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Sutherland landowner sees success in restoring ancient pinewood

By Caroline McMorran

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Alladale Wilderness Reserve before restoration. Picture: Norman Strachan
Alladale Wilderness Reserve before restoration. Picture: Norman Strachan

A landowner has restored an area of ancient Caledonian pinewood, thanks to two decades of effort.

Paul Lister bought Alladale Wilderness Reserve, located near Ardgay, in 2003. The reserve contained a remnant of ancient pinewood which comprised “only a few old pines”, categorised by NatureScot as being in “unfavourable and declining condition”.

The Caledonian pinewood is thought to have once covered 70 per cent of Scotland but historic climate change, together with forest clearance for agriculture, led to a decline.

The pinewood at Alladale is one of only 84 “fragments” of the woodland scattered across Scotland to survive. A four-year study by conservation charity Trees for Life found that 23 per cent of all the Caledionan pinewoods are critically threatened.

After taking over Alladale, Mr Lister set about transforming the management of the estate, restoring natural habitats and working to save the important pinewood remnant.

The pinewood at Alladale is now thriving. Pictures: Norman Strachan
The pinewood at Alladale is now thriving. Pictures: Norman Strachan

The Alladale team, with the support of NatureScot and the Scottish Rural Development Programme fenced the area of pinewood to relieve deer grazing pressure. They also planted almost a million new native trees.

NatureScot staff assessed the site this summer and found the pinewood now meets all criteria to be classed in a favourable condition.

Steve Wheatley of NatureScot, said: “We measure the condition of the pinewoods against 15 different criteria ranging from the canopy, the health of the trees, and the shrub and ground layers, all the way down to the soils.

“It was wonderful to see the Alladale pinewood passing each one of these rigorous tests as the survey progressed.

“The survey was surprisingly hard work. In the absence of high deer pressure, the heather and blaeberry is now so high, just traversing the hill to undertake the survey was tiring but hugely rewarding work, and it was a pleasure to spend time in such a special habitat and surrounded by nature.”

Alladale Reserve manager Innes MacNeill said: “A restored woodland and a healthy ecosystem is central to the vision for Alladale Wilderness Reserve.

“We have been working hard on this for two decades, so it is rewarding for us to reach this milestone and have this officially recognised.

“The hard work will obviously continue. Our ethos at Alladale is simple – we will leave the land in better condition than it was found.”

James Rainey, senior ecologist at Trees for Life, said: “With the climate and biodiversity crises intensifying, enabling the recovery of Scotland’s remnant pinewoods has never been more important.

“Working collaboratively with land managers to protect ancient pinewoods is a fundamental first step to ensuring the survival of these iconic woodlands.”

The Caledonian pinewood at Alladale is the second most northerly fragment of the habitat. It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1979 and is also a Special Area of Conservation.

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