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23 Things I Never Knew About Scotland’s Forests: Culbin Forest with Forestry and Land Scotland

We recently had the absolute privilege of heading out into one of Scotland’s many forests with Alan, an Environmental Ranger, and Gary, an Environmental Forester from Forestry and Land Scotland. The plan for the day was to show us some of the stuff Forestry and Land Scotland do, outside of, well, being in forests and standing on land. Because let’s be serious, how many of us actually know what these folks do? Yet, we are the first to judge if we don’t think they’re doing it right. Let me tell you something though, these people work bloomin’ hard. And do way more than I’d ever have thought.

I was totally against the day out though. Aye, not because I didn’t think I’d have a good time. But I’d been feeling a wee bit down with some family stuff going on. And my ankle was causing me bother, as it does from time to time. So, when we got to Culbin Forest in Moray, I was looking for every excuse to get out of it and to just send Scott into the forest to take one for the team. But once we got there, my nose got the better of me. I was curious about these men in khaki with trees on the brain. Who’d have known that being out in nature for 5 hours would actually do me the world of good? It did. I’m so stubborn.

Whilst I can say that it was the best thing for me to get out and about in a Scottish forest, what I learned about all things forestry surprised me. It also made me a wee bit emotional. And a wee bit angry. But also, happy. Because, trees. But more so than that, nature.

So, here we were in a convoy through the private tracks of Culbin Forest. First, the Forestry Landy, then a Forestry car, then us in Van Heilan at the back. There might be many things you do DO, but have you ever driven your house through a forest? We laughed to ourselves because it must have looked to the various hound strollers like we were in trouble for camping up and we were being escorted off the premises.

Culbin is a fascinating forest on the Moray coastline near Lossiemouth and Roseisle.

  1. The Culbin coastline stretches for 8 and a half miles. Alongside being a diverse and ever-changing woodland, it also has quite an interesting wartime history, as depicted below. From a day out perspective, there are heaps to discover at Culbin, but The Hill 99 viewpoint is really something special. On a clear day, you can see out to Easter Ross. There are little ponds at Culbin that attract dragonflies, pools that serve as a water tap for otters, the Nairn sandbar which is impressive in itself, and lots of seals that call the coastline home. You might also spot Ospreys fishing for their supper. But here are some more facts about Culbin that I’d never have known if it wasn’t for the work of Forestry and Land Scotland.
  2. Culbin wasn’t originally a forest but the Forestry Commission acquired the land at Culbin in 1921 as part of a mission to replenish Britain forests following World War 1.
  3. If the forest was being planted today, it would have been done differently. There should, effectively, be a kilometer between the highest tide point and the first layer of trees, this allows for shifting sand dunes, biodiversity and salt marshes, etc. There should be a gradient between trees and seas to make way for the natural nature that should be there.
  4. Sand dunes are meant to move. Whilst some stabilisation is encouraged, If sands don’t move at all, this affects local wildlife, sea birds, and other wildlife who depend on the dunes as a habitat.
  5. Forestry and Land Scotland have to vigorously manage this stretch of forestry because if the trees keep growing to close to the shoreline, it stops the sands from moving and thus, pushing wildlife out of their natural habitat. This means they regularly have to fell and thin the trees on the coastline to keep on top of the habitat.
  6. Most of Culbins shoreline from the trees to the low tide mark is an RSPB reserve. The mix of salt marsh, mudflats, shingle and sand is a vital feeding ground for wading birds. If you come across any birds that are nesting, leave them in peace. If they fly away, it uses valuable energy.
  7. A small farming township was lost at Culbin during the 17th century due a sandstorm.
  8. Farmers in this township used coastal grasses to thatch the roofs of their houses, however, this vegetation kept the sand dunes in place and away from their homes. So, when the sandstorm happened in 1694, the sands destroyed the farms and the estate was abandoned.
  9. Coastal defences were built along the Moray coast during the war, known as ‘forming a crust.’ Evidence remains of these at Roseisle, Lossie, and Culbin.
  10. Culbin Forest is over 9000 acres, comprising of native Scots pine with more experimental species such as Corsican pine and Norway Spruce.

11. Culbin and Climate Change

This was one of the first times that I saw the effects of climate change, in person, in Scotland. There is an area of dead trees between the shoreline and the forest in Culbin that has directly been impacted by the rise in sea levels. During a particularly vigorous Spring tide, the sea pushed over the dunes and into this area of forestry. Because of this, the ground became a salt marsh, thus killing the trees. The knock-on effect of this was the loss of wildlife in that area. Of course, some wildlife may just move into the forest, but the ones who rely on its positioning by the shoreline were then displaced. But, if the trees had been planted at least a kilometre back, this would never have happened.

