By Sandra Dick

The main road from Selkirk to Moffat swings past the Grey Mare’s Tail, cutting its way through terrain carved by Ice Age glaciers, with rippling peaks that plunge into long, deep valleys.

The landscape is mostly bereft of trees, millennia of grazing by sheep, goats and deer, farming, harvesting and fire having left the Southern Uplands smooth, the native woodlands long gone.

Two miles from the dramatic waterfall and in the deep gouge created by 1km-thick ice, however, a visionary project started by a group of friends 20 years ago is gradually turning back the hands of time.

And the Carrifran Valley, once stripped bare of the birch, elm, sessile oak, shrubs and wildflowers which thrived on its slopes, is in the grip of an extraordinary reawakening.

Long before the term "rewilding" became a byword for ecological restoration of the Highlands, volunteers with an ambitious plan to restore the valley’s ancient forest were quietly collecting countess seeds and preparing to plant 700,000 trees.

The results of Carrifran Wildwood project’s imaginative plan are now becoming clear: the single rowan tree which clung desperately to the side of the burn two decades ago has been joined more than 30 species of trees which carpet the once bare slope.

Where sheep, feral goats and deer used to chew away new growth are wildflowers, shrubs, wild grasses and bursts of colour.

With the trees have come dozens of species of woodland birds, owls, migrating birds and birds of prey, butterflies, moths and bees. On the slopes, sparse crops of mountain plants typically found sheltering in rocky crags have started to migrate downhill – an unexpected and fascinating turn of events.

Gradually, the landscape is returning to how it would have looked 6,000 years ago, when the owner of a near Neolithic age yew bow laid it down to be eventually preserved in a peat bog, and inadvertently helped plant the seeds for one of Britain’s first "rewilding" projects.

“We were doing this before the word ‘rewilding’ was used at all in Britain, it was just something that was intimated in the United States,” points out Philip Ashmole, a zoologist and ecologist from Peebles who retired from Edinburgh University in 1992 and became one of the driving forces behind the project.

“People had been talking about bringing pinewoods to the Highlands around that time,” he adds, “but the Southern Uplands were neglected.

“I had retired, and began thinking about the landscape around us.”

As the 20th century drew to a close, the idea captured the imagination of thousands of supporters who quickly raised the £350,000 to buy Carrifran Valley from a local farmer. Stretching to the top of White Coomb, one of the highest spots in the south of Scotland, the newly-formed Borders Forest Trust got a bargain – the 1,650 acres were originally for sale for £1 million.

Replanting it, however, raised the question of what kinds of trees, shrubs and flowers might once have carpeted its gentle slopes.

The discovery of the ancient yew bow, known as the Rotten Bottom Bow after the bog area in which it was found, was key.

“We came up with what we thought would have been there originally by looking at fragments of old woodland that survived in a few places,” adds Ashmole.

“Fortunately, as a result of the discovery of the Rotten Bottom Bow, someone had the idea of getting a pollen analysis.

“We had a good record of vegetation history at the top of our site, from Ice Age to present. We then needed to ensure trees were right provenance.”

Countless seeds were collected by an army of volunteers from natural ancient woodlands, germinated at small commercial tree nurseries and the saplings planted at spots across the newly fenced-off valley.

Where in early 2000 were bare slopes are now some 750,000 trees spanning 30 species including elm, hazel, birch, bird and wild cherry, willows, ash, and sessile oak.

In more recent years, 75,000 shrubs such as dog rose, guelder rose, burnet rose honeysuckle, ivy and juniper have been planted. What makes Carrifran Valley particularly special is that the project has been carried out with one eye on carefully documenting every element. It makes the valley a potential blueprint for countless other rewilding sites across the country.

The project is pushing boundaries too, planting oaks higher than might normally be expected, exploring the possibility of creating montane scrub above the treeline, and recording fascinating changes in the area’s mountain flowers, such as sea campion and rose root, that have shifted from high rocky crags to the roadside where they are being allowed to thrive.

In 2009, Borders Forest Trust bought 1,580 acres of farmland in Dumfries and Galloway, which includes the Devil’s Beef Tub and adjoining hills. In 2013, it took over 5,400 acres of Talla and Gameshope estate.

“The word ‘rewilding’ has a lot of baggage in terms of a big predator,” cautions Ashmole, now 86. “People immediately talk about wolves, bears and lynx.

“We are recreating the foundations to ecosystems which would ultimately include predators and big mammals, but they can’t come back until the building blocks are there.”

A Journey In Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond, edited by Philip and Myrtle Ashmole for Borders Forest Trust is published by Whittles Publishing, £18.99.