Not far into their blurb, many of the glossy reports and promotional literature from conservation NGOs, quangos and community groups proposing or managing woodland regeneration schemes in Scotland raise the image of primal, long-lost forests clothing mist-covered mountains, inhabited by currently extinct ferocious denizens, such as the wolf, bear and lynx, preying on moose, wild boar and huge, belligerent wild cattle.

It's a beguiling, inspirational image that once enthralled me when I first began my own tree-planting trials at Loch Garry, near Drumochter Pass, more than 40 years ago. Over these intervening decades, however, the realisation dawned that the woodland conservation subculture was permeated with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance syndrome, as per the reporter in the famous John Wayne/James Stewart movie, when he said, on hearing the truth of the shooting: "When the myth becomes legend, print the legend."

To secure both a forest-friendly community and a community-friendly forest in a Scotland that remains, despite all the efforts and targets of recent decades, one of the least forested countries in Europe, we are going to need more than myths and legends to move forward.

Unfortunately, there still appears to be an eco-mystic psychology pervading forest conservation activists in Scotland. What, in the 90 per cent-plus area of Scotland that does not now carry native woodland, are they trying to re-establish; the forests of the Neolithic, the Minoan or Roman warm periods or what survived the Little Ice Age? We cannot repeat, eradicate or deny all the climatic phases and human interactions within the landscape over these millennia, which now means, that the soil-site conditions and the bio-climate are very different from conditions pertaining during the first colonisation process of trees that followed de-glaciation.

A classic illustration comes to mind from one of the TV programmes by archaeologist-historian Dr Neil Oliver, where he stands on a peat moor in Ireland and drives a corer tool down through the six metres of peat and hits, not the remains of ancient woodland, but the drystane dyke of a an extensive landscape-scale field system, developed on mineral soils by pastoralist farmers, who had already cleared the original forest cover.

In Scotland, we have had no ecological or chronological continuity/contiguity of forest for many centuries. It is a sheer, utter farce to consider that any forest we may re- establish, even exclusively with native species, in such areas, under physical and biological conditions very different from the immediate post- glacial period, is in anyway a replicate of the original. Any forest we put there now is a new forest, not a substitute ancient one.

Yet the need and desire for a greater forest coverage in such a deforested country as Scotland is genuine and valid, not only for the obvious reasons of timber and wood-fuel supply, but for a multiplicity of benefits that forest offers in terms of such things as carbon sequestration, improving soil fertility, increasing fish production (tree leaves are a major source of food for the aquatic organisms are eaten by fish) flood prevention, hill slope erosion control, shelter for domestic stock, improved habitat for wildlife for an overall more amenable environment for re-population of the Highlands and for the forest's capacity to absorb a greater amount of social and recreational pressures than open moorland.

Major land use and tenure changes are in prospect, which make it increasingly unlikely the current quasi-feudal, Victorian-Edwardian nightmare world operating in rural Scotland is going to last another decade of darkness. Awakening from a nightmare and going straight into a dream of the past will make the dawn false.

We need to be imbued with an aspiration for something both more imaginative and practical than the eco-minimalism that currently pervades aspects of the native woodland restoration movement. There can be no concept of going back to the past, but of course one taking the lessons of the past onboard in a strategy incorporating the present and future bio-climatic and edaphic realities.

Once the burning and grazing pressures currently limiting woodland regeneration are removed, there is going to an explosion of tree cover, both in terms of our rather restricted range of native species, and the hundreds of exotic species we have introduced over the centuries.

Are we ready for a strategic approach that will allow us to harness the potential of tree species, native and exotic, well suited to soil and climatic conditions that pertain now and able to flourish in the future, as these parameters change?

Ron Greer is a freshwater ecologist, author and land reformer.