Unfortunately, though, it did and will continue to happen as the sea levels rise. It was sad to see this, but then poor forestry management all those years ago when Culbin was planted, had something to do with it too. Although things are easier said in hindsight, they never would have expected the climate change catastrophe we are facing today.

12. Cladonia Lichen: The Important Moss that Loves Drama

When the sands shift in a coastal plantation, it exposes shingle. Shingle is a rocky surface that these wee organisms called Cladonia lichen, amongst a range of other lichen, love. From being out in Culbin and seeing lichen everywhere, I decided on two things; wow, this floofy moss is really bonnie and two, this floofy moss is very demanding, and a wee bit dramatic. But lichen is also very important for helping to tackle climate change and increasing biodiversity.

Lichen is demanding. It must grow on shingle. But if the shingle is too exposed, other plants will take over the shingle, pushing the floofy moss out. But if the shingle is not exposed enough, the floofy moss lichen refuses to grow. Oh, and Cladonia Lichen needs sunlight. Which is not so handy when it grows in a forest. So Forestry and Land Scotland have to thin out the trees fairly regularly so that the Lichen will grow. And be happy. Because this isn’t just moss, this is drama moss. I’ve decided I like it.

Oh yeah and, if the trees at Culbin (which are mostly pine needle trees), shed their pines, and then the pines decompose, the pines create soil, and that covers the sandy (but not too sandy) shingle that Lichen needs. Too many pine needles on top of Lichen makes them annoyed too. And mind how I said above about the shifting sands needing to shift? Well, if they don’t shift, then there are more grassy areas, and if there are too many grassy areas, gone is the shingle that Lichen needs to live on. Told you. Drama.

Before I get off the drama moss, I also need to say that Foresty and Land Scotland have their job cut out for them (quite literally) when thinning out the trees that make the mad rare moss madder, because the Lichen beds are extremely fragile and vulnerable to disturbances. I mean, I get it, so am I. But these Lichen are seriously hard work. Forestry and Land Scotland removed 2,000 tonnes of timber, but it took 3 times longer because of the Lichen. But, it has worked as the Lichen are growing and are now seen by NatureScot as ‘unfavourable but recovering due to management.’

And, one last point. Don’t stand on Lichen, because of every single reason noted above. Fairly positive that my first book will be on Lichen.

13. Most of Scotland Isn’t Original Woodland

This one shocked me. I had absolutely no idea that most of the forestry in Scotland isn’t native. I mean, yes, why would I know otherwise unless I went out of my way to know? Which I guess I kind of did. But it took me long enough. Most of Scotland’s woodland is replanted. Like, plantations. Not original trees. I mean, it’s not that I didn’t know that trees were being planted. I knew that. But I didn’t realise that we had replanted so many, all over the whole country. Would we have done so if climate change wasn’t such a pressing problem? I guess we would have for the biodiversity and wildlife, but would we have done it so quickly? Take Glen Affric…

14. Glen Affric is a Plantation

I thought Glen Affric was completely natural and had been this way for billennia. I had absolutely no idea that Glen Affric was a protected National Nature Reserve. The Glen became a part of Scotland’s National Forests in 1951 and ever since then, there has been a massive amount of conservation work by foresters, volunteers, and deer managers. 500,000 new trees have been planted! More than 1,4000 hectares of non-native conifers have been removed and considerable swathes have been thinned out to encourage natural regeneration.

Some of the rarest plants in Scotland grow in Glen Affric now, there are 272 varieties of trees, 28 species of mammals, 117 species of birds, 6 species of reptile and amphibians, 101 species of moth, 240 fungi, and 390 lichens (remember them), mosses and liverworts.

15. The UK imports 80% of its Annual Timber Requirement

I have always wondered where we get our wood from. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that we were importing such a large amount. Although I have always wondered how we replenish the wood we are consuming. Now, I understand it. We aren’t. But this is a much bigger problem when it comes to climate change. Yes, there are the miles for importing timber. Yes, we need to plant a lot of trees in Scotland to meet our climate change targets and yes, there is a heap of hurdles in doing that alone. But even more than all of that, climate change is affecting some of the big timber-producing countries that we currently rely on for wood. Wildfires, tree diseases, and pests heap additional pressures on supply. Scotland needs to become more self-sufficient on timber.

