Plastic tree shelters, fences and deer – Loch Lomond’s forestry lunacy, writes Nick Kempe

Top of page picture: Nibbled tree with buds surviving just below the tube rim at lower Glen Kinglas

By Nick Kempe of Parkswatch

It was Drennan Watson, long-time conservation activist in the Cairngorms, who first pointed out to me that when saplings emerge from tree shelters they are the perfect height for deer to nibble.  But until yesterday I didn’t have any photos to demonstrate what happens.

The tree tubes were a few kilometres beyond the neglected western boundary of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in the lower part of Glen Kinglas:

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park boundary runs across Glen Kinglas at Butterbridge where it is neglecting its statutory duty to promote the cultural heritage

The immediate context is important.  We had traversed the southern watershed of Glen Kinglas, from Beinn an Lochain to Stob an Eas, in the cloud and the descended towards the A813/A83 junction above Cairndow to get back across the river.  After spotting a track in an area of clear felled plantation, we climbed over a newish forest fence (still in good condition) and almost immediately noticed that there were deer droppings everywhere. The deer, so it appeared, had been fenced in rather than fenced out.

As is all too usual,  rather than employing people to control the deer, the decision had then been taken to use plastic tree tubes.  An inner fence of plastic round each tree. In this case, trees had been planted alongside a watercourse, in a half-hearted attempt to mitigate the devastation of the clear fell:

Given the droppings we had seen on our approach, we were hardly surprised to find that most of the saplings that had grown above the height of the shelters had been nibbled:

Rather than control deer numbers, the Scottish Forestry grant system forks out extraordinary amounts of public money on ineffective deer fencing and plastic tree tubes that bring up carbon from beneath the earth’s surface and then pollute the natural environment. The watercourse in the photo drains into the River Kinglass and thence to Loch Fyne, renowned for its seafoods.  Just how long will it be until plastic particles from these tree tubes enter the human food chain?

The lower part of the plastic planting beneath the remnants of native woodland.  This woodland would regenerate naturally without planting if only deer numbers were reduced.

While sections of the forestry industry have vested interests in fencing and tree tubes, that is far less the case with landowners.   While some don’t care that much about the land, most of those that do still follow the money.  So if the Forestry Grants system is designed to promote fences and tree tubes, that’s what happens, however ineffective and bad for the environment.  Only the most extraordinarily principled landowners refuse the money.

If, however,  grants were designed to reward those who controlled grazing, most forestry landowners would start to manage the land very differently. Low deer numbers would enable  woodland to start to regenerate naturally and planted trees to survive without protection. This would have wider benefits: increased biodiversity; reduced pollution; more attractive landscapes; barriers to access removed; and  increased local employment.  Instead of bringing in temporary contractors to put up a fence or erect plastic tubes, the best way to monitor and control deer numbers would be to employ people locally to do so.

The nibbled trees we spotted could just as well have been inside the National Park boundary, for all the action our National Park Authorities have taken to date to stop their use.  But change could be afoot with the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)’s proposal that its preferred means for woodland  woodland expansion should be by natural regeneration (see here). This presents an opportunity for the CNPA to set an example to the rest of Scotland and ditch the fences and the plastic tubes in the Cairngorms.  But to be successful its Board will need to persuade Scottish Forestry to co-operate and redesign the current forestry grants system.

“when saplings emerge from tree shelters they are the perfect height for deer to nibble.”
Those saplings were probably nibbled by red deer. Trees shelters are generally 1.2 metres high and are not intended for use in the presence of red deer, as they can easily reach to that height. Tree shelters give effective protection against rabbits, hares, sheep and roe deer, though the latter two will occasionally learn how to reach up and nibble the emerging sapling. That can be remedied by moving the tube upwards 20cm on its stake, or by adding a short length of tube fixed to the top. It is not a big problem. Sheep also like to rub against the tube and its stake, often causing it to fall. Tree shelters should not be regarded as a “fire and forget” remedy to grazing damage: they require regular maintenance, just like many other aspects of our world.
Reducing deer numbers sufficient to allow natural regeneration of pinewoods to occur in the Cairngorms would still not be sufficient to enable planted broadleaves to survive on lower ground. Someone with a few acres of land who wished to create a broadleaved woodland, plant a few trees around the perimeter, or in the corner, of a field or plant a few broadleaved trees in clearings in an existing pinewood where grazing pressure ensures few naturally regenerated broadleaved saplings could survive, would still face the necessity of erecting a deer fence or using tree tubes or some other form of individual protection. No-one in that situation, having a small area of land surrounded by other landholdings, could by themselves reduce deer numbers sufficiently to enable such plantings to survive unprotected.

John Thomas

Ay, you’re right Roy in relation to small pockets of woodland owned by individuals who own too little land around them and/or do not have the resources to maintain deer control year after year. But in a much larger area such as we have at Carrifran next door to the Grey Mare’s Tail in the Moffat Hill with the resources of a small voluntary organisation Borders Forest Trust has established over 600ha of native woodland without any tubes by over twenty years of sustained culling of roe deer. (Admission, yes we have been obliged by SFC as was, now FS, to put tubes on one block of trees because they weren’t ‘thriving’ in SFC’s opinion They were just being impatient, almost all the tubes have now been removed). Like Feshie, Abernethy and now brilliantly Mar Lodge it has demonstrated that the best way to get trees to grow in the hills, regen preferably, is to tightly control the numbers of deer – not exterminate, you couldn’t if you tried.

Phil Swainson

Good response John T. Can I make my usual plea, which is before the wealthy landowners, before the community buyouts, the state, in the form of what was the Countryside Commission, took over Creag Meagaigh in 1986, removed all sheep, cut the deer population by about 90%, and that is it. No plastic tubes, no planting even. The results there, 35 years on, are outstanding. But still a work in progress. Surely the state has a role still.

Nick Kempe

Yes, we need a new vision for state owned land and there is a particular opportunity in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, including the land south of Glen Kinglas, where Forest and Land Scotland is by far the largest landowner.

Dave L

I’ve been reading the posts over the last few months about doing without tree protectors, and wondering. Is it not likely that some tree types are preferentially browsed as seedlings / saplings, for instance aspen? So even if deer numbers are hugely reduced, but not to zero, without some sort of protection, those trees will struggle compared to others? And there are other browsing mammals to consider too.
I was prompted by John T’s reply above to do a bit of browsing of my own, and I read that Carrifran did use vole guards – I’m guessing that at least at one time they were of a similar plastic to the bigger deer guards. But they are doing the responsible thing, and making sure the guards are removed when the tree is established. Obviously everybody should be doing that, and it should be a condition of any public funding.
Yes, use of new plastic tree guards should have stopped several years ago, but it does seem things are changing now.
So, I’m thinking, preferably natural regeneration, but sometimes planting is better, and sometimes protection necessary.

Nick Kempe

Hi Dave, there is a lot of evidence about preferential browsing covering all types of plant and you are right about aspen. However, what they have found at Mar Lodge Estate is that when deer numbers drop below certain levels, aspen regenerates very fast. In terms of woodland expansion, I think its helpful to ask the question how did various trees colonise Scotland as the ice retreated. Trees got everywhere and part of the reason for that is their seeds were carried by animals – red deer still play that role. The difference, however, is the sheer number of grazing animals now means that few trees can get away. The importance of Wild Land, Mar Lodge etc is they show that when you reduce grazing animals to low levels, all that can happen again (albeit what trees expand where won’t be the same because our soils and climate are now so different). Nick

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