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Loch Arkaig ignites interest for Scottish pinewood survey

In 1971, Professor Robert Bunce spearheaded a survey of 103 broadleaf and 26 pinewoods to assess the ecological health of Britain’s woodland resource. These were chosen from the total number of woods as a good representation of the native woodland left in the country. The groundbreaking methodology looked at tree and shrub layers, ground flora, bryophytes, and soils. The plots placed at each site captured a picture of the conditions of the wood at that time.

Thirty years later, a repeat survey of the broadleaf woods showed, among other things, that many woods were less used and managed. There were more mature trees with larger canopies that were shading out ground flora and reducing regeneration on the forest floor. Across the survey there was an average loss of eight plant species per 200m3 plot. Some researchers suggest this may be an unusual event; perhaps the woods were still recovering from being more open with younger, less shade-creating trees that were the result of large amounts of timber removal after World War Two.

However, the precious pinewoods, the true old-growth forests of Britain, have not yet been resurveyed in full.

Building our knowledge

It is nearing 50 years since the original Bunce survey, so this is a perfect time for a resurvey. Nature works on such long timescales and we need data from seriously long-term monitoring if we are to truly understand its inner workings. So our Loch Arkaig site in the Scottish Highlands is piloting what we hope will be the first of a full, collaborative resurvey of the 26 pinewoods involved in the original survey.

Stunning Loch Arkaig, the location of the pilot resurvey (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)
Stunning Loch Arkaig, the location of the pilot resurvey (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)

Loch Arkaig is a treasure of the Woodland Trust estate and it was a privilege for us to hold this important knowledge-gathering event with Professor Bunce as our special guest. Unlikely ever to retire from his love of investigating nature, Professor Bunce inspired attendees to take on the mantle of repeating his survey. He said “I have rarely attended a meeting where the participants were so interested and responsive to the presentations and the subsequent discussions. There was a commitment of several people to organise repeats of the 1971 survey for the sites. I hope we can follow up this meeting and bring in other managers and owners to help repeat and, if possible, enhance the 1971 survey.”

Groundbreaking methods from the past supported by new technology

We need to use and build on the excellent original survey methodology which has stood the test of time, but there has been considerable technological advancement since the 1970s. Thankfully, Simon Smart and Claire Wood, experts from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), were on hand to demonstrate what needed to be done.

Claire has been designing software for surveyors to use rather than pens and paper. Using a mobile data-capture app in the field saves a significant amount of time in terms of removing the need for post-survey data entry, while at the same time improving the quality of the data by incorporating validation checks.  Data is loaded directly into a central database on submission, and photos and locations are seamlessly integrated into the field data capture procedure, all with the aim of making the job of data and information management as straightforward as possible. Thanks to Claire, many long hours will be saved on typing up handwritten notes!

Professor Bunce (seated) at the heart of the action during the resurvey of Loch Arkaig (Photo: Alan Crawford/WTML)
Professor Bunce (seated) at the heart of the action during the resurvey of Loch Arkaig (Photo: Alan Crawford/WTML)

What we hope to learn

Simon will be instrumental in analysing all the data collected, so we can really understand what it is telling us. He feels excited, as we do, to be on the brink of a resurvey of the pinewood sites 47 years after they were first surveyed. Native Caledonian pinewoods are a priority habitat, a unique jewel in the crown of Scotland’s natural heritage and of international importance. This makes the resurvey so important and the results so fascinating to anticipate. It’s such a long interval that full cycles of planted conifers may have come and gone. There may also be signs of climate change in the soils and vegetation. 

Simon believes well-documented management will undoubtedly help unpick the evidence for causes of change for many sites. Working with dedicated land-managers gives us a really strong chance of telling a detailed story about how these precious forests have changed, but also producing clear evidence about what works and doesn’t when restoring and maintaining pinewoods. The results from the resurvey should be useful to site managers, conservation biologists and the wider public.

Protecting their future

Due to their age, ancient woods may seem constant and unmoving, yet they are vulnerable to destruction and ever changing. The more we know about the way they work and the biological changes taking place within them, the better we can nurture and protect them for the future.

In collaboration with Professor Bunce, CEH, Trees for Life and many dedicated pinewood managers and enthusiasts across Scotland, we hope to repeat this valuable survey and use the findings to help safeguard the future of Scotland’s Caledonian pinewoods.

Find out more about experts’ calls for a full resurvey

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