Our latest Directors’ blog is a guest article by Gus Routledge, professional ecologist and ‘Scotland: The Big Picture’ trustee. In it, he explores the mindset of those opposed to native woodland expansion and the legitimacy of their concerns.

Scotland’s native woodland was found to cover about 4% of our land area by the Native Woodland Survey in 2014, with less than half of this being in ‘satisfactory’ condition (‘not good enough condition’ is what I read there, but that’s for another time). We are a nation dominated by open landscapes: heath, grassland, bogs, lochs, and farmland, with brushstrokes of commercial forestry adding an aspect of three-dimensionality in places.

Scotland is dominated by open landscapes, often entirely bereft of native woodland cover bar a few token relics.

Go searching and you may find scraps, or occasionally larger tracts, of Scotland’s native woodland nestled amongst our two-dimensional landscapes. With our focus increasingly turning towards addressing the inextricably linked climate and biodiversity crises, woodland is often a popular option. Its ability to lock up carbon, mitigate some of the effects of climate change (e.g. flooding), provide shelter for livestock and a haven for wildlife makes it a strong contender amongst the nature-based solutions to these  problems in Scotland.

Add to this the fact that, very often, woodland is the natural climax vegetation community of a given area and restoring it seems to make a lot of sense. Whilst I think the majority are in favour of more native woodland there are still plenty of pitfalls to navigate. How best to go about creating woodland? Where to plant? Who should be involved, and how should our society pay for it…? But one obstacle that baffles me is how often I see calls for native woodland being met with comments along the lines of, “grazed areas are good, we need our open areas”.

I will firstly point out that I agree (with caveats, there are always caveats). In Scotland we have plenty of species reliant on open habitats: lapwing on our rush pastures, butterflies in our wildflower meadows, dotterel on alpine plateaux and curlew on our moors. I’m all for these things still existing and us helping them thrive. But let’s be clear, there is no one out there calling for these species to be afforested to extinction.

Bog woodland is a natural but very scarce habitat in Scotland. It illustrates one way in which our forests and open habitats can blend together, undermining the perception that they are mutually exclusive ecosystems.

What frustrates me about these comments is that they don’t seem to take into account everything I’ve said above. We have heaps of open ground and very little native woodland. Woodland is the richest part of Scotland’s ecosystems in terms of species diversity and would be the dominant landscape if we humans didn’t have a say in things.

Of course, some species will lose out on a localised basis as their open habitat gains tree cover and the ground flora changes accordingly. But we’re not going to afforest every bit of open ground, or even the majority of the existing open ground. Native woodland takes a while to establish, won’t be planted on Scotland’s extensive peatlands and certainly won’t be expanded at a rate sufficient to threaten grazed habitats. It seems, perhaps, that Alexander von Humboldt’s vision of swathes of closed-canopy forest coating the land is still persisting in people’s understanding of a forest ecosystem, despite us now knowing that this is plainly not what is natural. Bogs, forest lochans, bracken glades, floodplains, plus the patchwork of human land uses that will (and should!) still exist in a more forested Scotland will provide plenty of space for those species that prefer not to have a leafy roof over their heads.

Our landscapes would naturally be a mosaic of woodland and open ground habitats, with messy, wildlife-rich ecotones like bog woodland, montane scrub and wood pasture blurring the lines between those two categories, exposing the falsity of the ‘trees or treeless’ dichotomy we seem to have constructed.

Bracken glades can be important habitat for the likes of fritillary butterflies (which do well on the understory of dog-violets, their food-plant), and reptiles such as adders.

This same thinking can be applied to herbivory in Scotland. Rather than taking a blanket stance, it is worth remembering that herbivores are a natural part of our forest ecosystems, too. There is a lot of talk in Scotland about reducing herbivory, as it’s one of the biggest issues facing our native woodlands (and other habitats, too!), but no sensible person is advocating complete removal. We’re aiming for that sweet spot at some point in the future when a complex of open ground, scrub thickets, scattered trees, and closed canopy woodland will be maintained by the dynamic forces of herbivory and natural regeneration.

Land uses involving both wild and domesticated herbivores are by no means incompatible with an increase in Scotland’s native woodland cover. Sure, red deer will have more cover in which to hide from stalking clients but they will also be larger and healthier beasts. Likewise, there are plenty of opportunities for win-wins by engaging in agroforestry at a landscape scale. Lest we forget, a forested ecosystem is a more productive ecosystem, energetically; one that is ultimately very capable of supporting (sustainable) levels of herbivory.

Where exactly this anti-woodland rhetoric comes from, I’m not sure. Part of me wonders if it’s those with an interest in maintaining our open habitats managing to infiltrate the minds of other people? Or maybe it’s due to good old ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, whereby people are simply used to our open habitats now, and don’t see the opportunities that lie in a more forested land? I understand the reluctance to see such big changes, but the positives appear to outweigh the negatives when woodland expansion is done properly. Where it is done improperly, such as planting on wildflower-rich grasslands, absolutely criticise and condemn the approach, but in the majority of cases this is not what is happening.

It could be narrow-mindedness – as a young person I’m possibly more able to be imaginative about the future – but we desperately need to change the way things are being done. Going back to the native woodland survey, only 14% of our woods have low herbivore pressure. If we’re not careful then we’re soon going to have a whole lot more open habitat for our meadow pipits.

I suspect there is also a lack of ecological understanding at play, which could again be linked to ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. I spoke to a landowner recently who thought woodland wouldn’t thrive on a north-facing slope and I couldn’t understand why he was making such a big deal about it being north-facing. As I’ve seen others say, trees will grow where trees can grow, we don’t need to decide that for them. We just need to free them from existing barriers to natural regeneration, and they will get on with the rest. Then we can watch all the natural processes interacting right across our landscapes; observing the dynamism that is born out of the competing desires of trees, herbivores, water, the weather and our geology.

Scotland has already lost the vast majority of its native woodlands, if we don’t act soon then we’re set to lose even more.

Besides, some of our supposedly non-woodland species may surprise us. The red grouse that is so firmly associated with expansive heather moorland here in Scotland is an inhabitant of montane willow scrub over in Scandinavia. I’ve also been sent videos of golden plover utilising willow scrub as cover in Iceland too, which surprised me. Black grouse, capercaillie, twinflower, salmon and wildcats – some of our most charismatic and imperilled wildlife – would all benefit from an expansion in native woodland cover, assuming it was sensibly and intelligently done.

Lastly, I’d like to perhaps spin this “we need open areas” comment on its head. We do, of course, but instead of seeing native woodland expansion as the enemy, why not focus efforts on making our existing (and extensive) open habitats better? Get cattle grazing in our rush pastures to open up the sward, reduce the erosion of our exposed mountain tops, encourage pollinator-friendly mowing regimes for all roadside verges, restore our degraded peatlands.

In the end, I think we all want what’s best for nature. We may have different views of exactly what that may mean, different opinions about the relative importance of certain types of biodiversity, but native woodland expansion is something we definitely have space for. Not only that, it is something we desperately need. For our soils, our climate, our endangered species and ourselves.

Some of our woodlands, such as the Atlantic hazelwoods of the west coast, have potentially been part of Scotland’s landscape for 10,000 years, with a rich flora & fauna developing within them over the millennia.