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We need to do more to protect — and recreate — the Great Caledonian Forest

Walking through a commercial forest of sitka spruce in the Scottish Highlands can be strangely unsettling. It is deathly quiet. There is no birdsong. Not being a native species, this is not a natural habitat for Scottish wildlife. The atmosphere in these woods is almost unworldly.

The forest at Loch Arkaig, near Spean Bridge, which is being bought by a local community group in partnership with the Woodland Trust, is a very different proposition. This is a remnant of the ancient Great Caledonian Forest that once covered much of Scotland. Here, flora and fauna are diverse and rich. The forest rings with birdsong. Walking in woods such as these is a quintessential Highland experience, unchanged for centuries.

This is living history. This forest witnessed the Jacobite rebellion, and there are stories of buried rebel gold. Some trees still bear the bullet scars of when this was a commando training area in the Second World War. But most of all this is a place of natural beauty, majesty and serenity.

More needs to be done not only to preserve the remnants of the Great Caledonian Forest, but also to recreate it. What we see today is barely 5 per cent of what existed before deforestation, commercial forestry and a growth in the deer population took their toll. Initiatives such as the Millennium Forest project have been planting native trees on a range of sites from Sutherland to Milngavie, and local woodland initiatives have sprung up all over the country. Yet more needs to be done.

The efforts of the Loch Arkaig community group — assisted by the Woodland Trust, lottery funders and individual donors — are to be applauded. Of course, this 2,500-acre site is just a tiny piece of land when taken in the context of the whole of the Highlands. But this is how we secure Scotland’s natural treasures for future generations: patiently, and piece by piece.

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