Silver Jubilee for Trees for Life charity

The Findhorn-based Trees for Life conservation charity — which has been described as “the most ambitious rewilding project in the UK” – celebrates its 25th anniversary on 25 May.

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Trees for Life founder Alan Watson Featherstone

It promises to be a day of fun and learning for the whole family, showcasing a quarter century of progress while spotlighting urgent future objectives.

The long-range plan is nothing less than to restore the ancient Caledonian Forest to the west of Loch Ness and Inverness to a wilderness area of 1,000 square miles – and to support the return of wildlife that is under threat or extinct locally.

Trees for Life’s founder and executive director Alan Watson Featherstone has warned: “Without urgent action, key parts of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest could be lost forever, and forest-dependent wildlife such as the Scottish wildcat and capercaillie could become extinct in the UK”.

“As we celebrate 25 years of pioneering conservation action – including the planting of more than a million trees by our volunteers, and the creation of 10,000 acres of new Caledonian Forest – we aim to increase the impact and scale of our work. We want to ensure that our children and grandchildren also have the opportunity to enjoy Scotland’s wild landscapes and its rare and spectacular wildlife.”

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Volunteers at Dundreggan Conservation Estate

With concerns over the state of many Scottish woodlands – and fears for the long-term survival of iconic species including red squirrel, pine martin and capercaillie – the conservation charity is marking its 25th anniversary with a significant expansion of its forest restoration work across the Highlands while exploring opportunities to restore neglected and derelict Caledonian pinewoods in other parts of Scotland.

Trees for Life’s flagship Dundreggan Conservation Estate, a biodiversity hotspot in Glenmoriston near Loch Ness, will welcome visitors on 25 May between 10.30am and 5pm. Entry is free and the day of celebration – which is targeted at adults and children alike – will include the official launch of a Forests of the Commonwealth photographic exhibition, guided walks, tree planting, a talk by Alan and opportunities to feed wild boar. Food and merchandise will also be on sale.

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Volunteers at Dundreggan Conservation Estate

The inspiring Trees for Life story began in 1986 when Alan made a commitment to an environmental conference in Findhorn to launch a Caledonian Forest restoration project. Practical activity began in June 1989, with tree guards used to protect Scots pine seedlings from being eaten by deer. In 1991, volunteers began planting some of the first new trees to grow in the forest for 200 years.

While it feels appropriate to honour 25 years of committed and consistent action – mostly by volunteers – the challenges remain considerable.

Less than half of Scotland’s native woodlands are in “satisfactory condition for biodiversity” and much must be done to reverse centuries of damage, according to Scotland’s first complete survey of these important habitats, published by Forestry Commission Scotland recently. The report found that natural regeneration of native pinewoods is scarce.

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Jill Hodge, Dundreggan's tree nursery manager

Following a long history of deforestation, the Caledonian Forest reached a critical point some 200 years ago, with too few remaining trees and too many deer eating seedlings – leaving ‘geriatric’ forests of old trees. Today only a fraction of the former forest survives, with 84 isolated remnants of native pinewoods.

The need for concerted conservation action – and the lack of young trees to replace mature specimens when lost – is also being highlighted by threats posed by climate change and extreme weather, and the risk of disease affecting the Scots pine, which forms the forest ecosystem’s ‘backbone’ on which many species depend.

“We want people to get involved through volunteering or financial support. Wildlife tourism generates millions of pounds every year, so bringing new life to impoverished woodlands and barren glens can bring economic as well as environmental benefits,” Alan said.

ForestsThe charity’s major plans for 2014 include an ambitious project at Dungreggan to convert a 300-hectare commercial plantation of non-native trees planted by a previous owner back to native woodland. This will involve the felling of the alien conifers and a pioneering mire restoration scheme, funded by a grant from Scottish Natural Heritage.

Geoff Dalglish

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