When we went down to the woods that day...

By Matt Keyse
OPAL Community Scientist, FSC Scotland

Scotland is blessed with a variety of natural assets and resources. Many large companies and organisations are involved with rural industries like forestry, farming and conservation but are struggling to find a supply of knowledgeable, skilled and experienced staff.

Step in the Living Lomonds Landscape Partnership (LLLP) based at the Falkland Centre for Stewardship. Its various volunteer and apprenticeship schemes, such as the Rural Skills Academy, are aimed at 16-25 year olds wanting to get a career foothold on the rural industry ladder.

Group picture of apprentices at the Rural Skills AcademyOPAL had been invited along by the LLLP to emphasise the role of species identification and monitoring within the context of rural conservation. The day was being run by partners from the Field Studies Council and The Conservation Volunteers, along with Scott Gardner, a Coastal Communities Trainee with the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative.

Since it was still early February, with snow still lying on the hills around us, the day began by spending a little time identifying trees based on winter appearance, looking at the shape, colour and texture of buds, needles and twigs.

Such a talented bunch of apprentices took this in their stride and it wasn’t long before they could confidently identify twelve common Scottish trees, mostly deciduous but including several conifers such as Douglas Fir, Sitka and Norway Spruce. We took to the woods with our new found knowledge and explored some of the beautiful Falkland Estate, pointing out various species as we walked – Oak, Ash, Lime, Horse Chestnut, Beech, Sycamore, Yew, Western Red Cedar...

We also took the opportunity to discuss some pests, diseases and invasive species that are spreading across the UK, causing all manner of mayhem and disturbing a fine balance that has evolved over millions of years and been in place since the last ice age.

Close up of Horse Chestnut budsTree identification is an important part of the OPAL Tree Health Survey, which aims to monitor some high profile pests and diseases affecting UK trees – a huge issue for Scottish Forestry and for the overall health of woodland ecosystems. Even though Ash dieback (caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) has been observed in the area, we didn’t see any suspicious symptoms during the morning. Long may this be the case.

After warming up around the campfire for lunch, we focused on the OPAL Air Survey – improving identification of lichens while appreciating their role within the wider ecosystem. There are thought to be approximately 1,800 different lichen species in the British Isles, 1,500 of which can be found in Scotland alone making it an extremely important site for the biodiversity of these organisms on an international scale.

As predicted we found plenty of specimens around the estate, with many being pollution-sensitive, such as Usnea and Evernia. Several patches of leafy Xanthoria were found near a farmer’s field. Perhaps a result of Ammonia based pollution from historical application of fertilisers.

OPAL wishes the apprentices all the very best on their individual journeys in the future and hopes that the training enriches their understanding and connection to woodland ecosystems, and improves their employability for prospective organisations!