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A Draft Framework for Biodiversity in Highland


Forests and woodlands are key features of our landscape. There can be no finer sight than the great pinewoods of Strathspey and Affric with their russet boughs on a late summer evening, or birch and rowan woodlands as the leaves turn and fall. They also represent a key financial asset, a source of employment, and a huge community resource. Our native woodlands have traditionally had an important role not only for their wood as firewood and timber (the latter being a niche market today) but also to provide grazing and shelter for stock, and shooting opportunities. More recently the use of forests and woodlands for recreation has increased. Communities are wanting to play a greater part in their management and even take on ownership. The important function forests and woodlands perform as carbon sinks is also now more widely recognised. Over the last decade more and more forests and woodlands have come to be managed for a range of complementary uses. There has been a particularly noteworthy turn around in the management of both large areas of planted forests and native woodlands to favour biodiversity.

Woodlands bind our soils, enrich our rivers, and purify our air. They are diverse and productive terrestrial ecosystems, supporting common and rarer mammals and birds, some of which at least will be familiar to most people, and whole hidden army of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria, of which we are seldom aware, including some species which may not even have been discovered to date.


The biodiversity resource: key habitats and species in Highland

Native woodland is now very restricted throughout Highland. Significant areas are naturally treeless due to the climatic conditions and extensive peatlands. Elsewhere the extent of native woodland has declined dramatically as a result of prehistoric clearance for agriculture, grazing by deer and sheep, and indiscriminate muirburn. The management of deer is the most significant issue affecting the condition of our native woodlands and the biodiversity they support. The remaining native woodland in Highland has a national, and in the case of some woodland types, an international significance. Of all native woodland in Scotland, 88% occurs north of the Highland Boundary Fault.

Birch dominated woodland is perhaps the most widespread broadleaved woodland type in Highland and is particularly important for invertebrates. There are smaller amounts of upland oak woodland, where oak is mixed with birch or on more fertile sites with ash and hazel. Associated with some of our woodlands, particularly those woodlands influenced by the wetter more temperate climate of the west coast (oceanic woodlands), are internationally important communities of mosses, liverworts and lichens. Although “oceanic” oak dominated woodlands are not so extensive as in Argyll to the south, they are nevertheless an important part of the resource, being particularly widespread in Wester Ross and Lochaber. There are also important less oceanic oakwoods further east, for example in the Great Glen. Where the underlying rocks are more nutrient rich, then woodlands are dominated by ash or hazel. Throughout Scotland as a whole, oceanic upland ash/hazel woods occur predominantly in Skye, Morvern and also Mull, such that Highland has the majority of this woodland type.

Highland has a high proportion of Scotland’s native pine woodlands, which are most widespread in Strathspey, and in the Beauly Catchment, although there are also important fragments elsewhere. Pine is a very widespread species worldwide, but Scottish woods are notable for their genetic diversity and for being at the edge of the range for this species. Some of the rarest UKBAP priority species are found only in pinewoods.

Wet woodlands divide broadly into bog woods (where trees have established on bogs) and alluvial woods. There are also riparian woods, but these tend to be free draining. Wet woodlands of any size are very restricted in number throughout Scotland, with Highland supporting the majority of any quality. These are along the River Conon (which has perhaps the greatest potential of any alluvial woodland in Scotland), the Mound alder woods by Golspie and the Urquart Bay woods. As well as supporting a number of specialised insects and other wildlife, wet woods also provide key nutrients inputs to adjacent rivers, through runoff and leaf litter. The loss of riparian woodland and these nutrient inputs is thought to be a key issue in the decline of game fisheries.

Lowland wood pasture and parkland is a poorly represented habitat type in Highland, although the long history of grazing has produced woodlands with the characteristics of wood pasture. In some areas there are estates with parkland. Also areas where old avenues, field boundary trees and old shelterbelts provide the same conditions of large open grown trees. These often have a high biodiversity value, and a number of the UKBAP priority invertebrate and lichen species favour these situations.

Aspen is a species which occurs infrequently but is widespread. It occurs either as isolated groups which are maintained by suckering or in the Spey Valley as woods dominated by aspen. The Spey Valley aspen woodlands are particularly important for insects of dead and dying wood, including a hoverfly which is a BAP priority species. Aspen is grazed preferentially by deer.

Montane and treeline scrub are important parts of the biodiversity resource dealt with in the Mountains section.

