Rewilding Dundreggan

Joining Trees for Life on a conservation week in Scotland

The state of Earth’s forests has been of growing concern to me over the past few years.

As the planet warms from the impacts of climate change, forests are our greatest natural weapon to counter rising carbon emissions and help us adapt to more volatile temperatures. Not to mention, they are home to over half of the earth’s biodiversity and wildlife.

While the causes and rate of deforestation across the Amazon and the tropics is covered extensively by the media and conservation groups, we often forget the huge environmental damage that we’ve inflicted on our own forests at home. The UK was historically blanketed with trees coast-to-coast, but over the past two millennia they have almost entirely disappeared through a combination of industrialisation, rising human populations and subsequent expansion of agriculture.

The picturesque glens of Scotland, stunning as they are, were never destined by nature to be bare topped hills. Nowadays it’s the large numbers of deer who quite literally nip the bud of any chance for nature to regenerate. Without a natural predator the deer, typically held within vast ‘sporting’ reserves for hunting purposes munch on all tree saplings.

Giving large spaces back to nature to heal has never been of more importance: for the health of the planet and all it’s habitants, human or otherwise.

Trees for Life

In my quest to get my hands dirty and learn about conservation, I recently joined the Scotland based charity Trees for Life on a conservation week at their Dundreggan estate.

Trees for Life are a Scotland based charity founded in 1989, and over the past three decades have been restoring and connecting ancient remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest.  By simply fencing off land under their management, natural disturbance from deer is reduced and new growth has begun to appear, providing new habitat for the dwindling native species.

After years of degradation however, mother nature needs a helping hand. Small groups of volunteers have been joining Trees for Life at their Dundreggan and Glen Affric estates to help plant native species and kickstart the rewilding process.

Arriving at Dundreggan

I arrived early in Inverness after a rather underwhelming overnight journey on the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston station. I won’t dwell on it here, but safe to say I’d strongly recommend alternative means of transport from London!

The Trees for Life (TfL) team leaders for the week, Kate and Stephen, were there to greet us in the afternoon. We hopped aboard the minibus which took us and the seven other volunteers past Loch Ness to the heart of the Caledonian forest in Dundreggan. The ride was an excellent opportunity to get to know the other volunteers who were a varied mix of gender, age and nationality.

Greeting the Trees for Life team and my fellow volunteers at Inverness station

A quick stop at Loch Ness on the way to Dundreggan

We arrived after an hour to a cottage on the estate that was nestled with young trees. The cottage, originally owned by an Italian family of hunters, felt like just the place to call home for the week. There’s a well-equipped kitchen for each of the volunteer pairs to cook dinner in the evening, four bedrooms, a reading room and a snug lounge complete with a log fire that was the ideal place to snuggle up and read a book after dark.

I unloaded my backpack in the male dorm (there were only three of us in the room) before the whole group headed out for a tour of the surrounding estate. The 10 000 acre estate was purchased by TfL in 2008 with large parts of it barren, but now the results of the hard work of the staff and volunteers is starting to pay off. The diverse species of trees and wildlife are returning, and the forest is starting to resemble native woodland again.

Stephen walked us up the hill behind the estate to identify the emerging birch, aspen, juniper, pine, oak and rowan trees (amongst others) and their defining attributes. We also spotted the tracks of deer, badgers and ferral pigs which have recently been causing a nuisance to the residents by digging up the fields. The pigs – not native to Scotland – have been breeding and are large and aggressive. I became rather nervous when Stephen mentioned that they will charge at humans and can inflict fatal injuries (he mentioned ducking towards the ground as a survival tactic, since the pigs’ eyesight is poor).

Heading for a walk around the cottage

The excellent Lord of the Rings soundtrack echoed throughout the cottage as Stephen and Kate prepared the evening’s dinner of tomato pasta. All of the food ingredients for the meals are vegetarian only, which became vegan and gluten free to meet my own and another volunteer’s dietary requirements. The hearty meal was devoured in no time and we gathered in the living room to discuss the plan for the week.

Each of us introduced ourselves and explained our motivation for joining on the volunteering week, and it was heart-warming to hear stories of people with a similar passion as me for conserving the environment. We were explained the plan for the week which would involve two consecutive days tree-planting, two days in the tree nursery split by a day off, and a final day of tree planting again before returning to Inverness.

I prepared my packed lunch for the following day – peanut butter sandwiches with delicious fresh bread – and promptly headed to bed.

