The subject for the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s November talk in Duns by Dr David Long was ‘The Botany and Re-wilding in the Southern Uplands’.
The hills today may look grand with their stark and bare slopes reaching up to the summits but this is a very unnatural landscape. Man’s influence through felling the natural forest and heavy grazing by sheep over the past century’s have removed all but a few scattered trees, most survive in the cleughs and rocky places, awaiting the day when they can spread out again and reforest the valley floor and lower slopes.
David showed photos to compare the mountain slopes in Norway where there are trees in the valleys and a natural tree line high up the slopes, with willows and other shrubs reaching high up the mountain sides, creating a home for a wide diversity of wildlife as well as light grazing and shelter for farm animals, a far cry from our intensively grazed hills which look so bare and barren.
But all is not doom and gloom. Small refugia of native mountain plants hang on in some of the wet flushes and rocky crags and when the grazing is removed it is surprising what will reappear. Large tracts of land have been acquired by the Borders Forest Trust, the sheep removed and the boundaries fenced to stop grazing animals returning.
Some flowers such as Globeflower started to flower again in places where they had not been seen for years. When the sheep were present they grazed them down each year, but somehow they just survived, now they can grow up again, flower and set their seeds. Shrubs such as willow are easily produced from cuttings and some have been collected on the inaccessible crags and the cuttings rooted and the resulting offspring planted on the slopes where there are now no sheep to graze them down.
Victorian fern enthusiasts also over collected some of the mountain ferns leaving only one or two individuals of some species.
Down in the valley floor where there may be a scattering of trees it is a very slow job waiting for the trees to get established naturally as there are often few trees to act as a seed source. Here again, seeds are collected from the local provenance types, raised in a nursery and replanted out to give the forest a helping hand in getting established again.
It will take a long time but on some of our Borders hills in the future the lower slopes will be wooded again, shrubs will grow on the mountain sides and rare alpines will flourish on the highest slopes, crags and flushes.