Borders Forest Trust: reviving southern Scotland’s native woodlands
- Borders Forest Trust restores woodlands, wetlands and moorlands across the South of Scotland
- The trust owns three sites covering more than 3,600 acres and hopes to expand further
- Volunteers plant trees and other vegetation, which create habitats for wildlife and help lock away carbon dioxide
Driving beside Talla reservoir near Tweedsmuir in the Scottish Borders, the landscape at first appears bleak. Heather and moss cling to its steep, windswept hillsides, which were cleared of trees centuries ago to let sheep graze.
But Andy Mitchell and his fellow volunteers’ efforts mean the valley could soon look very different.
Mitchell and other helpers from Borders Forest Trust (BFT) are planting alder, birch and other species of native trees at Talla and Gameshope, a former farm at the head of the reservoir that the trust bought in 2013.
The forest they’re creating should attract birds, insects and mammals back to the area. It will also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping combat climate change.
Mitchell returned to Scotland to retire after working in the Middle East. He began volunteering with the BFT in April 2021.
“I was looking for a way of getting outdoors and meeting people,” he explains.
“The project at Talla is at an early stage, and I get a lot of satisfaction when I turn around and see the row of trees I’ve planted.”
He turns and points down the valley to the reservoir. “Look at this,” he exclaims. “It beats the view of desert and concrete from my office window in Abu Dhabi.”
Fi Strathdee, another volunteer, also admires what she describes as the “landscape-scale” of the effort.
“It’s a huge site,” says the University of Edinburgh microbiologist as she gazes around the 4,500-acre hillside and surrounding area. “And listen – you can’t hear any cars at all.”
Fi and her husband Andy Strathdee became involved in the project in 2019. He is a former Baillie Gifford investment manager and now serves as a BFT trustee. The pair were visiting the reservoir and saw volunteers at work. After enquiring about the initiative, they became hooked.
More than 220,000 trees and shrubs have been planted at Talla since 2013.
Paid contractors dug in 70,000 of the trees on the steeper, upper slopes. But the BFT’s site officer says cost savings aren’t the only reason it relies on volunteers for the rest of the work.
“When the community is involved, they take ownership of a project,” explains Andy Wilson. “They take an interest and a pride in the forest.”
The trust’s woodland engagement officer, who supervises its efforts across the Borders, echoes the thought.
“Working with volunteers has a really positive effect,” says Michelle Stamp. “They say: ‘These are our trees.’”
BFT also owns a smaller 1,600-acre site at Carrifran and a similarly-sized space at Corehead, near the Devil’s Beef Tub, a dramatic hollow in the hills at Moffat. In total, it has established more than two million trees across the three sites.
“Ten per cent of those were planted by volunteers,” says Adrian Kershaw, Corehead site officer and engagement officer. “Volunteers also help us with other tasks like path maintenance and wildlife surveys.”
There are benefits for the participants beyond improving the landscape, he adds. “Working outdoors is good for your physical wellbeing and for your mental health.”
Schools and community groups also regularly visit. And Kershaw says the growing attention given to climate change has helped attract interest.
Donations from Baillie Gifford have funded Kershaw’s post for a year and enabled the charity to buy equipment, including an all-terrain vehicle for use on the hillsides. Some BFT donors give money for specific purposes, but in this case, the gifts are unrestricted. Kershaw says this gives the trust freedom to use the money where it determines there's the greatest need.
Walking through Talla, Andy Strathdee draws comparisons with the trust’s first site at Carrifran, which it bought in 2000. It has already completed tree planting at the older project, slightly to the south.
“I can imagine how Talla will look in years to come,” he says. “It took nearly 25 years for our first two million trees to be planted, but I think the next two million will be planted more quickly, maybe within the next decade.”
Strathdee adds that the trust hopes to take on more land to expand the existing sites and create new ones. By doing so, it hopes to extend the short-term benefits it creates via its educational work and the social activity and sense of achievement it provides to volunteers.
But the true pay-off will be in the long term when its work results in the restoration of native woodlands with all the advantages these convey to improve the habitat for local wildlife, combat flooding and help tackle global warming.
Find out more about Borders Forest Trust at www.bordersforesttrust.org
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