The once and future forest
Trees started growing in Glen Affric soon after the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. Most of the early forest would have been birch – a 'pioneer' species that is always among the first to grow in bare ground.
Birch trees improve the soil, making it easier for other species like pine, rowan and oak to follow. The ancient Caledonian Forest would have had a similar variety of trees to the one you can see today.
This mixture of native trees grew in balance with animals like deer, and although deer eat tree foliage and bark in winter, wolves kept their numbers to a level that allowed enough young trees to grow, maintaining the forest system.
Industry and change
All that changed in the 1700s. New industries and growing cities were hungry for timber. The Chisholm clan, who controlled much of Glen Affric, sold rights to cut trees to feed this profitable market.
Affric’s forest seems to have survived well, though – perhaps the ground was just too rough and the glen too remote to get many trees out easily.
What really made a difference was the change to sheep farming in the early 1800s, and later to deer hunting. Farmers in the few scattered homesteads in Glen Affric were evicted, and from the 1850s the land was managed to encourage as many deer as possible for wealthy people who rented shooting rights.
With the wolves gone, and deer and sheep roaming the glen, there was little natural regeneration to keep the forest going.
The arrival of the Forestry Commission
By the time the Forestry Commission bought Glen Affric in 1951, the forest was patchy and there were few young saplings to replace the mature trees.
The Commission had been set up after the First World War with a mission to make Britain self-sufficient in timber by planting quick growing, non-native trees. In Affric, some non-native trees were planted in places, but by the 1950s the first rush to plant huge areas had passed.
At the same time, writers on forest policy like Professor Henry Steven were beginning to recognise the value of native pine forest, not as a source of timber but as a unique landscape and valuable wildlife haven.
Forest managers also tried to encourage the native trees to re-grow. An area of 1,000 acres (400 hectares) on the south of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhain was declared a pine reserve in 1960: the first of its kind in Britain.
An emphasis on native woodlands
Over the years, it became clear that Affric's soil was too poor and the ground too difficult for commercial forestry ever to do well here. Forest managers began to value the native woodlands more highly.
They removed much of the fencing that marked off areas within the forest, and enclosed more ground to extend the native woodlands. They removed non-native trees that had been planted just a few years before, and put more effort in to re-establishing a healthy native forest.
The area of pine reserve was extended to some 14,500 hectares (35,800 acres). At first, they had tried to keep deer out of the reserve with fences. But they now also realised that if the trees were to thrive, they were going to have to control the number of deer much more aggressively, through shooting.
This was all controversial at the time. Some people thought it crazy to cut down trees that had only just been planted, and neighbouring estates were worried that there might be fewer deer for their shooting customers to hunt.
But the vision and determination of forest managers has paid off. Glen Affric now has robust forest, where native trees are growing strongly. That’s good for wildlife, including deer, as well as the trees: there are now more deer in the reserve than when it was established.
A National Nature Reserve
Since 2001, Glen Affric has been a National Nature Reserve – protected as one of Scotland’s outstanding natural environments. It’s also part of a wider programme to reinstate a much wider area of Caledonian Forest: you can read more about this on the website of Trees for Life, our partners in the restoration project. See: www.treesforlife.org.uk