What are Caledonian forests and native coniferous woods?

Most coniferous forests in the UK are not native. They are plantations of spruce, fir and other non-native species, typically from North America. But in some areas of the UK, special native woods grow, characterised by native coniferous trees. Caledonian, or native pinewoods, are characterised by an open woodland canopy and dispersed trees. Species include Scots pine, juniper, birch, willow, rowan and aspen. They grow on infertile soils and are a link to the huge boreal forests of Scandinavia and Northern Russia. They support rare, specialist species.

Juniper scrub in open woodland on a hillside next to Ullswater

Credit: Alastair Hotchkiss / WTML

Juniper itself can also form a distinct woodland type, and while it is mostly in Scotland, pockets also occur in the Pennines, Northumberland and Cumbria.

Yew woods are a rare and special spectacle, but are also among our most species-poor woodlands, with the dense shade they cast. They occur almost entirely on the chalk of the North and South Downs, and Chilterns.

Key features

Caledonian pine forests are characterised by huge ‘granny’ pines that can grow to be very old. These are Scots pine trees and they dominate in the cold, dry east of Scotland. Many native pine forests also have more varied canopies and birch, rowan, willow and aspen also feature. Native yew woods are dominated by yew, with occasional scattered whitebeam and ash. Juniper is always the most abundant woody species in juniper woods, but species like downy birch also grow in them.

Wildlife

The specialist species of the Caledonian pinewood are synonymous with the Scottish countryside. Many of them rely on this unique habitat. Birds such as black grouse, capercallie and crested tits flourish in this habitat, as do plants like wintergreens, twinflower and lesser twayblade.

Red squirrel looking at camera on a mossy branch in pine woodland

Credit: Terry Whittaker / naturepl.com

Threats

Only 16,000 hectares remains of once vast native pinewoods. Over-grazing by deer is the main threat, as it prevents the spread and regeneration of woodland. The loss of this habitat, among other factors, is leading to the loss of specialist wildlife.