Thursday, July 15, 2010

Carrifran Wildwood

In 2000, I attended the Society for Ecological Restoration's conference held in Liverpool, England that year. In the exhibitors' hall, I came across a display set up by Scotland's Borders Forest Trust (BFT), a non-profit organization that had just adopted a grassroots volunteer coalition called the Wildwood Group which had the audacious idea of re-creating a native forest in a valley that had been denuded and devastated by sheep and goats for centuries. Staffing the BFT's exhibit was Hugh Chalmers, whose title was Project Officer; Hugh was the on-the-ground man directly responsible for implementing the vision of the Wildwood Group. I was so captivated by Hugh's description of the project that (1) his inspiring vision literally choked me up as we were speaking, and (2) I sent BFT all of my remaining British pounds when I left England, and I have been a BFT member and supporter ever since.

In 2009, BFT published The Carrifran Wildwood Story, and I have prepared a review of the book that will appear in the journal Ecological Restoration. Here's a draft of my review.

The Carrifran Wildwood Story

Myrtle and Philip Ashmole, with members of the Wildwood Group. 2009. Jedburgh, Scotland, UK: Borders Forest Trust. Paper, £15. ISBN 978-0-9534346-4-0. 224 pages.

What does it take to turn an ecologically “green desert” into a diverse, native deciduous forest—especially when the templates available to serve as guides are, at best, tiny ecosystem fragments with uncertain management and land use histories stretching back centuries? This was the daunting task faced by the all-volunteer Wildwood Group working in the harsh Southern Uplands of Scotland as they sought to acquire an entire watershed and “re-create…an extensive tract of mainly forested wilderness with most of the rich diversity of native species present in the area before human activities became dominant.” The Carrifran Wildwood Story, published to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the planting of the first trees on the site on New Year’s Day, 2000, in the “Millennium Grove” documents the project’s complete history from conception and land acquisition through the reforestation of nearly the entire 1,640 (665 ha) Carrifran Burn watershed.

The book is a popular (not scientific) account—highly readable, well-written, and lively. Nevertheless, the authors do not short-change the essential climatologic, edaphic, hydrologic, topographic, botanic and ethnographic characteristics of the region and the site that underpin the project. In this sense, the Wildwood Group’s planners were following the footsteps of visionary environmental landscape architect Ian McHarg (1969), who advocated for developing as thorough an understanding of a locale as possible prior to undertaking any action on the ground.

The book is divided into 12 roughly chronological chapters, each introduced by a brief outline of the topics addressed in the chapter. The first two chapters provide an overview of the conception of the project. The Wildwood Group visionaries imagined purchasing a small catchment whose native vegetation had been severely depleted by centuries of intensive sheep and goat grazing, and then restoring native forest to the watershed. The third and fourth chapters review the Wildwood Group’s five-year efforts to locate and raise money to purchase a suitable watershed—first in the Scottish Borders (the counties bordering England) and then, when a suitable site could not be located there, a bit further north in the Southern Uplands. A thorough and comprehensive overview of planning for the restoration, including evaluating the current conditions in the drainage, examining the prehistoric palynological record, and identifying contemporary woodland sites that could serve as models and sources of propagules for a re-created forest is the subject of chapters 5-7. The decade-long planting program carried out by forestry contractors and a large cadre of dedicated volunteers is covered in chapters 8-11. Finally, since forest restoration by its very nature requires centuries to complete, the twelfth chapter chronicles the encouraging short-term changes observed in the valley over the first decade and projects the site’s ecological trajectory into the future.

The Wildwood Group adopted the evocative name Carrifran Wildwood for their initiative. Carrifran, freely translated as “seat of ravens” or “raven’s crag,” has many local spellings and pronunciations, none of which, apparently, were the ones ultimately adopted by the Wildwood Group (which calls the valley CarriFRAN). Recognizing that readers outside Scotland may not be familiar with local topographic and geographic terms, the authors thoughtfully included a glossary of “descriptive words with various origins” on page 52, though the list is not comprehensive. For example, the authors frequently use the word cleugh but don’t define it (a cleft in a hill or a ravine). In addition, readers may want to keep a bookmark lodged between pages 68 and 69 to make frequent reference to the unfamiliar place names and planting sections shown on the excellent site map.

Among the facets of this project that struck me most strongly were the historic rights and privileges afforded the public with which the Wildwood Group had to contend. The Carrifran Wildwood was established on private property owned by the Borders Forest Trust (the official nonprofit entity that served as an umbrella group managing the Carrifran Wildwood as well as many community forestry projects). Nonetheless, the Wildwood Group had to confront issues that stand in stark contrast to the few constraints faced by restorationists working on private property in North America. For example, while the Wildwood Group always envisioned that “access will be open to all,” the group was forced to enclose the entire Carrifran watershed with perimeter fencing to exclude wild roe deer, domestic sheep, and feral goats. In the process of protecting the newly planted trees, the fence excluded “hillwalkers”—hikers who enjoy the privilege of traipsing freely over private property throughout Britain. In addition, once the fence was in place, the Group had to remove the feral goats that roamed throughout the hills. The rural residents of the Southern Uplands expected to encounter goats, and their exclusion from the Wildwood through a combination of live capture and relocation and (in the case of a few highly elusive individuals) lethal sharpshooting, proved controversial. In his Foreword to the book, Professor Aubrey Manning notes that,“…it must have been very demanding of the tolerance and forbearance of the local people, of planners and statutory bodies like Scottish National Heritage and the Forestry Commission and of charitable trusts. A lot of persistent persuasion will have been involved and this story is set out here in a fascinating way” (page 3).

Excluding hikers with a fence would cause few problems in North America; in fact, hikers here need to secure permission before entering private property. Similarly, in most cases, North American landowners have the right to control feral animals on their own property and also may be able to control wild populations like deer if landowners can document that the animals are causing economic loss or hardship.

Another difference between the restoration efforts at Carrifran and those in many parts of temperate North America was the lack of non-native invasive plant species that needed to be managed in the Scottish project. To be sure, the trees planted at Carrifran had to compete with dense patches of native bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), which the Wildwood Group was forced to manage mechanically and chemically. Forest restorationists working in eastern North American woodlands with very high white-tailed deer densities often must contend with a similar situation when the ground layer vegetation has been decimated by browsing, leaving only a dense cover of unpalatable hay-scented ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). However, the absence of the fast growing introduced vines, lianas, and shrubs that can overtop saplings planted in eastern North America during a single growing season made me almost wish that bracken was my greatest challenge in establishing new woodland.

The book is thoughtfully designed and visually appealing. The designer restricted the text to two-thirds of each page, and then devoted the remainder of the page to full-color photographs, maps, and blue-background sidebars that explore the details of subjects mentioned in the accompanying text. The sidebars also occasionally contain poetry, evocative watercolor reproductions, and anecdotes and testimonials contributed by Wildwood Group members who were integral to the project’s success.

The book will appeal most directly to deciduous forest restorationists working in the temperate zones. However, the detailed account of the ecological planning that took place before a single tree was introduced onto the site should be of interest to all restorationists. And, those of us who fancy ourselves to be stewards of the earth will find ample inspiration in the audacity and execution of this truly visionary project.


McHarg, I. L. 1969. Design with nature. Philadelphia: The Falcon Press.

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