THE news that the Scots pine is proposed for Scotland's national tree is welcome: the old Caledonian pine woods are among the most beautiful places in Scotland ("Scots pine branching out to be symbol of the nation", The Herald, January 7).

However, the statistic confidently and repeatedly related by pine wood charities that only 1% of the area once occupied by Scots pine remains under pine today is highly misleading. It ignores the research both of environmental scientists like Cindy Froyd, formerly at Cambridge and now at Oxford University, and Richard Tipping at Stirling University, and of environmental historians.

There is, in fact, no way to tell how much of Scotland was covered with pine at any one time in the past, as the tree came and went in different places at different times, the variation in range primarily driven by climate. It probably reached its peak more than 4000 years ago when its range stretched, unevenly, between Caithness (briefly even to Hoy) and Stirlingshire. Its decline between then and about 2000 years ago was dramatic, and apparently mainly due to natural causes, though the spread of prehistoric human farming and grazing by domestic animals must have had a part to play.

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By the time the Romans came the extent of Scots pine was possibly in aggregate not vastly greater than today, and at the end of the Middle Ages the great majority of the woods that were in existence then are in existence still, though some may have been larger. Perhaps a dozen woods have vanished (or almost so) since 1600, mainly in the rainy west or at high altitudes, during the so-called Little Ice Age of the 17th century when wet, wind and cold increased.

Old tales that attribute the decline of the pinewoods to the Romans, the Vikings and the English iron masters of the 18th century are just plain wrong, though still retailed with gusto by (for example) Chris Packham on the BBC in a recent Autumnwatch programme.

Scots pine in Scotland is at the western edge of its world range, and very susceptible to climatic change. It is admirable to be allowing pine to regenerate more widely in and around ancient woods like Abernethy and Glen Moriston. To be planting it in places where it has never grown before, or only grew many thousands of years ago in quite different circumstances of climate and soil (for which the Forestry Commission will even give grants), is not restoring lost ecosystems, but making up new ones.

T C Smout,

Chesterhill, Shore Road,

Anstruther.