Oaks rooted in 700 years of Scots history

ITS massive, gnarled and cracked trunk quickly splits into strangely twisted branches that hang heavy with dead wood. This ancient oak is showing its age.

Planted nearly seven centuries ago - when Robert the Bruce was still alive hunting deer and the wild, white Cadzow cattle along the banks of the River Clyde - the tree has stood resolutely as human relations with forests have slowly deteriorated.

Several hundred of its fellow ancients, in Chatelherault Country Park near Hamilton, made it through the years and are now considered so special that each one has been bar-coded to help with monitoring. But Scotland's aged woods have rarely been so highly prized.

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Cleared for farmland and cut for timber, they shrank to a tiny fraction of their former size as the people that the Romans called Caledonians, meaning people of the wooded hills, appeared to lose interest.

The forests along the banks of the Clyde survived largely because the sides of the gorge carved by the river were too steep to allow easy access to remove the timber.

Yesterday saw six woodland areas along about 15 miles of the river declared a "national treasure" with the launching of the Clyde Valley Woodlands Nature Reserve.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and South Lanarkshire Council hope to attract some of the two million people living within 25 miles to the reserves to reconnect with their ancient roots and relearn the value of our native woodland.

Those walking into the forest at Chatelherault quickly arrive at a stone bridge high over the River Avon, a tributary of the Clyde.

The near bank is littered with foreign 'invaders', trees like Douglas firs and western hemlock from North America, which are being progressively removed.

But once across the river these aliens thin out and the native oaks, elm, ash, birch, rowan and Scot's pine close in around the path. The still air seems warmer and the scent of the woods hangs in the air. The sounds of the river drift up a steep slope, cluttered with the dead wood from fallen branches and trees, where vines from the heavy undergrowth wind around some of the trees.

"It's a very intimate landscape," says Martin Twiss, an ecologist with SNH. "The gorge is so narrow that you are very close to the wildlife. You don't always see them but you will be within metres of things like woodpeckers.

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"When you are in the Highlands you only get to a mile away from a deer because they can see you coming."

The Clyde valley forests support animals such as roe deer, foxes, otters, bats, tawny owls, peregrine falcons, buzzards and goosanders along with rare beetles, a whole host of invertebrates and fungi. In fact the woods and others like them support about 9,000 different species - a level of biodiversity far greater than any other kind of countryside in Scotland.

"It's fundamental that we protect this area. It is a unique landscape but it is a landscape that is under-represented in the national consciousness," says Mr Twiss.

"There's pretty much woodland all along the valley. It is a wildlife corridor and it's perfect for wildlife. It's essential for animals to have a safe avenue to travel along, meet other animals of the same species and breed."

Badgers are particularly common with the steep, soft banks of the gorge making it easy to dig their setts. The numbers are uncertain but are thought to run into hundreds.

The new national nature reserve takes in two existing nature reserves - at Cartland Craigs and Cleghorn Glen, north of Lanark - as well as Chatelherault and Mauldslie Woods, owned by South Lanarkshire Council, and forests at Nethan Gorge and the Falls of Clyde, owned by SWT.

Reserve status is designed for the most precious of places - the valley contains a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other protected areas - and to attract visitors to learn about them.

The reserve is also nationally important for its wealth of rare invertebrate life. The endangered caddis fly is found there as well as a number of locally uncommon beetles that have found a refuge in the dead wood of fallen trees.

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In spring and early summer, the woodland floor becomes covered in a rich carpet of colourful plants such as dog's mercury, wood rush, wood anemone and bluebells as well as supporting rare species such as alternate-leaved golden saxifrage and herb paris.

Malcolm Muir, South Lanarkshire Council's countryside services manager and a former ranger at Chatelherault, where he is still based, said forests were about far more than simply trees.

"The importance of these woodlands is not about rare species, but a unique assemblage of species," he said.

"Most of the 9,000 species are things like fungi and protozoa and all the things that make the woodland work.

"Every scrap of agricultural soil we have in Scotland was formed in forests like this."

The ancient Cadzow oaks - which attract visitors from around the world - have long supported numerous flora and fauna: ferns and mosses grow in the crevices and holes in their bark, the rare, and tasty, beefsteak fungus grows on the bark, and is popular with insects such as the angle shades moth.

Bats also roost inside their largely hollow trunks while birds such as the goosander nest in their branches.

Whether humans can learn to live in such harmony with nature is a question that may take generations to answer, but it is likely that the oaks will still be around, even if none of us are.

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'Forests are like our original home... it's where we belong'

EVERYONE in Scotland should be able to walk from their home to a native woodland, the chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage said yesterday.

Andrew Thin, who was in Lanarkshire for the launch of a new national park covering six forests along the banks of the Clyde, called for more to be done to encourage the planting of trees in and near Scotland's towns and cities, saying it would improve the nation's health.

Forests not only helped people stay physically fit by getting out into the fresh air and taking exercise, but were relaxing places where people could recover from the stresses of modern life and "recreate" themselves, he said.

He also emphasised the economic value of forests which, he said, encourage people to come to Scotland.

"People choose to live in Scotland or come here because this is one of the most wonderful places in western Europe to live in," he said. "Purely from an economic point of view, it is essential we maintain and extend these fantastic assets.

"But they are also immensely important for our physical and mental health. Native woodland ought to be seen as a huge part of preventive healthcare in Scotland.

"It's good for us in a straightforward physical way to get out and enjoy it, get some exercise and fresh air. We all work in extremely stressful jobs and it is a very relaxing environment. Why that is, I do not know.

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"I would like a situation where every citizen, however rich or poor, is able to walk from their front door into a piece of native woodland."

Scotland is among Europe's least wooded countries, with about 17 per cent of its land covered by trees. However, only 4 per cent is native forest and 1 per cent of ancient origin.

Mr Thin said forests of broadleaved trees and Scots pine were being planted for future generations, but not enough was being done in urban areas.

"We are seeing all over Scotland significant amounts of new native woodland being created or recreated," he said. "Our great-grandchildren will see a much larger native forest. In some parts we are doing enough, but we are not doing enough in urban and peri-urban areas, where there are too many demands on the land."

Mr Thin said he hoped the new 340-acre Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve would convert town and city dwellers to the benefits of native woodlands and create demand for more.

"What we are demonstrating here is that this woodland is a major asset for people," he said. "A lot of this is about changing people's perception of these assets, not as some minority interest but central to people's quality of life, economic welfare and health.

"Well-managed native woodland with good, high-quality access provides a very important, relaxing place for people to escape pressures and recreate themselves."

A spokeswoman for the Forestry Commission said it had spent 9 million over the past three years on urban forestry schemes.

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"There is a forestry grant scheme specifically for encouraging urban regeneration through woodlands because of the health benefits and general feel-good factor," she said. "Drumchapel is one area that's benefited from urban funding."

Alan Watson Featherstone, executive director of Trees for Life, a charity working to replant the Caledonian forest in the Highlands, said a return to the woods would be like a homecoming: "I would say forests are kind of like our original homes as humans. We evolved in the trees and that's our normal habitat... if you like it's where we belong.

"I think there is something very intrinsic and fundamental about that which many people are aware of to a greater or lesser degree.

"The pace of life is so rapid these days, people are generally subject to over-stimulus. Stepping into a woodland environment, there is a very different pace where you can unwind and relax, with things like gently flowing water in a stream, or the song of birds and the visual experience of being in a forest with the shape of the trees and leaves fluttering."