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Shadows of a forest

Broadleaved woodland has been the dominant vegetation cover over much of the British Isles since the last great glaciers retreated 20,000 years ago. As the forest spread, so did many associated species of mammals, birds and insects. Of all the bird species that regularly breed in Britain, almost half are associated with woodland. Thus, woodland is a very important wildlife habitat, and birds an important indicator as to their health and fragility.

Many of the insect-eating woodland birds are migrants, arriving in spring to cash-in on the abundance of insect life and to breed. In May, the woods are alive with activity – birds feed, sing, establish territories and build their nests. At this time, the woodland floor is spangled with the colour of flowers – celandine, primrose, wood anemone, dog violet and bluebell.

As spring merges into summer the leaf canopy is completed, shading the woodland floor and providing cover for nesting birds and their newly fledged young. Life is precarious for many of the woodland’s inhabitants. It is a world of predators and prey – hide or be eaten!

Today less than 10% of the original area covered with forest still supports trees, and little of this bears much resemblance to the original climax vegetation. Broadleaved woodland has disappeared at an alarming rate during the last 50 years, as much ancient woodland has been lost as in the previous 500 years!

In Scotland, the trees may be different but the picture is just as harrowing. The ancient Caledonian forest is Scotland’s “rainforest” – has long faced extinction due to thousands of years of destruction. Human activities have been the major cause of this reduction of the former woodlands to its present- day figure of less than 5% of its original 1.5 million hectares. Now it represents one of the UKs most endangered habitats.

The Caledonian forest takes its name from the Romans, who called Scotland “Caledonia”, meaning “wooded heights”. The native pinewoods, which formed the westernmost outpost of boreal forest in Europe, were once a vast primeval wilderness of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper and other tree species. Many species of wildlife flourished in the forest, including the European beaver, wild boar, lynx, moose, brown bear and wolf, as well as notable species of birds – the capercaillie, crested tit and the endemic Scottish crossbill.

Losing the apex predators has had a knock-on effect that has impoverished our countryside and created an imbalance in the natural world. However, attitudes do change, albeit too slowly at times. In a more enlightened age there is growing support to reintroduce elements of our missing predators, with potential benefits for other wildlife and eco-tourism, as well as an ethical ‘plaster’ to repair damage of earlier generations.

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