Why Are There No Trees in Scotland?

Scotland has a certain sparsity that is detectable but hard to define.

If you’ve been to the more rural parts of the nation, you were likely hit by a barren atmosphere that seemed palpable but perplexing:

‘There’s something missing here, but I don’t know what’.

Well, that ‘what’ is trees. Trees are missing in Scotland. Throughout large parts of the nation, there’s a huge dearth of trees, caused by thousands of years of deforestation, climate change, wars, pesky animals, and more.

And this continues to be a problem which Scottish initiatives are finding hard to solve.

In this article, we’ve unpacked why there’s been so much deforestation in Scotland, why there are so few trees in the nation, and what’s being done to bring those trees back.

Why are there no trees in Scotland

Why Are There No Trees in Scotland?

Well, it’s not that there are no trees in Scotland. There are definitely lots of trees in Scotland (check out our guide on the biggest forests in the UK, many of them are in Scotland).

But there are way fewer trees than you’d expect. And that’s for three main reasons: animals, climate change, and an insatiable and unending lust for resources.

And that’s the short, simple, easy answer.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

To get right to the heart of that detail, there’s only one thing we can do:

We need to step back in time and retrace the trees’ steps. Only then can we get a true understanding of the journey these bark-based behemoths have been on.

Join us as we take you on a journey through a brief history of trees in Scotland:

6,000 Years Ago

Cast your mind back 6,000 years ago. There was no Facebook. No Kardashians. No Instagram stories. There wasn’t even a you.

But here’s what there was: trees. Lots of them.

6,000 years ago was the golden age of trees in Scotland. Their boom period. Scotland’s trees were the big kids on the block, and they were everywhere. 6,000 years ago, Scotland was basically a giant forest.

These trees stood shoulder to shoulder with bears, big cats and various other big hitters of the wildlife world. In short, life in Scotland was rural and wild – and it was full of trees.

5,900 Years Ago

Here come the farmers! And as you’ve probably worked out for yourself, farmers aren’t good news for trees. Farmers have animals – and animals need food to graze on.

Lots of these animals were sheep – and as you’ll learn later, pesky sheep populations are particularly harmful to trees.

To contrive and create these grazing opportunities for their animals, the farmers burned down large swathes of forest, razing trees to the ground so that their livestock could munch down hearty portions of grass, heather and other tasty treats.

And so began the gradual decline of trees in Scotland.

3,000 Years Ago

The farmers had really done a number on those poor Scottish trees. And that was bad enough.

But along came something even more sinister: climate change. 

A period of wet, soggy weather began, and it spelled even worse news for the leafy beasts towering towards Scotland’s skyline. This wet weather created conditions which were often uninhabitable for some of Scotland’s native trees, leaving them with poor weather, poor soil, and even poorer chances of survival.

1,200 Years Ago

Vikings arrived in Scotland.

They needed to build homes, ships, and all the other things that Vikings needed to live. Like those weird helmets with pointy horns. Vikings loved weird helmets with pointy horns.

All of these things require resources, and wood is a huge resource.

I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

In short, the Vikings who descended upon Scotland chopped down endless amounts of trees in order to build, improve and spread their empire.

400 Years Ago

The Highland population began to boom. More houses were needed. More ships were needed. More everything was needed.

More trees were chopped down.

300 Years Ago

Sheep farming increased. Hugely increased.

And chopping down trees for resources continued to increase. The two main resources needed at this time were wood (of course) and charcoal, which is made from heating wood at a very high temperature.

200 Years Ago

Hunting became very popular. For whatever reason, Victorians loved to hunt, and deer and grouse were the most popular pursuits. To make it easier to shoot these animals, large areas of woodland and shrubbery were burned down.

But this came with another problem – increased levels of hunting meant larger populations of deer. And huge deer populations (along with their appetites) can prevent woodland and shrubs from being able to regenerate and grow.

There are now around 1 million deer in Scotland, which is around 1 deer for every 6 people in the nation. And that’s bad news for trees.

100 Years Ago

World War 1 began.

Lots of wood was needed to churn out huge amounts of resources. And wood and charcoal were essential ingredients in British attempts to win the war.

And That’s Just the Beginning.

Hopefully that short and exciting trip through time gave you a good idea of why there are so few trees in Scotland.

It was hardly an episode of Dr Who, but it’s a handy insight into why there’s such a lack of trees throughout large parts of the nation.

Now, let’s take a look at some of those reasons in detail:

Why Are Sheep So Bad for Trees?

Sheep eat a lot. This grazing prevents trees from growing, as it can disrupt the soil which trees are attempting to make their home.

Meanwhile, large parts of woodland have previously been burned down in order to create grazing areas for sheep.

But here’s one you probably weren’t expecting – sheep’s feet are also bad for trees.

Scottish Sheep Near Loch Eil, Scotland
Scottish Sheep near Loch Eil

Sheep have small, pointed hooves. And these hooves compact soil. Compacted soil can’t absorb water, so when there are heavy rains, these heavy rains can’t be absorbed by the soil, causing both flooding and droughts, a combination hardly conducive to fertile tree-growing conditions.

These conditions aren’t really conducive to anything. Where there are floods or droughts, not much can grow. And where nothing can grow, nothing can feed. So nothing can thrive. And so the mass sheep farming in Scotland has led to conditions in which little can live.

Sheep farming isn’t the only problem for Scotland’s trees, but it’s one of the biggest problems.

