Outdoors: A pine of the times

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THERE is something special about the Scots pine that is hard to define. That it is an imposing and attractive tree is inarguable, but it has something more.

This “x-factor” is encapsulated in a lone Scots pine I know in a remote Highland glen, which clings to a steep slope and is relatively stunted in growth because of its exposed location. But the presence of an eagle’s eyrie on one of the lower branches underlines the much bigger role the tree plays in our environment.

Mature Scots pine woods are magical places, with the trees having distinctive large, flat-topped canopies and bark that can be markedly red or orange in places, especially towards the tops. Equally compelling are the lines of pines often found along the ridge of a rounded hill that are used as shelter belts for sheep, and which form distinctive landmarks that can be seen from many miles away.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Scots pine was recently put forward by campaigner Alex Hamilton in a petition to the Scottish Government to be adopted as Scotland’s national tree, for it is so indelibly ingrained in both our cultural and natural histories. It is Scotland’s only large native conifer, but the natural forest cover it once provided has undergone a quite startling reduction over the past few centuries because of the much prized qualities of its wood.

This demise is well summarised by Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, who wrote: “In medieval times, the great forest of native pine and birch stretched across most of the Highlands, from Perth to Ullapool. But from the late 17th century, it began to be ransacked, first to provide charcoal for lowland iron foundries, then to support the insatiable timber demands of the Napoleonic wars. Any chance that the trees might regenerate was dashed by the notorious Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries and the blanketing of the denuded hills with sheep and later with deer. By the 1970s it was estimated that little more than 25,000 acres remained, much of it in small, scattered clumps.”

The Scots pine has always been a useful tree to mankind. It provides top-quality timber that is easily worked and used for a wide range of products such as pit props, telegraph poles, building and furniture. As well as charcoal, the tree was a major source of turpentine, resin and tar. The cones, sometimes known as “dead apples”, make good kindling.

Such was the scale of uncontrolled harvesting over the centuries that the extent of remnant natural Caledonian forest now covers only one per cent of its post Ice Age range. Despite this, there is still a reasonable number of fine natural pine forests around that can be enjoyed today, including Glencharnoch near Aviemore and Migdale pinewood near Bonar Bridge, both belonging to the Woodland Trust Scotland. Others include the RSPB reserve at Abernethy on Speyside, the Trees for Life wood at Dundreggan near Loch Ness, Glen Affric, and Glen Tanar in Aberdeenshire.

Regeneration schemes are underway in these and other places to conserve and extend forest cover. There are also many commercial plantations, meaning the tree is making something of a welcome resurgence. However, conservationists and foresters are constantly wary of disease threats such as band needle blight, which is widely found in Corsican pine and is now spreading to Scots pine.

The overwhelming attraction of Scots pine woods is the associated fauna and flora, including red squirrels, pine martens, capercaillie, black grouse, crested tit and the endemic Scottish crossbill.

Unusual plants include juniper, cowberry, chickweed wintergreen, lesser twayblade, twinflower and creeping lady’s tresses orchid. In wetter parts can be found bog myrtle, grass-of-Parnassus and bog asphodel. There are less obvious species too. Aphids thrive on the sap of Scots pine and in turn support wood ants. The deadwood habitat provided by old or dead trees supports rare insects, including the specialist hoverfly Callicera rufa, which lays its eggs in holes formed in the rotting wood of old pine trees. On the woodland floor can be found scarce tooth fungi.

It is for all these reasons – and many more besides – that the native Scots pine is such an iconic tree. It is an integral part of our landscape that has helped shape our history and supports a wealth of wildlife – a truly outstanding candidate as our national tree.

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