A British Ecological Society Special Interest Group
Scottish Woodland History Conference: Scottish Natural Heritage Centre, Battleby, Perth. 28/10/2015
From Keith Kirby
Earlier this year we lost Oliver Rackham who did more than anyone else in recent years to bring the relevance of understanding woodland history to a wide audience. However his ideas and approaches are being taken forward in a variety of different fora. In Scotland for the last 20 years there has been a thriving Woodland History Group, coming together for an annual conference, usually in the Perth area. This year’s theme was ‘Tracing the decline of the ‘Caledonian Forest’ over six millennia’, but there was a lot within this of interest to a visitor from the south.
James Fenton set the meeting off to challenging start: ‘How much of Scotland was ever covered by forest’. His disputed the assumption that much of the landscape would (and perhaps should) be naturally tree-covered. Among his arguments were that accounts from the 16th centuries suggest relatively open conditions then, with significant deer populations, at a time when there were also (just) wolves around as well. Tree stumps are sometimes exposed in peat, but not everywhere. If we wish to develop a more natural landscape, should our model in fact be one of open moor/bog with only scattered trees and not much more than the current extent of woodland?
This view was, not surprisingly, challenged and most participants probably felt more at home with Richard Tipping’s account of ‘The demise of Scotland’s woodland c. 4,000BC-1,000AD’. The picture painted was of extensive woodland cover over large areas through to late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age times, albeit with evidence for localised clearances and in some cases regeneration phases. Modern pollen studies, combined with archaeological and other approaches are increasingly picking up that relatively short periods (perhaps a few decades) when the climate deteriorates can trigger vegetation changes; improved methods are also able to detect surprisingly large variations in what was happening to the woodland in different parts of Scotland at any one time. So there appears, during the late Iron Age, to have major expansion of farming in some parts of Scotland perhaps over a few decades. This probably reflected local re-organisation and structuring of societies, rather than simply population increase. While climate changes contributed to the vulnerability of Scotland’s woods to clearance farming does seem to be the major cause.
John Gilbert looked at ‘Documentary evidence of medieval management of woodland in Scotland’. There are the familiar problems of trying to understand how particular words were being used in the various accounts, some of which are in Latin, others in the vernacular – I particularly liked the term ‘Scrogg’ which refers to coppice. Despite such uncertainties there is evidence for management at some sites in the 12th and 13th centuries – references to allowing harvesting of woodland, to the protection of areas through fences or walls, of fines for woodland destruction and limits on the sales of wood. More is probably waiting to be found.
Rob Wilson was the only speaker to focus specifically on the ‘Caledonian Forest’ in its sense of the native pinewoods ‘The Scots Pine Rollercoaster’. Using tree-ring cores from living trees and from sub-fossil remains of pine he and colleagues have constructed sequences of regeneration, growth and disturbance going back for at least the last millennium. The key sites studied show strongly pulsed patterns of regeneration following major disturbances. Over the last few centuries these disturbances appear to have been mainly major fellings.
David Hetherington explored the history of the lynx in Britain which may have survived into the 16th century in Scotland. He stressed its dependence, as an ambush predator on roe deer, on high levels of woodland cover, so that loss of woodland cover as much as direct persecution could have driven it to extinction. Wolves survived for somewhat longer because they are not dependent on woodland landscapes. He also suggested that the elk (moose) might have made it through into historic times (based on references in a poem). So inevitably the question of re-introductions came up: any proposal would need to go through the full consultation processes, but the fact that perhaps these species were with us not as long ago as once thought may be seen as a positive factor for bringing them back.
The final talk of the day was by Duncan Halley on ‘Woodland history in South-West Norway’ focussing particularly on the massive increase in woodland cover by natural regeneration that has occurred there in the last century. He stressed that in terms of climate, geology and many aspects of land-use history late 19th century S.W. Norway and Scotland were very similar, with low levels of woodland cover, high cover of peat and a dominance of pastoral farming. Massive emigration from Norway in the late 19th/early 20th century led to large scale abandonment of many of the small farms and the tree cover has expanded considerably. Could this happen in Scotland? One important difference is that when farming (particularly sheep numbers) declined in Norway the deer were also at a very low level: the farms were mostly owner-occupied and there were no restrictions on hunting on your own land. So there would have been a window of low herbivore pressure to kick-start the expansion. However woodland is still spreading, even though deer numbers have built up to the point where their body condition was starting to decline (so a high cull level has been encouraged).
Overall this was a fascinating day that lived up well to the standards of previous years and left with a number of ideas and leads that I hope to follow up. Further details of the meeting can be found on the group’s website at http://www.nwdg.org.uk/history_group_4.html
Keith Kirby 29/10/15