In praise of pines

Even though Scots pines are an integral part of an unspoilt landscape, we are largely unaware of the pressing need to protect them

Though it is earth forces, Ice Ages, time and tide that have largely honed Scotland as we know it today, for centuries man has had a great influence on the landscape, and many of the features we consider to be beautiful are there purely due to his efforts. Patchworks of fields with ever-changing cropping, and hillsides etched with lines from the old runrig system are all there due to man.

Paradoxically, he sadly wreaks havoc too, bulldozing his way through all types of terrain in order to develop and expand. In Scotland, landscape is probably the most important asset we have, yet its vulnerability is largely overlooked. Trees are an interesting example. They are a vital part of our existence due to their important role as providers of oxygen, and can be stunningly beautiful, providing timber for a myriad different uses.

However, in the past, unsympathetic planting has led to miserablelooking blanket forestry – its commercial value the only consideration. Monoculture forestry is surely one of the most soulless landscapes; from a distance covering the almost invisible contours of hills in serried ranks. Underneath these forests, an over-powering dank darkness swallows up every stray ray of light. Forestry of this kind is largely sterile when it comes to wildlife. And when it is clear-felled the resulting detritus is equally unattractive. Happily we are now more enlightened and new grant schemes encourage an entirely different type of planting, incorporating different species that can change the outlook totally.

Trees are a vital part of our existence due to their important role as providers of oxygen, and can be stunningly beautiful.

Once much of Scotland was covered with beautiful native Scots pine trees. Due to turmoil and strife, wars, the heavy demand for strong timber, forest fires, overgrazing, and man’s intrusion, only 1% of the Caledonian pine forest now remains, clinging on in a few remote locations with most of the trees nearing the end of their lives. These fragile and valuable woodlands are a vital part of our natural heritage and as such are now protected, with schemes to aid regeneration. In some areas grazers are removed, while in others fences help to keep them out. Initially fencing too had repercussions, for the very species that we are trying to encourage, such as blackgame and capercaillie, died by colliding with them.










Much of Scotland was once covered with the native Scots pine.

Measures are now taken to avoid these disasters and markers fitted to new fences. Compared to many other pine trees, the Scots pine is probably the loveliest, not only because it covers a hillside in a totally different way to its commercial rivals, but also because its shape is never uniform, always brimming with character; an old woman, lined and weatherbeaten, gnarled, and wind-bent. The grey-fissured bark that frequently glows almost red-gold in low light not only houses literally hundreds of insects, but it also provides the perfect habitat for rare mosses and lichens.

Unusual fungi have a symbiotic relationship with this ancient tree, drawing copious quantities of nutrients through its extensive root system. Both male and female cones are produced and take three seasons to reach maturity. The male cones have yellow flowers and often their rich pollen is seen in a backlit puff against the sun on a sultry summer’s afternoon. The female cones start out a delicate soft green and eventually evolve into the brown cones often found on the ground below. Unlike many other needled trees with their typical conical shape, the Scots pine frequently has a characteristic flat, or round top – a most popular nest site for ospreys, one of the few birds that will nest on a tree’s crown. Side branches add new and dramatic dimensions, like wayward limbs, giving rise to the appropriate nickname of Granny Pine.

A walk in a native pine forest is entirely different to any other woodland. With the all-embracing aroma of pine resin and a rich under-storey where plants such as blaeberry, cowberry, the rare twinflower and many orchids thrive, other native trees and shrubs also exist, including juniper, birch, willow and oak scrub. This is the home of our only endemic bird, the Scottish crossbill. It is also perfect habitat for many other species such as the crested tit, capercaillie, blackcock, golden eagle and osprey, and a wealth of mammals including the badger, fox, pine marten, wildcat, red squirrel and roe and red deer.

The native pinewood is probably one of the richest habitats we have. We see pine trees as an integral part of unspoilt landscapes – they epitomise true wilderness and are what make so many remote locations even more special, yet we are still largely unaware of the pressing need to protect them. They may cling to what appears to be a bare rock on a loch-side, or high up a hill in remote peninsulas such as Knoydart, or they may cover small craggy islets. In the northern reaches of the mainland they may stand singly, proud and aloof, vestiges of an arboreal Scotland of the past. They can also grow close to the sea, salt-battered and able to withstand massive gales and lashing rain, bending and twisting with the elements until they appear so much a part of them. This is not a tree that is long-lived, nor particularly vast, though there are exceptions. Places such as Glen Affric, the wilder reaches of Glen Lyon, the Cairngorms and the Black Wood of Rannoch still have good examples of the Scotland of old. Due to the amount of resin produced by a pine tree, the timber is very slow to decay. Remnants of pine stumps like bleached skeletons still remain preserved in bogs. So why should the Scots pine be so vital? Not only does it stand for all that we love about truly wild Scotland, but it is a key species in a vanishing wilderness.






Plants such as the blaeberry can grow in native pine forest

Many creatures associated with the pine forests of old have long gone; the bear, lynx, and wolf are sadly extirpated. Many think they should be returned, but in a society where there is little understanding of wildness, are we open enough to tolerate such creatures in our midst again? People fear wolves because they simply do not understand. To see and hear one silhouetted against a magnificent pine by moonlit would be a perfect idyll. However, for now we should concentrate on replanting and encouraging our native Scots pine, for this is surely the missing link and would help to ensure that some areas of Scotland at least could revert to their former glory.

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