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 and the Deer Commission of Scotland to be damaging these woods and Assynt Foundation has entered into a Section 7 agreement with the Deer Commission and a Management Agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage to carry out a significant cull of the red deer on Drumrunie. Our intention is to bring the red deer density down from a current density of around 8 deer per km2 to around 3 deer per km2 by 2009. This should allow the natural regeneration of the woods without the need for fencing.
On the south shore of Loch Assynt we have a number of woods protected by deer fences under agreement with the Forestry Commission and we carry out a heavy cull of deer in the unprotected wooded areas between these exclosures to encourage the natural regeneration of the wood along the shores of Loch Assynt. These woods will connect with the new and regenerating native woods on neighbouring estates to create a woodland corridor from Inchnadamph to Glenleraig.
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 and whoever had bought the estates would have had to do the same.
The birchwoods have not regenerated for over 40 years and are therefore dying. Half the woods have disappeared within the last 100years. 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. Ironic, as the woods are the natural home of the deer.
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?
What to do?
Nothing – woods disappear, not an option. The Assynt Foundation wants to have healthy woods full of all the wildlife and people that want to live and work there.
Fence off all the woods – very expensive as the woods are fragmented and scattered throughout the estate. Small exclosures have been established over the last 20 years and they have shown that trees will regenerate at the time of fencing but as the grass grows it becomes impossible for new seedlings to germinate. Also the heather grows so high that it suffocates the wood ants nests so killing the colonies. Other open ground designated habitats are not helped by the exclosures.
Reduce the deer population – This is the route recommended by the Deer Commission Scotland (DCS) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) . This is what we are currently doing on Drumrunie. Following our Deer Management Plan and subject to annual review, we are reducing the red deer from 10 per km2 to 3 per km2 over 3 years. This past season was year 1. DCS will carry out an annual tree seedling survey to monitor the effect of the increased cull.
On Glencanisp we hope to reduce the deer numbers only slightly over a longer period of time. By concentrating on certain areas it is hoped that the woods along the south side of Loch Assynt will regenerate naturally over time without the use of additional fencing.
Over the next few years we will be learning about the natural dynamic of these woods. We should not be expecting them to remain in the same place for ever. Apparently birchwoods want to creep across the hill! It will be 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.
If anyone out there is interested in this work and can contribute in anyway we would like to hear from you. We need knowledge, encouragement, volunteer survey time and better still funds to employ local people to carry out the necessary research and practical work. If we receive appropriate support we will publish a diary of progress on this site. We are interested in all offers of help, including results of similar work anywhere in the world!