A rare mountain-top forest being planted in the Highlands will be the largest of its kind in Scotland and could provide new homes for iconic species such as the golden eagle, ring ouzel and mountain hare, according to conservationists.
The new 700-acre woodland, which is to be established on Carn na Caorach hill near Loch Ness, will have 100,000 native trees that are specially adapted to living in harsh, high-altitude conditions.
The move is part of ongoing work to restore the country’s lost Caledonian Forest, spearheaded by conservation charity Trees for Life. The hilltop site, which stands between 450 and 600 metres above sea level, is part of the organisation’s Dundreggan conservation estate at Glenmoriston.
The place would have originally been home to tough, waist-high “wee trees” such as dwarf birch and downy willow, known as montane species because they can thrive in exposed upland areas.
But centuries of overgrazing by deer and sheep have left most of Scotland stripped of this once-common habitat.
“Montane woodlands are a vital part of Scotland’s precious Caledonian Forest, but are often restored over only small areas, if at all,” said Doug Gilbert, who manages the Dundreggan estate for Trees for Life.
“To bring these special wee trees back from the brink and create habitats for the wildlife that depends on them we need something bigger – and that’s what we’re setting out to achieve at Carn na Caorach.”
This month the charity has erected its largest-ever exclosure – a fence designed to protect young trees by keeping grazing animals out – at the site, supported by funding from Scottish Natural Heritage’s state-backed Biodiversity Challenge Fund. Volunteers will begin the first phase of planting the new woodland next spring.
Trees including downy willow and dwarf birch will go on the higher ground, while Scots pine and juniper will be dug in on the lower slopes.
Further planting will continue over the next few years.
The initiative will also see the return of plants including wood cranesbill, globeflower and alpine sowthistle, which in turn support mammals, birds, and pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.
The new forest will also help to tackle climate change by locking away carbon dioxide and reduce flooding by improving the soil’s capacity to retain water.