Pine martens and Glen Affric

I’ve already written about visiting Glen Strathfarrar in the spring. and the next day I went 10 miles south to Glen Affric, one of the main areas where Trees for Life has been working to preserve and extend the kind of Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Scottish Highlands. Unlike Glen Strathfarrar, Glen Affric is mostly owned by the Forestry Commission so access is straightforward with car parks, maps, and marked trails. In one area I saw evidence of pine martens, although not the creatures themselves.

Some of the pictures at the end of this post were taken from the side of the road, but they are mostly on the walking trails which start at the Forestry Commission car park near Dog Falls. My route was mainly to walk up the hillside to the south of the car park and then down to Coire Loch which is surrounded by the forest.

Near the loch, I saw a lot of toads on the paths – almost standing on one as I tried to avoid stepping on another at some points! Then on the trail from the loch to Dog Falls I saw some pine marten droppings (“scat”), as shown in these two pictures. They both have a UK penny for scale (similar in size to a US or Euro one cent piece.)

The pine marten was almost driven to extinction due destruction of its woodland habitat and persecution because of its perceived threat to nesting birds. In 1981 it became protected, but surviving populations were only known for certain in the Highlands. Gradually numbers have risen, and pine martens have been discovered in the lowlands and Borders, and in parts of northern England and Wales. It’s not clear which of these are surviving populations and which are recolonisation from the Highlands.  There have also been reintroductions, notably in mid-Wales, and these may account for the recent sightings of them in Shropshire – only 40 miles from Century Wood!

As well their own value, there is strong evidence that pine martens help red squirrels to increase in numbers in grey squirrel areas, as numbers of greys decline.  Several mechanisms have been proposed but it’s likely to be fundamentally that reds evolved to succeed despite the presence of the pine marten, a tree-climbing predator, but the American grey squirrel didn’t.

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Glen Strathfarrar

At the start of the year I blogged about natural regeneration of woodland, and the land’s ability to regrow trees and resurrect forests from seeds waiting in the soil if deer, sheep, and humans allow it. One of the examples I used was a dramatic photo from Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog which he took in Glen Strathfarrar. It shows the effect of deer fence in allowing trees to come by themselves if left ungrazed. In April I visited the valley myself.

There is a 17 mile long private road running most of the length of the glen, with the low land and the hills also part of a private estate. Scots law has always allowed access to private land on foot and wild camping, but car access is controlled by the land owner. In this case, there is a gate near the village of Struy and 25 cars per day are allowed in. You get a ticket and your registration is noted to prevent overnight stays with cars. There is also a hydropower station in the glen, so there is some engineering traffic too.

These pictures show the lochs and islands driving westwards along the glen:

I saw several deer, including this one which kept ahead of my car and couldn’t go off up the hillside due to the deer fencing running parallel to the road. At one point a couple of buzzards were also circling.

Apart from construction activity around the hydropower station, the only people I saw were in two four wheel drive pickups (gamekeepers?)

The picture on the left shows a derelict house and in the distance on the right you can see the estate owner’s house in the distance, surrounded by trees.

 

Coming now to the purpose of my visit, this is what I wrote in January:

Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.


This picture shows the new woodland in context, with the surrounding ground in April not as green as in Alan’s photo from May.

The road is near the bottom of the picture and I parked up and walked up the deer fence boundary on the right hand side of the wood.

This is the fence itself, as it heads up the rather steep hillside. The effect is particularly striking in the photo on the right.

The day after I visited Glen Affric and saw evidence of pine martens, which I’ll post about next.

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“Leave No Trace” and “Winter’s Bone”

I watched the film “Winter’s Bone” from 2010 last night and then went to see “Leave No Trace”, both directed by Debra Granik. The two films are set in American forests and show non-conventional families finding ways to survive.

“Winter’s Bone” has Jennifer Lawrence’s 17 year old character trying to keep her sisters and virtually speechless mother in their cabin in their woodland. Most of the film is her search for her father who has put the cabin and land up as bail. Now he has disappeared, they face eviction. The film briefly touches on learning to hunt and dress kills, when to fell hundred year old trees, and rural isolation when you don’t have your own transport. It’s not a stereotype “hillbilly” film, but it does tick a lot of the boxes. Neighbours butcher a deer carcass hanging by their barn and lots of people have banjos. I was waiting for moonshine to appear but it’s the 21st century so they’re cooking crystal meth instead. Mark Kermode’s DVD review.

Eight years later, her “Leave No Trace” has a father and 13 year old daughter living in the forest itself. They have semi permanent camps, make their own fire but fall back to gas bottles when they have to, read books a lot, and make occasional trips in Portland, Oregon to buy provisions they can’t source themselves. Eventually they get caught and the to and fro of being in and out of “civilisation” leads them to question what they each want: living in a farming community? An isolated cabin in the forest? Or a trailer park community not unlike “Winter’s Bone”? Mark Kermode’s review has more and you might still be able to catch it in the cinema.

 

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Five days at the wood

Last week I spent five days at Century Wood, living in the log cabin and working on the new drying barn. We’ve stayed at the wood for a weekend at a time before, but this is my longest stay and didn’t involve any breaks: I didn’t even climb the gate and walk the rides shared with my neighbours during my stay. It was quite an experience.

