Montane Woodlands

Wooly Willow, Corrie Sharroch, Glen Clova

Montane woodland that reaches to a natural treeline is a habitat that is all but missing from Scotland largely due to historic land use. Over time muir burning and overgrazing by red deer and sheep have denuded the hills of their tree cover. The wide open mountain and moorland vistas much admired by tourists are in fact a totally unnatural manmade landscape. Compared to similar situations in southern Norway there should be a much more wooded environment gradually moving up through a krummholz (‘twisted wood’ in German) zone to more open land with dwarf shrubs. In recent decades there have been a number of projects throughout Scotland aimed at restoring montane woodland habitats. One particular group of shrubs, the mountain willows are seen as being the most at risk. Growing mainly on basic rock soils their natural range is therefore somewhat restricted by geology and are only just managing to hang on.

Look almost anywhere in apparently treeless uplands and it is possible to see a few trees clinging on in ravines and on crags out of reach of the mouths of herbivores. In these refuges a surprising number of tree species survive. Often many more than are to be found in lower altitude in woodlands where the past history management for a single species, eg the growing Scots pine for timber and oak for tan bark or charcoal, has selectively reduced diversity. These places are also a refugia for tall herb communities which are otherwise absent in the face of grazing pressure.

Common passerine birds, chaffinches, wrens and willow warblers, are at home in the refuges as are more montane species such as Ring Ouzels. Golden Eagles frequently choose wooded crags and rocky ravines in which to build their eyries. Black grouse frequent this zone regularly feeding on the buds of birch and other trees. Rare species such as bluethroat and Lapland bunting might even become regular breeders following the re-establishment of our mountain woodlands.

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