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Why yon bonnie banks are in need of restoration

Restoring woodland in upper river catchments can be of great benefit to water courses and the salmon that spawn in them. Willie Beattie offers a Highland perspective.

Riparian woodlands are those found in association with burns, rivers and lochs.

They occupy a variable area along these water bodies, depending on slope and the size of the water body. This means they can exert a strong influence on the nature of the water environment and help to protect or buffer it from activities on adjacent land.

When considering aquatic health, native woodland restoration stands out as essential, yet the upper catchments of many of our world famous salmon rivers are neglected, denuded areas.

Even when our rivers or catchments are designated for outstanding habitat quality a great deal can still be done to safeguard and improve the aquatic quality. However, tensions can exist with other habitats including designated peatland or wet heath, making woodland restoration a bureaucratic nightmare.

So why restore?

Here are six good reasons:

  1. Temperature control: trees provides dapple shading so fish can regulate themselves during temperature spikes.
  2. Improved feeding: trees harbour insect life which fall prey to fish.
  3. Nutrient recycling: trees provide nutrients to which benefit water and riparian zone quality.
  4. Cover: aquatic root systems provide cover from predators including piscivorous birds.
  5. Bank stability: root systems knit into fragile bank structures, stabilising and slowing erosion.
  6. Flash flooding: the erosion caused by flash flooding peaks can be softened by transpiration through tree canopies and run-off uptake by the woodland.

Technical issues

In almost all instances protection from grazing animals is needed to allow newly planted trees to survive or existing bankside trees to seed and reestablish a healthy age structure. To achieve this on any meaningful scale stock or deer fencing is essential. Individual tree guards rarely work in the long term, especially within the most denuded and challenging sites.

Upper catchments are generally viewed as unspoilt and possibly wildland areas, so any type of fencing along beautiful burnsides is viewed as a scar on a pristine landscape unless you fully understand the context and timescales of restoration. Even when fences are well designed to minimise visual impacts they still feel alien and out of scale in our massive landscapes.

Deep peat is a no-go area for new woodlands as they are one of the most important environments in terms of carbon storage. Within the riparian context it should be argued that sensitive planting, following best forest practices withinthe UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS), actually mitigates the erosion and exposure of peat, thus tackling carbon emissions on two fronts.

Financial help

Scottish Natural Heritage or rural Payments and Inspections Division give funding assistance and technical help with peatland restoration through rural Payments and the Agri Environmental Climate Scheme, which offers support for riparian restoration works but this is not ideal for upper catchment woodland restoration except in some farming situations.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency has a water environmental fund which is more targeted at easements of redundant weirs and partnership works with local authorities but they are happy to help with technical support.

Scottish Forestry offers excellent financial support for a range of new woodland types through the Forestry Grant Scheme and is now achieving national targets (10,000 hectares a year) in woodland creation. Unfortunately, small burns don’t offer significant areas – the riparian area is generally only about 10 to 15 metres on each river bank at best. Financial help is only available for woodlands 15 metres wide or more, which makes total sense except in the ripariancontext.

Fencing is the big capital expense in most woodland creation projects, particularly in the Highlands, and by the nature of what we are trying to do we create linear fences along watercourses with a very poor ratio of metres fenced to hectares protected. Again this will fall short of funding rules for value for money within the scoring system. This is perfectly acceptable in all instances except these high environmental value riparian restorations which should have a separate scoring criteria. The catchment needs to be viewed holistically with an overarching management plan in place.