Abernethy Forest: the history and ecology of an old Scottish pinewood

Published on 14 January 2019 in Book reviews

By Ron W. Summers

RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Inverness, 2018; hbk, 360pp; many colour plates, figures and maps; ISBN 978-1-9999882-0-3

£29.99 buy it from the BB Bookshop

With their nesting Capercaillies Tetrao urogallus, Ospreys Pandion haliaetus, Crested Tits Lophophanes cristatus and crossbills Loxia spp., the native pinewoods of Scotland have long held a romantic attraction for British birders. Occasional pairs of Green Tringa ochropus and Wood Sandpipers T. glareola and other rare breeding birds added to the excitement. Now there are Common Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula and White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla too, although the Greenshanks T. nebularia famously studied by Nethersole-Thomson disappeared some time ago.

Of the widespread post-glacial Forest of Caledon there are just 84 fragments left, amounting to 180 km2. The forests reached their minimum extent in the mid-1800s, by which time the native Capercaillie had been extinct for some time. Red Squirrels Sciurus vulgaris had been almost exterminated but had made a comeback after reintroductions and translocations. Great Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos major were either extinct or reduced to just a few pairs. You can’t help wondering what other forest birds might have lived in the old pinewoods before this catastrophic bottleneck. Today, two-thirds of the remaining woods are less than 100 ha in size and only six extend to more than 1,000 ha. The largest, by some margin, is Abernethy, in Strathspey, the subject of this book by an author uniquely qualified for the task of writing it. 

Abernethy was acquired by the RSPB in stages, starting with the Loch Garten section in 1975, and it now owns most of the forest and adjoining moorland. The amount of research that has been carried out here is impressive: much of it is summarised in this book. Abernethy Forest is a comprehensive account of the history and ecology of the great wood. Starting with the basics of climate and soils, it moves through the human and social history and the known changes in the extent and exploitation of the forest, providing many historical maps. The plants and plant communities are described in detail, with an emphasis, unsurprisingly, on the trees, and there are separate chapters on the role of fire in the forest and on fungi and lichens. Summers expertly draws together what is known about the vertebrates of the forest, most particularly the woodland grouse, Crested Tit and crossbills, as well as the more important mammals: the deer, Red Cervus elaphus and Roe Capreolus capreolus, Fox Vulpes vulpes, Wildcat Felis sylvestris, Pine Marten Martes martes and Red Squirrel.

Deer were responsible for much of the destruction of the old woods, preventing regeneration to such an extent that at one stage there were no trees less than 200 years old in some of the pinewoods. The RSPB and the National Trust for Scotland (at Mar Lodge in Aberdeenshire) have been involved in controversial reductions in deer numbers, which have been hugely successful in allowing natural regeneration to take place; as Summers points out, however, this is a complex matter and may be negatively affecting other areas. Bees in the forest are under threat as there are now fewer grazed swards where flowers may grow. There have been some curious twists in the attempts to reverse previous environmental damage, including the employment of a man to fill in ditches to restore forest bogs – ditches he had much earlier been paid to dig out!

Abernethy Forest is well-illustrated and a pleasure to read. It could serve as an undergraduate textbook, to the extent that it even has an appendix on methods in forest ecology. It is also a timely reminder of just how complicated the management of a nationally important reserve can be after the initial purchase has taken place, and how much research is necessary for management to be based on rational principles. 

Alan Knox