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Issue 93 - The rainforests of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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The rainforests of Scotland

Keith Fergus goes in search of Scotland's Atlantic oakwoods

uge areas of Europe’s western oceanic fringes, extending along the coastlines of Spain, France and Britain, were once covered in oak woodland. Generally known as the Atlantic oakwoods, their wet, humid climate — along with their profusion of ferns and lichens — led them to be described as temperate rainforests. Scotland’s western coast provided the necessary weather conditions for large swathes of the wildlife-rich Atlantic Oakwood, which were key sites of biodiversity.

Although predominantly oak, each site also has stands of hazel, ash, rowan, elm, willow, holly and alder. Consequently, the range of other flora and fauna found within these woods is enormous. Roe deer, red squirrel, redstarts, warblers, woodpeckers, tits, bluebells, foxglove, primrose, fungi, mosses, liverworts, lichen and many species of ferns are just some examples of what can be found under their verdant canopies.
Humans also saw these forests as important resources for shelter, firewood, food and grazing for livestock. They were, however, over-exploited during the Industrial Revolution. In Argyll, the oakwoods were principally utilised to provide charcoal for the fires of Bonawe Iron Furnace, which stood near the southern bank of Loch Etive and a little north of Taynuilt.

Due to this exploitation, at the beginning of the 20th Century the health of Scotland’s Atlantic oakwoods was in terminal decline. Thankfully a few pockets still remain, with key sites at Glen Nant, Dalavich, Crinan and Ariundle. Here the trees have been allowed to flourish, allowing nature to return and thrive once more.

The woodland that supplied much of the charcoal to Bonawe lay at Glen Nant, 15 miles east of Oban. Today, peace and tranquility prevails, which makes it hard to imagine that this was once a busy industrial site. For nearly 150 years, trees were coppiced and charcoal burned before being transported, in sacks on the backs of ponies, to Bonawe Iron Furnace.

Opened in 1753, at its height the furnace produced 700 tons of pig iron every year. Around 20 people were employed at Bonawe with a further 600 locals working at Glen Nant. The furnace also made cannonballs during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century and ferries would regularly make the short crossing to Taynuilt. From there the iron and cannonballs would then continue their journey to England. The furnace closed in 1876 but these days is open daily from 1 April to 30 September (there is an admission charge). Many of the buildings have been restored, providing a good impression of how it would have looked when in operation.

Glen Nant has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest since 1961 and today it is a National Nature Reserve. Its name means ‘glen of the nettles’ and it has links to a medieval Christian site — the wood’s historic name is Coille Braigh na Cille or ‘the wood of the brae of the church’. As well as a spectacular display of bluebells from early May, wood sorrel, primrose, wood anemone and ramsons carpet the woodland floor during the spring, while jays, redstarts and treecreepers are just a small a selection of the wildlife here. There are also several large anthills that have been constructed by wood ants, which play a vital role in the ecosystem of Glen Nant.

Sitting 12 miles south of Glen Nant, near the banks of Loch Awe, is the small settlement of Dalavich. Here the River Avich drains from Loch Avich into Loch Awe and the landscape is surrounded by another pocket of Atlantic Oakwood. The village’s name means ‘the meadows of Avich’ and it was established in 1952 by the Forestry Commission for workers extracting timber from Inverliever Forest. The work was hard and incredibly labour intensive, with horses required to remove the timber from the forest. Barnaline Stables were used as part of the timber operations and can be visited on a marvellous walk that takes you along the shores of Loch Avich and the banks of the River Avich, where there is the natural spectacle of an incredible waterfall.

The humid climate combined with high rainfall and acidic soils to provide the perfect conditions for ancient oak woodland to thrive at Dalavich. Much of it was coppiced during the 1800s for charcoal, with Bonawe Iron Furnace again being the beneficiary. The woodland of Dalavich is now a Special Site of Scientific Interest. Blue, long tailed, great and coal tits, along with goldcrest, are regular visitors to the woodland, with pied flycatcher and redstart occasionally spotted. Dipper and kingfisher may also be seen along the river.

Continuing south, our journey reaches Crinan and its gorgeous little remnant of the Atlantic oakwood. The village is perhaps best known for the Crinan Canal that links Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne with the Sound of Jura on the west coast — it is frequently called the most beautiful shortcut in Scotland. Oakwoods cloak the steep hillside above Crinan and an outstanding viewpoint draws the eye across the settlement and the Sound of Jura to the Isles of Jura and Scarba, with the view eventually resting on Mull’s mountainous profile.

During the 18th Century, timber from Crinan was used for a range of industries, such as charcoal for iron smelting and bark for tanning — a tenant at nearby Kilmahumaig was a shoemaker. Large quantities of timber were also required for the manufacture of acetic acid (the main component of vinegar), and the works were known locally as the ‘vinegar factory’. Since the late 19th Century, and the demise of heavy industry, the Crinan Wood has been allowed to prosper and this beguiling woodland location is home to 24 species of birds such as buzzard, wood warblers and pied flycatcher.

Our final destination is the rugged, sparsely-populated landscape of the Ardgour Peninsula and the quiet village of Strontian (from the Gaelic for ‘the point of the fairy hill’). Strontian developed because of the extraction of silver, lead and zinc from the surrounding landscape during the early 18th Century. Interestingly, Strontian gave its name to the element Strontium that was discovered here in 1790. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the oak woodland on the outskirts of the village was coppiced every 20 years to create wood for charcoal burning, which was subsequently used — you guessed it — at the Bonawe Iron Furnace, but also in Strontian Glen’s lead mining industry.
When walking through the magnificent Airigh Fhionndail National Nature Reserve and Ariundle Oakwood today, old coppiced trees, pony tracks, potato lazy beds, enclosure dykes and charcoal platforms bestow tangible evidence of a time when the forest was a hive of industry and brought thousands of people to work here.

After Bonawe closed in 1876 the woodland was used to shelter livestock. The area was designated a Forest Nature Reserve in 1961 and a National Nature Reserve in 1977, due to a number of habitats contained within that are home to an extensive array of flora and fauna. Under the woodland canopy, mosses, lichens, liverworts and ferns thrive on the damp woodland floor. The rare chequered skipper butterfly, the northern emerald dragonfly (only found in Northwest Scotland and Southwest Ireland), wrens, tree pipits, and red deer are seasonal visitors.
We all like to bemoan Scotland’s wetter climate. But look at the positives: it has allowed these glorious examples of the great Atlantic oakwood to form and ultimately prosper. They may have been heavily exploited but thankfully nature has won its battle and we may now freely enjoy a truly extraordinary natural spectacle.