THEY are windswept islands renowned for their treeless landscapes – but it hasn’t always been this way.
Now landowners on the Western Isles are to be offered new grants to help recover the archipelago with forests once again.
Ministers will this week announce that grants almost double the size of those given to farmers on the mainland will be made available to help boost native species, such as birch, willow, rowan and aspen.
Studies have revealed that the Outer Hebridean chain has just 0.1 per cent of native woodland cover, far less than most areas of Scotland.
Now landowners in the Western Isles will get a subsidy of £4,160 for every hectare of native woodland planted under the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), compared to £2,224 on the mainland.
Environment minister Stewart Stevenson urged landowners to take advantage of the grant. “Establishing more trees will not only offer variety in the landscape but will also increase biodiversity and offer shelter to people and to livestock,” he said.
“We became aware that the previous levels of support from SRDP were insufficient to revive local interest in establishing woodland on the islands. This new level of support, together with the specialist advice and assistance available from Forestry Commission Scotland, offers local land managers a golden opportunity to get involved in woodland creation across the islands.”
Pollen records show that the islands had a naturally wooded landscape up to 8,000 years ago, but as human settlement spread the tree cover was gradually cut down to provide wood for burning and grazing land for animals.
The islands have been depleted of mass tree cover for centuries now, but forestry experts believe that despite the often harsh climate – the island’s are one of the windiest regions in Europe which severely hampers tree growth at heights of just 100 metres above sea level – woodlands can thrive again.
A previous report prepared for the island’s council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, states: “Growing trees in the Western Isles is on the margin in terms of physical factors, including wind exposure and soils. However, provided site and species are carefully chosen, as in much of upland Scotland and parts of Norway with similar conditions, trees can, and do, grow successfully.”
The new grant will be available until 2013 and landowners must agree to plant an area between 0.25 hectares and 3 hectares, and must avoid deep peat and traditional machair grasslands.
At present, tree plantations are in isolated pockets, such as in the grounds of Lews Castle in Stornoway on Lewis, and cover just a tiny fraction of the islands. Although there are some large plantations of commercially-grown, imported pine species, they are not viewed as enhancing the island environment.
Councillor Archie Campbell, chairman of the Comhairle’s sustainable development committee, said: “The recent Native Woodland Survey of Scotland found that the Outer Hebrides had only 336ha of native woodland – less than 0.1 per cent of total land area – and it’s no surprise that we value these woodlands greatly. We are delighted to see this enhanced support for planting new native woodlands.”
Applications will be assessed by Forestry Commission Scotland.
John Risby, conservator for the Highlands and Islands at Forestry Commission Scotland, said the lack of cover “reflects the historic land uses with settlement and burning and grazing”, and that the lower rate previously offered under the SRDP had not reflected the extra costs faced for planting woodland on the islands.
“The costs are so much higher so we were finding that no-one was wanting to plant trees because it was so expensive,” he said. “So we have been through a process to get a higher rate of grant.
“The big issue in the Western Isles is exposure, which means you have to plant them at a much higher density, so you need more trees. You also have to bring the plants and materials over from the mainland, so it costs more.”
Risby said it was very important to have a wide range of native woodlands. “They are quite different to the open habitats like the machair and the peatlands. They support a different array of flora and fauna and contribute a lot in terms of biodiversity.
“And the other important aspect is how people relate to them. They are somewhere people visit or walk in or just enjoy, and they contribute to the landscape.”