The mountains of the Highlands may still be snow-covered, and it doesn’t entirely feel that spring has sprung; but with lambs in the fields and leaves returning to the trees, the colours of Scotland are changing again as the seasonal clogs turn once more through their eternal motion. Through the winter the only green is the rather geometric patchwork of conifer forestry peppering the countryside; and as April rolls into May it all starts to get lost in summer’s Kaleidoscope of colour. It wasn’t always this way. Our sea of planted woodland is a relatively recent addition to our landscape, and much of it is due to one man.
Systematically from around 1600 the great natural pine forests of the Scottish uplands were chopped and burned down, in places to flush out wolves and wild rebels, but mostly to provide timber for the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Navy and for charcoal production. Today the Caledonian Pine forest is a tiny fraction of its once great coverage, and instead of our own Scots pine many of the hillsides are blanketed in fast-growing, non-native imported species.
Even from early on, it was obvious that as the pine forests were being felled, they’d need to be replaced; and despite the actions of several large landowners such as the Duke of Atholl (who would plant over 14 million larches on his vast estate), not enough was really done to staunch the timber hemorrhage. By 1916 and the First World War, Britain was almost treeless – and relying on importing timber from Canada. This was a dire situation, and one that needed to be drastically reversed.
Following the war the British Government set up the Forestry Commission with a remit to reforest Britain to the extent of 8 million acres; it wasn’t an easy ask. Part of the solution was to bring into public ownership the vast tracts of mature forest already privately owned, and much of this was to be found in Scotland, particularly in Argyll and Perthshire. Death tax exemption and a few bailouts to struggling estates in exchange for their forests did part of the trick; the other was to plant afresh: but what to plant?
About David Douglas
David Douglas was born in the small village of Scone in central Scotland in 1799, and on leaving school he became apprentice Gardner on the Earl of Mansfield’s nearby estate, where began his love affair with plants and all things botanical. Following his apprenticeship he moved on to work at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, where he found favour with the scientific movers and shakers of the day. They encouraged him to travel on a botanical survey around the Highlands, where he made such a good impression that he was commissioned by the Horticultural Society of London (now the Royal Horticultural Society) to go to the United States. Plants and fancy trees were all the rage in society Britain at the time, and many of the great houses were having their gardens designed with the latest imports in mind. So, amid this hunger and desire for the exotic Douglas headed off across the Atlantic in 1824.
His mission was to explore the Pacific Northwest (modern day Oregon,Washington and British Columbia) and collect as many plant specimens and seeds as he could. He almost single-handedly traversed mountain and river across this virtually uncharted land. He was the first European to see much of the western continent, and the greatest botanic explorer in American history. He would befriend many of the native tribes, even becoming an honouree tribesman to some. This connection with the locals helped Douglas overcome some insurmountable problems – and would see him become the first European to navigate from the Columbia River to Hudson Bay.
He was an avid collector, and wonderfully detailed in his descriptions of everything he saw and found, and his many journals stand testament to his skill, endurance and determination to do his job. Unfortunately, Douglas would be killed after falling into an animal trap while on a journey to Hawaii in 1834. He was only 35 years old.
In his short life he would successfully bring back to Britain over 240 new species of trees and flowers, including the Sitka Spruce, the Noble fir, the Lupin, the Grand fir and the tree named after him – the Douglas fir. In addition, there are over 80 species of plants which have today douglasii in their scientific name: a truly remarkable achievement. His new additions would certainly bring colour to many a garden and arboretum across the country, and in 1827 the Douglas fir would be introduced into cultivation. However, it would be the post First World War landscapes of upland Britain that would feel the greatest impact of the legacy of David Douglas
Sitka Spruce and Douglas firs grow very quickly in our rich soils and benign climate, reaching (for Sitka) maturity reasonably early. They’re tall trees and perfect for timber production. These two introductions were then of course (along with the Duke of Atholl’s larches) the obvious choices to replenish the lost forest. The problem is the nature of mono-culture. The trees are planted so close to each other that no sunlight reaches the floor, and few other plants and animals can live with them. They’re planted in regimented rows, blocks, squares and even zigzags; that it comes close to landscape graffiti. And, of course they’re non-native. This isn’t Douglas’ fault of course, but the policy of the Forestry Commission over the majority of the last 100 years – by 1960 these forests had become commercial, and the planting increased, with little thought to the environmental consequences.
Things have changed over the last 20 years. Some of the older plantations have been thinned and opened up as forest parks with walks, cycle routes and so on; forests clear-felled are now likely to be replaced with native woodlands instead to improve the environmental impact and regenerate other plants and animals; and the days of planting in geometrical shapes has thankfully gone. Still, drive through Perthshire, Argyll or Galloway and the ghost of David Douglas watches on.