Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North – Scots Pine

strathfarrare Feb13 003There are many iconic  things to see in the Highlands as far as  wildlife is concerned and most are well established,  well known and well publicised.    Some of the more obvious ones include golden eagles, salmon leaping, capercaillie, red deer stags  and the dolphins at various places around the coasts.  One iconic image that is often forgotten or overlooked is the Scots pine yet it is  one of , if not the  most, important tree  of the landscape.    In the last few weeks the Scots pine has drawn the attention of the media in its various forms.    One item that  surprised me  was the idea being spread around that we ought to have a national  vote as to which tree in Scotland should be the Scottish emblem.  For some reason I always accepted that because of its role in the past and present  the Scots pine was that “emblem”.  For example, it is commonly referred to as the “King of the Forest”  whilst the  “Queen of the Forest” is the silver birch.   In the past it was always, and in some cases still is,  the emblem or Clan badge of at least seven Clans  including   Gunn, Macgregor and Macauley.

The Scots pine is worthy of any accolades mainly because once the ice had retracted from Britain only one large conifer was able to colonise  the landscape left after the ice retreated and that was the Scots pine.    Its uses  have  been varied , for example at one time it was the major source of  turpentine, resin and tar, its wood was used for  charcoal and for  making  flaming torches.  It was this surviving the aftermath of the ice  age that also included it in the list of, arguably, only three conifers that are native to the Highlands.   An obvious other one is the juniper that is often growing as an understory to the Scots pine.   There are superb examples of this partnership in the three glens of Affric, Cannich and Strathfarrar lying to the west of Inverness.   The junipers in  these three glens  often grow over three metres or more  and they, combined with  the Scots pine, birch, aspen and rowan are important remnants of the formerly widespread ancient Caledonian pine forest.

Historically there has always been three natïve conifers in the Highlands with, apart from the Scots pine and the juniper, the other being the yew tree.  Now, however, there seems to be, for some reason, doubt over the fact that the yew is a native tree.  This is despite the fact that some of them are very old.  The reason for this doubt is not certain but it only serves to put the other two, namely the Scots pine and juniper into perspective. The suggestion  is that the only evidence of the yew being native are the  yew “woodlands”, in Argyll.  It will be interesting to see whether this problem about the status of the yew is resolved, one way or the other.     Most of the  yews we see are in old churchyards or burial grounds where in many case the yew trees did not come  first.  It appears that the yew has long been held sacred and were found on such ground well before the current buildings  were erected as   much more traditional religious   sites.    It has always been presumed that yew trees were used  as the  timber to make the old longbows.  In fact the yews in the UK were not very suitable and most of the  yews  used in  this way came for the  continent such as Spain.