Rewild a forest

Bringing an ancient landscape back to life in the Scottish Highlands

I’ll say right here that I’m an unabashed tree hugger. I love the gnarled beauty of ancient trees, the bounty of fruit-bearing trees and I especially love the way trees mark the seasons. I’ve spent long moments contemplating an ornamental plum tree near my home in what was once an orchard, and I sometimes like to curl up on the low-hanging branch of an oak and watch the world go by.

So I’m excited about the prospect of helping to restore an entire forest, which – thanks to Trees for Life, an award-winning nature-led conservation charity based in the Scottish Highlands – is just what I’m about to do. Rewilding is a movement fast gathering steam in Britain: its aim is to help breathe life back into nature and in so doing, ourselves. Close your eyes: imagine land, stripped of its natural riches, ecologically damaged, with little biodiversity and many species in dramatic decline.

Now imagine that same land, carpeted with green grass, alive with native trees, birdsong, butterflies, insects, plants and wild animals – including such species as lynx, wild boar and even wolves, all of which once thrived in Britain. This is what can happen when you give nature a helping hand. Trees for Life wants to be a part of making this happen.

Since 1989, thanks to the passion of its founder Alan Watson-Featherstone, the charity has been on a mission to restore the entire Caledonian Forest. This is a vast wilderness of mountains, trees and wildlife that once covered much of the Scottish Highlands and is now drastically reduced in size, owing to deforestation and overgrazing, with much of its precious wildlife disappearing with it.

But there’s hope: founder Alan Watson-Featherstone is determined, as he puts it, to ‘start the clock of life again’. He can’t do it alone though, so Trees for Life offer rewilding weeks. They’re part practical conservation work, part lashings of the great outdoors, Highlands-style, and part end-of-day knees-up. But will a tree hugger feel at home here? Rewilding may involve activities more robust than benign tree planting.

“Imagine that same land, carpeted with green grass, alive with native trees, birdsong, butterflies, insects, plants and wild animals. This is what can happen when you give nature a helping hand.”

This is the question on my mind as I set off on the long journey from London. Trees for Life offer volunteer weeks in four Highlands locations. My base is a former hunting lodge on the Dundreggan Estate, a 4,000-hectare expanse of wild land which the charity owns. It’s about an hour’s drive southwest of Inverness, between the village of Invermoriston on the banks of Loch Ness, and Glenmoriston, a valley through which flows the River Moriston. (Sounds confusing, I know!)

This is a hauntingly beautiful part of Britain. The rain, when it falls – which is often – can induce melancholy but also a sweet surrender to nature’s moods. You’re never far from an invigorating, waymarked walk into woodland or heathery moors. And the lodge comes complete with fully stocked kitchen, dining room, library, light-filled lounge and warm, carpeted bedrooms with bunk beds.

“This is a hauntingly beautiful part of britain. the rain, when it falls – which is often – can induce melancholy but also a sweet surrender to nature’s moods.”

The week is an intensely communal one. Our group take turns doing the cooking, although you’re free to step away from whatever conservation task you’ve been assigned and wander off for reflective time, a liberty I intend to take full advantage of. There’s also a day off midweek, to go rambling, chill out at the lodge or make a trip to Inverness. Our group of nine spans an impressive age range, from 23 to 85.

There are also three leaders – or ‘focalisers’ as they like to be called. The first afternoon is an orientation and tree identification walk. This is an opportunity to grasp some of the challenges that the forest faces. There are too many deer for a start. ‘They graze on seeds and browse young saplings, which stops the forest recovery,’ explains Emma, one of our guides. Of course, it’s not the deer’s fault.

Here and there, we see young trees protected by tree guards. The following day, carrying our packed lunches, we’re driven to plantation forests on the estate. The Forestry Commission is now helping Trees for Life in their rewilding mission. We spend a whole day weeding out Sitka spruce, which grow faster than the native Scots pines and prevent natural regeneration of the forest. On the next we ring-bark non-native trees, which means peeling off the bark, effectively killing them. The idea of ‘taking out’ a tree feels horribly harsh to me and goes against the grain. (We wouldn’t do that with people, would we?)

But, as Emma explains, it’s not where a tree comes from that matters but the role it plays in the ecosystem. And much as my fellow volunteers and I would rather not be killing trees, we do our best to look at the bigger picture. Ultimately this is all about restoring the forest to its glory.

As Trees for Life’s founder says on an educational video we watch one evening: ‘Planting a pine is giving birth to the ancient forest of the future.’ It’s can be hard to admire the views of the glen and woods when your sight is obscured by a midge-repelling hood – vital, as the little clouds of insects hover insistently – but during breaks I nestle into the crook of a tree (not one I’m about to murder), breathe in the scent of pines and take in the palette of colours against the hillsides: a cornucopia of greens, contrasted against the lilac heather.

The parts of my week I like best involve learning to identify the different conifer trees. This takes me by surprise – I’m not one for forensically naming things – but I soon become obsessive in my comparison of Scots pine, Sitka spruce and larch. The needles and how they’re arranged are the big ID clues, if you’re wondering.

I also enjoy feeding the wild boar in their enclosure. These hooved mammals – once native to the UK’s indigenous forests – are part of Trees for Life’s rewilding vision. Their wild stomping and rooting disturbs the soil, controls the growth of bracken and creates ideal conditions for forest-friendly birch seeds to grow. Happier-looking hogs I’ve yet to see and rather sweetly the robins follow them too, in search of worms. We spend an entire day stapling wood to the fences of their vast enclosure, so that grouse can see them in time to avoid flying into them and injuring themselves. The pay-off for our hard work is the poetic Highlands views.

Wild boar have been introduced to the Dundreggan estate. (BL)

“During breaks I nestle into the crook of a tree (not one I’m about to murder), breathe in the scent of pines and take in the palette of colours against the hillsides.”

Back indoors, once we’ve removed our hi-vis jackets, protective goggles and gloves, we’re either convivially cooking and eating wholesome meals or sitting round a crackling fire, reading one of the many nature books from the library – George Monbiot’s Feral, which devotes a whole chapter to Trees for Life, is here – or listening to music.

I’m grateful for the solitude on my day off when, amid pouring rain and gusty winds, I climb the nearest peak to the lodge. The views of the valley and hills from atop Binnilidh Bheag are worth the soaking. By the time I’ve come down the trail, the sun has burst through and I spend a few hours basking on the rocks of a waterfall, now a trickle. The one thing I don’t get to do is tree-planting – the very thing I’d come up for – as there are no sessions on the week I’m there. But completing horticultural tasks in the tree nursery – crushing fragrant juniper berries to save the seeds and replanting fragile willow seedlings into trays – appeases me.

Remarkably, over 60,000 trees are grown here each year. As for my tree knowledge, at the beginning of the week it was virtually nil. By the end I’ve aced the light-hearted tree quiz we’re set on the last night. Aspen, silver birch, Scots pine, lodgepole pine, rowan, alder, Sitka spruce and larch: they’re all tripping off my tongue.

Do you need to know the name of a thing to connect with it? Not necessarily. And yet I can’t deny that since that week my love for trees has deepened: I’m more attentive to the colour and shape of a tree’s leaves or needles; more aware of the texture of its bark; more appreciative of its girth and canopy.