Both Glencanisp and Drumrunie have ecologically important fragments of ancient native woods, remnants of the 'Great Wood of Assynt'. Drumrunie in particular has a number of woods designated as Natura 2000 sites, giving them the highest level of protection available under UK and EU legislation. Red and Roe deer are considered by Scottish Natural Heritage to be damaging these woods, preventing regeneration by browsing of young seedlings.
One of our main priorities is bringing the entire Drumrunie Estate back into healthy condition as far as the woods and other habitats are concerned. We are legally obliged to do this.
The birchwoods have not regenerated for over 50 years and are therefore dying. Half the woods have disappeared within the last 100 years. These woods are of European importance and are part of the Inverpolly Special Area of Conservation
. They have taken 10,000 years to evolve and now because of overgrazing by deer they are disappearing. The woods are the natural home of the deer and without intervention to save the woodlands the deer would have no remaining woodland for food and shelter in harsh winters.
Assynt Foundation carried out a deer reduction cull on Drumrunie, in 2007/8, as part of a Section 7 agreement with the then Deer Commission. Deer culling since then aims to maintain the deer density at that reduced level. A moorland management plan has also been agreed with SNH detailing deer management. Despite the reduction of deer numbers on Drumrunie, the current deer density is still too high to allow significant natural regeneration of the unfenced woodlands on much of the estate.
Trees, Deer, Fences - What to do?
If nothing is done, the woods disappear. The Assynt Foundation
wants to have healthy woods full of all the wildlife and people that want to live and work there.
Fencing off woodlands – This is expensive as the exisiting woods and areas suitable for woodland expansion are generally fragmented and scattered throughout the estate. But as a short term measure it can work, with trees growing within deer fences to a height at which they will survive browsing. Fences then can be removed, or else livestock or deer can be introducing within fenced areas, otherwise the thick grass and heather that would grow make it harder for new seedlings to germinate, and make it hard for some other woodland species such as wood ants to survive. But if deer numbers remain high after fence removal, new seedlings may anyway be browsed preventing natural regeneration within the woods.
Reducing the deer population – The red deer population in Assynt, and in Scotland generally, has increased dramatically in the last century, and a reduction of the deer population would be a longer term solution to achieving sustainable woodlands in Assynt and elsewhere. However this would need collaboration and agreement between landowners over large areas, through Deer Management Groups. A single landowner cannot hope to act alone to reduce deer numbers on their ground, where deer access is open onto their ground from neighbouring ground, given the movements of deer from areas of high density to areas of low density. Unfortunately, a reduction of deer population is not easy for a variety of landowning interests to agree on or to carry out, for many complex economic and cultural reasons. Deer stalking is entrenched in the culture and the economy of the highlands, and for many deer stalking estates, it requires maintaining a high enough deer density for deer stalking to be able to continue at the same levels each year. As deer numbers are reduced, further deer stalking becomes economically less viable, as deer are harder to find, shoot and extract when the density is lower. For those employed in deer stalking, carrying out a major reduction of deer numbers would straightforwardly be to undermine ones future means of economic survival. This is not to say that it cannot be done, but if major deer reduction were to go ahead it would likely require government policy supported by funding to make it financially possible.
The Assynt Foundation has produced a Strategic Forest Plan, with local consultation and with advice from the Forestry Commission and SNH, detailing proposals for significant woodland protection and expansion, planning to use new temporary exclosure fences to protect seedlings from deer until trees are old enough to withstand browsing.
Ensuring woodlands can regenerate in future once fences are removed given deer densities in the area is an issue that will remain. However it is recognised by the Assynt Foundation that a reduction of red deer numbers would need to be planned and managed at a wider collaborative level in the region, through Deer Management Group networks, rather than by any single landowner with boundaries open to deer in-migration. Such a reduction in deer numbers is something we could in principle be very supportive of.
Areas planned for significant woodland creation include Doire Dhubh in Drumrunie Estate, along Glen Canisp and around Loch Druim Suardalain, south of Loch Veyatie, an area north of Cam Loch, and along the south side of Loch Assynt.
On the south shore of Loch Assynt we already have a number of woods already protected by deer fences under previous agreement with the Forestry Commission. We have been carrying out culling of deer in the unprotected wooded areas between these exclosures to encourage the natural regeneration of the wood along the shores of Loch Assynt, but further fencing and planting proposed here as part of our strategic Forest Plan will greatly increase creation of a woodland corridor along Loch Assynt, as an important part of a woodland habitat network which could reach from Inchnadamph all the way to Glenleraig in the north of Assynt. One day species such as red squirrels may be able to move freely from one end of Assynt to the other.
Coigach - Assynt Living Landscape Partnership
The Assynt Foundation is a partner in the Coigach - Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALL) - a major collaborative land management project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and including neighbouring landowners such as Culag Community Woodland Trust and the John Muir Trust. It aims for ecological benefits through collaborative land management projects alongside socio-economic benefits for the fragile local community.
One aim of CALL is to improve habitat networks between fragmentary habitats such as woodlands.
Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership funding has been approved at Stage 1 for a wide variety of projects including major woodland creation.
Woods are not just the trees that make its shape. In the north-west these woods are a tiny remnant of a much larger temperate rainforest. They have a special microclimate of high humidity that is perfect for many types of moss, liverworts, ferns, and lichens. A few of these are only found in the west of Scotland. The more open the woods become the less the effect of the microclimate. We have some wood ants, speckled wood butterflies, pine martens, wild hyacinth, primroses and treecreepers. Where are the blackcock, the woodpeckers and red squirrels that could be living here if the woods were really thriving? Where are the people that could be using and enjoying the woods?
Over the comming decades we will be learning more about the natural and human dynamics of woods, fences and deer. We should not be expecting them to remain in the same place for ever. Birchwoods want to creep across the hill! It is fascinating to look at the old maps and records of land-use, to seek out places where trees have disappeared but ground flora and woodland soils remain and to make every effort to allow the woods to revolve back into a temperate rainforest.