OUR EARTH

Helping nature to thrive

Rothiemurchus prioritises biodiversity by actively nurturing the habitats that wildlife depend on. 

The wild character of Rothiemurchus has been shaped by people creating an abundance of life using natural processes. This has probably continued since before the Pines started growing here 8,500 years ago, with people during the mesolithic stewarding biodiversity to ensure plants and animals were plentiful and predictable.

Rothiemurchus has a Forest Plan (2016-35) to care for the rich variety of the forest’s life. This is developed by Dr Philip Ratcliffe, a widely respected independent ecologist, in consultation with the public and approved by the Forest Authorities.

Mixing Land Use/ A Tapestry of Life

Rothiemurchus is committed to making a living and working landscape that responds to ecological change, since the land’s mix of uses supports an abundant diversity of life.

The forest at Rothiemurchus has been shaped for millenia to hunt game, graze cattle, farm crops and grow timber and for the enjoyment of people. This is supported by the wide variety of habitats within a span of five miles and a vertical drop of 1000m: the woodland is interspersed with pasture, lochs, bogland, moorland and montane scrub stretching from The River Spey to arctic tundra on the high tops.

Keeping a Mosaic/ Fine-woven Pattern

Ecologically, we aim to maintain a mosaic of different plant communities and vegetation-ages close together.

This creates habitat for rare and endangered animals, such as Capercaillie.

Places for animals with food next to shelter are dispersed across the landscape: agricultural fields next to woodland, woodland broken-up by clearings, moorland scattered with trees, Ancient ‘Grannie pines’ standing in pasture with scrub juniper.

The landscape is arranged in a mosaic pattern that suits all other species ensuring that plants and animals are plentiful, predictable and continuous.

The Living Forest

Today, these patterns support multiple different uses: timber production, agriculture, deer stalking, game production and people who come to see the abundant wildlife.

These various habitats and communities respond to each other in constant flux, creating an ecosystem that is bio diverse and resilient to change.

Conserving Ancient Wood-Pasture

The Caledonian pinewood is highly valued as a habitat for rare species including

  • twin flower,
  • intermediate wintergreen,
  • single flowered wintergreen,
  • narrow headed ant,
  • Capercaillie and Black Grouse,
  • along with several species of mosses, fungi and invertebrates.

These plants and animals thrive with grazing animals, which reflects the history of the ecosystem. The Caledonian Pinewoods co-evolved with people as habitat attractive for grazers.

Grazing for biodiversity

By reintroducing cattle, we aim to reverse the decline in some of the rare plants and animals that the Ancient Caledonian Forest supports. The variety of lichens indicates that areas are being under-grazed because there are less Red Deer, grazing cattle could partly compensate for this.

Restoring an ancient ecosystem

The forest would have originally been grazed by Deer,  Aurochs and Tarpans, ancient ancestors to the Highland Cow and Pony. Through most of the last millenium, cattle and equines lightly grazed the forest. During the 21st century, the reduction in deer and the fact that herding became uneconomic, has left the forest almost ungrazed.

This has created, old, tall rank heather that is an inhospitable habitat for many animals and plants that are part of the pinewood ecosystem, including the endangered Capercaillie.

Rewilding

Grazing creates the conditions for trees and plants to re-seed naturally. The feet of cows and  horses puncture the ground and enable seed to germinate among the heather, create a succession of vegetation ages, and trample the forest understorey. Sheep and deer are too light-footed to benefit the forest by trampling.

Herding by mobile

Traditional herding with a cattleman, as has been practised on Rothiemurchus for centuries, protected the forest from overgrazing. Today, we are using GPS collars and a farmer with a phone to keep the cattle away from areas of the forest with young trees and from peatland.

Ambition

In partnership with Highland Carbon and the Cairngorms National Park Authority, we are expanding the herding project to ten collars.  We are also working with Scottish Forestry and NatureScot on expanding the project further.

Traditional Forestry

Ancient Wood-Pasture

By interspersing the woodland with open spaces that are attractive for animals, grazing next to shelter,  we can also improve the forest’s biodiversity. These habitats are favourable for many of the forest’s plants and animals, particularly the fringes between open space and closed canopy woodland.

Caring for Grannie Pine

Ancient Caledonian Pines, surrounded by juniper scrub, have an open-grown canopy reflecting their past as part of an open landscape of Wood Pasture. The tree canopy supports a rich insect life which makes it an important habitat for the endangered Capercaillie. Thinning in and around veteran trees, removes shade and restores open ground where berries grow, a valuable food for woodland grouse.

Opening-up the forest canopy

Generally, most of the plants characteristic of the pinewoods are found in small clearings or open areas, where there is at least dappled shade.

Thinning trees, creating gaps and clearings in the wood creates light conditions for the plants and trees to regenerate.

