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Trees for Life

Founded by Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life is a longstanding project in the Scottish Highlands looking to make positive change through practical action. In a mission to re-establish the nearly-lost Caledonian Forest, to date they have planted over a million trees, with the ambition to plant a million more by 2018. They organise volunteer work-weeks so people from all over can be a part of rebuilding the iconic pinewood landscape in Scotland.

In Scotland there once was a great forest that stretched from the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands down into the Lowlands. These vast woodlands were alive with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, in which wolves roamed, bears played, and lynxes shuffled through the vibrant undergrowth. However, today the Caledonian Forest has retreated to less than two per cent of its former range and has splintered into small woodland remnants scattered amongst the moors, glens and lochs, losing many species that once called Scotland home. Despite the debate over the Myth of Caledon – whether the forest depleted at man’s hand or nature’s, or both – the slithers of forest remaining today are under threat.

In the heart of the Scottish Highlands lies the magnificent Glen Affric, considered by many to be the most beautiful glen in Scotland. Glen Affric runs for 30 miles from the rugged, snow-laden mountains and barren moors in its eastern reaches, following the River Affric to a beautiful pinewood forest, one of the last Caledonian Forest remnants. There, the rich tapestry of colours and textures, of towering Scots pines, birches, aspens, rowans, willows, alders, all sprouting from a carpet of juniper, heather and bilberry, is breathtaking. Amongst the patchwork of evergreens and deciduous trees live rare biota who rely on this environment.

Alan Watson Featherstone Portrait Right Page
Alan Watson Featherstone Portrait Left Page

It was here over three decades ago that a young Scotsman, Alan Watson Featherstone, wandered into the woodland and was awed by its beauty. Upon closer inspection, however, he could see that many of the trees were mature and coming to the end of their lives, and that there were very few young trees to uphold the mantle of the Caledonian Forest in years to come. After many visits, he felt a compelling responsibility to help restore the forest and bring it back to health.

Alan Watson Featherstone: One Man’s Vision

From an industrial town outside Glasgow, Alan’s connection with nature was deepened by an extensive trip to Canada when he was 19 years old: “The Rocky Mountains, where there’s big mountains, big forests, and lots of wildlife, were a revelation. It was an intact natural ecosystem with all its species there – it was unlike anything I had experienced before”, he says. Following university, Alan returned to Canada and continued on to South America, visiting the Galapagos Islands, Tierra del Fuego, the Andes, and the Amazon. “I was looking for what I was going to do with my life; I didn’t really find it but what I did discover was a deepening appreciation for the natural world and its beauty.”

In 1977, after more three years away, Alan was to return to Scotland. During a stopover in New York City he discovered a book called The Findhorn Garden, about the gardens of the Findhorn community and eco-village in the Scottish Highlands, and how nature has intelligence and consciousness.“It struck me that finding this book in a little shop two days before returning to my native land perhaps wasn't a coincidence,” he says. “So I went to Findhorn, a community based on the premise that we can deeply listen to nature and work in harmony with it. And that struck a resonant chord with me, so I moved there.”

At Findhorn, where Alan still lives today, he worked his first four years in one of the gardens where he further deepened his connection with nature. “Up until then, like many people, I liked to go watch a sunset, or climb a mountain, or walk in the forest and come back feeling a sense of peace and inspiration, but it was very much a one-way relationship; I was just receiving something from nature. Being in the garden taught me what I could give back.”

Grid One Picking Out Seedlings
Grid One Poly Tunnel Scots Pine
Grid One Poly Tunnel Wide

It was at this time that Alan first went to Glen Affric and, accustomed to the bare hills of the Highlands, he was astounded by its magnificent pinewood forest. For him, it drew similarities to the Canadian landscape he had greatly admired. “I enjoyed being in Glen Affric but I could see that the forest was in trouble and was dying. The old trees were disappearing and not being replaced and I felt that the land was calling out for help. I kept thinking that someone needed to do something otherwise the forest was going to disappear, and after a couple of years I thought perhaps that person should be me.”

At an environmental conference Alan organised at Findhorn in 1986, he made a public commitment in front of the 300 delegates to launch a project to restore the Caledonian Forest. However, at the time he had no skill or training in forestry or ecology; he had no funds, no access to land, and no workforce. He had nothing, other than the sense that this was what he needed to do: “I was seeing something that needed addressing in the world and I felt I had the opportunity to do something about it”.

After three years of logistical proceedings, the first small-scale work began in 1989, with protecting individual trees with tree guards. That year also saw the beginning of a partnership with the Forestry Commission which enabled larger scale work to begin. Since then, over the course of nearly three decades decades, Trees for Life has planted over a million trees.

