Forestry is my daydream vocation. In moving back to the Highlands I achieved a small part of this alternative reality and now my daily commute takes me through an upland Special Area of Conservation and then down into the birchwood Site of Special Scientific Interest that surrounds our Scottish studio. The moorland above the forest is rapidly changing: where ecological processes were once suppressed by grazing pressure and burning, now the natural montane scrub progression of birch, willow, juniper and Scots pine is racing up the hill.
It is a thrill to see natural processes taking hold once again in this landscape. Such is the vigour of this woodland expansion that, combined with the encouragement of government subsidy, there is the real prospect of an extended 900-hectare block of maintained heather moorland being given over to natural regeneration with the ecological and carbon sequestration benefits that this brings. To relate this to the broader UK context that is an area twice the size of Sherwood Forest, and yet this is just one discrete patch of hill ground in my immediate locality. It is also miniscule by comparison to the scale of the nearby Cairngorms Connect project which is restoring ecological processes to a contiguous area of over 60,000 hectares. Add in the work of the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge and it gives a total of over 900 square kilometers of regenerating landscape on the doorstep.
These changes bring a concomitant increase in wildlife diversity: crossbills closer to the house than before, I now see more goshawks and pine martens on my walk to work. There is no shortage of local anecdote reinforcing this perception, especially following the lockdowns of the last year. 2020 also saw the first successful fledging of white-tailed sea eagles in the eastern cairngorms for over 200 years.
At a more intimate scale we are encouraging landscape renewal around our studio through tree and meadow planting along with the redirection of rainwater into a wetland area. This is instrumental to our enjoyment of the workplace and for those who visit our cafe. Incremental and cumulative effects are worthwhile. However it is principally in operating at a large scale where meaningful ecological and carbon benefit can be found. As an illustration of this, although the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions have almost halved in the thirty years to 2020, emissions from transport have barely altered and now contribute a third of the total. The incremental benefit of more efficient vehicles over that time has barely moved the needle.
This is where I believe our role as designers working toward the creation and conditioning of our environment becomes key. As a matter of course we should be placing site renewal, both in terms of landscape and existing buildings, at the centre of all design development. Much more significantly however we should be doing all we can to encourage and support progress at the grand scale through comprehensive electrification and a modal shift in transport, landscape connectivity and native woodland expansion. Maybe forestry is not so different after all.
Cairngorms National Park