Pine regenerates out of the shade, at the forest edge, so the pinewoods are always shifting.

The timbering of native woodland is done in small patches (coups), with seed trees left standing. This creates the light conditions for the trees to regenerate and removes any need for clear fell, run-off and biodiversity loss.

Regenerating hardwoods

Making an open-canopy supports our ambition to regenerate Aspen and Hazel, priority species that flourish in open sunlight.

Deadwood: life among the dead

Creating deadwood for invertebrates is an important part of timber harvesting; it can also protect saplings from grazing. Standing Deadwood is critical habitat for The Great Spotted Woodpecker, who use it to make holes that are then used by bats, honey bees and birds, such as redstarts, wrynecks, swifts, crested tits, great tits, and starlings.

Track-making

Tracks made from timbering mimic the paths made by cattle, horses and snigging. This creates biodiversity because:

Many rare species, such as twinflower and blaeberry, respond well to soil agitation, which is indicative of the history of the landscape as a habitat for large herbivores.
The paths help to mitigate the obstacle that a tall forest understorey presents to the young chicks of ground-nesting birds.
soil agitation exposes the grit that species such as woodland grouse need for digestion.

Naturally-regenerating woodland

For over 300 years, the ancient core of the woodland at Rothiemurchus has continuously regenerated, naturally, without draining ploughing or planting. This may be the only ancient pinewood with continuous regeneration going back for three centuries.

This creates the diversity of old and young growth that you see today, makes habitat for different wildlife, and ensures continuous habitat into the future.

To support biodiversity, we aim in the long-term to keep an even spread of woodland at different growth stages, and regenerate trees to link woodland habitats.

Preventing overgrazing

Where the forest is regenerating, grazing pressures from deer are being kept at a number which allows the saplings to grow.

We aim to use deer fences to protect saplings where the trees are regenerating only if necessary. These need to be well marked in areas used by woodland grouse and removed when they have served their purpose.

Conserving moorland

Open spaces of moorland dispersed among the woodland are kept for deer stalking. Controlling the number of deer enables the forest to regenerate.

Red Deer both graze grass and browse on scrub and trees: they are our only intermediary grazer.  A healthy population is therefore an important part of the biodiversity of the woodland.

The carrion from culling are valuable food for scavenger species, such as Golden Eagles.

Many plants and animals are dependent on the moorland habitat, from Orchids to Red Grouse.

Reintroducing beavers

Ambitions:

  • By introducing more cattle, reverse the decline in rare and endangered species unique to the pinewoods, such as wintergreen
  • Link habitats, by connecting the woodland areas with regenerating trees so that habitats are less fragmented
  • Double the distribution of Bird cherry, Rowan, Hazel, Willow and Holly as part of the broadleaved woodland ecosystem at Rothiemurchus
  • Prioritise the regeneration of Aspen
  • Next to rivers, plant broadleaves and remove pine trees
  • Conserve open moorland
  • Allow growth of new trees to fill gaps and extend up glens and up the hill
  • Prevent overgrazing of young saplings and trees
  • Gradually remove non-native species from Native woodland, particularly North Rothiemurchus Pinewoods
  • Increase deadwood
  • Achieve a more even spread of different age trees as a long-term aim, by felling and regenerating trees over a long time period (120 year rotation in some places)


References

Rothiemurchus Forest Plan
https://rothiemurchus.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Forest-Plan-3-160211_A4-all-pages.pdf

https://www.rothie.myzen.co.uk/Documents/The%20Forest%20its%20ecology%20&%20future%20management%20-%20PRatcliffe%201999%20(web).pdf

Forest History
https://aura.abdn.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2164/15990/Wickham_Jones_etal_New_evidence_for_VOR.pdf;jsessionid=BA713A171958ED8180CAEA89936CC272?sequence=2

https://www.scottishforestrytrust.org.uk/userfiles/file/Projects/P13-243%20Inaugural%20RSFS%20Annual%20Lecture/Scots%20Pine.pdf

Ancient Wood Pasture
https://forestry.gov.scot/images/corporate/pdf/ancient-wood-pasture-scotland.pdf

https://www.roydennis.org/o/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/CATTLE4.pdf

https://forestry.gov.scot/images/corporate/pdf/fcsancientwoodpastureguidance.pdf

http://www.nwdg.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/NOTES-XX-2015.pdf

Capturing Carbon

Commitments:
Restoring Peatland

By conserving and restoring peatland on Rothiemurchus, we can reduce emissions and revive an essential natural carbon sink. 

Peatlands are a type of wetland that cover 3-4% of global land surface; they store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests, and are responsible for storing nearly one-third of the world’s soil carbon. Considering this, peatlands are one of the greatest allies and potentially one of the quickest wins in the fight against climate change. 

Preventing erosion

Peat hags are banks left isolated when the peat around them is washed away, they are undercut and too eroded and too hostile for vegetation cover to regenerate. 