16. Scotland Has Too Many Deer

I love deer. There is nothing quite as Scottish as spotting a stag on the hills. But, we have way too many. It’s a bit of a catch 22, because yes, deer are lovely and inherently Scottish. But almost 90 per cent of land managed by Forestry and Land Scotland is being adversely affected by deer. Numbers across Scotland are estimated to be around 1 million! There should be around 4.2 deer per square kilometre in Scotland, there is currently between twice and nine times that amount, and up to 64 deer per square kilometre in some areas.

Deer are a threat to young trees and forest regeneration. But we need to be planting heaps of trees to help with climate change and to help our self-sufficiency. When do we catch our tail? We don’t. So, if the deer eat the trees, we are, to put it Scottish-ly, pretty scunnered. Venison has a popular national and international market. And it tastes good. Plus, it’s healthier than other meats. But it’s still a bit sad that we need to cut down our numbers quite extensively.

17. You can’t chop down trees during breeding seasons

Scotland’s forestry wildlife is extremely well protected. Whenever a bird’s nest, a red squirrel drey or badger sett is discovered, an exclusion zone is drawn around it and no machinery can go anywhere near it and/or disturb the animal whilst they are breeding. Forestry and Land Scotland get involved before a single tree is felled to ensure there are no signs of breeding. Birds have different exclusion zones dependant on their species. There are usually small windows of time during the year when work can commence, but it often falls short of the better weather.

18. Scotland’s national forests and land covers nearly 9% of Scotland’s total land area but less than two-thirds is actually forest

The rest is made up of rivers, lochs, rare mountain scrub and important native woodland. Together, they make up the globally renowned landscape that encourages so many visitors to Scotland.

19. The Tree Killing Fungus that Can Ruin Forests

Phytophthora Ramorum (P. Ramorum)

In the South and West of Scotland, this disease is so prevalent that it can’t be eradicated. This fungal disease is one of the biggest threats to Scotland’s trees right now. Symptoms include orangey needles in Spring and Summer when the needles should be green. Once it infects the branches, it can cause the whole tree to die, and it spreads very quickly. Felling operations are ongoing to remove infected trees. In Culbin, there are large areas where the trees have been removed, encouraging natural regeneration from native species.

20. There are 250 pairs of Ospreys in the UK

Ospreys were declared extinct in the UK in 1916 due to hunting and loss of habitat. The next time a pair of breeding ospreys was recorded in the UK was in 1954, at Loch Garten near the Cairngorms. Due to conservation efforts and Forestry management, there are now around 250 pairs of ospreys in the UK. Ospreys on migration between Africa and the UK have been known to fly for 48 hours straight at speeds of around 30 miles per hour!

21. Conifer in Construction

The main source of construction timber in the world is Conifer trees. The timber is becoming further engineered to serve as an alternative to concrete and steel.

22. In 5 Years, FLS Have Created 3,000 Football Pitches of New Woodland

New native woodlands and timber-producing plantations will help to improve natural habits, mitigate climate change, encourage biodiversity and provide carbon-neutral building materials, encouraging self-sufficiency.

Alan had put out some night vision cameras for us the night before we arrived at Culbin. By this point, it was pitch dark at Culbin and we were all huddled around the laptop at the van watching the footage back. It had picked up a few badgers, some deer, a wee mouse, and a squirrel. The badgers were really cute but very timid. Apparently, badgers are extremely vicious when cornered though. My dad worked with a guy on a pipeline project and he said that the guy came up against one in a tunnel and it ripped the bottom of his leg off. I’m not sure exactly how true that is, but I still wouldn’t fancy meeting one in a dark tunnel.

Forestry and Land Scotland

There are endless forests to enjoy around Scotland, but if I have learned anything from Alan and Gary, it is that there is a whole lot more to them than meets the eye. To the forests I mean, although the same could probably be said for Alan and Gary. In a good way, of course. Our thanks to both of them for a great day out learning more about something we previously knew absolutely nothing about. We will look forward to the day where we have our own wee plot of woodland, with our wee cabin, where we spend our days being foresters, like Shrek or something, and I write my book on lichens. I think it goes without saying, but please be respectful when visiting Scotland’s forests. You aren’t in your home, you’re in nature’s home.

For more information on the work of FLS, check out their website here. 




The Chief.

This article contains sponsored/gifted content.