Conservationists from Trees for Life aim to harness the power of local fungi to boost growth of native woodland at the charity’s Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness.
Experts and volunteers will add a special mix of spores collected from mushrooms on the Highland estate into the soil when growing seedlings in Dundreggan’s tree nursery and planting saplings on the hills this spring.
It’s hoped the move will improve growth, reduce the need for artificial fertilisers and help the young trees to better withstand tough growing conditions and attacks from pests.
Natural forest soils are full of important fungi that benefit trees and other plants.
But in severely deforested areas such as the Highlands, forests still containing healthy populations of these mushrooms are rare, small or fragmented – often separated by massive swathes of farmland and moorland.
This means it can take several years for fungi spores to settle near newly planted trees, by which time they may have become stunted or died off.
Work began last autumn to create the special mycorrhizal mushroom mixture, which contains 59 fungi species collected from old-growth forests at Dundreggan. A pinch of the black granules containing the local spores will be added to the planting holes of 20,000 trees in one section of the estate and applied to a selection of seedlings.
Trees for Life’s Doug Gilbert, operations manager at Dundreggan, said: “In tough, windswept environments such as those where we plant, newly planted trees need all the help they can get – especially in their early years.
“This magical mushroom mixture could speed up the return of the Caledonian Forest and its wildlife.”.
Mycorrhizal fungi live underground on tree roots in a mutually beneficial relationship that has evolved over 400 million years. Many plants cannot survive without them.
Expert help was drafted in to create a bespoke mixture for the Highland woodland.
Jacob Whitson, from specialist firm Chaos Fungorum, said: “Mycorrhizal fungi are one of our greatest allies for reforesting degraded landscapes, but they have been lost from soils because of issues including deforestation and overgrazing. By reintroducing them we can help trees.”
The results of the trial will be monitored to establish whether the measures are benefitting the trees.