Discovering Atlantic woodland

We manage native woodland of global significance, particularly in the West Highlands and Argyll.

Here, Scotland’s ‘temperate rainforest’ is home to ancient oak, ash, birch, hazel and Scots pine. It’s also where you’ll find rare and fascinating mosses and liverworts, lichens, fungi and ferns.

Moss covered boulders under mature oakwood in Argyll

A unique habitat

Atlantic woodland is found on Scotland’s steep and rocky west coast – where the climate is wettest.

The humidity, along with the high rainfall and variety of soils, creates perfect conditions for more than 500 species of mosses, ferns, lichens and liverworts. In fact, some species have their ‘world headquarters’ in the area. A handful are found nowhere else.

What else lives here?

  • Spring flowers, such as bluebells, wood anemone and primroses
  • Migrant songbirds – look out for redstart, tree pipit and wood warbler
  • Woodland birds, such as buzzards, great spotted woodpeckers and jays
  • Deer and badger – and the rarer red squirrel, wild cat and pine marten
  • Hundreds of insects – even the threatened chequered skipper butterfly

Great spotted woodpecker (Copyright: Pete Cairns/2020Vision)

The history of the forest

Although native woodland can look more ‘natural’ than our conifer forests, it has also been shaped by man.

Oak has always been used as an important source of timber and fuel. In the 1700s and 1800s, many Atlantic woods provided charcoal for ironworks, while the bark was used to produce tannin for processing leather.

During periods of agricultural and forestry expansion, Atlantic woods were often cleared for animal grazing, or planted with faster growing conifer tree species. Rhododendron and other invasive shrubs colonised large areas from the gardens of Victorian properties.

All this changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when we began to recognise the ecological importance of native woodland.

Conserving Atlantic woodland

Our staff toured the country, searching for areas of surviving native woodland and drawing up plans for their conservation or regeneration. Some of the most significant sites were even recognised as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Since then, we’ve thinned or felled conifers, cleared invasive shrubs, and reduced grazing by deer and livestock. Where we don’t think woodland will regenerate naturally, we’ve planted native trees.

However, we’ve had to make the changes gradually so there are no sudden changes to humidity, and the species that live there have time to respond and become more robust.

What we’re trying to achieve in the long term is a positive balance between ancient woodland sites and new areas of native woodland. As a result, we predict the landscape will be even more diverse... and more beautiful.

Visiting Atlantic woodlands

If you want to see this unique habitat, we recommend a visit to:

  • Ariundle - one of the richest surviving fragments of the ancient oakwoods and a National Nature Reserve
  • Glen Nant - another National Nature Reserve that has an industrial history
  • Barnluasgan - part of Knapdale forest which was also the test site for the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland

Top tip

Green lungwort by Richard ThompsonGet down on your hands and knees and use a magnifying glass. Seeing the vibrant lichens, mosses and liverworts up close has been compared to diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

Key species (and yes, these are their real names!):

  • Spotty featherwort
  • Prickly featherwort
  • Wilson’s filmy fern
  • Deceptive featherwort
  • Toothed pouncewort
  • Yellow speckle belly
  • Hazel gloves
  • Lungwort
  • Brown scalewort