But Who Even Cares? Why Are Trees Even Important?

Trees are natural water-suckers – Trees love water – Trees love water even more than a dry-mouthed man on a hangover.

If you’ve ever been to Scotland (or any other highly-deforested area!), you might have noticed how boggy it can get. After rain, tree-barren landscapes can be outrageously boggy – and this bogginess is due to a lack of trees.

In a landscape with lots of trees, excess water is thirstily slurped up by trees with an appetite for aqua. But where there are no trees, there’s nothing to slurp up this excess water. And so boggy conditions are created.

Windy Road in Isle of Skye After Rainfall, Scotland

If you’ve ever hiked on tree-less land after heavy rains and hated every moment of it, you’ve probably got deforestation to thank.

But it’s a vicious cycle – when land becomes boggy, no trees or crops can grow in that land. Basically, less trees leads to less trees, and chopping down trees leads to conditions unkind to anything trying to grow.

And, of course, a lack of trees isn’t just about a lack of trees. Where there are less trees, there are less animals – so Scotland’s huge loss of trees has also led to a huge loss of animals. Scotland has lost native wolves, bears, big cats, beavers, elks, boars, birds and more.

How Are Trees Being Reintroduced to Scotland?

Since the end of WWI (in 1918), Scotland was keen to reintroduce more trees to its landscape. And so, in 1919, the Forestry Commission was created. But this Forestry Commission wasn’t interested in making Scotland look more beautiful, or adding more trees to the Scottish landscape for any sort of aesthetic reasons.

Instead, the commission wanted to ensure that Britain had enough resources for any coming wars. Britain nearly lost WWI for a number of reasons – and a lack of timber was one of them. The commission wanted to ensure that this would never be a problem again.

The Forestry Commission therefore planted lots of fast-growing trees in an attempt to rapidly increase the tree population in the country.

And it sort of worked – but in working, it also damaged and removed lots of the still-existing native trees in the nation.

Fortunately, the Forestry Commission has since shifted its priorities.

Craig Phadrig Forest Inverness Scotland
The Craig Phadrig (“Patrick’ Rock”) hillside forest walk on the west side of Inverness grown by Forestry Commission – by Dave Conner (CC BY 2.0)

What is the Scottish Forestry Commission Doing Now?

In Scotland, the Forestry Commission is no longer interested in providing ammunition for war. Instead, they’re setting out to do what a Forestry Commission should do: they’re tasked with reforesting and rewilding large parts of Scotland.

The Scottish Forestry Commission is doing lots of things and thinking about lots of things. Here are the main things they need to do in order to see the growth of tree populations in the nation:

  • Stop the burning of trees in the pursuit of hunting.
  • Encourage farmers to manage their livestock mindfully, in a way that promotes the growth of trees.
  • Reduce deer numbers (in a moral and humane way).
  • Reintroduce native tree species – and attempt to establish conditions conducive to the reintroduction of these species.

And so, where there was once deforestation, there are now mass attempts at intense reforestation.

And while some people say this is an impossible task, it absolutely isn’t. Other nations – such as Norway – have successfully embarked upon ambitious rewilding and reforesting missions.

So far, it is working slowly for Scotland. Around 100 years ago, only around 5% of Scotland’s land area was wooded. Now, this figure sits at around 18%.

Forest Woodland Cover in Scotland and in Europe
Forest Woodland Cover in Scotland and in Europe – source

But the focus has since shifted a little. In the early days, these attempts at reforestation were obsessed with quality over quantity and revolved around throwing up any old trees.

Now, plans are instead focused on biodiversity, nuanced rural development, and reintroducing the nation’s native trees.

The Forestry Commission has published its 10 years strategy, Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019–2029, which consists of a “Long-term framework for the expansion and sustainable management of Scotland’s forests and woodland”. You can read it here.

Forestry Commission Scotland officer with farmer
Forestry Commission Scotland officer with a farmer – by Rural Matters (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How Many Trees Has Scotland Lost?

Lots! Because Scotland now has so few trees, it’s hard to imagine just how many trees it once had. Here are some stats to put things into perspective:

  • Scotland was once basically a giant forest – but around only 4% of native woodlands now cover the nation’s landmass.
  • 2000 years ago, by the time the Romans first arrived in Scotland, the nation had already lost at least half of the natural woodland which it once had. Much of it was replaced by peatland, which is why Scotland still has so many peaty bogs.
  • Only around 1% of Scotland’s native pinewood trees remain.
  • Forest cover in Scotland is now around 16%, but only around 15% of that is from native trees.

But this isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Scotland. Though Scottish trees have been historically mistreated, the world chops down about 15 billion trees per year.

A Leafy Conclusion

In summary, a lengthy history of problems and changes has led to a huge lack of trees in Scotland. And this is a problem that is still being tackled today.

From sheep to deforestation to climate change, Scotland’s trees have suffered endlessly and tirelessly.

While Scotland was once basically a giant forest, it’s now largely bereft of trees, with large barren stretches of exposed, peaty land. The nation is by no means treeless, but there are huge areas (especially further north) where countless years of deforestation and mistreatment are easy to see.

But as the Forestry Commission continues to do great work, Scotland will hopefully one day have a bigger population of trees once more.

For more information check out our guides on the biggest forests in the UK, the best botanical gardens in the UK, and where to find palm trees in Scotland.

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