2008-01-27 10:13:20 UTC
By Craig Brown
WHEN it comes to protecting the environment, dynamite is not one of
the materials that comes to mind.
But yesterday RSPB Scotland began a unique approach to conservation by
using explosives to blow up a number of trees in the ancient Abernethy
The project, which involved blowing up the crowns of nine trees, is
part of an attempt to increase the amount of large-volume dead wood in
When trees die, their function within the forest ecosystem is far from
over, and they retain a crucial role in the health and productivity of
In fact, in a natural forest ecosystem free from human interference,
between 20 and 30 per cent of the trees will either be dead or dying.
But much of the ancient and semi-natural woodlands in Scotland have
been highly modified over the millennia, through forest management and
agricultural development, and this natural dynamic has been either
lost or diminished.
The Abernethy forest, in the eastern Highlands, is one of the last
remnants of the Caledonian pine forest that once covered the country
and the largest remaining stretch of native pinewood in Britain,
containing several million trees.
James Reynolds, spokesman for the RSPB, said: "We've been simply
felling trees and trying to create dead wood habitats in that way
before, but we don't think it allowed the process to get going quickly
"This is the first time we've done this. It's the only way we can
mimic nature's effect on trees, so that they are rent asunder, torn
and shredded by an extreme event. So the trunk splinters and more of
the heart wood is exposed. It allows more of the pathogens, microbes
and bacteria which start the process of decay to get in there
He added the exploded trees were of massive value in ecological terms
in that, beyond their importance as habitats, they recycled the
nutrients of the forest and acted as carbon sinks for as long as a
RSPB Scotland's conservation experts targeted trees aged between 100
and 200 years, ranging in height from 40 to 60 feet, and far from
Ten trees were meant to be blown up, but one specimen was spared after
it was judged to be too close to a power line.
Holes were drilled into the trunks and small charges packed into them
at around 25 feet from the top of each crown.
The resulting explosion reduced each one to a "totem pole". It is
expected that it could be 100 years before each of these trunks
finally fall, and a further 300 before they rot into the ground.
Desmond Dugan, site manager for the Forest Lodge section of Abernethy,
said this was long-term conservation: "Dead wood habitats,
particularly large volume deadwood, are in short supply at Abernethy
"Some people have spoken about the short-term effects of the
explosions and the loud noises in the forest, but when we talk about
conservation in Abernethy, we're looking at it into the next century,
not next week.
"The exploded trees will be carefully monitored to measure the
effectiveness of this novel management. Explosives may sound extreme
but the effect will be no more catastrophic than a wind-snapped,
lightning-struck or avalanched tree."
There is great competition among bird species to secure what are
generally scarce habitats and nesting birds are often evicted by more
dominant birds such as goosanders, goldeneye ducks or tawny owls, or
by mammals like the pine marten.
A spokesman for Forestry Commission Scotland said that body applauded
the charity's efforts to improve biodiversity:
"We support management to promote more deadwood in pine forests as the
level of natural deadwood is generally too low."
Q & A: EXPLODING TREES
Why is it necessary to blow up living trees?
Human interference has resulted in the Abernethy forest ecosystem
becoming unbalanced, causing shortage of deadwood that sustains flora
Which trees are targeted?
Being an ancient forest, Abernethy has a wide variety, but only Scots
pines were chosen for this project
What are the benefits of dead trees?
They provide protection for plants from grazing animals, as well as
shelter to birds and small mammals. They are also a store of nutrients
that can be cycled through the ecosystem, and of carbon.
How many species rely on dead trees for habitats?
About 16 breeds of birds use them, including crested tits, woodpeckers
Will other species benefit ?
In winter, the cavities in rotting trees are favoured by butterflies
and hibernating bats. They are also colonised by invertebrates, such
as stag beetles, and various lichens, mosses and fungi.
Why not use a chainsaw?
The charges will expose a greater surface area than the clean cuts
created by a chainsaw, which will in turn accelerate the decay
Won't the process endanger the very wildlife the RSPB seeks to help?
No, the detonations are taking place well after the nesting season.
Also, the charges are packed tightly, ensuring that the explosion will
be limited to the tree.
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