Coigach and Assynt’s secret hazel woodlands

We sometimes think of Assynt, in the north west of Scotland, as a spectacular but stark place of rock, heath and bog. But here and there are plenty of trees – marvellous woodlands, those on better soils often dominated by hazel trees of amazing maturity, hosting stunning lichens, mosses, liverworts and fungi which are unique to these type of woods.  On a sunny day, all the greens are there: the bright leaves, the subtle mosses on trunk and rock, and the really wild range of lichens.  There are leafy, crusty and hairy forms on old, thicker stems and magical runic-style writing: dots, dashes and startling colours on the fresh younger growth.

We’ve found out a lot more about those stunning hazel wood over the last four years. Nature Scot has been a key partner and funder of the Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP). The Hazel Wood Audit was one of over 30 projects that the partnership, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is delivering, with funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The audit project was led by the Assynt Field Club.

The final report, written by ecological consultant Roz Summers, has recently been released, and makes fascinating reading. This extract gives you a glimpse of the many intricate ways in which hazel trees are woven into the natural and cultural landscape of this wild corner of Scotland.

The trees themselves are in a myriad of forms: multi-stemmed and groaning outwards, mega-stemmed with an astonishing range of ages in one tree, broad single-stemmed trees with wide boles at the base, decrepit-looking ancients falling down the hill.  These, however, are rarely dead, indeed they seem to morph into new forms, even possibly reverting to upright multi stems.  This is the Celtic Rainforest.

Ancient hazel tree. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

Coastal Temperate Rainforest was identified as a rare and distinct part of a priority “Major Habitat Type” by WWF. It is confined to only seven areas of the world. The West Highlands of Scotland are part of the Northeastern Atlantic sector.  These Atlantic hazelwoods are special because of the high rainfall, lots of wet days, proximity to the coast and relatively even temperatures. They are also invaluable because they are still here – perhaps having survived in some form since the last ice retreated 10, 000 years ago.

Hazel arrived in Assynt around 9,500 years ago, and was an abundant part of the forest cover on mineral soils along with Scots pine and birch.  The mineral soils became progressively washed out over time as the climate cooled and got wetter.  The tree cover began to retreat from 5,000 years ago, and peat began to spread, with no evidence of human influence. 

Hazel leaves and nuts, © Lorne Gill

Birch and birch-hazel woods on mineral soils seem to have been cleared by fire from 3,500 years ago, surviving as fragments on brown forest soils. Human history in this area, close to the lochs, has been dated from around 4500 years ago. so the Neolithic cairns were being built when hazel and other woodland was still fairly plentiful, and it is possible they were gradually cleared for agriculture.

Our ancestors must have valued, indeed revered, hazel.  Hazels provided the 300,000 carbonized nutshells found in a 5m pit in the island of Oronsay, Inner Hebrides, dated to around 7700BC.  Hazel shells were found in Skara Brae, Orkney, eaten 5000 years ago.  It is possible our Mesolithic ancestors helped to spread, and possibly even managed hazel for tools, building and heat.

A hazel coppice. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

The natural growth habit of hazel means it is possible to select the exact size of stick or pole you need for a multitude of uses, particularly building works and stock management. Hazel trees may well be the main reason the ancestors could survive in North West Highlands, and would have been vital up until 100 years ago.

In Celtic memory the hazel tree was the tree of wisdom.  They believed the hazel nuts would fall from the tree into the river and be eaten by salmon, which made them clever enough to travel out to sea and find their way back.  Humans eating the salmon would gain that wisdom.  The spots on the salmon were evidence of their diet, they said.  Hazel is also one of the nine sacred woods used to light the Beltane fire every year.

Lichen training for the Assynt & Coigach Living Landscape project. © Andy Summers/Assynt Field Club

To find out more about the Assynt and Coigach project, and what the audit discovered about these very special trees do read the full report. Hundreds of hours of volunteer work went into carrying out the surveys and processing the data – a huge achievement which will help inform action to help landowners and managers to protect these trees for the future.

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