Trees Wild Walk – gentle giants of Ravenscraig Park
At the Trees Wild Walk on 14th of May we got up-close and personal with some of the lovely gentle giants of the plant world. During our stroll, Tony Wilson, a veritable fount of tree knowledge and a great storyteller, introduced us to a number of tree species growing in Kircaldy’s Ravenscraig Park.
Surprisingly for such an artificial environment, many of them turned out to be Scottish, or at least British, natives: oaks, field maple, elm, yew, scots pine, ash, hawthorn and beech. There were some introduced species too: larch, sycamore, horse and sweet chestnuts. All of these trees (apart from the chestnuts) can be found in Scottish woodlands and forests today.
Are you wondering what ‘native’ and ‘introduced’ actually means in this context? We learned that too! The Woodland Trust website explains this quite nicely:
“The term native is used for any species that has made its way to the UK naturally, not intentionally or accidentally introduced by humans. In terms of trees and plants, these are species that recolonised the land when the glaciers melted after the last ice age and before the UK was disconnected from mainland Europe.”
Everything that was brought in by humans since we arrived here 8,000 years ago, is considered an introduced species. Of course, there has also been some movement of species within Britain – the most commonly cited example being beech trees, which are native to England and Wales, but considered to be an introduction here in Scotland.
As we went along, Tony gave us tips on the identification of each species using leaf shape and size, combined with bark colour and texture. It turned out to be a little tricky for some of them. For example, the best way to distinguish between pedunculate oak (more common in the South) and sessile oak (dominating here in the North) is to examine their fruit and leaves, neither of which were available so early in the spring. For some, such as larch, proper identification may be entirely impossible for a non-specialist as the species hybridise so thoroughly as to blur their distinctive characteristics. Rather than recounting all of Tony’s tips here, I would encourage you to have a go at identifying some trees yourself. You can use the Woodland Trust’s Tree ID iPhone app (Android version is coming out later this year) or their website pages devoted to the British trees.
We also heard about the ways we, humans, have used the trees over the ages. What amazed me is the wide variety of uses for the wood itself, reflecting a variation in its properties amongst the species that I never suspected. This is illustrated very nicely by how three types of timber were combined to construct cart wheels in the past. Oak, sturdy and durable, was used in making the rims. Elm, resistant to splitting, made for perfect wheel hubs. And ash, capable of withstanding substantial bending forces, was a natural fit for the spokes. All three species were handily available within the original native lowland woodlands too!
Of course, the ‘usefulness’ of trees goes so much further than a simple source of materials. They form an integral component of many ecosystems and support the functioning of ecosystem processes which provide us with some more complex services (see Geraldine’s recent blog post for examples). Importantly, the way we manage our trees and forests can have a real impact on greenhouse gas-induced climate change as they:
“[…] play a significant role in the carbon cycle, acting as sinks (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) and stores (retaining carbon in trees and soils).” Flora and Fauna International
Unfortunately, and despite their usefulness to us, humans have had a rather nasty impact on trees. Over time, we have cut down most of the original Scottish forests. Tony pointed out that the area we were standing in, along with the rest of the Scottish lowlands, was originally most likely covered in a mix of deciduous trees, dominated by the trio of the wheel-making fame: oak, ash and elm. Over the centuries this has been replaced with an agricultural landscape. But I was particularly stricken with his tale of the destruction of the magical and unique Atlantic temperate rainforests which dominated Scotland’s west coast until around the 18th-19th century. Those forests were pretty much cleared out as their oaks became a source of charcoal for smelting and bark for leather tanning industries. The subsequent introduction of sheep farming never gave them a chance to recover.
We also found out that humans are not the only nasties to have a major effect on a tree’s well-being. I think everyone’s heard of Dutch Elm Disease which pretty much wiped out this tree from Britain by mid-20th century. The other two lowland canopy species have not escaped unscathed either. A mysterious Acute Oak Decline has been killing oaks for the last 20-30 years and Chalara Dieback, first detected in England in 2012, is likely to wipe out our ash populations. We are not left without blame though – spread of many pests and diseases like chalara dieback can be linked to our plant imports. It appears that the effects of pathogens are also likely to be aggravated by climate change (Flora and Fauna International report on Tree Species Vulnerability to Climate Change presents the full depressing picture at a global scale).
As we looked up to follow Tony’s explanations, we couldn’t help soaking up the beauty and calm of the majestic trunks, topped by the canopies of delicate new leaves or spikey needles splayed against striking blue sky. I, for one, walked away thoroughly refreshed by our stroll among the trees, bursting with their springtime optimism – and energised to help ensure their future among us! My first step – becoming a citizen scientist for ObserveATree to help spot new pest and disease threats to UK trees. What about you?
I can’t wait for our next outing with Greener Kirkcaldy’s Wild Walks exploring coastal wildlife at Seafield beach on Saturday, 11th of June (Book your place here).|