Abernethy Forest: an old Scottish pinewood

Dr Ron Summers, Principal Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and author of “Abernethy Forest. The history and ecology of an old Scottish pinewood.” shares some of the astonishing history of Abernethy Forest in this blog.

Abernethy Forest: an old Scottish pinewood

I was only a boy when I visited Abernethy for the first time, and little did I know then how big a role this place would play in my career as a conservation scientist. During that first visit with my parents in the early 1960s I didn’t see as many birds as I would have hoped, but that experience taught me that the forest doesn’t reveal its wildlife secrets easily. I have been privileged to work in this fantastic place for the past 29 years and the ancient Caledonian forest continues to inspire me.

Lying within the central Highlands and now part of the Cairngorms National Park, Abernethy Forest, along with adjoining moorland and mountains, is one of RSPB’s largest reserves. The forested part comprises Scots pine plantations, initiated in the 1840s, and fragments of Caledonian pinewood. No other site within Scotland has as much Caledonian pinewood, a rare habitat in Scotland that can be encompassed within a 13x13 km square. 

View of Abernethy Caledonian Pines with Cairngorms mountains in background
Photo: No other site in Scotland has as much of the rare ancient Caledonian pinewood habitat as Abernethy Forest. By Ron Summers.

The Caledonian pinewoods are especially important for conservation because they are lineal descendants from the first pines that established after the last glaciation, and only natural processes of tree recruitment have taken place. The human history in the area extends back to the Iron or Bronze Age, and since then, the forest has been used for hunting, subsistence farming and forestry (mainly selective felling but latterly clear-felling).

Despite these interventions, an astonishing variety of wildlife remains, including iconic birds such as the capercaillie, the Scottish subspecies of the crested tit, and three species of crossbill. The mammals include the red squirrel, pine marten, wildcat (mainly hybrids with feral cats), and red deer. Two species of wood ant (the Scottish wood ant and hairy wood ant) are abundant whilst the rare narrow headed ant has its stronghold in Abernethy and other Caledonian pinewoods in Strathspey. Other key groups of insects include moths, predatory beetles, fungus gnats and aphids. The wood ants collect most of their food in the form of honeydew from Scots pine aphids.

Capercaillie on the forest floor amongst the pines
Photo: An astonishing variety of wildlife inhabits the Caledonian pinewood, including iconic birds such as the capercaillie. By Dave Braddock (rspb-images.com)

Over 700 species of fungus occur in Abernethy Forest, including 15 species of the tooth fungi, whose name comes from the downward projecting spines rather than gills to shed their spores. The forest is not renowned for swathes of woodland flowers, because shrubs (heather, bilberry and cowberry) cover the forest floor.  

The RSPB’s involvement with Abernethy Forest started with protecting the breeding site of the first returning ospreys, after becoming locally extinct. Successful breeding at Abernethy kick-started the re-colonisation of Scotland which now has over 200 pairs. Conservation measures have now extended to other species such as the pine hoverfly and twinflower, and particularly towards the expansion of Caledonian pinewood. The main limiting factor was browsing by livestock and deer, so the livestock was removed and deer culled to a level that has allowed the infilling by trees of gaps in the forest as well as a southward extension of woodland into the Cairngorm Mountains. The ultimate goal is to extend the forest to a natural treeline, which will be around 650 m in altitude. Controversially, a decision was made to stimulate the expansion by planting broadleaf trees over 500 hectares, contrary to early policies to allow only natural processes.

Currently, a consortium comprising the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission and Wildland Limited have come together under the partnership ‘Cairngorms Connect’ to restore habitats across 600 km2 of contiguous land in Strathspey. This will involve restoring Caledonian pinewood, including montane and bog woodland, thereby reducing the effects of forest fragmentation for the benefit of wildlife.

A fuller description of the history, wildlife and conservation of Abernethy Forest can be found in a recent article (Summers, R.W. 2019. Abernethy Forest. Classic sites. British Wildlife, April 2019) and a fully illustrated book (Summers, R.W. 2018. Abernethy Forest. The history and ecology of an old Scottish pinewood.  RSPB, 360 pages; available from NHBS).