First came the birches…
…and then came the pines…
… and then the oak…
This is a crude description of the order with which our island became re-forested after the last Ice Age eight or nine thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the trees advanced. In the high mountains of Scotland, the pines were kings. Just about everywhere else, our lands were carpeted with oak dominated woodland. And so the Wildwood became.
To say that we have deforested our ‘green and pleasant land’ would be an understatement of spectacular proportions. Only tiny fragments of ancient forest remain, and nowhere has it been untouched. Nowhere.
But… perhaps the closest we can experience to this original wild woodland is in Scotland. The temperate oak rainforests of the West coast, and the pockets of Scots Pine that remain in the Highlands. I recently visited both.
Taynish and the temperate rainforests
The Taynish peninsula is the westernmost-but-one protuberance on the larger (famously phallic) Kintyre peninsula on the South West coast of Scotland. The main woodland area is dominated by two ridges (one of which can be seen above) and a marshy valley in between (also seen above). Water surrounds. The lochs are fished by Osprey (which I saw there) and Otters (which I didn’t – although I had seen them on Mull the day before).
This is one of the few areas believed to have been continuously covered in woodland since the last Ice Age with soil pollen records showing only a dip in the Iron Age when man felled some of the trees and again in the 18th-early 20th Century when the woodland was heavily, albeit largely sustainably, coppiced. For the last fifty-plus years the woodland has been allowed to gently revert, edging closer (even if never reaching) its original pristine state.
The woodland is called temperate rainforest because of the volume of rainfall (well over three times the amount of rain that falls in London), the relatively mild climate (as a sheltered peninsula in the South of Scotland), and the number of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts etc) and epiphytes (that grow on other plants also including moss, lichen, and ferns). It actually reminded me more of Cloud forest (that I have seen in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) rather than rainforest. It is magnificent; I am not sure I have been anywhere in the UK that feels so alive.
The understorey is rich and varied. The diversity of fungi, mosses, lichens, grasses, liverworts, slime moulds, ferns, orchids, and other higher plants was just staggering.
And while I was there, I watched both Spotted Flycatcher, and Pied Flycatcher amongst the tits, treecreepers, thrushes and other common woodland birds.
When out on the heathland and flower-rich carefully grazed areas, I walked amongst more Meadow Pipits than I could count, as well as Lesser Redpoll, Corn Bunting, and Skylark. Apparently Spotted Crake have been recorded here, but they did not show for me. And things get even better when it comes to the invertebrates, with a particularly broad range of butterflies and moths: It is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary, although I was there too late in the year to see them, but was happy with a life first Scotch Argus:
I visited other temperate rainforests along the coast while I was there, and can say with some conviction that it is my favourite British habitat. I was at Taynish on a Saturday morning and did not see a single other person until I returned to my car. I cannot recommend a visit to this area highly enough.
The Scots Pine woods
Unless you have seen it, it is difficult to emphasise the contrast between the denuded highlands, or the lifeless timber plantations with the wonderfully rich habitats of true Scots Pine wood. Like the ancient oak woodland, these are tiny remnants of the once mighty Caledonian forest that cloaked much of Scotland until a few hundred years ago.
Unlike the semi-natural linoleum of dead needles that cover the floor of dark spruce plantations, the naturally-growing pine forests are carpeted with an array of ferns, juniper, grasses, and mosses. The understorey is teeming with life.
I came across huge Wood Ant nests, garish fungi, and some rather more familiar life-forms up above the forest floor:
But I didn’t go up to Scotland to see Coal Tit. I had other quarry in mind and I got one of my pine forest ticks at the beautiful setting of Loch an Eilein.
High up in the pines I heard, and then saw, a bird I am used to seeing in the Pyrenees, but had never come across in Britain; the wonderful Crested Tit.
But above and beyond ticking off birds, was an opportunity for me to reconnect with something we have all but entirely lost: our great forests, the wildwood, and quite simply… the wild. My emotional state reflected the woodland I visited; I felt alive.