Birch woods, aspen stands and Caledonian pine forests: Anna Fleming’s latest dispatch from the Cairngorms is all about the area’s trees, and the life they harbour.
I turn my head-torch off and am blinded by darkness. There are no stars, no moon: it must be cloudy. The woods are impossibly dark. I suddenly feel vulnerable.
I resist the urge to switch the light back on: nothing external has changed, I am just as safe as I was a minute before, the only thing that has altered is my ability to see my surroundings. My mind quietens as I focus to discover what I can discern. I know the path is wide – I’ve walked it many times before – and that there are roots or rocks to trip over. If my feet stumble on fallen branches or bushes, I will have left the path. I take some hesitant steps and then a few more. My stride shortens: I am moving uphill; now my legs lengthen: downhill. The undergrowth is impenetrable, but there are other ways to feel place.
There is no wind. The woods are quiet. Through the trees, distant traffic murmurs. A stick snaps beneath my boot and the sound is striking. Across the loch, I hear occasional mutters – are people out fishing? The chatter grows louder, sharpening into honks and calls. The flock is disturbed and the agitation intensifies: geese call, wings beat over water before they resettle again. They are the winter migrants. Hundreds of greylag and pink-footed geese return here each year from Iceland and Scandinavia.
My eyes slowly adjust. The dark night brightens. Nearing the water, an eerie green-white light shines through the trees. The gleam seems artificial, human. A car? A torch? I listen closely and hear nothing. The light is steady and vast. I walk nearer and realise the strange glow is coming from the sky. Even on this moonless, clouded night, the atmosphere is luminescent, shining over the clear surface of the loch. Returning to the forest path, my eyes cleave to the light. I walk through the forest like a plant, peering through the dark feathered canopy to the sky overhead.
When I moved to the Cairngorms, I was prepared for the mountains. I knew about the peaks and the plateau, the burns that freeze in winter, the deep snow and scouring winds, the need for exceptional navigation skills, warm layers, an ice axe and crampons. I was not ready for the woods.
The forests are distinct from other UK woodland. Growing up in mid-Wales, I was used to two types of wood: regimented plantations of sitka, larch and spruce, and mixed broadleaf woods of oak, hazel, ash, and cherry. Here there are birch woods, aspen stands and Caledonian pine forests. The latter is formed of Scots pine trees with grey trunks that warm into russet branches overhead, bark that flakes into chunky jigsaw puzzle pieces, and long green needles like the bristles on a dustpan brush. You will not find ivy, wild garlic or bluebells beneath these trees. Hummocks of moss, heather and blaeberry pillow the forest floor. Birch, rowan and juniper grow in clearings. Water pools in boggy patches, the pines thin where peat and sphagnum moss reign.
Like everything in the Cairngorms, the forests are of a disconcerting scale. The mountains are higher, epic space opens on the plateau, moorlands stretch for miles – and the forests too are unexpectedly vast. Towns and villages like Grantown, Nethy Bridge and Carrbridge seem like mere clearings in the forest. Walk for ten minutes from the ‘urban’ centre and you will be immersed in Caledonian pinewood. Everyone has their story of getting lost.
Walking off-piste one day, I stumbled across a thin dark line – no wider than a five pence coin – that picked its way along the forest floor. Under heather and fallen branches, moss and grass was worn away into a tiny trail. Wood ants scurried along it in two directions. I followed the path, struggling to pick it out when it reached a bush, skirted a tree, or passed under twigs. After ten metres, the line disappeared. I hunted through the undergrowth beneath a pine, trying to find where the path picked up again. It didn’t. Returning to the tree, I spotted an ant body hanging in mid-air, rotating slowly on a strand of spider web. Glancing past the body, I recovered the trail. Ants marched up the trunk as far as the eye could make out, right into the upper reaches of the pine. They must have been harvesting something up there, perhaps honeydew from aphids. Following the returning ants back along their trail for twenty metres, I discovered a vast heap of grit and pine needles, a metre-tall and several metres wide at its base. Wood ants scurried in and out of pencil dot holes. Like Egyptian pyramids, anthills are a statement of power, structure and system. The scale is incredible.
Yet even here, where the forest seems extensive and healthy, some species struggle. The last UK population of capercaillie is found almost exclusively in the pine forests around the Cairngorms, where they eat shoots and berries. There are now less than 2,000 of these turkey-sized grouse left in Britain. The males have black feathers and put on a distinctive display in the spring (known as the lek); the females are smaller with muted brown plumage. The name comes from Gaelic – capull-coille, meaning forest pony –perhaps because the birds make strange clicking noises like horse hooves. Capercaillie were reintroduced to Scotland in the nineteenth century after hunting and habitat loss made them extinct in the eighteenth century. Today, their population is small and vulnerable. The birds are not breeding well and many chicks do not live to adulthood. Among the many challenges that threaten their survival (including climate change), lack of forest habitat is a significant issue. While capercaillie do not travel big distances, typically settling in the area where they were hatched, females travel up to 30km to avoid inbreeding. The birds do not like to cross open land and so a patchy forest network threatens their existence.
Thinking in these terms, I realise that my view of forests is ant-like. The fact that I think the woodland here is vast – when in reality it is not big enough for a native species – reveals my limited perspective. Statistics confirm this insight: in England 10% of land is forested, and 19% of Scotland is woodland; by contrast the European average is 42%, with 71% of Finland tree-covered, and 67% of Sweden. My culture, which shaped the environments I grew up in, has given me a meagre concept of forest. The plight of the capercaillie reveals that this baseline is not good enough. If I were to dream for capercaillie, I would see the forest grow, the edges expanding and touching.
This dream is not exactly fantasy. The Strathspey pine forests are a living marker that change is possible. The forests of Glen More, Rothiemurchus and Abernethy seem ancient, timeless even, but they are actually new regenerations. The trees were extensively felled in World War I and II. Hidden in the trees, are decaying concrete structures: the remains of sawmills, once staffed by Canadians and Newfoundlanders who came to extract timber for the war effort. Knowing this history of clearance and growth, I wonder what Strathspey will look like in the future, so I put the question to a local school. During an outdoor learning session, I asked the pupils to ‘have vision’ and draw the area in 150 years time. I braced myself for robots, aliens and apocalypse. The children told me there will be more trees.
Climbing Meall a’Bhuachaille (Mound of the Herdsman), I look out over a bottle-green carpet of post-war tree planting. Up here, at 800 metres, on thin soils and wind-scoured slopes, young Scots pines thrust shamrock-green fingers through the heather. Maroon birch twigs whip in the wind. I pinch juniper bristles between my fingers and inhale gin. Overhead, a majestic and contorted granny pine commands the sky: this old tree has survived many generations of fellings. Now that grazing pressure from deer and livestock is reduced, the trees are moving out beyond the central forest colony. With a new generation creeping up the hills, a natural treeline emerges at the forest edge.