Tree planting on the hill

We were summoned to the courtyard at 9AM to start the day, with Stephen and Kate briefing us for the tree planting exercise and a thumbs up check that we were ready for the day ahead.

After a 15-minute drive around the estate, we set off on a one-mile muddy walk through swampy sheep grazing land. I noticed how on the fenced off land, new shoots of life and trees poking through the shrubs. And on the sheep grazing side of the fence, seemingly lifeless, barren land – a stark reminder of the impact overgrazing is having on the natural landscape.

Gearing up for our first day of tree planting

Thousands of small mounds prepared by tractors dotted the hillside which exposed the earth. Stephen explained to us the best practices of planting a tree to maximise chances of survival.

The first step was to analyse each mound for 3 suitable tree planting spots, by inspecting the extent of peat and rocks in the soil, and the shade and gradient of the mound. Rocky and firm ground is preferred, so we were to pick a Scottish pine, aspen, rowan or another tree species to plant along with two birch trees (birch was required in every mound as a prevalent species in Scotland). We were given special shovel to dig a hole, add a scoop of fertiliser, then gently embed the young tree into it.

I partnered up with fellow volunteer Maria, and we’d split the role of analysing the mound for suitable planting spot; digging the hole with the tool, scooping out the fertiliser and placing the tree into the hole. Each mound had unique shape and peat composition which maintained the challenge.

Maria, Kate and me taking a mid-afternoon break

Over the course of the afternoon, each pair worked their way down the hill until we completed the allotted planting area. Between our pair, we covered about 70 mounds (approximately 210 trees) before we called it a day at 4PM and started the walk back.

One of the highlights of the day was when the group spontaneously came to a halt during the walk back to admire the landscape for 15 minutes. The sun made a rare appearance and we could almost make out Ben Nevis far in the distance.

I was exhausted as we arrived back to the cottage that evening, however had one final chore awaiting me. Myself and fellow volunteer Carol cooked a vegan Italian casserole for the group which went down a treat (and made an hour of chopping worthwhile!). It’s fair to say it didn’t take long to fall asleep after my head hit the pillow.

A hearty veggie casserole, the perfect antidote after a hard day’s work!

We had a surprise awaiting us the following morning. Before setting off on another day of planting, we had the chance to observe one of the estate deer stalker’s butcher a deer that they had shot that morning. I expected to feel a little queasy watching the deer’s innards getting ripped out but it was surprisingly intriguing (there was even steam coming out of the carcass).

The second day of tree-planting was much the same as the first, except that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The group also dispersed to different planting areas. It was an exhausting day where we had to battle the elements amidst fog and rain. Thankfully, despite casting away my gloves (which had become a nuisance), I had plenty of layers on and still kept warm.

Transporting bags of trees in some rather unpleasant weather

To unwind after another day’s hard work, Stephen presented to us a 1987 film called The Man who Plant’s trees (one of those old-fashioned classics that begs to be watched around a fire on an autumn evening). And, before lights out, we spotted a badger snacking on some treats the team had left out on the wildlife camera.

In the nursery

The next few days were spent in the immediate vicinity of the cottage at the nursery. It’s a sizeable operation where the staff are collecting and germinating seeds for planting across the highlands over the coming five years.

We all gathered around a bench in one of the polytunnels where we were squashing buckets of rowan berries to extract the seeds. Surprisingly, seed collection is often done by hand as machines can be rough and can damage the seeds inside (sometimes, it takes a human touch!). The process wasn’t particularly exciting but it was enjoyable to talk with everyone and pass the time.

Sitting together extracting rowan seeds from berries

The final product, with over a thousand rowan tree seedlings

Later in the morning we were split into two groups. Ours was tasked with transferring birch trees from their growing containers into the plastic wrapping as they were being prepared to be planted the following Spring. This was easier said than done. We had to inspect each one thoroughly for signs of disease, which is affecting birch trees across Europe. Yellow spots on the tree stem indicate that it has fallen victim to the disease, and had to be disposed of (about 25% of all the trees we sorted). The remainder had to be gently packed in the tight wrapping which was challenging for my heavy hands!

Packing the birch trees was a surprisingly delicate affair

I split from the group in the afternoon to help Stephen with some more rowan berry mashing and collection.  It was another cold-handed affair but I thoroughly enjoyed the change to speak privately with Stephen and share our past experiences and future ambitions. The afternoon passed quickly and the only remaining tasks were to load some trees into the van for delivery elsewhere in the highlands followed by weeding of a few of the nursery beds.