The dominant woodland cover throughout the Highlands is coniferous plantation. Many long established plantations have existing value for biodiversity, but significant opportunities exist for increasing the area with value, through restructuring, replacement of other conifers with Scots pine and inclusion of native broadleaved species.

Habitats classified as UK BAP priority habitats which occur in Highland

Native pine woodlands

Upland mixed ash woodlands

Upland oak woodland

Wet woodland

Upland birch (not currently on UK BAP list but is to be added).

Lowland wood pasture and parkland

UK BAP priority species recorded in Highland associated with forests and woodlands

Red squirrel, black grouse, capercaillie, nightjar, Scottish crossbill, spotted flycatcher, tree sparrow, wryneck, great-crested newt.

Pearl bordered fritillary butterfly, chequered skipper butterfly, dark bordered beauty moth, argent and sable moth, barred toothed stripe moth, cousin German moth, 2 craneflies, 4 species of wood ant, a spider, a hoverfly, a mason bee.

Juniper, woolly willow, small cow-wheat, twinflower. 8 lower plants of broadleaved woodland, 16 lower plants of coniferous woodland.

Some other species of conservation interest

Wildcat, bats, dwarf birch, goshawk

12.14 Key biodiversity objectives

To secure widespread recovery and expansion of native woodland, by natural regeneration where possible, including treeline and juniper scrub, taking into account the needs of open ground species.

To maximise the social and economic value of all woodland in an environmentally sustainable way.

To maximise the biodiversity of plantations.

12.15 Trends and issues

Native woodland has been much reduced by clearance, grazing (by deer, sheep, feral goats), and intensive muirburn. Exists only as fragments, which are often heavily grazed and therefore low biodiversity value. Regeneration frequently absent.

High deer numbers are the most significant issue, damaging existing native woodlands, constraining their natural expansion. Key looming issue is the management of deer within new native woodlands, especially those planted within the last 10 years which are approaching the point at which deer will break through old fences.

Woodlands were traditionally grazed by cattle and pigs, beneficial if not too intensive. Clearance led to exclusion of domestic stock. In many birchwoods tradition of using woodland as winter shelter and grazing continues.

Natural tree-line woods and alpine scrub virtually absent except in small areas in Cairngorms.

Woodland cover dominated by intensive forestry plantations. Over last decade changes in forestry policy led to restructuring (ongoing) of commercial forests and increase in value for biodiversity, notably Forest Enterprise forests.

Increases in afforestation from 1940s to 1980s at expense of heather moorland, rough grassland and blanket bog (not currently so much an issue). More recently increases in native woodland and natural regeneration schemes leading to need for consideration of balance between open ground and woodland.

Woodland can be unmanaged and harbour foxes and crows that predate on moorland birds.

Woodland restoration constrained by need for stock/deer fencing, which gives unnatural woodland edge and structure, is intrusive in landscape, obstructs access, hazard to woodland grouse, discourages burning on adjacent ground. More effective deer control is preferable.

Recent rise in support for concept of Forest Habitat Networks based on Core Forest Area and wooded linkages with other areas.

Growing community interest in owning/ managing woodlands.

Rhododendrons still a major issue in many woodlands.

Increasing use of woodlands for recreation.

Sika deer are spreading and hybridising. DCS view is that shoot-on-sight policy by estates is only action that can be taken.

Grey squirrels are spreading northwards and may displace red squirrels.

Wildcat are interbreeding with feral domestic cats.

Accidental or deliberate killing of protected species, including wildcat, pine marten and birds of prey, by sporting estates as part of vermin control.

Dutch elm disease progressing northwards.

Bracken an issue in some areas, for example bracken control needed for certain woodland edge butterflies. Insufficient data to establish extent of problem.

Alder die back- extent not known in Highland.

Capercaillie work currently focusing on relict populations only; management is good for other things too. More co-ordination needed.


12.16 Current mechanisms/ initiatives for promoting biodiversity

Forestry Commission WGS, Farm Woodland Premium Scheme, forthcoming Rural Stewardship Scheme.

North Highland Forest Trust

Highland Birchwoods

Establishment of community woodlands, including at Abriachan, Culag, Tongue, Skerray, Assynt.

FC Challenge Funds (until 2001, can be higher grant rate than WGS).

Scottish Native Woods

Conservation designations, nature reserve management, SSSI management agreements.

Capercaillie management initiatives by Forest Enterprise and RSPB, including advice to estates, advisory days, Strathspey Capercaillie Group, LIFE bid for Capercaillie work.

