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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.

Words by Rachel Maria Taylor, Imagery by Jody Daunton

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Left: The picking out process with tiny tree seedlings. Centre: Young Scots pine.  Right: One of the many poly-tunnel's at Dundreggan, Scotland


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.” 

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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.

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 longterm positive impact. It’s a gift to the future.