The Scots Pine Conundrum: Native or Natural? Or Neither?

A stately row of Scots pine stands along a meandering stretch of the River Inver in northwest Scotland. I’ve walked by that particular stand for years, taking in the beauty of the scene: the towering trees with their canopies spreading over the deep river, the peaceful sound of flowing water with bird song floating from the forest.

Scots pine once spread over a large portion of Scotland, but human impact reduced the species’ distribution and the Caledonian forest has shrunk to a small remnant of its past glory. Timber harvest, agricultural clearance, sheep grazing, too many deer browsing (the predators killed off) – bit by bit the pine disappeared. There is now a move to restore native woodlands across Scotland, the Scots pine being a prime species of replanting efforts.

I’ve read the history, and so walking the River Inver, I’ve looked at that stand of elegant trees with a tinge of sorrow, seeing a tiny strip of pine where there may have been a great forest, those few trees standing as evidence of our destructive power.

Then I learned that people planted that stand, maybe in the late 1800s? I found out that the River Inver and the parish of Assynt through which it runs is currently beyond the natural distribution of Scots pine; the tree may be native to Scotland, but it is not locally native in Assynt – not in the present day. And so it turns out that people planted all of the mature Scots pine in that part of northwest Scotland, and people continue to plant Scots pine in woodland regeneration projects.

Why plant Scots pine now? “The Forestry Commission decided that,” a local man told me, part of a woodland restoration grant.

Healthy Scots pine growing in Assynt, Scotland

Healthy Scots pine growing in Assynt, Scotland

Around 4000 years ago, Scots pine briefly flirted with Assynt, taking advantage of a temporarily favorable climate regime to establish itself. Then it retreated south, and Assynt now lies beyond the pine’s northern line of growth. Still, people have decided to bring this species back. The Scots pine along the River Inver looks healthy and robust, as do the pines planted in the early 1900s in a nearby community woodland. Scots pine planted more recently – about 15 years ago – are already producing cones. Scots pine seems to be quite happy to grow and thrive in Assynt. But only when planted by people.

The lid has been raised on Pandora’s Box.

Are these planted Scots pine stands “natural?” Or are the pines a non-native species that should be eradicated rather than planted, making room for the birch, rowan, hazel, and oak that grow there “naturally?” Is it wrong to “reintroduce” Scots pine today, given that it hasn’t been in Assynt for 4000 years? Is the whole landscape now something that is not “authentic” in relationship to what it should be?

The landscape is dynamic, and – like the Scots pine – species come and go, their distribution moving dramatically over millennia due in part to climatic shifts and ecosystem processes that drive change – factors outside of human impact. And humans too, have influenced the land since long before the industrial age. So there is no returning to a single Edenic point in time – there is no going back. We can only go forward, hopefully with informed decisions that always allow room for the non-human species in our thinking.

Answers? No. Complexity. Yes. The pines along the River Inver haven’t changed; they are still beautiful, still standing with a peaceful presence, and they still have the same graceful branches curving out over the flowing river. The pines haven’t been transformed at all since I started walking the River Inver many years ago – just the way I think about them. Now what I see when I look at those trees is a statement in a very long dialogue, a snippet of the on-going dialectic between people and place that is the cultural landscape lying under our feet.

Then, usually I let such thoughts go, because the scene still holds its magic, and for a moment, it feels right to simply be part of that place in all its grace and peacefulness.



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