Craigvinean :: Chapter 2 - The Clothing of the Landscape

Chapter 2 - The Clothing of the Landscape

Man may have a profound effect on the type of vegetation growing in any particular area. In Britain the natural vegetation has long since disappeared to be replaced by crops or vegetation more suited to man’s requirements. In the Southern Uplands the original tree cover has been removed to provide the maximum amount of grazing land for sheep. Plantations and shelter belts are artificially created and are not natural.

The Pattern of Vegetation

The pattern of vegetation in the Towford area, along with the rest of the Southern Uplands, can hardly be described as exciting. It could be classified as man-made steppe land or grass-desert, albeit the richest upland grazing in Scotland.

Botanically, there is little variety over great stretches of country and few plants more than 15 centimetres high are to be found. The main components of the vegetation are :

  1. Various fine-leaved grasses, such as Sheep’s Fescue: the main food source of the sheep.
  2. Various coarse or wiry grasses, such as the Purple Moor Grass: not normally eaten by sheep.
  3. Bracken, poisonous to livestock; covering wide areas but now being killed in places by selective herbicides.
  4. Rushes, found in great clumps, masses and lines, on wetter ground; unpalatable for sheep.
  5. Heather, on well-drained sites where grazing pressure is not too intense; nutritious when young.
  6. Various herbaceous plants, such as Wild Thyme, Violet, etc.; palatable to livestock and usually grazed off before they can flower or set seed.
  7. Various sedges and rushes, more or less palatable to livestock, the most obvious being Bogcotton on wet peat areas.

Due to the restricted variety of plants, purely botanical studies in the area may be disappointing. A study of the reasons for the development of the present pattern of vegetation is likely to be much more rewarding. The following notes are therefore intended to outline the background to the development of the present pattern.

The Clothing of the Landscape

The original vegetation cover of the South of Scotland was completely removed by ice action during the Ice Age and no trace of it now remains. We do however have a fairly good knowledge of the kind of vegetation which developed after the ice melted.

It is important to realise that the ice did not melt over-night and that the climate for hundreds of years afterwards was similar to that of the sub-Arctic (Northern Canada or Northern Russia) at the present day. Large areas were completely barren and lichens, mosses, grasses, sedges and dwarf shrubs were probably the only plants able to survive the extremely harsh climatic conditions. This tundra vegetation was grazed by wandering herds of reindeer, probably pursued by Stone Age hunting groups.

Through time, as the climate improved, a greater variety of plants was able to colonise the area and eventually some form of tree cover was established. Apart from exposed hill tops and wet, marshy areas a vast forest developed, covering virtually the whole of Britain. Remains of trees dating from this early period are to be found preserved in peat. At higher altitudes the diameter of these pieces of wood rarely exceeds 10 centimetres, indicating scrub rather than tree growth.

The climate seems to have fluctuated markedly. Continental conditions (hot summers, cold winters, generally dry) seem to have preceded a trend towards Coastal conditions (cool summers, mild winters, generally wet) and it appears that we are still living in this later phase.

Such changing climatic conditions led to changes in species of trees growing in the forest. Scots Pine, for example, which is better suited to cold, dry conditions, tended to give way to Oak and Elm, which thrive better in warm, moist conditions.

About two thousand years ago the dominant tree species on the lower ground appears to have been oak. Around Towford, about 250 metres above sea level, it is probable that oak, birch, rowan, and hazel, with occasional Scots Pine were the most common tree species.

These woods contained many kinds of animals, including bears, wolves, wild cattle, wild pigs, deer, martens, wild cats, etc. Bird species were equally varied. Had it not been for the influence of man, this vast forest, with its great variety of plants and animals, might have continued indefinitely.

The Influence of Man

As a hunter and food-gatherer man had little effect on the vegetation. It was only when he began to remove the tree cover that his activities became significant. His ultimate influence in determining the vegetation patterns of the area cannot be overemphasised.

Man began to clear the woodland cover for a number of reasons. These included the need for fires to keep warm, the need for timber for huts, houses and protective palisades and the need for small clearings for growing primitive crops. Besides, the easiest way to get rid of dangerous wild animals was to clear away the woodland cover. In the Cheviots the main reason for the woodland clearance was the need for more pasture for sheep.

The Coming of the Sheep

The coming of the sheep to the uplands had an effect on the landscape comparable in its significance to the coming of the ice. The sheep industry was very well organised and highly profitable. The largest flocks were owned by the Abbeys and by the Crown and supported a thriving export trade in wool to the Continent.

As has been stated the original tree cover was removed by man to increase the amount of available pasture. The sheep in turn have ensured that few tree seedlings could ever survive, simply because of the effects of continued grazing. The woodland never recovered and its disappearance led to the loss of habitat of a great range of wild creatures.

Sheep have now been grazing the hills of the Southern Uplands for about one thousand years - continuously, night and day. They are very selective feeders, with sensitive mouths, taking only the most palatable and nutritious plants. The result of this selective grazing over a thousand years has been a progressive decline in the quality of the grazing and a decrease in the variety of species growing in the sward.

Tree seedlings have little chance of survival, except in some of the steep rocky cleuchs or gullies where they are less accessible to livestock. (Such cleuchs are always worthy of close examination as they can give some impression of the previous variety of plant species, including trees and shrubs).

The unpalatable plants, such as bracken and rushes, have taken over vast areas of hill ground, to the exclusion of the fine grasses on which the sheep depend. As the better grasses are more heavily grazed, there is a further increase in the undesirable species. In many parts the earliest grasses have been eaten out completely, thus extending the winter period of little growth.

Factors other than grazing have also led to a deterioration of the uplands vegetation. The traditional practice of “muir-burning” to provide and “early bite” for the sheep at the end of a long winter may burn off valuable nutrients. Thousands upon thousands of tons of calcium and other minerals have been removed in the meat and bones of sheep sold off the hills, along with the annual wool clip. Only relatively recently have farmers begun to replace this loss of minerals by spreading lime and other fertilisers on the hill ground.

Plantations and Shelterbelts

Tree planting for timber and shelter is relatively recent in this area. The tree species used are mainly exotic conifers such as Sitka and Norway Spruce. These even aged stands of selected coniferous trees give no impression of the original woodland conditions, though there are tiny patches of semi-natural woodland in other parts of the Southern Uplands which have retained some of the characteristics of the former woodland cover, e.g. the small hazel wood at Cappercleuch, near St. Mary’s Loch Selkirkshire.

Almost all of the trees in the Towford area have been planted by man. Occasional alders and willows have managed to find a niche for themselves in spite of the intensive grazing pressures.

Former plantations may be located from early Ordnance Survey maps or from the remains of the tree stumps and roots on the ground. One such former plantation lies just outside the Centre grounds, on the north-west corner, with another within the Roman camps at Pennymuir.

Sources of Information

  1. Ecology and Land Use in Upland Scotland; McVean, D. N. and Lockie, J. D., 1969.
  2. The Soils of the Country Round Jedburgh and Morebattle; Muir, J. W., (H.M.S.O.), 1956.
  3. Mountains and Moorlands ; Pearsall, W. H., 1950.
  4. Scottish Farming, Past and Present; Symon, J. A., 1959.
  5. Heathland Ecology; Gimingham, C. H., 1975.