few years ago, and looked like the previous image last year, but now it is very obviously (very obviously if you are there anyway) a recovering peatland with wet bits and a growing cover of plants and mosses – and a few pairs of Lapwing already making use of it. I heard of some pretty interesting bird species already making use of these restored open spaces.
It’s quite a transformation and involves a few forest workers and big equipment – and quite a lot of skill.
And this transformation is happening on a large part of the northern Dalchork plantation. The state forestry service is here turning forest back into peatlands and that is something to be welcomed and celebrated. I welcome and celebrate it.
Now, I used the inelegant term ‘state forest service’ just now because I wonder whether you know what it is called. In England we now have Forestry England – that’s clear enough! And in Scotland they/we have Forestry and Land Scotland – that’s an interesting name!
I don’t fully know how the ‘and Land’ snuck in to that name but it is interesting. According to their web page ‘Many people think our work is timber production‘ but apparently ‘that is only part of the story‘. Forestry and Land Scotland does all sorts of things including nature conservation (although there is rather little evidence of that on the website yet) and what I saw in Dalchork was nature conservation on a large scale. Forestry and Land Scotland should certainly be shouting about it. Here is the plan for this area – it looks pretty good to me when you consider that it has been a relatively ugly, relatively unprofitable and relatively wildlife-free conifer planttion for decades.
I vaguely remember being told once that Dalchork was originally owned by the agriculture department but was handed over to the Forestry Commission because there wasn’t much that could be done with sheep in these parts. The tree people discovered that there wasn’t an awful lot that could be impressively done with trees here either and now the land, some of it at least, is going back to peatland. You could view this as a many-decade learning process where economic activities learned that life was a lot tougher than they thought in this part of the world – a tale of hubris perhaps. You could take that lesson from the Dalchork experience and there would be quite a lot of truth in it. It’s a lesson worth learning.
But I’d like to take a more positive lesson from it too. I’m glad that this land was and is in public ownership. If Dalchork had been split into many private ownerships then it would have been really difficult to arrive at the more positive future that I see planned for it by Forestry and Land Scotland. The same mistakes would have been made, I’m sure, but the emergence into a better future would have been one hell of a lot more difficult. I’m a fan of state ownership of land and we ought to have a lot more of it. It won’t prevent mistakes being made sometimes, but it is more likely to allow them to be corrected much more rapidly and efficiently. I’ve long thought that a Forest and Wildlife Service could be a good way forward and Scotland is edging that way it seems (Wales too, by the way).
As I drove back down the road to Lairg I remembered watching the 1986 World Cup game between England and Argentina – the Maradona Hand of God goal followed by his Goal of the Century – in a large static caravan with the rest of the RSPB survey team. Organisations, just like people, are able to do amazingly good things and amazingly bad things, sometimes in rapid succession. Foresters have to live with their mistakes for decades.
When I got to Lairg, and Little Loch Shin by the roadside and below the hydro dam, I thought I’d stop to see whether there were any Black-throated Divers around, as there often were. I prepared to give the loch a scan with binoculars when I noticed a spanking Black-throat just a few feet from the road – a gorgeous bird which stayed long enough to provide a visual feast before it flew off.
Search the internet for ‘Dalchork plantation peatland restoration’ as a good start if you want to find out more about this work.