We have become so accustomed to the open, largely treeless landscape around us that it is hard to imagine that once a great forest covered most of the land below our mountain summits. Today we can see rare glimpses of this forest only in little remnants on cliffs, ravines and other inaccessible places.
By analysing pollen stored in deep peat we are able to build up a picture of our vegetation history stretching back to the last glaciation some 10,000 – 12,000 years ago. It is a story of forest formation and then decline. As the ice sheet retreated as the climate warmed, so vegetation and ultimately, forest, followed. The early forest would have consisted of ‘pioneer’ species such as willow, birch, juniper and pine which were able to cope with the, as yet, largely soil-less, stony substrates left in the wake of the ice. As these early scrubby forests matured the soils improved and species such as oak, hazel, ash, elm, holly, rowan and hawthorn were able colonise. Forest clothed most of the land, ranging from swamp forests of alder in waterlogged valley floors through tall, thick stands of oak, hazel and holly on the lower slopes to short stunted juniper and willow scrub on the upper slopes before finally giving way to treeless heath on the wind-blasted summits.
As the climate became warmer and wetter Scots pine declined (outside of the Highlands where the climate remained suitably cool) and peat formed in areas with poor drainage. The once-dominant elm also began to decline, bur with ash it remained a widespread species on the better soils. The forest reached its optimum extent some circa 6,000 years ago. Imagine the rich virgin forest where bears roamed, and wolves and lynx stalked deer beneath the canopy of ancient oaks. Peat bog was also becoming extensive. Much of the bog is above the natural limit of forest, blanketing the broad, rounded summits but some also formed on the lower ground, where the landscape was not wholly covered in forest.
Around this time Man first starts to have an impact on the forest. Neolithic hunter-gatherers arrive from the continent. Their impact was minimal at first as the largely nomadic peoples roamed the forest seeking game and berries and making only small clearings that quickly re-forested as they moved on. As more people arrived a more settled way of life began together with the long decline and ultimate loss of the original forest.
In areas such as Upper Tweed the pollen record indicates that agriculture is well established by the beginnings of the Christian period. By the 1500s the landscape had become the largely treeless one we see today where fire and farming had cleared most of the forest. An English traveller in Peeblesshire during this time remarked that there was not even ‘a tree enough to hang a man’. Whether some of the original forest remained, preserved for hunting in the more remote and inaccessible areas is not clear. The term ‘deer forest’ is somewhat misleading in that it often refers to open, tree-less environments similar to what we see in the Highlands today. There is a reference to Mary, Queen of Scots, hunting in the forest of Meggatdale and the former royal Ettrick Forest but it is not clear if there was actually much in the way of woodland in these ‘forests’. As pasturing of cattle and, later, sheep became the norm then any remaining areas must have become fragmented and isolated and had little chance of regenerating even in times when land was abandoned.
As enclosures and land improvements grew from the 18th century onwards landowners began planting trees as boundary markers and establishing small plantations to address the need for timber. Non-native trees were introduced to the landscape. Beech, native only in the south of Britain, became a favourite boundary marker, often planted as hedges with occasional stems allowed to reach maturity. Exotic conifers too, begin to make their mark with larch, Norway spruce and Douglas fir being favourites. In the 19th century we begin to see landscape planting of trees as landowners prettified their estates with landscape gardens and arboretums. The invasive rhododendron became popular. Such planting was largely confined to the ground around the estate manors. Also sporting estates first make an appearance whereby heather is burned at regular intervals to promote red grouse numbers. Forest cannot survive this type of management. It is not until the 20th century that we begin to see the march of the exotic conifers with the large plantations of Sitka spruce that we see today.
So, what of the largely eliminated. native forest in the area today? There is a glimmer of hope in the form of ecological restoration where native forest is making a comeback through planting. Borders Forest Trust has such a scheme at Carrifran Wildwood in the Moffat Hills where some half a million native trees and shrubs have been established 2000 and Talla and Gameshope in the Tweedsmuir Hills are earmarked for further restoration. Perhaps one day the wolves will also return.