To round off the day, Doug, the Dundreggan estate manager, gave a talk about the history of forests in the highlands from ancient times up to the present. We also watched an intriguing TED talk on mycorrhizal networks. I never appreciated that the fertiliser was actually a fungi that enabled trees to form complex communication networks underground, allowing them to share carbon, water and other nutrients.

We had the following day free to ourselves, and I was quite content with reading some books in the lounge and observing the bird life in the garden. When I did eventually muster the energy to go outdoors, I braved the warnings of ferrall pigs and walked up the hill behind the cottage into the wilderness. It was impressive to see encouraging signs of growth in the areas planted in previous years. The warm summer had enabled many of the trees to grow up to my hips and it was clear that nature was taking hold again.

I trekked to the east of the estate and sat beside a waterfall reading some National Geographic magazines that I’d picked up in the library. The sun was out and it was pleasantly mild.

Taking a walk around the estate

There’s nothing more apt than a group of tree planters playing a board game ‘Photosynthesis’! The aim of the game is to strategically plant trees and, well, chop them down…

The next day started with a ‘treasure hunt’ of tree objects around the nursery which I was utterly hopeless at (my lack of short-term memory never fails to amaze me). The group then split again and I opted to join the oak acorn collection team. Over the course of the morning we collected what seemed like thousands of oak acorns from under just four trees.

Collecting acorns from one of the capture bags beneath an oak tree

We headed back to the polytunnel to sort the undamaged, germinating acorns from the remainder and spent an hour preparing the bed to plant them in. The first hour was spent levelling the soil with rakes and buffering the boundary to prevent unwanted animals from consuming the acorns, before we evenly distributed them along with fertiliser, covered them with more soil and placed a large mat on top to protect the acorns during the winter.

Separating the acorns after collection

Sowing the acorns in the nursery bed

The acorns will take two years to mature into saplings that can be planted in the forest. It was fascinating to participate in the whole cycle of process, from collecting the seed through to planting.

Back on the hill

At last, on our final day in Dundreggan, the sun was out and our trip back to the hill was much less sodden, if still a bit chilly. We were rewarded with a view of the mountains in the distance, and even an eagle circling around the estate.

Spotting an eagle amongst snow capped peaks in the distance

We started the day by lining the nearby stream with willow cuttings that the other team of volunteers had prepared the previous day. It was amazing to think that just poking these wooden rods in the ground would one day mature into large willow trees, and as I climbed the hill I closed my eyes trying to imagine the landscape in a few decades as the trees matured.

After we all unsuccessfully tried to locate a missing shovel amongst our planting area, a few of us who harvested the oak seeds the previous day had the chance to plant them directly in the ground. Stephen, who I think was partly inspired by the lead character in The Man Who Planted Trees wanted to experiment how the oak acorns would fare without first being grown in a container.

I dedicated each tree I planted to each of my immediate family members and to those that I had lost over the years. It was a reflective hour which brought the inner peace I’d been wishing for.

The afternoon was back to planting down the hill again, which most of the volunteers tackled individually rather than in pairs. We’d amassed enough experience for the operation to run like clockwork, and we were collectively pooling our resources to expedite our planting velocity. The spirit was great and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the cottage.

Progress was swift as we made our way down the hill

Seeds of hope

A final group shot before the journey back to Inverness

Much like we did on the first night, we gathered around to reflect on our experience. As it came to my turn to speak, I voiced my frustration that, although we were all united in our ambition to help the environment, we were destined to fail if each of us did not spread the word and enact change amongst our own circle of friends and family. I pleaded everyone to encourage their network to re-think their environmental impact, rather than collect this experience as a memory to be forgotten.

We had planted a total of 2462 trees across 1.75 acres, which was rather exasperating as it felt like a small contribution for over 30-man days of work. It puts into context the scale of the challenge that TfL has in its quest to restore the Caledonian forest. Regardless, on our small patch of land, we built the foundation of life for centuries to come. Together, we left a positive mark on the environment for once.

In reflection, Trees for Life offered us an opportunity well beyond simply tree planting. This was a chance to learn about the principles of conservation and interact with like-minded people. The warmth and hospitality of the Trees for Life staff was extraordinary. Stephen and Kate especially brought plenty of camaraderie amongst the group, and always ensured our needs were met.

There are few things better in life than connecting with nature, but one of them is surely sowing the seeds for it flourish. I’m excited to return one day to experience a newly invigorated landscape teeming with life once more.

If you’ve been inspired to join TfL conservation week, you can sign up for one here.

Thanks to Stephen Couling and Jason Michej for supplying photos that feature in this post.


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