Please note that many of these articles were originally written for the old GB Wildlife site in between 2008 – 2010 and organisations may have changed since then.


Wildlife Blogs – Trees for Life : Restoring the Caledonian Forest

© Laurie Campbell: Scots Pine.

© Laurie Campbell: Scots Pine.

It has been 20 years Since Trees For Life set about to realise the dream of restoring 600 sq miles of the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands.

The Caledonian Forest originally covered much of the Highlands of Scotland, and takes its name from the Romans, who called Scotland ‘Caledonia’, meaning ‘wooded heights’.

However, there has been a long history of deforestation in Scotland with clearance of the land beginning in Neolithic times. Trees were cut for fuel and timber, and to convert the land to agriculture. Over the centuries, the forest shrank as the human population grew, and some parts were deliberately burned to eradicate ‘vermin’ such as the wolf. More recently, large areas were felled to satisfy the needs of industry, particularly after the timber supply in England had been exhausted. The widespread introduction of sheep and a large increase in the numbers of red deer ensured that once the forest was cleared, it did not return.

‘Trees for Life’ is the only organisation specifically dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest to a target area of 600 sq miles in the Scottish Highlands. We work in partnership with the Forestry Commission, RSPB and private landowners, and own and manage the 10,000 acre Dundreggan Estate. We are not aiming to regenerate a forest which will be utilised sustainably as an extractive resource for people, although we recognise the need for this in Scotland. We endorse the efforts of other organisations in seeking to establish a new, ecologically-sustainable system of forestry, but we strongly believe that this utilitarian approach must be complemented by the restoration of large areas of wild forest. Trees for Life is unique in being the only organisation working specifically towards this end.


© Laurie Campbell: Crested Tit.

© Laurie Campbell: Crested Tit.

Setting an Example

Scotland is a prime candidate for ecological restoration work, as it is one of the countries which has suffered most from environmental degradation in the past. The Highlands in particular have been described as a ‘wet desert’ as a result of the centuries of exploitation which have reduced them to their present impoverished and barren condition.

With most other countries now repeating the same ecological mistakes, we believe that the onus is on Scotland to provide an example of reversing the damage which has been done here. Thus, at Trees for Life, we envision our work to restore the Caledonian Forest as not only helping to bring the land here back to a state of health and balance, but also having global relevance, as a model for similar projects in other countries.

Action Plan

We have a threefold strategy for the return of the forest.

1. The first part of our strategy is to facilitate the natural regeneration of the trees, by fencing the deer out of areas on the periphery of the existing remnants, so that seedlings can grow naturally to maturity again, without being over-grazed. This is the simplest and best method of regenerating the forest, as it involves the minimum of intervention and allows nature to do most of the work. This is one of the basic principles of ecological restoration. However, this only works for locations where there is an existing seed source nearby, which is not the case in the treeless expanses which make up most of the Highlands today.

© Laurie Campbell: Pine Martin.

© Laurie Campbell: Pine Martin.

2. The second part of our strategy comes into effect in these situations, and it involves planting native trees in barren areas where the forest has disappeared completely. To do this, we collect seed from the nearest surviving trees, to maintain the local genetic variation in the forest.

3. The third part of our strategy involves the removal of non-native trees, which in some areas have been planted as a commercial crop amongst the old trees of the Caledonian Forest remnants, thereby preventing their regeneration.

Combining these three strategies, our intention is to re-establish areas, or ‘islands’, of healthy young forest scattered throughout the barren, deforested glens. As these new trees reach seed-bearing age they will form the nuclei for an expanded natural regeneration in the surrounding area. While the trees in these `islands’ are growing, it will be important to reduce the numbers of deer, so that the forest restoration process can become self-sustaining, without the need for further fences.

Results So Far

Since it was founded in 1989, with vital help from our volunteers, supporters and corporate supporters, Trees for Life has planted more than 800,000 trees across our target area (2009 figures), and has helped to restore 4,500 hectares (11,250 acres) of land by carrying out fencing work to minimise the impact of browsing deer in selected areas, fostering the regeneration of many thousands more seedlings.

How YOU can Get Involved.

If you would like to help Trees For Life’s vision become a reality there are numerous ways you can become involved including donations, membership and sponsorship through or why not join in on one of the working weeks. You could also choose to dedicate a tree to someone or even set up a grove of trees to celebrate a special occasion, as a memorial or just for yourself.