Tree Planting on Skye – Woodland Design

Most of our efforts to date have been focussed on creating a woodland area that will in the future generate most of our wood fuel requirements.  When we bought the house we put in a wood fired Esse range cooker which has a back boiler.  This we use for most of our cooking, hot water and house heating requirements.  It doesn’t really generate enough heat for the house in the winter, but the house is another story….To try and futureproof our lifestyle it seemed sensible to avoid the need for mains electric and bought in fuel as far as is practicable.  With limited time, we have planted the trees in phases, starting with shelterbelts around the house and garden area.  Then we gradually evicted the neighbour’s sheep that were keeping the grass short, about an acre at a time over 6 years.  Now I can back fill and play with more unusual plants and crops.  I’ll post about ‘lessons learnt’ or what we would have done differently as well as what went well later.

We didn’t really consider a conifer plantation, although it could be a productive way of planting – thousands of acres in Scotland have to have been planted for a reason!  I think that the uniformity of this type of planting put us off – lots of bad things to be said about monocultures…..  Also practically, we would have had to replant every 20 years or so since once cut down most evergreens are killed.  We did consider short rotation coppice, where a fast growing wood species such as willow is cut every 2 – 5 years.  This seems to suit more automated heating systems such as wood chip fed boilers, or rapid heating rocket stoves, or masonry stoves.  It didn’t really seen to suit an electric-free system that we could use for cooking with and heating a draughty old croft house.  So we have ended up with long rotation coppice, whereby mainly deciduous trees are cut down every 7 to 30 years depending on species, and allowed to regrow from the stumps.

To protect the regrowing coppice we have designed in shelterbelts every 20m or so.  These are planted roughly perpendicular to the main wind direction (I shut my eyes and faced the wind with my arms outstetched – no need for a compass), and comprise of a mixture of different species.  Using various reference books (notably The Earthcare Manual – Patrick Whitefield, The Woodland Way – Ben Law, and Caring for Small Woods – Ken Broad) I decided on a three row mix of trees, with a mix of slow growing (Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Beech (Fagus sylvestris), added Holm oak (Q. ilex), fast growing (Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), added whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata)) and shrubby (yew (Taxus baccata) (did not like it here), hazel (Corylus Avellana), holly (Ilex aquifolium), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), cherry plum (Prunus ceracifera), hawthorne (Crataegus monogyna)) trees in an alternating fashion.  The idea is to slow the wind down, not to stop it, or make it go round.

The main tree coppice areas are planted with a mixture of trees, since we didn’t know what would do well.  They were selected to be mainly native broadleaved trees that should like our mild damp climate, not mind the salt wind, and grow fairly fast (again with reference to the books mentioned above).  The main species are Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior) (We had to stop planting this after a few years due to spread of ‘ash dieback’ in UK – just as well we have a mix of species), Hazel (Corylus Avellana), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Aspen (Popular tremula), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), and Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens).  Groups of the same sort of tree are planted together, although we also experimented with interplanting the coppice trees with Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Larch (Larix decidua).  A few xmas trees (Picea abies) did not like the salt wind and have barely struggled to survive.

In addition, we have included ‘rides’ or trackways within the planting.  These are (hopefully) wide enough to drive a vehicle round to aid in harvesting, and loop round so there should never be too far to carry the fuel to harvest it.   Along the edges of these tracks I have planted trees and shrubs that have additional or alternative uses as potential food crops – crab apple (Malus sylvestris) (some of which I have successfully (and unsuccessfully!) grafted eating and cooking apple varieties onto), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) more holly and rowan.  I have now started backfilling with some more interesting fruiting or otherwise useful trees and shrubs: sloe or backthorn (Prunus spinosa), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucaria), chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa), also some small leaved lime (Tillia cordata) and willow (some Salix pupurea, and some sort of native dog willow that has seeded itself in.  In a slightly sheltered spot below the barn I have planted some orchard trees – probably a bit prematurely, since they really do not have enough shelter, but hopefully by the time they are ready to fruit in a few years, the shelter (a thuja plicata hedge) will also have grown up.  I have also left a clear area just below the barn for a future pond.  There is a slight plateau area, so it shouldn’t look as odd as it sounds having a pond at the top of the hill.  I have a small fruit growing area/tea garden near the barn also (more about that later).

DSC04363
View towards river from viewpoint of tree planting 2012

Note:  I am using ‘I’ and ‘we’ rather at random here.  My husband and I own the land, but the tree planting is mainly my project at this time – the chainsaw is his.  I have had considerable help in the planning from my friend Amanda Baker, and in the execution by Amanda and her partner David Clements.

6 thoughts on “Tree Planting on Skye – Woodland Design

  1. J > You say about Glendale being a ‘community buy-out’, but as I understand it, it was bought by the government but put in the hands of The Glendale Trust in 1908 (same year our area was brought under crofting regulation). You say you own it, but does that mean you have bought the freehold from the estate – and you are now owner-occupier crofters? If so, is that common in Skye? It’s still very unusual here in S Uist – perhaps because we have a community-owned estate covering virtually the entire islands of Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay.

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    1. Yes, the Glendale estate was bought by the government and held in trust for the then tenants of Glendale – they then paid for the purchase in the form of annual ‘rents’over 50 years. At that point they all became owners of their holdings rather than tenants. Part of the estate became held in common by all the new shareholders and is managed by a volunteer committee, and the townships common grazings were divided amongst the tenants of those townships. Because the buy out happened before the crofting regulations Glendale holdings are not strictly crofts. They are not subject to the same regulations. I think this is one of the reasons that Glendale is known as little England – many of the holdings have been sold on and divided – only council planning permission is neccessary for building – no decrofting, so many people have cashed in by selling off building plots. I don’t know how common owning the freehold of the ‘real’ crofts is on Skye. Still pretty unusual I think, although many of the Husabost estate (also confusingly in Glendale, but not part of the estate) are freeholding tenants. I wouldn’t use Glendale as an example of how to set up a community owned estate. Too many of the shareholders now live away (some are not traceable) and that makes a management burden on those remaining locally. Also no major decisions about the estate can be made without all the shareholders agreeing unanimously. This means in practice that no part can be leased out, since as the law has changed to give tenants right to buy. etc. Which restricts options for income. Also grants etc. are usually not available, since it is not a charity or trust. I’m by no means an expert (we’ve had our property coming up for ten years now) there is a fair amount of information on the internet, which probably puts the situation clearer than I am able to.

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  2. I think you made the right decision to plant an orchard before the shelter belt is fully established. Fruit trees take time to establish, so if you’d left planting the orchard for a few yard, it could be over a decade before you had a meaningful fruit crop.

    As my land it too small for any kind of shelter belt, I have to hope each year that the blossom will hold long enough to be pollinated. It’s too early to say for this year, of course, so I can only talk about last. Then I got 11 apples of a tree I planted as a 2 year old maiden six years previously.

    On the other hand, the crab apple merrily produced a bucketful in its first year 😉. I put that down to crab apples not being a cultivated species as such.

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    1. I’m not sure where you are Helen, you appear to have houses and fences around you? We are generally windy on Skye, and I am only over the hill from the Minch so the wind is often salty as well.
      It may be that your crab apple is self fertile? Or that you have other apples close enough for relations with your trees.

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