Weaving a tapes-tree – The Loch Lomond Woodlands Project

To celebrate the International Day of Forests, our graduate placement Heather Reilly is highlighting some of our most important wooded areas, and the data mapping project which aims to better understand and illustrate them, in today’s blog.

On the bonny banks of eastern Loch Lomond sits a network of incredibly unique, longstanding native trees which form our Atlantic oak woodlands.

As well as providing a home to some of our well known, national icons like the red squirrel and pine marten, these woodlands also support a very important community of epiphytes, organisms which cling to trees and act like sponges, soaking up nutrients and moisture from the air. The rich carpet of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) and lichen assemblages which cover these woodlands are considered incredibly rare in both the diversity of species present and the abundance in which they are found.

Western oak woodlands covered in a thick blanket of moss. © Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Not to toot our own ac-horn, but here in Scotland we house the largest stronghold left in Europe for such diverse oak woodlands. These unique habitats are also of great global significance, as the perfect climate conditions (read: rain, and lots of it) required to facilitate them are only present across less than 1% of the planet.

These oak woodlands take their name from the hyper-oceanic zone they fall within, the distinct Atlantic climate system responsible for the West coast of Scotland’s relatively mild and consistent temperatures: all-too-often grey overcast skies and notoriously high levels of rainfall.

No black and white filter here: Loch Lomond and its surrounding woodlands really can be this grey and rainy – to no surprise to anyone who has visited without first consulting the weather forecast. © Heather Reilly

As I watch the rain fly horizontally past my window, it certainly feels hard to really appreciate such conditions. I am, however, very grateful for the incredibly rich and biodiverse woodland our wet weather brews. These characteristics, after all, lead to these woodlands being recognised as internationally important rainforest.

The definition of “driech”: the damp edges of Loch Lomond Woods on the eastern shore. © Heather Reilly

While the picture above is unlike that of the sprawling bright green canopies of the tropics (and arguably more pleasant images) which first come to mind, the rainforest we have here in Scotland is in fact far rarer, temperate rainforest.

With bragging rights, however, comes a great responsibility to look after such exceptionally biodiverse habitat. The importance and high value of this temperate rainforest within the National Park is currently recognised, and as a result, Loch Lomond Woods was classified as a protected area and finds refuge within a designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) site.

But this last standing rainforest safe haven does not exist in a perfect bubble, free from external influence. Fragments of these precious Atlantic oak woodlands occupy Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, alongside a variety of mixed broadleaf and commercial conifer neighbours. A diverse mosaic comprised of different woodland habitat types exists across the National Park’s eastern landscape.

The very same eastern shore of Loch Lomond on a rare sunny day. Loch Lomond Woods SAC can be seen in the forefront, with neighbouring commercial forestry and mixed habitats behind. A variety of land uses can be seen, with sheep farming in close proximity. © Lorne Gill/NatureScot.

And, regardless of type, these woodlands are all currently exposed to over-grazing and browsing by herbivores, threatened by non-native invasive plant species including rhododendron and vulnerable to quickening changes to the climatic systems. It is clear that urgent and targeted action is required to better protect them. It is imperative, however, that we first increase our understanding of woodland condition and the extent of the pressures faced in the context of the larger landscape, one as diverse as the woodlands themselves.

Our Loch Lomond Woodlands Project aims to achieve this by gathering and visualising the large quantity of existing woodland habitat data currently scattered across a variety of landowners within the eastern region of the national park. We hope that, in doing so, we will encourage communication and collaboration amongst organisations and more transparency in future data sharing. The project will also recognise the many benefits, beyond their inherent biodiversity value, that these woodlands give us.

We will collate and assess the information, gaining insights to help us develop broader, landscape-scale management plans, to achieve conservation goals across the larger mosaic of habitats and land uses. The more informed, and tailored as a result, land management strategies are, the more likely they are to be successful in achieving their goals.

Working with our partner organisations, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority, Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Forestry, the Loch Lomond Woodlands project will undertake spatial mapping of habitat data and paint a clear picture which tells the story of the Loch Lomond woodlands.

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