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Caledonian Forest

Scotland is famed for its hills, mountains and glens with some of the very best examples of scenic beauty in the world. The vast open wilderness carries so much drama and joy all underlined by the dark mood, patterns of light and intimidating mountain ranges rising rom a barren landscape. This character is not something entirely natural as Scotland once had a very different landscape. Some 2000 years ago a rich biodiversity existed with native woodlands believed to be covering 80% of the landmass, the figure for native woods at the start of the new millennium stood at around 4%. There are many reasons for the decimation of Scotland's forests. Between 1320 and 1750 the country experienced extreme climatic conditions with cold and very wet summers and strong winds. The result of a prolonged extreme weather pattern encouraged the spread of peaty moorland and the forests dwindled. The greatest threat to the forests however was the activities of the populations that controlled the land. Traditionally the land in Scotland has been in the hands of the few, and a combination of warring clans, conflict and managed control by landowners have all encouraged the stripping of it's assets. An example of this in the 19th century was the way in which land and people were managed and influenced by the system of land tenure. Kelp production was a profitable business for the landowners during the UK's warring years with France. The process was labour intensive and so thought to be socially acceptable compared to sheep farming as it provided employment for the local populations. When the war with France ended in 1815, however, France resumed it's own kelp industry and it was no longer a profitable activity in Scotland. This led to a major shift towards sheep farming, providing very little labour. This single shift of activity resulted in the clearances of people from the landscape and the systematic felling of the forests to make way for the sheep. The growth of English shipbuilding and the need for a steady supply of timber completed the picture. Forests became a valuable asset that was simply sold off for profit at the expense of both the local population and the environment. The highland clearances resulted in a system of crofts and smallholdings being established around coastal areas and strips of land. The dwindling forests and the possibility to sell the remains for good profit at this point in time undoubtedly affected the architectural landscape. While other areas such as the Scandinavian countries, Russia and Canada were using local wood to build up their communities, the little that remained of the Scottish forests was arguably a commodity the local populations couldn't afford. The crofters' homes drew on their available assets, stone, turf and slate.

This attitude to the forest heritage was consistent throughout the British Isles and although some fine examples of timber structures exist, today no great tradition of building with wood exists. A lack of timber knowledge prevails and wood is often seen as an inferior short lived material requiring chemical treatments to make it more durable. It is by looking at their neighbours in Scandinavia and indeed beyond that the truth may be told. The Telemark loft houses in Norway still stand after seven hundred years, untreated, taken apart, moved and rebuilt. They should remain a considerable time longer. So too will the Russian and Scandinavian stave churches which are examples of community life built around the local materials in a properly managed way. Although the extreme cold winters of Scandinavia and parts of Russia ensure that their forests grow at a much slower pace than in the UK giving them a more durable timber, faster growing timbers from managed sources can benefit from their tradition. If properly detailed and carefully used timber will remain as a durable product without the need of preservatives. Gaia Scotland, a group of sustainable architects with links in other countries, most notably Norway, illustrate the above point succinctly with their visitor centre in Glencoe. Their use of untreated sustainably harnessed local wood as a rain screen on both the walls and roof has been shown to successfully deal with the harsh exposed climate. Untreated, the exposed timber roof will shed the water turn silver with weathering and harmonise with the visual character of the more traditional Scottish slate roof.

This attitude to the forest heritage was consistent throughout the British Isles and although some fine examples of timber structures exist, today no great tradition of building with wood exists. A lack of timber knowledge prevails and wood is often seen as an inferior short lived material requiring chemical treatments to make it more durable. It is by looking at their neighbours in Scandinavia and indeed beyond that the truth may be told. The Telemark loft houses in Norway still stand after seven hundred years, untreated, taken apart, moved and rebuilt. They should remain a considerable time longer. So too will the Russian and Scandinavian stave churches which are examples of community life built around the local materials in a properly managed way. Although the extreme cold winters of Scandinavia and parts of Russia ensure that their forests grow at a much slower pace than in the UK giving them a more durable timber, faster growing timbers from managed sources can benefit from their tradition. If properly detailed and carefully used timber will remain as a durable product without the need of preservatives. Gaia Scotland, a group of sustainable architects with links in other countries, most notably Norway, illustrate the above point succinctly with their visitor centre in Glencoe. Their use of untreated sustainably harnessed local wood as a rain screen on both the walls and roof has been shown to successfully deal with the harsh exposed climate. Untreated, the exposed timber roof will shed the water turn silver with weathering and harmonise with the visual character of the more traditional Scottish slate roof.

The Caledonian Forest in the Highlands of Scotland is under the spotlight from groups who are keen to bring it back to its former glory. The almost extinct forest could return to it's natural colour as efforts are co-ordinated to bring back the native trees to large areas of the Scottish landscape. Resources from the groups are being shared in an attempt to set the conditions and framework for the forest's regeneration. One of the groups, Trees for Life has a vision to restore a large section of the remaining wilderness that was once the forest, back to it's former condition. In a plan that could take 250 years to reach maturity they have identified an area of some 238,000 hectares (2238 square kilometres) prime for restoration. The area includes some of the best examples of what remain of the original forest most notably around Glen Affric 20 miles west of Loch Ness. The charity, based at Findhorn near Forres, has been working since the early 1990's to help bring about the conditions to see their vision realised. The Caledonian Forest was once part of the pinewoods that extended across the boreal region of northern Europe. Because of the rugged coastline and exposed condition the Scottish pinewoods were genetically different to the European mainland forests and there is considerable importance in bringing this forest ecosystem back into the Scottish Highlands. We are witnessing the ongoing destruction of forest ecosystems throughout the world and restoration in Scotland would send out positive signals by demonstrating how years of exploitation and devastation could be reversed.

