By Alistair Grant

THEY were once a common sight in Scotland before centuries of overgrazing by sheep and deer took its toll.

Now efforts to reverse the loss of tough, waist-high “wee trees” such as dwarf birch and downy willow have been given a cash boost.

A project to establish new seed sources for rare mountaintop trees in Glen Affric has received more than £125,000 from the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

The specialised trees - known as montane species because they can grow near mountain summits, despite harsh conditions - form wildlife-rich high-altitude forests.

Conservation charity Trees for Life is working in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland to reverse their decline.

Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life, said:”With this funding from the Biodiversity Challenge Fund we can begin to ensure the return of these special ‘wee trees’ to their mountaintop homes in western Glen Affric.

“Now sadly missing from much of the Scottish Highlands, these precious high-altitude trees are a vital part of the Caledonian Forest.

“They provide a natural and biologically-rich link between glens, and offer a fantastic source of food, shade and shelter for wildlife.”

Trees for Life’s West Affric Woodland Habitat Expansion project has been awarded £125,538 to plant the montane trees.

The charity said this will strengthen the existing but fragile foothold of these unique woodlands.

Working in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland, it will plant clusters of the trees within deer-proof enclosures to secure a seed source for the future. This will also provide a habitat for species such as the golden eagle, ring ouzel and mountain hare.

Willie Fraser, National Trust for Scotland’s property manager for West Affric and Kintail, said: “We’re delighted to be working in partnership with Trees for Life on this positive conservation project, because there’s a real urgency to bringing these precious ‘wee trees’ back from the brink.

“They’re sadly all too rare now, but they form a wonderful habitat on which a wide range of wildlife depends.”

Trees for Life said the new woodlands will help tackle climate change by locking away carbon dioxide, as well as reducing flooding by improving the soil’s capacity to retain water.

Its West Affric Woodland Habitat Expansion is one of 16 successful projects across Scotland announced in the second round of the £4 million Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

The projects aim to take practical steps to improve natural habitats, safeguard plant and animal species, and improve biodiversity.

Francesca Osowska, chief executive of Scottish Natural Heritage, said:”As lockdown conditions lift, green recovery projects like the Biodiversity Challenge Fund put nature and nature-based solutions at the heart of rebuilding our economy. But it’s not just about conservation - enriching our nature is also part of the solution to the climate emergency.

“People know that climate change is a big issue, but not as many know that biodiversity loss is also a global and generational threat to human wellbeing. Nature is at the heart of what we do, and we will continue to deliver the transformational change needed to bring a nature-rich, sustainable and more economically secure future for Scotland.”