The drying barn is a simple structure, designed to take a lightweight corrugated roof. You can see part of the frame in this picture. I’ve been peering at similar wooden framed buildings for the last few years with the barn in mind, and it’s now all come together and (partially) completed in the now extended Glade at the centre of the wood. It was hot and sunny every day, and so I got as much done as possible between about 7:30am and 10am and after 5pm, when the sun was below the tops of the trees.

The log cabin has a brick wood stove, but the weather was so warm I just cooked on a camping gas stove (which is much more controllable too, to be honest.) This is the first night, with burgers on the gas and a biscuit tin lid as an improvised plate – the one thing I forgot.

The wood has poor phone reception, and I deliberately wanted to avoid the intrusion of modern digital technology. So all I had to pass the evenings were books and a radio. I’ve blogged in the past about how TV feels like an unwelcome guest in the cabin compared to radio. I’ve not been able to find a more convenient way of getting radio listings on paper than a copy of the Radio Times (appropriately enough), so Ross Poldark is peering over the edge of the frying pan. I do have a set up with solar panels and a 12V lead-acid battery to power the radio (and recharge my phone), so I could keep going without using lots of single use batteries. For light in the evening I used a camping gas lantern hung from a ceiling rafter on a chain.

I brought three books: Thoreau’s “Walden“, “Cabin Porn“, and Rebecca Oaks’ new book “Making charcoal and biochar“. Walden got most of my reading attention, and I settled down with it and a bottle of cider on a couple of nights. I’m always struck by the completeness of the book’s vision. Thoreau describes how he set out building his hut in the woods by Walden Pond, growing (some of) his food, occupying his free time with books and writing, meeting visitors, and his efforts as an amateur naturalist to understand his surroundings.

During the overgrown summers I’m used to seeing fewer animals than in the bare winters. Earlier this year I saw foxes and hares, but by June I usually just see the buzzards circling overhead or patrolling the rides, and hear the song birds and the hoarse crowing of the pheasants. There are toads, and of course lots of insects, and here I saw a newt in the wood for the first time.

During the five days I had time to walk around and think about what I’ve done and how the wood has changed over the years.

The first picture shows a hazel tree I planted as a single cut branch pushed into the ground in 2009.

As well as not crossing the boundary for five days, I only saw one other person: on the fourth day I had a very brief conversation across the fence with a guy working on the boundary of one of the adjacent fields. That was a few minutes after taking this last picture over the fields from behind my deer fencing.

When I planned my stay, I wanted to know if I could last that long, without having to run to the shops for something, without getting bored, and without access to the technology that we’re now so dependent on. I needn’t have worried. With more food and above all more water, I could have stayed a lot longer than the planned five days.

As the end approached, I began to think how I would feel returning to “civilisation”. Would it affect me? Or would it be no different to returning from a holiday? When I eventually left, seeing people in ones and twos by the roadside didn’t seem strange. But when I got to a motorway services, even though it was quiet by normal standards, I did feel a bit overwhelmed – especially by the bold signs and product labels. There was just so much “stuff” after spending the best part of a week with trees, timber, and familiar things I had brought with me from home.  After having something to eat and drink, I felt used to all the trappings of modern life again and back to normal. But perhaps I should say “ordinary” rather than “normal”.

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Cuckoo at Century Wood

A short video of bird song at the start of May, including a cuckoo.

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The Long Tail in Smallwoods, Spring 2018

An expanded version of my post from January, The Long Tail of Forestry, has just appeared in the Small Woods Association’s “Smallwoods” magazine! (Spring 2018 edition)

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Woodland management in France

Earlier this week I revisited a woodland at the foot of the Jura mountains in France that I also photographed in mid February before the snow returned. I was able to take some before and after pictures of small trees marked for felling by the French Office National des Forets, and then felled, and also see how property boundaries are marked.

The contrast between the two visits is striking. Warm and sunny in February, but cold, overcast and snowy in March. The wood is mostly oak, with patches of Scots Pine, and hazel trees here and there. It’s very open at ground level, one of the hints that it is managed.

On my second visit, guys from the Office had signs up and were felling small trees beside a track alongside a farmer’s field at the woodland edge.

These two pictures show some of these trees marked up with spray paint and then felled. The brash has been placed over some of the stumps to protect the regrowth from deer.

When you walk deeper into the wood, you cross banks and ditches which help mark out the boundaries of the “parcelles cadastrales” into which the French countryside is divided, for the purposes of land ownership or rights to collect the produce of the land like wood.

Occasionally there are also marker stones like this, which are much easier to spot in the snow. There’s another one at the bottom end of the ditch on the right, highlighted with orange spray paint.

This photo shows more orange boundary markings sprayed onto stones and trees. It’s at a point where there is a dog leg in the ditch, which is indicated on the tree trunk by spray paint. You can just make out the line of the ditch from the splashes of orange colour. I’m expecting to see activity in this area now that it has been marked out.

Snow changes the character of the ground. It hides some features, but makes others easier to see. In this last picture, you can see a small root plate and due to the snow, the soil gradually coming off the roots can clearly be seen whereas normally it would be lost on the ground.

I wasn’t able to photograph my last observation of the March trip: I startled a group of half a dozen deer who bounded off before I could get a photo of them.

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