Take a train journey through the heart of Scotland and you will probably look out of the windows at a starkly beautiful landscape. Hills and glens flow across the land, broken occasionally by a ribbon of river or the swaying of a lonely tree.
Crags loom up from the bare mountainsides where birds of prey build eyries. It was probably this image of Scotland that inspired the makers of Prometheus to use the Isle of Skye as a setting for some of the alien landscape.
Yet it was not always like this. When the Romans marched north to fight the Scots in the Battle of Mons Graupius in 84AD somewhere outside what is now Brechin, they would have walked in formation through miles and miles of what was, even then, ancient woodland.
The Caledonian Forest, which was formed during the last ice age, covered nearly four million acres across Scotland and boasted an array of indigenous trees from pines and birches to rowans and oaks. Today, only 1 per cent of this woodland remains, scattered in over 84 locations around Scotland. For the most part, the once forested land is now bare.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to redress this, with groups set up to help with replanting. Whilst organisations such as Trees for Life are concentrating on the areas that used to be covered by the Caledonian Forest, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is concentrating their reforestation on the area around Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve, on the flanks of the range of Munros on the north side of Loch Tay. It is the aim of the NTS to plant 100,000 trees and restore the native broadleaf woodland historically found in the area.
The NTS hopes to enrich the habitat at Ben Lawers, encouraging more insects and wildlife. “For decades now,” says property manager Helen Cole, “we have been working at Ben Lawers to restore some of the elements that have vanished from the open hillside. For example, we have several exclosures which boast a wonderful range of trees, shrubs and wildflowers. And we are pioneering the restoration of high-altitude willow scrub, endangered in Scotland.”
The £250,000 project, which is being funded through the Scottish Rural Development Programme, is part of a wider objective to increase biodiversity and enhance landscape value at the nature reserve. To date, nearly 60,000 birches, willows, rowans and alders have taken root on the lower slopes of Meall nan Tarmachan, just west of Ben Lawers.
This nature reserve has been in the care of the NTS since 1950 and is one of the most botanically rich mountains in Britain. The ambitious project will see a further 50,000 trees being planted later in 2012. But it will take many decades before the mountain, and the surrounding land, begins to look like it did in Roman times.