Vast forests once grew over much of Scotland. The lush mixture of trees and shrubs that flourished in these woods developed naturally after the last Ice Age and varied according to geographical location and altitude. They included a rich diversity of species such as Scots pine, birch, aspen and oak - what we now call our "native" species.
However, over thousands of years the people who settled on the land made great changes to the landscape. Woods were felled, grazed and cleared as farming became established. Timber itself was a tremendously valuable resource to be harvested for making, tools, dwellings, ships and fuel and as a consequence the natural woodlands began to disappear. Hungry mouths of sheep and deer plus the use of burning inhibited regeneration. When it was realised early this century that there was crucial shortage of timber in Britain the solution was to plant new forests of imported quick-growing conifers like the Sitka spruce and the native species were overlooked.
By the mid 1980's only around 2% of Scotland's original woodland cover remained. There were also gloomy predictions that up to 80% of these remnants could go over the next 50 years simply because of neglect or perceived lack of value. That is, unless some positive action could be taken to reverse the trend.
Many people were concerned at this prospect and native woodlands became the focus of growing attention and action by a number of bodies although large-scale funding across the country proved difficult to acquire. However, the advent of the Millennium Commission and its ability to secure millions of pounds for inspirational projects offered the prospect of making a significant difference within a shorter timescale than was ever envisaged. A public campaign was launched and the result was the creation of a new concept - a Millennium Forest for Scotland.
The vision of the Millennium Forest for Scotland is to mark the turn of the 21st century as the turning point in the fate of our native woodlands. And that vision goes far beyond physically restoring the forest - it is about re-establishing social, cultural and economic links between communities and their native woodlands. It is also about promoting an interest and commitment to managing woodlands in a sustainable way well into the next century.
These projects are themselves partnerships - collaborative initiatives involving organisations as diverse as Government bodies, local authorities, major charities, local groups, right down to highly motivated individuals. In particular the contributions of the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage have been central features of the initiative, both for funding and for practical support within projects.
This real biodiversity is mirrored among the individual projects by the great diversity of activities that are carried out under the umbrella of the Millennium Forest. Work on the ground might involve foresters clearing rhododendron to allow regrowth of native woodland on Loch Lomondside or it could be the record-breaking mass planting of almost 40,000 trees in three days by 2500 volunteers on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Or it may reflect the efforts of the children of Tomnacross School in their tree nursery, supplying native seedlings to tree planting projects in the north and west.
Some of our most windswept islands will soon be showing the signs of little burgeoning woodlands; places like Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles all have their own projects underway now. Down in the Borders there is a veritable hive of activity going on. Hedgerows, community woods, research projects and work in school grounds have all been the focus of attention in that part of the country. So too has been the use of the woodland end product - timber. A workshop and design studio known as the Woodschool has been set up at Ancrum for craftsmen and women to produce and market a wide range of quality wooden goods.
Economic use of timber and management of native woodlands is also central to the Clyde Valley Woodlands project which seeks to encourage the owners of native woods to value them as a sustainable resource. Right across the MFS initiative, involvement of people has been a key target. Whether it is by taking trainees and giving them real job skills and a route to employment as in East Ayrshire or by promoting the special needs of disabled groups for access and enjoyment in the country-wide Woods for All project, people are benefitting directly.
Added to that are the research studies into our national woodland resource, the arts and cultural events and the environmental education programme to raise the awareness of young and old. The introduction of a Millennium Awards scheme by the Trust in September of this year will offer new opportunities for individuals to play a part in creating the vision of the Millennium Forest in ways that will provide personal achievement and benefits for the wider community.
Neil Macgillivray, Communications Manager for the Millennium Forest for Scotland Trust
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