Your Forest Needs You

Your Forest Needs You

The once mighty Caledonian forest has dwindled away to a fraction of its former size, leading to the loss of many native Scottish species. Volunteers are now leading the fight to bring back the ancient woodland. But they need help. Paul Mitchell explains how to get involved.

For centuries, the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands has been plundered to the point that it now covers only 1% of its original surface area. Out have gone the Scots pine, oak, willow, wolves, boars and beavers, to be replaced by predatory species, towns, roads and agricultural grazing land. The fight to save the forest is well and truly on, and among those riding in to save the day are Trees for Life, an organisation dedicated to repairing some of the damage caused by chronic deforestation.

But they need help. In these times of heightened environmental awareness, we all know the importance of trees in restoring the carbon dioxide/oxygen balance, providing nutrients for soil, shelter for animals and plants, and paper for printing copies of The Midgie. But at some point, awareness needs to translate into action. Trees For Life offers the opportunity for volunteers (aged 18 and up) to spend a week in the forest, assisting with the planting of over 100,000 trees in protected areas. One such volunteer, Stuart Muirhead, has spent four separate weeks planting trees, felling non-native species, removing fences and generally doing whatever it takes to ensure the success of the project. He does all this, he says, with the bigger picture in mind.

'It is a project of long-term goals,' he says, 'We’re planting trees, especially Scots pine, in order to link up the areas of the forest that are left. Once we achieve that, it will allow us to begin reintroducing native species like the beaver, lynx, and moose.'

In the very long-term they’d like to see everything that was lost, including predators such as the wolf, returned to their natural habitat. 'Whether or not that’s feasible remains to be seen, but we need to try,' he says.

Ten volunteers a week share accommodation in bothies and cabins dotted around the Highlands, with the option of taking part in a gentler nursery week available to those less physically able. Stuart says the first thing that struck him was the breadth of the participants’ backgrounds. 'There’s a huge variety to the type of volunteer we get. Some have environmental credentials, but there are quite a few people coming from the city who have just decided they want to remove themselves from their lives for a week; they seem to view it as a form of release. Without phone reception, laptops or TV, it’s a great way for people to just talk together. They get to feel good about themselves and there’s the added benefit of helping out the environment.'

Trees For Life’s target area is 600 square miles. That’s only a section of the original forest, but it’s still a mammoth task. 'It does feel at times like it’s a losing battle, but the more people who volunteer, the more hope it gives,' says Muirhead, pointing to an odd phenomenon of the volunteer demographic. 'I am always pleased to see Scottish people on the volunteer weeks, as it is often English or foreign volunteers who come up. This isn't a bad thing, but I think people take what’s on their doorstep for granted. I feel there is a responsibility to be a steward for future generations; I feel that responsibility and love meeting people who have taken that extra step to help the cause.'
Tel. 01309 691292 (local) or 0845 458 3505 (national)
You can discuss work weeks and read what other volunteers have to say on the independent website,
The organisation provides transport to and from Inverness at the start and end of the week.

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