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The Sutherland Biodiversity Action Plan - October 2003


In total, Sutherland holds over 74,200 hectares of Woodland. Most of Sutherland’s forests and woodlands are conifer plantations of comparatively recent origin. However, small areas of native, mainly deciduous woodland do exist, especially on the west coast and in the sheltered straths, dominated by birch, hazel, oak or alder, with a variety of other species. Their importance to the biodiversity of the area greatly outweighs their coverage. The ancient woodland inventory identifies approximately 11,700 hectares of woodland in the county, much of which is unmanaged and in poor condition. The northernmost stands of oak and native pinewood are found in the county.

Big Burn, Golspie

Biodiversity objectives
To facilitate and support community management and ownership of local native and commercial woodlands and forestry.

To halt the destruction of native woodland through felling or inappropriate management (such as overgrazing) and housing and other developments through sound planning, awareness raising and influencing of grant scheme.

To encourage appropriate management of existing woodlands to promote biodiversity.

To encourage the development of new broadleaved woodlands and mixed conifer and broadleaf blocks in appropriate sites.

To protect and increase coverage of aspen and juniper, to restore and expand coverage of riparian woodlands throughout Sutherland.

Specific habitats discussed in Appendix 1
Semi-natural Woodland
Plantation Forestry

Key Issues

A. Management of semi-natural woodlands

Issues: Over-grazing by deer, rabbits and domestic stock, bracken expansion and inappropriate felling and burning have left many semi natural woodlands isolated and in poor condition. Natural regeneration is often absent or of only one species, leading to an unnatural age-structure and composition. In the uplands, some restoration and expansion has occurred through fencing or planting programmes in the last 10 - 15 years, however forest fencing raises further issues in some areas.

Opportunities: The Scottish Forestry Grants Scheme (SFGS) provides incentives for the expansion, restoration and management of semi-natural woodlands. A reduction in grazing pressure by more effective deer control and shepherding will benefit many woodlands outwith specific schemes. For species of particular concern, encouragement of enrichment planting of appropriate species from local seed sources is necessary to preserve the diversity of semi-natural woodlands.

Current projects: The Gearrchoille Woodland, near Ardgay was recently gifted to the local community, and a company has been formed to manage access, interpretation and woodland operations. Under the
Highland Biodiversity Project’s Know Your Own Patch initiative, a Woodland Open Day was held, and a number of guided walks and other events are taking place in the wood during 2003.

Gavin MacLean at the Gearrchoille
Woodland Open Day

Future actions:
Encourage woodland managers to leave more standing deadwood, as it benefits many species of invertebrates (Forestry Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage, North Highland Forest Trust, woodland advisers).

Raise awareness of the importance of birch woodland (as above).

B. Management of coniferous plantations

Issues: The majority of Sutherland’s plantations have been managed on a clearfell system, which provides little benefit to either biodiversity or local communities. Low timber prices and distance from markets have provided a disincentive to silviculture, even on those sites where ground conditions and exposure would permit alternatives to clearfell.

Opportunities: Restructuring for the second rotation should allow better forest design, incorporating a greater variety of species and open ground habitats.
Encouragement of alternative silvicultural systems where conditions allow will promote greater structural diversity. Greater local involvement should promote more sensitive and intimate management.

Current projects: People throughout Sutherland are becoming increasingly involved in the management of their local woodlands through initiatives run by community groups like North Sutherland Community Forest Trust, Culag Community Woodland Trust and Rosehall & District Action Group. North Highland Forest Trust provide advice and assistance for community groups wishing to manage their local woodlands, and have developed a series of marketing projects using timber from local forests including woodchip corrals and heating plants.

Future action:
Encourage community involvement in the management of woodlands (community groups, North Highland Forest Trust, Forestry Commission).

C. Management of riparian woodlands

Issues: The banks of many rivers, burns and lochs - the riparian zone - are devoid of woodland. Riparian woodlands can provide some of the most valuable habitat linkages for wildlife, help stabilise river and stream banks, and give cover and a food source to fish.

Opportunities: Restoration and expansion of riparian woodlands should be encouraged as a priority in Sutherland. The Forestry Commission’s Scottish Forestry Grant Scheme provides enhanced opportunities for the planting, natural regeneration and management of riparian woodlands.

Current project: Through the previously mentioned LIFE Rivers Project, the Forestry Commission hope to restructure coniferous plantations in the River Oykel catchment to open up the riparian areas and allow more light to penetrate, and to include more broadleaf species to encourage invertebrates and help stabilise river banks.

Future action:
Raise awareness of the value of riparian woodlands, and encourage land managers toplant or regenerate existing areas of woodland along the banks of rivers, streams and lochs (Forestry Commission, North Highland Forest Trust, Scottish Native Woods, Scottish Natural Heritage, West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Fishery Boards, woodland advisers).

D. Management of policy and urban fringe woodlands

Issues: Under-management, fly-tipping and the spread of invasive species such as sycamore and rhododendron present a threat to some woodlands in Sutherland.

Opportunities: Invasive species such as rhododendron should be controlled where possible, and increased local involvement encouraged to promote responsible stewardship.

Forestry Plantation, Glen Loth

E. Other issues
Foxes and crows: In areas where previously there were no woodlands, forest blocks can harbour predators such as foxes and crows, which prey on young lambs and the eggs of ground-nesting birds, and may be more numerous with the reduction of gamekeepers.

Forest Fencing: Bird strike on forest fences is a cause of mortality for some species – it can be significantly reduced by marking necessary fencing and removing redundant fences.

Balance between woodland and other land uses:
Large-scale afforestation no longer threatens the blanket bog of Caithness & Sutherland, and some inappropriate plantings are being clear felled and the ground restored to peatland habitats through initiatives such as the LIFE Peatlands Project.   Future woodland expansion will probably be at the expense of heather moorland and agricultural land, and will require a reduction in grazing pressure through culling or fencing. Strategic planning of land released for forestry (e.g. through the Indicative Forestry Strategy using the Forest Habitat Network concept) is limited by the complex pattern of land tenure.

Current project: The Highland Indicative Forest Strategy is currently under review, and the new Strategy that helps guide new woodland plantations and natural regeneration schemes, as well as identifying opportunities for restructuring existing woodlands, is likely to be issued in 2004.