When the peat has eroded into ‘hags’,  oxygen in the air can get to the peat, it decomposes, breaks down and can release its stored carbon into the air. 

We can prevent further erosion by

  • re-profiling exposed peat hags 
  • covering the exposed peat with vegetation that regenerates to capture carbon.

Damming the bog

Creating dams brings the water closer to the surface of the bog, to prevent the peat drying out and releasing carbon. 

More carbon is released in drought conditions, when the peat dries out and water is further from the surface of the bog. In a world with warmer temperatures and more frequent droughts, this prepares us for the uncertainty of changes to peatlands in the future.

The Cairngorms Peatland ACTION Programme provides funding and technical support for this peatland restoration project. 

References

https://www.unep.org/topics/ocean-seas-and-coasts/blue-ecosystems/protecting-peatlands-people-and-planet

https://www.york.ac.uk/environment/peatlands-and-climate-change/

Reforestation

The area of woodland is increasing on Rothiemurchus, mainly, by creating the environment for natural regeneration. 

This is a nature-based solution to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that supports the ecology of the native pinewoods. It creates less ground disturbance and run-off, therefore less carbon emissions than ploughing and planting. This is carbon positive from the start.  

The trees in the native pinewoods are timbered by thinning and creating small clearings with standing trees (small-coupe shelterwood felling) to avoid the need for clear-fells, preventing run-off and carbon emissions. 

Trees on or across forest bogs are not disturbed; these peatlands are important carbon sinks, so it is important to avoid disturbing the ground. 

https://carbonstoreuk.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Carbon-Opportunity-Achnahatnich-DEC.pdf

Preventing Wildfire

IF YOU SEE OR SMELL SIGNS OF A POTENTIAL WILDFIRE, PLEASE CALL 999 AND ASK FOR THE FIRE SERVICE, THEN CALL ROTHIEMURCHUS RANGER TEAM ON 07887 648675. THANK YOU.

Wildfire is a serious hazard, both in the trees and in heather dominated moorland.

Wildfire carries the threat of huge carbon release by burning into the peat. Wildfires that burn into the peat can continue for months before they can be fully extinguished. 

Wildfire on dried-out vegetation can even cause trees to explode. Unlike ‘cool burns’,  these fires are fast, intense and dangerous. 

Keeping an eye out keeps fire out 

Everyone is vigilant and careful not to accidentally ignite a fire, especially during dry weather (often around the Easter holidays). 

Ranger Patrol

The Rangers spend many hours out on patrol in the dry months watching out for fire, particularly during April. 

Making Fire Breaks

Fire breaks (such as roads, ditches or Larch trees) can make it easier to control the spread of wildfire. 

Grazing the forest

In the last 20 years, the heather has grown taller under the trees in response to less grazing by deer.  When the forest understorey -or heather- reaches the tree canopy, wildfire can spread faster, burn hotter and cause more damage.

Grazing cattle in woodland reduces the fuel load, and the trampling can prevent the understorey reaching the trees. 

Cool Burning

Unmanaged, heather dominated, peatlands are at very high risk of wildfire in dry conditions. Controlled burning can reduce the above ground fuel load and prevent intense wildfires.

Cultural Burning

Cultural Burns are small-scale, patchy fires that consider the type of plants and animals the habitat supports.

The vast majority (Ha) of moorland on Rothiemurchus is not burnt or mown, different ways of managing heather are beneficial depending on the particular place. 

  • Burning at the wrong time or in the wrong place risks a cool fire running hot 
  • The heather is not mown or burnt where the peat is deep 
  • It is not burnt near erosion to peatland.

Burning to sink carbon 

Cool burns of blanket bog can create a carbon sink within  5-7 years, depending on the condition of the vegetation and time of year. 

“When we burn, we do pollute the air, but we also lock away some of the carbon for a very long time in the form of charcoal”. 

When the “vegetation regrows” after a burn, it “takes up a lot more carbon”… “about twice the carbon per year of mown and uncut heather” writes Dr Andreas Heinemeyer, leader of a 20-year peatland research experiment funded by DEFRA.

https://features.york.ac.uk/a-burning-issue/index.html

Peatland and carbon capture

The University of York’s measurements on the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from peatland and prescribed heather burning are critical inputs into the UK government’s submissions under its UN climate change obligations. 

Heinemeyer A. (2023) Protecting our peatlands – short summary of the 10-year Peatland- ES-UK report.

https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/195295/1/Peatland_ES_UK_UoY_SHORT_SUMMARY_Jan23.pdf

Cool Burning

With the consent of Nature Scot, small patches of moorland at Rothiemurchus are burnt

  • when the moisture levels favour a ‘cool burn
  • where the peatland is shallow
  • where the heather is old, rank, tall (> 30cm) or dead 
  • where there is a monoculture of heather drying out the peatland, allowing microbes to decompose the peat and emit carbon.

