Caithness Field Club

Your Forests In The New Millennium
Colin Leslie
Conservation and Planning Forester.
Forest Enterprise, Dornoch Forest District.

As the millennium comes and goes and people take time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future I thought it might be interesting to look at our forests in the North. Maybe I can enlighten people on the resource that is already present and at the same time reveal some exciting plans which will transform many of these forests into true multi-benefit forests with a rich tapestry of biodiversity.

Forest Enterprise is the government agency responsible for the management of Britainís state owned forests. We are part of the Forestry Commission the government department responsible for all forestry in Britain.

At Dornoch district we manage around 62,000 Hectares of land of which 43,000 Hectares is forest. The district boundary is fairly simple consisting of a line between Alness and Ullapool as our Southern boundary. Our Northern, Eastern and Western boundaries are even simpler as we are surrounded on all sides by the sea!!

In this article I will be looking at the whole of Dornoch Forest District which I hope will give you a better understanding of the variety of habitats we have in the area. As always within Forest Enterprise remember that these are your forests and you are free to visit and explore them. All we ask is that exploration is done by foot, bicycle or horse (although we will issue permits for other forms of transport if required) and that you follow the instructions on any signs which are present.

Multi- benefit is a phrase used to describe the management of a forest where all interests are accounted for, these include timber production, conservation, employment, recreation, landscape and many other issues. Our aim as managers is to ensure that these different issues can exist side by side in the forest. Of course the emphasis on which is more important will vary for each area and even within individual forests and this is what guides our management objectives for an area.

Biodiversity is the other keyword I used at the start and is a much used and mis-used phrase at the moment but what does it really mean? Essentially it is the variability among living organisms and the Ecosystems of which they are part and our aim as forest managers is to increase biodiversity by creating and managing different ecosystems which will in turn increase the variability among all the living organisms.

All this sounds rather technical and a bit "pie in the sky" but in reality it translates into managing forests which can integrate different interests and I will now give some examples of how we are achieving these important objectives.

The district currently produces around 110,000 m3 of timber each year and most of this is utilised within the Highlands to produce a variety of wood products such as fibre board, pallet wood, fence products and sawn timber for construction use.

Despite the fact that the Forestry Commission has had a presence in the North since shortly after its creation with the first planting at Borgie in 1919 many of our forests were planted in the 50ís, 60ís, and 70ís. This was a huge technical achievement with thousands of Hectares being planted each year in the 70ís in response to government targets designed to reduce the amount of imported wood used in Britain. It has however left us with forests which are rather even aged in structure and one of our main aims is to diversify this structure.

We can diversify both the age structure and the species mix by felling areas within a forest known as coupes. We prepare a design plan for each forest prior to felling and this shows the future structure we would like to achieve. These coupes vary in both size and shape and are designed to compliment the landscape both at time of felling and as the next forest matures. The creation of this coupe structure is therefore an important starting point towards meeting our objectives for production, landscape and conservation. There are of course many other things we can and are doing to benefit the wide range of species and habitats we already have within our woodlands and the following are just some of the exciting projects we are currently involved in.

Dornoch Forest District is in the possibly unique position of having all four British Grouse species breeding on our land.

Red Grouse are common throughout the district using large areas of open moorland which are under our management. Perhaps the best place to see them is on open ground around Borgie near Bettyhill, Rumster near Lybster or Dalchork near Lairg. Here in spring and summer the "go-back, go-back" call of these grouse is a regular feature and the males resplendent in summer plumage will display from prominent positions.

Ptarmigan are present on the higher slopes and require a bit of effort to see. Fortunately though we have some of the lowest level breeding Ptarmigan in Britain on the North coast, a spring or summer trip to the hills south of Borgie still requires some efforts but the rewards are well worth it. If you own a mountain bike you can follow the signs on the Borgie cycle route to reach the end of the forest road ( the rest of us have to walk !!). From here a map is essential to negotiate your way South to the summit of Creag Dhubh. Not only does this afford spectacular views to the North Coast and the North West Sutherland hills but if you are lucky you will soon hear the croaking of Ptarmigan. Keep your eyes open for other species such as Ring Ouzel, breeding waders and soaring raptors.

