Upland woodland research

Long-term studies in Abernethy Forest, an ancient native pinewood are building a detailed picture of its ecology, history and appropriate management.

Loch Garten RSPB reserve. Speyside, Scotland. August 2007.


RSPB Abernethy Forest nature reserve has more Caledonian pinewood than any other wood in Scotland. The trees in these remaining fragments of Caledonian pinewood are lineal descendants of an ancient forest which once spread across Highland Scotland. Since the Bronze or Iron Age, the forest has been used by people for hunting, exploitation of timber, farming and now nature conservation.  
A soon-to-be-published book (summer 2017), drawing on decades of research in the forest, will provide a detailed account of the changes caused by people and the natural processes which have shaped the forest, providing an environment for an astonishing diversity of wildlife. Comparisons are drawn with near-natural and natural forests in continental Europe, revealing the conservation measures that need to be taken to restore lost features, in an attempt to create a forest of natural character which extends to the treeline.  
Amongst the most promising, but poorly understood of potential conservation measures, are field layer disturbance techniques like prescribed burning and cattle grazing. These techniques may allow us to emulate the effects of important natural disturbances such as wildfire, and the impacts of wild, large herbivores. Long-term field trials are under way testing whether these management approaches may help deliver conservation benefits, either by promoting natural forest expansion or by improving habitat quality and breeding success for woodland grouse like black grouse and capercaillie.


  • A review of the history, ecology and current status of Abernethy Forest.

Key Dates

  • Late 1980s: RSPB purchased Abernethy Forest; commencement of conservation management and an increase in research activity in support of this.
  • 2001: Commencement of field layer trials using cattle, burning and mowing.
  • 2011: Completion of first analyses of long-term field-layer trials.


  • Ecological and historical studies at Abernethy Forest over several decades, many of them led and/or hosted by RSPB, have been collated and reviewed for publication in the forthcoming book on the forest.
  • A series of field trials, spanning up to 20 years are under way, testing burning, mowing and cattle grazing as means of improving woodland grouse habitat quality and breeding performance, and natural regeneration by Scots pine.


Planned Work

  • A new detailed study on Abernethy Forest will be published, reviewing existing knowledge of the history and ecology of the forest.  
  • A series of field trials will be completed, testing the efficacy of prescribed burning, mowing, and cattle grazing, as conservation management tools.



A detailed picture of the ecology and history of Abernethy has been created, highlighting its natural features and parallels with natural Scots pine forests of Fennoscandia, but also describing the impacts and legacies of centuries of active management.
Meanwhile, our field trials have shown that prescribing burning is an effective way to increase natural pine regeneration by at least an order of magnitude. Also, burning, mowing and cattle grazing have all been shown to increase bilberry cover - an important element of the forest habitat, preferred by breeding capercaillie.



Coast on a stormy day

Dr Ron Summers

Principal Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Coast on a stormy day

Dr Mark Hancock

Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Science

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Habitat: Heathland Habitat: Upland Habitat: Woodland Species: Black grouse Species: Capercaillie Species: Crested tit Species: Crossbill Project status: Ongoing Project classification: Ongoing Project types: Research