The RSPB is restoring and expanding one of Britain’s largest pine woods creating an even richer haven for wildlife
Abernethy is a 12,000-hectare nature reserve sitting within the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. The RSPB manages the majority of the reserve with Scottish National Heritage (SNH) taking care of part of it. Abernethy is an important site for ancient Caledonian pine trees, and species such as capercaillie and crested tit.
Like most of Scotland’s native woods, Abernethy has suffered deforestation over the centuries. Sheep and deer browsing then conspired to prevent new tree growth. Blocks of commercial conifer plantations have been sown into areas where there would have been native woodland.
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The RSPB has a 200-year vision to expand the forest to its natural limit, including recovery of rare montane scrub habitats, and to restructure the plantation forests into a more natural old Caledonian Forest. It’s estimated that a further 3,500 hectares at Abernethy could support some tree cover. Work is underway to expand the forest and create an open wooded landscape interspersed with areas of mire, grassland, rock, scree, and bog woodland.
The aim is to achieve this without fencing, so deer numbers need to be maintained at a level the land can sustain. Suitable areas of heather near the forest are burnt. Experiments have shown that this increases the number of regenerating pine seedlings by up to 30 times. But this only works effectively within 250 metres of a seed-providing parent tree, even if that tree is an isolated 'granny' pine.
Broadleaved tree species - such as birch, aspen, alder and willow - have all but disappeared from the edge of the existing forest. A limited amount of 'enrichment planting' of these species is being carried out to establish a more diverse seed source in areas where pines are regenerating naturally.
The 250-metre limit to seed dispersal means it could take a long time for the forest to creep out onto all the restoration areas, so the plan is to do some 'pioneer planting'. This means establishing isolated groups of pine and broadleaves on the open moor. In time, they will act as seed sources to supply the surrounding area and accelerate forest spread.
In time, the pine woods of Abernethy could connect with the regenerating woodlands of Glenfeshie to the south and Mar Lodge to the east. This would create a spectacular rewilded area right in the heart of Scotland.