The drive home from Glasgow Airport may seem like a strange place from which to start a report on a visit to experience the natural and cultural heritage of Bulgaria. But the contrast was stark. The sight of the Gargunnock Hills from the M80 – like so much of upland Scotland – unnaturally bare and devoid of trees, apart from the occasional punctuation by dense, commercial plantations of non-native conifers.
Working for a woodland charity, you must forgive me for getting excited by the view that greeted us in the Central Balkan mountains. Trees. Trees that went on for miles and miles and miles. Trees as far as the eye could see.
But it was much more than that. Native trees; trees that were clearly healthy; trees in forests rich and diverse in species and structure. And even more special than that – healthy, diverse forests not hiding behind deer fencing.
The impact of excessive deer numbers on Scotland’s environment, and its trees in particular, is plain for all to see. Without physical protection measures or heavy control by humans, trees simply don’t grow.
Yet here we were, guests of the Devetaki Plateau Association in Bulgaria whose symbol is what? A red deer. An animal to be celebrated. Not simply because they can provide a trophy head above a fireplace, but because they are an integral part of the environment and representative of the area. The poignant image comes from an ancient piece of art discovered on the plateau, a symbol of the deer’s importance throughout human history.
The red deer emblem in the logo of the Devetaki Plateau Association
Of course, the Bulgarians find themselves in a more advantageous position than we do. Interpretation boards in the Central Balkan National Park and an array of stuffed specimens in the Park’s Natural History Museum pointed to the presence of brown bears, lynx and wolves in the vicinity. All long since gone from Scotland but providing an ecosystem balance for the deer in Bulgaria.
Not all of Bulgaria’s woodland is ancient of course. We saw much in the way of managed woodland – particularly large, coppiced beech stands and mature areas of beech, lower limbs removed over the years to provide quality timber. But in comparison to our standard plant and clearfell practice with non-native conifers, the forest cover here remains intact.
And where the country has lost large areas of woodland in the past, their regrowth over the last century to cover over a third of the land today, we would see as a fantastic achievement. That kind of result wouldn’t simply be an achievement in Scotland, it would be nothing short of a miracle. But for our hosts, this didn’t seem to have much of a sense of achievement about it. The forests are simply a part of life. An intrinsic part of human culture.
Whilst our visit was frequently blessed with sunshine and temperatures in the mid-20s, everywhere we went the preparations for winter were clearly evident. Winters here can be harsh. Our host described January this year seeing temperatures of -20 and with the mercury not once rising above -5. The great piles of firewood freshly delivered outside homes showed a real connection between local people and their forests. A very real need to stay warm.
Managed beech forest in the Central Balkan National Park
But there were other signs too. Collecting nature’s harvest for example – the sight of people beating the branches of walnut trees to yield their nutty treasures being just one.
So what lessons to draw? That deer numbers have to be significantly reduced if we are ever to restore our environment and its wildlife in Scotland, is hardly a revelation. But the destination – where rich, native forests are compatible with human needs and where people have a real connection with nature – should surely be one worth striving for.
Of course, you will want to keep your forests if you value what they can provide you. Clearly, we wouldn’t wish to be advocating massive increases in wood-fuel burning but ensuring that trees and woods are an intrinsic part of everyday life – not something special – is.
I look forward to the day when the red deer can be a symbol of a rich and healthy Scottish environment.