Alan Watson Featherstone, founder and executive director of Trees for Life has written extensively on their vision of a total forest ecosystem and says, "To restore a true forest, rather than just a few pockets of natural woodland here and there, we need a vision, and action, on a larger, more coherent and co-ordinated scale. In order for native forests to have a viable future, they need to exist on a substantial scale, much greater than at present, in which all the natural ecological processes such as fire, storm damage, predation and regeneration, can occur freely again. The evolution of our forest ecosystems, and all their constituent species, has been interrupted by their dramatic decline, and this needs to be renewed, not just for the sake of Scotland, but also for the wellbeing and biological health of the planet." A controversial and headline grabbing aspect of their vision is the reintroduction of the mammals back into the forest. Their objective of bringing back predators such as bear and wolf would surely be difficult to see through given the current mix of sheep farming and game reserves in Scotland. Alan Watson Featherstone says, "In the longer term, we advocate the reintroduction all the locally-extinct large mammals. Those species, and particularly the predators at the top of the food chain, such as the brown bear, the lynx and the wolf, are essential to maintain the overall health and balance of the forest ecosystem, and there will never be a healthy, natural wild forest without them."

Scotland is home to a large population of deer, part of the recent history of Scotland's system of land tenure and the growth in sporting estates. While large herds undoubtedly do damage to the remaining natural balance of the landscape, their culling on estates only serves to strip the soil further of any nutrients as their carcasses are removed from the land. Wolves on the other hand are more selective by picking off the weaker animals and therefore ensuring a stronger species, the remains of which simply go back to the soil. The reintroduction of the total food chain not only replenishes the soil but also encourages the full activity of wildlife to develop around it. Together with the natural decay of the older trees, the full spectrum of life would exist. While the reintroduction of locally extinct predators would be a hard nut to crack, the UK government if in fact obliged to consider such initiatives under European legislation (Article 22 of the EC Habitats and Species Directive). The heavily subsidised sheep farming industry together with the questionable numbers of deer do suggest that in the not too distant future the total ecological vision may be on the agenda.

Trees for Life has worked with landowners, conservation groups and government agencies to enthuse the owners to implement their ideas. They are pioneering in the newly emerging field of ecological restoration, similar to that in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas around the world and also adopted on a smaller scale for woodland areas by the Millennium Forest For Scotland project. The strategy takes the view that 'nature knows best' and that restoration will not be complete until the effects of natural decay feed back into the soil, a process that will last several hundred years. The initial phases are, 1) protect the existing native trees, 2) plant in bare areas and regenerate the native species and 3) remove any non-native species. Using funding from the European Union LIFE Programme considerable progress has been made including the protecting from over grazing of over 150,000 naturally regenerating Scots pine seedlings and planting of over 472,000 Scots pine and native broad-leaved trees. All of the propagating of native trees in the Glen Affric area is from locally collected seeds.

Other groups are active in the regeneration process and a Caledonian Partnership has been created between the Forestry Authority, Forest Enterprise, Highland Birchwoods, the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Links have been made with Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Stirling Universities to allow study information to be fed back into the working groups. Recent work by the Millennium Forest for Scotland project concentrated on the regeneration of smaller woodland areas that although they won't create a forest on the magnitude and splendour as the Caledonian Forest, are many in number and location. Eighty separate projects on four hundred woodland sites have since been carried out to help regenerate and protect the native species. The plans are bold and direct and if continued support is there, the Caledonian Forest will escape from its association with the ghost like character that the Scottish Highlands had become. It will be recognised as a milestone in ecological restoration and a model for the world. We will not be around to witness the splendour of the landscape restored to its true character. But we will see the seeds sown, as a model for a new attitude that can be repeated in other continents. The seeds that are sown now will bring with them a renewed optimism that should extend well into the next generations.

Millennium Forest for Scotland. In 1995 a project to help restore and regenerate the native woodlands in Scotland got underway. Eighty separate projects on four hundred woodland sites have since been carried out to help regenerate and protect the native species. Work was organised in three phases, a) to protect the existing trees, b) to plant and help regenerate the native trees that include oak, birch, ash, aspen, alder, hazel, willow and Scots Pine and c) to removal any non-native species. The project was funded by the Millennium Commission and originally instigated by the World Wildlife Fund of Scotland. In total over 22,000 hectares (222 km2) has been planted, regenerated or taken into active management.

 

 

 
     
  other text files : Sweden : Bedzed : House For The Future : Oslo Life : Telemark Lofthus : Glencoe Visitor Centre : Astrology  
     
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  naturalspace magazine : Sustainable architecture and the natural world : copyright Natural Space Ltd 2004