Abernethy LSER case study

abernethy-lser-mapKey facts

Partners: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Extent: 13,70ha

National Nature Reserve: 12,800ha.

Habitats and species: Caledonian pine/birch woodland; heathland; montane; wooded bogs; capercaillie; black grouse; red squirrel; twinflower; invertebrates.

Duration: Began in 1988, with 200-year vision.

Monitoring: Site condition monitoring; species/habitats surveys; monitoring carbon sequestration.


Abernethy is one of the best known landscape-scale ecosystem restoration projects in Scotland. It aims to expand native pine woodland to its former extent from Stathspey up to the treeline in the Cairngorms; and to restore existing woods to a more natural composition and structure. It was one of the first large-scale land acquisitions by RSPB made with the explicit aim of restoring an ecosystem; and the first acquisition of an entire estate in Scotland by a conservation charity. It is a project that has inspired other organisations to become involved in LSER projects and has pioneered several management approaches to restoration.

Aims and objectives

The main aims are to:

  • expand the native forest to its former range;
  • expand the habitat for threatened bird, plant and insect populations;
  • protect and enhance biodiversity;
  • provide education and volunteering opportunities;
  • involve people and facilitate responsible access.
  • The existing native woodland area will be expanded by at least 1870 hectares of wooded landscape over the next 200 years. The result will be an expanding area of Caledonian forest stretching up towards the tree line, and continuous habitat between Abernethy and Glenmore creating a woodland ‘corridor’.

Approaches to restoration

Activity focuses on:

  • restoring the existing native woodland and plantations to a more diverse, natural structure and composition;
  • expanding the area of native woodland onto adjacent heathland;
  • good management of heathland, wooded bogs, mires, and montane habitats; and,
  • management to increase the populations of specific species, notably capercaillie and black grouse.
  • A major programme of restructuring of plantations has been carried out involving thinning, and creation of substantial amounts of deadwood by a number of methods. Mires and bog woodland have been restored by damming of drains. Native woodland expansion has been achieved by natural regeneration following major, long-term culling of deer on the property. The reduction of deer numbers is considered to be beneficial for a range of other habitats.
  • Major expansion of the woodland area is planned, involving planting in remote areas where there are no seed sources for natural regeneration. Planting is designed to mimic the scattered, low density woodland found in similar habitat. Trials involving fire, cattle and cutting management have been ongoing to encourage the spread of blaeberry.

Key issues

Benefits and ecosystem services

The benefits sought by the project are mainly environmental, but tourism and local employment are also important. Environmental benefits focus on establishing large, robust populations of woodland species and creating large-scale woodland habitat links in the Northern Cairngorms. At the same time existing biodiversity value of heathland and montane habitats is being maintained and enhanced. There is an undertaking to monitor carbon sequestration as part of the Scottish Forestry Alliance programme and the effects of restoration on water quality is seen as important.The property attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. Its contribution to the local economy is considerable; it supports several people in direct employment (11 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs)) and an estimated total of 87 local FTEs (in 1996), as well as supporting crofting tenants, and a shooting let. Timber production is limited to a small amount of firewood.


RSPB at Abernethy has useful experience and / or particular expertise in:

  • restructuring of pine plantations for conservation benefit;
  • creation/ management of deadwood during the plantation restructuring;
  • manipulation of the pine woodland ground flora;
  • management of capercaillie habitat/populations, including predator control;
  • deer management and natural colonisation of pine;
  • knowledge of invertebrate populations and their dependence on deadwood;
  • management of public relations between a national conservation bodies and local communities in relation to native woodland expansion and conservation management.


The main challenges faced during this project can be split between technical issues, and the relationship between the project and local communities. One of the main technical issues is how to restructure plantations in a way that delivers conservation benefits but is also visually acceptable to visitors and local people. Planned expansion of woodland by planting in remote locations presents challenges of how to establish woodland of naturalistic design in the face of deer pressure. This is exacerbated by SRDP provisions that make planting in small areas and at wide spacing difficult. Relationships between RSPB, as a large “external” conservation body, and locals have never been simple; with ongoing challenges to ensure that local people understand and can accept the particular management approaches.

Potential lessons

  • Importance of long-term tenure that brings stability of management.
  • The importance of a good guiding vision and together with long term management planning.
  • The importance of public relations right from the outset of projects to ensure local acceptance/support. This requires getting good quality positive information on projects into local media and local communities at a very early stage.
  • NGO’s must own and manage land in order to be credible in local debates.
  • Importance of deadwood.
  • Capercaillie management is a key theme that can be used to draw in neighbouring landowners and establish cooperative management.