Grid Two Glen Affric Top Left Grid

A 250-year Plan

The Highlands are mostly a jigsaw of large privately-owned estates, many of which are run as traditional sporting estates; much of the remainder is owned by the Forestry Commission and conservation charities. A large problem in the Scottish Highlands is the sedentary deer population who eat the young trees and seedlings, preventing the cycle of a healthy forest to continue. This has drawn tension between estate owners who rely on high deer populations for hunting, and those who hope to regenerate and protect the forest.

“In the Highlands nature is completely out of balance; a healthy ecosystem, in simple terms, is like a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the vegetation, then it’s the herbivores that eat the vegetation, which is everything from caterpillars to deer and also domestic stock like sheep, and then you’ve got the top tier, which is the predators that feed on the herbivores. In Scotland in the past we had the lynx, the wolf, and the bear, but they are all gone. So we have taken the top of the pyramid away completely and we’ve shrunk the base of the pyramid, the vegetation, with over 98 per cent of the original forest now gone. The herbivores have increased out of all proportion: deer numbers have more than doubled in the last 30 years and today sheep still outnumber people in Scotland.”

Grid Two Glen Affric Bottom Left Grid
Grid Three Glen Affric Bottom Right Grid
Grid Two Glen Affric Top Right Grid

Rewilding, the restoration of naturally occurring ecological systems including the reintroduction of apex predators and keystone species, has become a hot topic in recent years. In past decades, countries across the globe have been implementing rewilding programmes in a plethora of natural environments, from the grasslands of North America, to the tropical forests of Central America, to river deltas in Europe, to the bushland of Australia. A cornerstone for rewilding was the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, USA, in 1995: scientists and ecologists witnessed a trophic cascade where the whole ecosystem went through a series of positive changes thanks to top-down influencing factors. Amongst the positive effects, the wolves created a landscape of fear which encouraged herbivores like elk to browse more widely. A consequence was that the woodlands became healthier through natural regeneration.

“It is important to recognise that the function of predators goes beyond just killing their prey; they do a lot more than that. In Yellowstone they are witnessing a whole ecological phenomena and, in my view, we’ll never have a healthy ecosystem in Scotland until we have all the component species back in place,” says Alan.

Trees for Life focusses on restoring forest woodlands with the hope that they will re-establish viable habitats for the reintroduction of keystone species in the future. For Alan, his staff and their supporters, the mission goes beyond planting trees, and they hope to begin fixing a fundamentally broken ecology. “Our society tends to look at nature in relatively small timescales. At Trees for Life we work with a 250-year vision. I think collectively we need to start thinking on ecological timescales if we want to create a viable, sustainable long-term future for ourselves and all other life on the planet.”

Trees for Life Today

Trees for Life relies heavily on its volunteer contingent who work in tandem with permanent staff. Together, they work to support natural restoration, plant native species, and remove invasive species; they collect seeds, foster their germination, nurse the seedlings, plant them, and continue to protect them. But this process takes many years and involves many hands. Across the greenhouses and polytunnels of Dundreggan, a 10,000-acre estate that the charity purchased in 2008 and use as their primary site, there are thousands of trees at all stages of life. When ready, volunteers move the young trees out to Glen Affric or one of their other planting sites.

Grid Three Glen Affric Top Left Grid
Grid Three Glen Affric Top Right Grid
Grid Three Glen Affric Bottom Right Grid

Some volunteers opt for adventure and are sited out in the remote reaches of Glen Affric, trekking miles daily and staying in an old bothy. For many, the experience draws them closer to nature and profoundly impacts them – some have even altered the course of their lives following a Trees for Life work-week. As Alan explains, many people who care about the environment often look to make a positive difference in the world, but most environmental work is centred around conflict and damage limitation, which is often disheartening as environmentalists rarely come out on top. Whereas Trees for Life offers a proactive and positive approach: “We aren’t fighting against anyone; we are nurturing the life-force of the land and encouraging its recovery. And when people are engaged in that they find it empowering.

“It is very humbling to see the change planting a tree can make and it is tremendously thrilling to see that I’ve set something in motion that will have a huge impact. A Scots pine lives, on average, for 250 years, and the trees we are planting are in remote areas so there’s little likelihood that they’ll ever be cut down. Therefore, we are doing something that will have a long-term positive impact. It’s a gift to the future.” •

Left Page Lonely Scots Pine
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This story is from Volume Seven

The Natural World Volume

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