After the cull comes the colour

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Sheep and red deer all but destroyed Scotland's native trees; now conservation groups are replanting in the Highlands, says Jim Crumley

Tenth anniversaries rarely amount to much in the glacier-slow timescales by which whole landscapes change colour. But in the 10 years since the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland saved the mountain mass of Creag Meagaidh from strangulation by conifer plantation, a centuries-old tide has begun to turn and the colour of the landscape has started to change.

All across the Highlands, the most influential conservation groups began to talk trees, and words became deeds. Even the Government has at last learnt the words. But the crucial seed was sown on Creag Meagaidh 10 years ago.

Creag Meagaidh, a 3,700ft-high, five-mile-long, slab-sided, plateau-topped mountain in the central Highlands was bought by a private forestry company, which announced - to loud public protest - its intention to smother the mountain in sitka spruce.

To equally loud protest, albeit from a different sector of public opinion, the NCC spent a handful of public millions and bought the mountain from the forestry company before a tree was planted, a gesture as bold as it was unprecedented. At stake, the NCC said, was a range of flora from lochside to summit which perfectly mirrored the landscape's evolution since the last ice age. In particular, there was what had once been a majestic mountain birch wood, tottering on its last legs.

But what the NCC bought was a mountain almost devoid of natural regeneration and overrun by sheep and red deer, a mountain in relentless decline, browsed to the bone.

"I now suspect," wrote the American conservationist Alda Leopold, "that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades."

Creag Meagaidh was living in mortal fear of its deer, thousands of them, emblematic plague of the sporting estate mentality that the Victorians inflicted on the land, having first inherited the extinction of the wolf and the first vile precedents that would establish the Highland clearances as 19th-century Scotland's meanest achievement.

The NCC removed the sheep at once. The deer have been going ever since, shot or caught on the hoof. There has been much pious talk in the past couple of years, even among landowners, about the need to reduce deer numbers in the Highlands. On Creag Meagaidh there are parts of the estate that used to hold 1,000 deer and now hold 250. Not many people in the Scottish Landowners Federation are talking culls of 75 per cent.

One of the guiding lights of the Creag Meagaidh project has been Dick Balharry. He was the NCC's chief warden for north-east Scotland at the time of the original purchase. Now he supervises a similar patch for Scottish Natural Heritage, which is what theNCC has evolved into in Scotland. I remember his answer, in l984, to a question about how many deer they were prepared to kill: "We aren't counting deer. We're counting trees."

So the birch wood was to become a barometer of the health of the mountain. When there is a healthy self-sustaining birch wood, we will know how many red deer the mountain can sustain naturally. But the least natural factor in what the Highland landscape has become is its huge red deer population. No land use is quite as contemptuous of the health of that landscape as the sporting estate.

I went back to Creag Meagaidh five years later, where I found Mr Balharry's enthusiasm undiminished and the first small fruits of that colossal labour pushing up through the thin mountain soil: dozens of tiny self-seeding birches, a few rowans, a juniper, a smattering of orchids. He talked about giving nature a kick-start. Here was the first tangible evidence all around our feet that the decline had been halted and reversed. A first forward gear had been engaged.

Now, after five more years of the same relentless deer culling, the mountainside has changed colour. When the NCC first bought Creag Meagaidh, it marked out five 1,000-metre transepts across the mountainside. NCC staff walked the transepts regularly, counting the trees. At first it took one man one hour. Now it takes him two-and-a-half days - a kaleidoscopic profusion of birch, willow, rowan, juniper, aspen, orchids, undreamt-of alpines.

"We have succeeded," said Mr Balharry, "beyond my wildest dreams." That, from a man of many dreams for his native landscape, is a singular achievement.

Creag Meagaidh's gospel is not a new one, but it has never been more persuasively preached. The eloquence of the evidence on the ground has won many friends for the cause of a widening campaign to restore something of Scotland's native tree cover. The conservation movement has even nurtured a new organisation called Reforesting Scotland, which is about as specific as conservation can get. It is still small and nomadic, but it exists, rooted in a seedbed of public opinion that was not there 10 years ago.

Even the Government has caught on. Scottish Office responses to the report of the Cairngorms Working Party it set up have included (remarkably, for an administration that is so unenlightened on environmental matters) the establishment of two new native forests at Glen Feshie and Mar, where there are still saveable pine forest remnants.

It is an ambition among many conservationists drawn to the Cairngorms that the mountain massif should once again be encircled by a single great forest. For the moment, it is the other way round - the mountains encircle the remnants. But as on Creag Meagaidh, the trees have become the indicator that points to the mountains' state of health. At the moment we are down to 1 per cent of the pine forest that was the great benevolent plaid which once clothed the land and sheltered wolf, lynx, beaver , wild boar and elk.

No organisation has done more to stir awareness of the plight of the pine woods than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. From its first toehold in 1958, when it bought a few acres to safeguard the nest site of the returning ospreys at Loch Garten, it has become a major landowner with a commitment that goes far beyond the welfare of birds.

Its crucial purchase was the 32,000-acre Abernethy estate in 1988. This year it has added 670 neighbouring acres, a mixture of Scots pine and sitka spruce in plantation.

The RSPB's David Mitchell explained that they had thinned the pines and felled the spruces "so that the wood has a natural appearance and feel", and again you catch yourself wondering how it has come about that a bird protection organisation should be able to use such thoughtful language and take such pains.

The RSPB has taken many such pains. And the pines have begun to colonise moorlands where they thrived 150 years ago, self-sown young trees nosing up through the bleached skeletons of predecessors killed off before their time by indifference, or contempt,or both.

As on Creag Meagaidh, the natural tree line begins to inch high up the mountain, towards a contour somewhere between 2,000ft and 2,500ft. There, too, the colour of the landscape has begun to change. Extensive pine forests are the domain of the capercaillie, the great blue-black turkey-like super-grouse.

The caper is a cavorter of the half-light, a dawn-and-dusk flier, and not blessed with owl eyes. In natural circumstances that was not a problem, but Abernethy had acquired some unnatural ones - 23 miles of internal deer fences, which accounted for one- third of all caper deaths. The RSPB has removed the fences, and the old order that erected them.

The organisation owes much of its pine-wood thinking to its former Highland officer, Ray Dennis, whom I once heard on a radio programme saying: "A wood is not a forest until you can walk in it all day and still not emerge from the other side." It is a subjective enough definition but a sublime ambition. It seems we can have forests again.

What has emerged in the past 10 years is a great knowledge. It has always existed among a few people, but now it has become public property. It confirms that there is no longer any reason to accept the old landowning order.

The time is ripe for a cull of those grizzled dinosaurs we call sporting estates. When someone asks us how many we plan to cull, we will look them in the eye and say: "We are not counting dinosaurs, we're counting trees." And we will watch the land change colour.