Trees for Life

Posted by editor 03/10/2012 1 Comment 4076 views
Alan Watson Featherstone in an old forest in the Dundreggan Estate

Alan Watson Featherstone in an old forest in the Dundreggan Estate

By Jenny McBain

At a time when cities are gathering critical mass and swallowing up more of the world’s population, many people yearn for a break in the wilds. However without pioneering individuals who are willing custodians of nature, there would be no such places left.

Trees for Life is a charity founded by Alan Watson Featherstone in 1986 with the clear and somewhat ambitious aim of re-establishing tracts of the great Caledonian Forests in Scotland.

Native trees once covered over 90 per cent of Scotland and this is now reduced to around one per cent.  Identifying available land was a major issue but Alan’s tenacity and dedication paid off. By 2008 the group had raised enough money to purchase Dundreggan Estate in Glen Moriston- 10,000 acres of hill and moorland-  at a cost of £1.65 million.

So they now have their own land to work with and have planted a total of over one million trees.

Featherstone’s inspiration comes from a profound understanding of the importance of native trees.  He says, “There was a clear message written in the land.  Old trees were dying and not being replaced. A tree is lot more than just a green thing that grows out of the ground; it is a home and habitat for wildlife.”

Volunteers like Natalie Alain- a midwife based in Brixton- play a key role in this important enterprise.  Natalie wanted to take part in some hands-on, practical, conservation work that would have a tangible and positive effect on the countryside.

She had never been to Scotland and had heard about Trees for Life through friends. It sounded perfect for her and she was prepared to forgo modern comforts for a week long stay in some very basic and remote accommodation in order to plant trees.

When Natalie found out that bursaries were available to cover some of the costs of the holiday itself as well as transport to get to Scotland and a pair of stout walking boots, she wasted no time in signing up.  Her application for a Wave of Friendship Volunteer Bursary (now closed) was successful and she was awarded £500 to finance her working holiday.

Once in the Highlands, Natalie’s week started with a visit to a surviving pocket of native woodland.  This was something she particularly enjoyed.  She says, “To have the opportunity to actually see what some of the surviving ancient Caledonian Forest looks like was amazing.  I saw sphagnum moss as tall as I am, a 100 year old ants’ nest and these big graceful Scots pines.  To be with people who have a lot of knowledge and passion for trees and to be able to learn all about them kind of made sense as to why we were outside in the freezing cold on the side of a mountain.”

The group tries to mimic nature in the irregular way the seed is dispersed across the land, so the planting process is much slower and much more labour intensive than that associated with commercial forestry.  So just how great is the achievement of having planted just over one million trees?

Paul Hetherington is a spokesman for the Woodland Trust- a UK wide organisation which is also concerned with re-establishing native woodlands.  He says, “The UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe but if every person were to plant just five trees a year for the next thirty years we could double our native woodland cover.  Trees for Life have done an amazing job planting a million new native trees in the Highlands.”

Alan Watson Featherstone is enjoying his project’s success.  He says, “Discovering flowers, insects, rare butterflies and threatened species of bird such as the wood warbler, the black grouse and the Scottish Crossbill thrive amongst the newly established trees is a welcome reward for collective hard work.”

Trees for Life is a socially inclusive charity which welcomes the input of people who may be homeless or unemployed.  But would Natalie, a busy working Londoner, put aside further holiday time to repeat her tree planting experience?  She says she would.  “I would really recommend this holiday.  I got to be around a bunch of people I would not otherwise have met in a million years and I got a real energy boost from being outside in the beautiful Scottish countryside.”

Alan has his eye on some very long term goals and reckons it will take a further 250 years of concerted effort to make wild pockets of linked, natural woodland a firmly established reality.  However, he remains positive that it can be done.  He says, “When it comes to the environment, giving people the opportunity to be proactive is more constructive than just protesting.  We all know what the problems are: the key thing is to focus our energies on finding solutions.”

Each donation of £5 to the charity will result in the planting of one native tree.

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