Cultural Burns

The use of fire to create wildlife habitat involves:

  • experienced people 
  • cool burns
  • small patches 
  • a mosaic pattern 
  • done in rotation
  • creating a succession of vegetation ages
  • creating an abundance of plants and animals. 

The burnt area creates a seed bed, with no shade and the ash fertilises new growth. The small patches mean that the seed has less far to travel to regenerate the burnt area. The areas that have been burnt in the past have greater biodiversity compared to mown or uncut heather. 

Ecologists describe these fire practices used across the world by Traditional Owners as ‘cultural burning’. ‘Falaisg’ (pronounced ‘falash’) is the Gaelic term for heather burning, and has been practised in The Highlands for millenia. This has always been an opportunity for friends and family to gather. 

People and large Herbivores occupied the Cairngorms 10,500 years ago. There is evidence of people using fire during the mesolithic, probably to create habitat for game. The pine trees started growing in the Cairngorms 8,500 – 8,400 years ago.

Where fire has been used to influence ecosystems for millenia, the vegetation has co-evolved with humans either to thrive after burning or to be a fire avoider. It is therefore natural that burning this biomass locks carbon into the soil and fertilises regeneration. 

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Cultural burns need people with an in-depth knowledge of the local place, who can judge what to burn and what not, when, how often, and how hot. 

Rothiemurchus deeply respects experience handed on from generation to generation, so that we all benefit from traditional place-based knowledge combined with scientific research.

Minimising our Carbon Footprint

Energy efficiency

The Boat House has been insulated as part of its restoration: the outside walls and roof and the large kitchen diner floors have the highest quality insulation added. Windows are double glazed; there are heating controls, including thermostatic radiator valves on every radiator. The lighting is LED.  There are drying areas inside and out as an alternative to using the tumble dryer. 

Using renewables

There are 3 Ecodesign wood-burning stoves to heat the house in combination with a modern oil boiler.  We only use naturally dried, Rothiemurchus, wind blown-blow wood as a fuel- mainly beech and oak as it is slower to burn. 

Recycling

We enthusiastically recycle, reuse and search for eco-friendly and sustainable products. We love our super soft Bumboo paper in the loos and kitchen. We use eco-friendly soap and cleaning products. 

Materials have been saved and reused wherever possible, recently added a repainted table to use as a desk in front of the window in the quiet old nursery hall upstairs. We use a Kadai recycled fire-bowl as a Barbeque. The outside furniture is all made from FSC wood and in response to guests requests. 

Ambitions

  • Conserve peatland and prevent further erosion of peat hags to revive a natural carbon sink
  • Regenerate woodland, and increase woodland cover, to capture carbon
  • Mitigate the intensity, and minimise the damage of wildfire
  • Use more Regenerative Agricultural practices on the farm to capture carbon. 

Producing Food Traditionally

At Rothiemurchus Farm we are always looking at ways to improve our practices and continue to work alongside our environment.

Commitments

Producing healthy food

The farm produces Native Breed Highland Beef, and Venison year-round from Wild and farmed Red Deer. Research shows that animals that forage on scrub and woodland produce healthier meat: they tend to have a higher ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids.  Venison is a lean, high-iron meat that can be an important part of a healthy diet.

Feeding Grass  and Foraging in the Woodland

The cows are grazed on grass, stubbles (harvested spring barley ground) and they forage in native woodland where they are completely out wintered all season. Their feed is supplemented seasonally with silage (pickled grass) and straw. This means they do not come into a housing situation at all.

Soil Regeneration

By feeding the cattle on stubbles they are also doing a job for the environment. By moving the feeding area regularly, this creates an even spread of the animals’ manure. This returns natural Phosphate and Potassium back to the soils, improving the structures in the ground that are released during the cultivation stage in early spring. Spreading manure decreases Nitrous Oxide (N2O) emissions, an important Greenhouse Gas.

Carbon Sequestration in grazing lands

Grazing animals supports soil carbon sequestration, the process in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil carbon pool.  Grazing increases the production of biomass, and the animals’ dung recycles plant material into the soil.

Ambitions:

A recent carbon audit of Rothiemurchus’ farm showed that net carbon emissions could be substantially improved. To reduce emissions, Rothiemurchus wishes to invest in regenerative agricultural practices. This includes:

  • Increasing the clover content of the grass pasture. This is a natural way of fixing nitrogen, and therefore reduces the use of fertiliser.
  • Reduce the acidity of the soil, to reduce acidification-induced soil inorganic carbon (SIC) loss, which causes high CO2 emissions.
  • Expand the use of organic manure. Replacing chemical fertilisers with organic forms  can reduce nitrous oxide emissions, a Greenhouse