Capercaillie are the largest British grouse and also the scarcest. This species is now sadly extinct in Sutherland and its numbers are declining rapidly elsewhere. The prediction currently is that the British population will become extinct in the next five years. We are working hard to try and reverse this decline in our Ardross forests, which hold the most Northerly remnant of the British Caper population. Although the reasons for the decline are not fully understood and may be linked to long term climate change or genetics there are a number of measures we can take to assist these spectacular birds now. Recent research has shown that fence strikes can cause up to 30% of the annual mortality, particularly among younger birds. To counter this we have removed all internal fences ( around 30Km) from the forests which the birds are using. We are also marking the external fences with bright orange barrier tape to make them more visible. Habitat is another major issue and our plans here are geared towards providing the mix of habitats which these birds require. Hopefully these and other measures will halt or reverse the current decline and who knows maybe one day birds will turn up in Caithness like the female which was found in the 1970ís at the height of the last range expansion.

Black Grouse were once common throughout the district, although they only sporadically turned up in Caithness, but are now also in decline. Here it appears that habitat changes may be the main factor with over and undergrazing of heather moors and the loss of areas of younger trees as the forests mature important issues. Fence strikes are also a cause of concern so again we are in the process of removing or marking fences. Our restructuring plans should address the issue of loss of young areas and plans for management of open ground are being drawn up to provide a healthier mix of vegetation.

Other Bird Species
The rich diversity of habitats throughout our district means that we have an equally rich avifauna. Although a walk through many areas of forest or moorland in the summer may only show a few Coal Tits, Meadow Pipits or Willow Warblers there will be many other exciting species hidden away nearby.

Divers are a regular breeding species on hill lochs throughout the Highlands and the lochs within the forests are no exception to this. Unfortunately the Divers habit of nesting at the edge of the water is frequently their downfall as water levels fluctuate either flooding the nest or leaving the nest stranded out of the water. For a number of years now we have been working with the RSPB to provide artificial rafts which rise and fall with the natural water level helping to improve chick survival.

We provide a range of nestboxes both for birds and bats and have had a wide range of species using these. As well as nestboxes we also provide artificial nests for some species such as Osprey. These help inexperienced birds establish successful new territories in suitable habitats.

Many of our important habitats are designated as SSSIís and these have management plans in place to protect them. Outwith these areas however we have a wide range of important habitats.

Ancient and Semi-natural woodland contains a unique flora and fauna. We have many fine examples of these woodlands ranging from Glen Einig, a remnant of the original Caledonian Pine forest to Coill Ďaí Phuill, a fine Birchwood just South of Borgie forest. We aim to protect and where possible expand these woodlands as well as planting new native woodland as part of our restructuring.

Bog habitats in our District are important internationally. Many of our forests contain open pool systems or are adjacent to bog habitats. Again we are looking to protect these where possible and have recently undertaken a survey to assess the importance of these areas. Based on the results of this survey we plan to fell trees adjacent to some of these areas and block drains. This work should protect the hydrology of the bog and the valuable ecosystem this represents.

As you will be well aware the district contains a large and varied number of archaeological sites with Caithness having some of the most important. A walk through Rumster forest will reveal evidence of habitation from the prehistoric brochs to crofting settlements occupied until the 1940ís. All our Scheduled archaeological sites have agreed management plans which detail any work required to protect them for generations to come. We also have an ongoing work programme to ensure that unscheduled sites are protected.

These are just a few examples of the type of work that is going on in your forests and I hope you will see a transformation of these forests in this millennium. We are keen to use your local knowledge as a resource to help us manage these areas. Please feel free to contact myself at the Dornoch district office with any sightings or finds you think may be of interest or any comments you may have but most importantly, please enjoy your forests.

Published in 2000 Bulletin