The year is 2050 and you’re an investor who joined us early on, back in the 2020s. With your help we financed the creation of a completely new forest in Scotland, planting seedlings to create a mosaic of native and commercial forest across land that encompasses several hills, valleys and small watercourses. Over time the saplings grew larger and their branches spread, necessitating periodic thinnings during the 2030s and 40s. Lately, this source of nascent timber has been used for firewood or sold to local sawmills, allowing the woodland to start generating revenue. Now, however, some of the trees are approaching maturity, standing many metres tall in places and shading the ground beneath them. Today, you’re visiting for the first time in a few months, to walk through the trees and see how the site is developing.
Along the forest’s watercourses, native hardwoods like oak, willow and alder are never felled (except by beavers!!), and already this is providing a rich riparian habitat for wildlife and a broadleaf corridor through the forest. In between these burns, the trees switch seamlessly from stands of Scots pine, spruce and fir to areas where beech or birch dominate. As you climb towards the summit of the site’s highest hill, you notice the structure of the woodland changing; the trees are less densely packed here, their crowns are lower and around your feet shrubs and dwarf trees crowd. This is montane woodland, a habitat almost entirely lost from Scotland after centuries of overgrazing and muirburn. Visually, it smoothens the rough edges of the forest, providing an aesthetic and ecological continuum between the tall stands lower down and the open ground above a natural tree line. These miniature trees will never be felled, and their slow-growing, stunted forms will be home to birds like black grouse and ring ouzel for decades to come.
Walking back down into one of the valleys you pass people walking their dogs and one family chattering excitedly about the red squirrel they just saw. Since you last visited the wood a local sculptor has created an intricate series of wood-art statues – native wildlife carved out of old tree stumps. As you stop to admire one – a pine marten – you catch the scent of blooming heather, its pale pink flowers adding some nice colour to the rich, green understory.
As you head back to your car, you notice a section of the forest where the trees seem sparser, and several fallen trunks lie haphazardly in a clearing. This is the result of recent felling, which, thanks to advances in robotics and engineering, is highly selective and specific. Unlike other woods in Scotland, this site is committed to continuous cover forestry, where trees are never thinned to less than 40 percent of their original cover. Research has demonstrated that this limit is the lower bound tolerated by forests’ sub-soil ecosystems; vast networks of living matter dominated by (Mycorrhizal) fungi, which help trees to find water, absorb nutrients and even to communicate with one another. Keeping this subterranean system, the so-called ‘wood-wide web’, intact helps new saplings to grow faster and increases their resilience to disease and other environmental pressures. Disturbing the soil less also helps to limit the amount of carbon dioxide released during the felling and extraction phase, boosting the overall greenhouse gas sequestration of the forest.
Your car is in sight now, as is one of the huts that have been built within this wood. A basic structure, its dark red paint blends attractively into the background of branches and in amongst the trees it is nearly obscured from your view. A stream of smoke coming from the chimney lets you know that it is occupied this weekend. A basket sits just outside its front door; it is full to the brim with mushrooms recently foraged from the forest.