The Forest of Spey Initiative, project officer looking at marketing, community involvement, riparian woodlands, processing, new planting etc.

Cairngorms Forest and Woodland Framework.

Forest Enterprise Forest Design Plans and Caledonian Forest Reserves, work by FE towards specific BAP species and habitat plans, including black grouse, capercaillie, freshwater pearl mussel, juniper, native pinewoods, coastal sand dunes, blanket bog.

Community Facilitator for FE woods in Highland, encouraging community involvement.

Fire Protection Groups, led by estates in Cairngorms.

Grazing in Birchwoods research project in Cairngorms.

Wet Woods LIFE Project, includes restoration work at Abernethy.

Forest of Spey Project, considering demonstration house to be built using local timber.

LIFE Wet woods Project, ends 2001, includes work on River Conon; work on Lower Spey and Urquart bay woods also proposed.

Management agreements with RSPB.

Atlantic Oakwood Restoration Project, partnership between SNH, Millenium Forest for Scotland, FC, RSPB, with LIFE funding to restore a no. of oakwoods, including major rhododendron clearance in Sunart Oakwoods..

Caledonian Partnership brings together various organisations to work towards common aims.

Caledonian Forest Project in Glen Affric, through Caledonian Partnership.

2002 to be year celebrating Scotland’s trees and woods.

Montane Scrub Action Group, looking at key restoration sites for montane scrub.

12.17 Policy/Highland-wide measures for promoting biodiversity

Modification of deer management through Deer Management Plans to significantly reduce deer numbers in native woodlands and elsewhere.

Promote grant aid to support planting of policy and field margin trees.

Promote updated Muirburn Code

Recreation of native woodland networks (ongoing).

Grant schemes to promote upland ash and hazel woodland, wet woodlands, montane scrub.

12.18 Potential practical opportunities for enhancing biodiversity and its sustainable use

Identification and management of trees in and around settlements, including veteran trees, planting of new trees.

Use of existing forestry grant mechanisms for natural regeneration, woodland edge habitats, cattle grazing in woodlands where appropriate, increased levels of deer culling.

Promote control of exotic species within native woodlands, including under-planted and regenerating exotic conifers and rhododendrons. Need strategy for rhododendron work. Also promote follow-up work in woods where initial clearance work already undertaken.

Support adoption of multi-purpose objectives in WGS schemes and revised Forest Design Plans.

Discourage use of fencing for WGS native woodland schemes and promote removal of redundant deer fences.

Continued monitoring of wildcat to determine extent of hybridisation and development of action plan.

Red squirrel working group. Forest and woodland management to promote red squirrels. Monitoring of red squirrels.

Monitoring for invasion by grey squirrel and establishment of contingency plans for grey squirrel control.

Encourage establishment of local woodland management committees.

Raise public/timber industry awareness of need to control movement of diseased wych elm. Consider use of cordon sanitaire.

Training on management to favour woodland/woodland edge butterfly species: small pearl-bordered fritillary, pearl bordered, chequered skipper.

Grants to promote management for woodland butterflies.

Increase the environmental standard of commercial woods, including increased open ground. Extend the grant aid available for this.

Explore new markets for shooting forest rather than hill deer.

Long-term planning/ coordination for black-grouse projects.

Encourage woodland and scrub habitat for black grouse - many estates only value red-grouse and burn heather with naturally regenerating trees.

Interpretation to raise awareness of importance of lower plants.

Identification and management of designed landscapes.

12.19 Opportunities for multi-benefit projects

Woodland expansion could enrich landscape, improve winter grazing resource, improve fisheries, provide timber, improve recreation opportunities.

Promote demonstration schemes of native woodland restoration, showing sustainable and integrated management.

Improve the quality of timber from native species, notably birch.

Promotion of local use of wood/ small saw mills, to maximise returns to local community, also produce products locally. (Much work been done in Wales on promoting economic use of ancient woodlands).

Heating schemes using wood chips.

Development work to encourage riparian planting in targeted areas.

Opening up of remote plantations to improve biodiversity value, allow recreation.

Create a major timber resource by grant aiding the replacement of conifer plantations with birch managed for timber.

12.20 Research and survey information/ requirements

Identify the extent of each habitat type in Highland (SNH currently undertaking).

12.21 Sources of further information

Highland and Western Isles Regional Action Plan, Butterfly Conservation 1999. Draft.

Montane scrub, Montane Scrub Action Group/ SNH 2000.