Native woodlands under threat

Rhododendron ponticum (hereafter, rhododendron) is an invasive non-native species that threatens the survival of our native woodlands. The large shrub forms dense thickets that can shade out native plants and prevent tree regeneration. The thickets can also restrict access to the woodlands. Rhododendron can harbour diseases e.g. Phytophthora, that infect native trees, and the leaf litter is toxic to many plants. 

The Atlantic woodlands of western Scotland are a unique and rare habitat. These ancient native woodlands are home to many internationally important species of lichens, mosses, fungi and liverworts. The woodland habitat is under threat from invasion by rhododendron which can be very difficult to get rid of (as described in part one of our blog).

Example of Atlantic woodland habitat - Crinan Woods. Photo: D. Shapley

The Atlantic oak woodlands of Glen Creran, near Appin in North Argyll, are of high conservation value but are suffering from invasion by rhododendron. Glen Creran is a landlocked glen, part of which is owned by the National Forest Estate. The National Forest Estate has worked hard to clear rhododendron from their land but in order to rid the whole glen of rhododendron, control is also needed on smaller estates and in private gardens.

A community in action

The community of Glen Creran have been very supportive of plans to control rhododendron throughout the glen. ACT has facilitated the “Glen Creran – getting the roots of Rhododendron ponticum” project and is working with the community to control rhododendron across the private land of 29 individual householders, owners and landowners. Despite challenges including identifying all landowners within the project area, and securing enough funding, the project is underway.  Now in its second year of a three-year project, the first phase of rhododendron control is almost complete.  

Thickets of rhododendron in Glen Creran. Rhododendron clearance in progress.
Some sites are difficult to access and require contractors with expertise in ropework. Woodland site after rhododendron clearance.

Leading by example and learning from shared experiences

At the end of March, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland hosted a sharing good practice event and chose Glen Creran as the venue to showcase landscape scale rhododendron control in action. The event titled “Overcoming barriers to effective rhododendron control” was open to a varied audience including community groups and organisations, private landowners, agents, woodland advisors and government agency staff.

The day was a mix of site visits and presentations by speakers who have direct experience of rhododendron control. Gordon Gray Stephens spoke about the Glen Creran project on behalf of ACT. Gordon was joined by Duncan Gray from Ben Damph estate in Torridon who has co-ordinated the removal of a vast area of rhododendron on private land; Rob Dewar, Nature Conservation Advisor for the National Trust for Scotland who discussed the importance of community engagement and positive publicity; and Geraint Williams, Celtic Rainforest project officer for the Snowdonia National Park in Wales where a €9.5 m project is aiming to clear rhododendron and restore the habitat across 7000 ha of the national park. It was really interesting to hear about the different projects and approaches to common problems. This was followed by an open discussion which highlighted common challenges.  One common challenge voiced by attendees was finding qualified, reliable, experienced contractors to carry out long term rhododendron control. Another challenge that was discussed was community engagement. The process of rhododendron removal is messy and unsightly, and the ground can take a long time to recover. It is important to encourage participation and support by communities through good communication of the end goal of the project. Continual monitoring e.g. through fixed point photography, can help to illustrate progress and remind participants of change over the years as habitats recover.

Gordon Gray Stephens presenting the Glen Creran project at the sharing good practice event. Discussions at the site of rhododendron clearance in a private garden in Glen Creran.

The Glen Creran legacy

In Glen Creran, monitoring plots are being set up and the community will be involved with annual surveying to record habitat recovery. The Glen Creran project is funded for three years but efforts to control and prevent further invasion by rhododendron in the future will be adopted by volunteers in the community. The ACT project team will also be introducing local school children to the wonders of the Atlantic woodland and the importance of conservation so that these unique habitats can be enjoyed by many future generations.

Banner image: Glen Creran community with ACT and SNH at the project launch in 2018.