Banner image: Exploring the temperate rainforest on the banks of Loch Shiel, Lochaber

Around 20 years ago, on our first visit to the west coast, a wild camping trip around the uninhabited banks of Loch Shiel, my wife and I stumbled into what we quickly discovered was a remnant pocket of Scotland’s temperate rainforest. We were captivated, and for me the following years have been a steady progression from this point. To be working for ACT as project lead for our Argyll Rainforest project, where we work towards landscape scale rainforest restoration, the habitat that I developed an immediate connection with all those years ago, is something I feel very privileged for.

The threat to Scotland’s rainforest habitat is very real. The headline statements of over browsing by deer, infestation of invasive species like rhododendron and Sika deer alongside the overall picture of fragmentation don’t convey the severity of the situation. 

Most woodlands outside of a deer fence are in serious decline due to over browsing by deer and, although less so these days, sheep grazing. This is to a point where the understory trees simply cannot get away above browsing height and in extreme cases even those stunted and nibbled trees are destroyed by destructive thrashing and scent marking. With no new trees, a woodland will eventually fail.

Heavy browsing on Rowan in Glenan Woods, Argyll

The invasive plant Rhododendron ponticum can almost entirely outcompete the native woodland that it loves to colonise. Once the rhododendron canopy closes, natural regeneration of native trees stops almost entirely. This is due to many things in combination, but in the main a closed, mature rhododendron canopy stops direct sunlight from hitting the forest floor, suppressing many of the natural processes that lead to seed germination and natural regeneration. With no new trees, a woodland will eventually fail.

There are books dedicated to the processes that have led us to this stage of deforestation and woodland fragmentation. Put briefly historical deforestation is due to many things, but predominantly it comes down to competing land uses over many centuries, followed by a huge spike in deer numbers, particularly over the last 50-60 years. This means that native woodland has been unable to naturally regenerate and it has remained fragmented since that initial deforestation. Even if there are no longer such strong competing land uses and it could be seen as desirable, native woodland cannot regenerate without a fence. Woodland ecology has been so disrupted by our intervention that natural processes have broken down and the process of succession is suppressed. With no new trees a woodland will eventually fail or in this case, will never grow in the first place.

Remnant Aspen clinging to inaccessible coastal cliffs, Argyll

These threats do not occur in isolation, they occur in the arena of climate change, biodiversity loss, food security, increasing social and economic inequality and rapid technological advancements. I don’t delve into these things out of pessimism, or to alarm or scare anyone, I say these things to convey how important ACT’s Argyll Rainforest project really is.

I think all who work for, or are associated with, ACT understand how important all our projects are and how the cooperative nature of our activities achieves results on the ground. We have a broad range of expertise available within and outwith ACT, meaning that our activities can help address a broad spectrum of environmental, social and economic issues - stacking benefits rather than dealing with things in isolation. We are facing the challenges of the future head on and I for one am excited by the incredible work done so far and the potential for the future environmental, economic, and social regeneration that ACT helps facilitate.

On that note, so far this year the Argyll Rainforest project has formed a relationship with Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) and directed private finance into 22 ha of native woodland creation at Kilmory Home Farm, with a further 16 ha to be planted in 2022/23. This will include the creation of a community woodland at Dunbeg. Looking to the future relationship with SSEN, we are in the early discussion phase regarding long term, 30 year funding for PAWS (Planted Ancient Woodland Sites) restoration as part of their Biodiversity Net Gain project. It is very encouraging to be speaking with funders who are considering restoration projects over this type of timeframe which is essential to big ideas like Rhododendron eradication.

Alongside this, ACT received public finance via the Nature Restoration Fund (NRF) to carry out 60 ha of Rhododendron clearance at Kilmory Castle (Lochgilphead) and Glenan woods, a community owned ancient woodland site in Cowal. The challenge we now face is securing funding to follow up phase 1 ensuring effective control. We are already working up the PAWS restoration project at Glenan woods and on a neighbouring estate that is the source of the Rhododendron infestation. This will enable us to look at a catchment scale approach to long term Rhododendron control at the site.

New trees in the ground at Kilmory Home Farm Tree planter Rowan, happy in her work sorting the Kilmory tree delivery

These projects encapsulate the approach ACT is taking towards landscape scale rainforest restoration. Developing relationships with landowners and facilitating the blending of private and public funding to achieve results...exciting times ahead!

If we continue to develop a wider understanding of the climate and biodiversity challenges we face over the coming decades alongside increasing awareness of the importance of nature, and if we were to see strong guidance and dare I say legislation around deer control, and rejuvenated private and public funding mechanisms for the land sector, then there is every opportunity for us to reverse the decline and re-establish connectivity alongside the overall health of Scotland’s rainforest ecosystem. After nearly 2 decades within the industry, I cannot remember a more exciting time for nature. Now is the time for communities and landowners to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise as we hopefully experience a real green revolution.

I would just like to end on some of my thoughts about why Scotland’s rainforest is so special. I hope that it triggers some of your own; it will be different for everyone. It might be the pure joy of wandering through some of the most undisturbed ecology that remains in the UK. It might be a fascination with one of the unique organisms you find in the rainforest. It might be the colours and changes as the seasons pass, or that little shaft of sunlight breaking through the canopy and hitting the woodland floor after a rainstorm, or on a dewy morning. Maybe it’s the gloomy mist that clings to and rolls around the canopy. It might be the shift in your perception of time, and a keener understanding of your place in the world that being around trees hundreds of years old, brings. It might be because of life's essentials of food, shelter and warmth. It might be because they are places that engender mindfulness, to be able to think and be at peace surrounded by nature and the natural sounds of running burns, the wind crackling the aspen leaves and the birds chittering you into a place entirely removed from the day to day.

Subjectively, for me, it is a combination of all these things, plus many more that only become apparent with each new or return visit. Objectively though, the remnant pockets of intact rainforest found in Scotland are biodiversity reservoirs and are home to some of the most intact ecology that remains in the UK. If this is restored and expanded, it will allow for this biodiversity to migrate and colonise new planting and natural regeneration, as we re-establish the connectivity between these remnant strongholds. I strongly believe that this is the most meaningful answer to the question, why is the rainforest so special. We are in a climate and biodiversity crisis and by restoring and expanding these long-standing natural woodlands, we can do our part in addressing this twin catastrophe that humans and the planet face.

Lobaria virens, Argyll

Hypocreopsis rhododendri, Hazel gloves and accompanying glue fungus, Argyll

To find out more about Argyll's rainforest and/or to make a donation to help Save Argyll's rainforest click here or contact Ian Dow: [email protected]