This month the first of 80,000 trees and shrubs are being planted on Aberdeen’s Tullos Hill.
According to its advocates, the new wood taking root on the flanks of the hill will create a rich and diverse landscape for citizens to enjoy. However the scheme has been dogged by bitter controversy over the culling of roe deer to allay damage to young saplings on the 57-hectare site.
Numbers of roe deer in Aberdeen have been rising steadily as the animals have moved into green spaces and brownfield sites. Wildlife experts say that for plants, trees and shrubs and the deer themselves to thrive, numbers must be reduced.
But opponents want the hill to remain as open ground and the deer to be left alone.
“We know numbers of roe deer have been increasing in and around many of Scotland’s towns and cities as more trees have been planted and habitat has been increased,” said Jamie Hammond, wildlife management officer at Scottish Natural Heritage.
“Deer have also colonised brownfield sites awaiting development and increasingly been moving into areas where people live.
“This is not a bad thing at all – it brings good opportunities for people to see and enjoy wildlife. However when the numbers become excessive there can be problems.
“In urban areas the deer are more likely to become involved in collisions with vehicles. Another welfare issue that occurs in and around towns and cities is poaching with dogs and people shooting at roe deer with air guns, causing alarm and painful injury. And as numbers rise, so does competition for food – deer can cause significant damage to woods, amenity gardens and allotments.”
Land managers, in this case Aberdeen City Council, are legally responsible for controlling the deer populations on their land.
“In the past, predators like wolves would have kept deer numbers in check, but now they have no natural predators,” Jamie explained. “The aim is to achieve deer numbers that are in a better overall balance within their local environment.
“It’s not about wiping deer out – it’s all about trying to strike the correct balance. In the case of Aberdeen it was decided culling would be the most effective way of reducing roe deer numbers to a level that would allow trees and vegetation to flourish.
“We appreciate that culling deer in towns and cities is an emotive subject, involving people who historically wouldn’t have had to deal with deer issues.”
Birch, rowan, wych elm and hazel are among the mixed broadleaved tree species to be planted on the site. Conifers, including Scots pine, larch and some Norway spruce are intended to provide a haven for red squirrels and some timber for harvesting. Areas of juniper will also be planted on the areas of drier heathland. New trails for walking, cycling and jogging are planned and archaeological sites will be protected and enhanced.
According to chartered forester Chris Piper, who is managing the woodland scheme on behalf of Aberdeen City Council, the Tullos Hill wood will boost biodiversity in the city by providing habitat for a wide range of species.
“Wildlife corridors will be created, connecting the habitats of Kincorth Hill to the west and St Fittick’s Park to the north-east,” he said.
The scheme will cost a total of around £318,000 over five years, with two-thirds of the costs being met by a grant from the Scotland Rural Development Programme, and the balance from Aberdeen City Council’s Waste Strategy Landfill Restoration Funds and small-scale thinning of the existing mature woodlands.
Suzanne Kelly who is spearheading the campaign against the wood, has branded the scheme a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.
“I’m against the woodland because it’s not going to work. The process was bad, the science is bad and the morality of this scheme is appalling,” she said.
“We believe Tullos Hill should remain the grassland and meadow area it is. The roe deer should not be culled for tree planting which is not likely to succeed,” she said. “The trees did not grow before, and cost taxpayers at least £43,800.”
According to Suzanne, people in the area were not told about the cull during the consultation on the woodland proposal.
“Deer have been living in this area for 70 to 80 years and there is not a population problem,” she added. “People feel they were grossly deceived about what was going to happen.”
She believes that toxic pollution from the former landfill site on the hill, thin soils and a weed problem will ensure the scheme will fail.
“I don’t think the trees have any chance of living on this hill, which is blasted by 90-mile an hour winds. Places like Tullos Hill are essential for butterflies and bees and meadowland is the fastest disappearing kind of habitat there is.”
According to a report by Forest Research, the scientific arm of the Forestry Commission, deer browsing as well as smothering by weeds reduced the success of previous attempts to plant a portion of the hill.
“Deer browsing is known to be significant on site and is hampering tree establishment,” wrote report author Kieran Doick.
The report stated that on certain parts of Tullos the soil was too thin to provide anchorage for large, mature trees. “These unfavourable conditions, however, need not discourage attempts to establish trees to grow at this site,” he added.
Kieran says the lessons from the failure of the last scheme and findings from the Forest Research report have been fully taken account of in planning the new woodland.
“As foresters we know only too well that excessive quantities of weeds and deer are not healthy for establishing a new woodland. We recognize the limitations of the soil within some area of Tullos Hill, but we have chosen the species of trees and shrubs carefully to take account of this,” he said.
“The new wood will see an industrialised landscape transformed. About a third of the proposed scheme area on Tullos Hill is the site of a former landfill site and the area has been blighted by vehicle dumping, fly tipping and arson, which have discouraged people from using it.
“The intention is to create a welcoming green space in the south of the city, increasing recreation opportunities and creating habitats for a much more diverse array of wildlife.
“It’s well known that woods and green spaces are good for both physical and mental health and wellbeing. There is going to be lots of open space and the marvellous panoramas across the city and the the sea will be preserved.”
He said that the woodland plans had been altered in response to concerns raised about the proposed deer cull, and three areas of the site are now to be fenced, and protective tubing used on particularly vulnerable areas.
“Roe deer are a natural part of the woodland ecology,” he added. “We are keen to recreate a habitat for deer, squirrels, birds, bats and the full spectrum of woodland wildlife as soon as we can.”
In addition to the 34 hectares of new woodland and 23 hectares of landscaped open space and existing woodland, there are proposals to improve the access points at the thresholds of the new community wood.
Existing paths will be upgraded, new ones created and signage and interpretation installed.
Suzanne Kelly hit out at the plans for new paths, saying there were already well-used tracks on the site.
“I cannot see what additional paths would do, apart from disturbing the foxes, rabbit, deer and birds that already live here,” she said. “Why anyone would want to create new paths is a mystery to me.”
Aberdeen City Council Director of Housing & Environment Pete Leonard said: “Tullos Hill is one of Aberdeen’s most popular beauty spots, so it is vital that we preserve and enhance this area for future generations. This ambitious project – part of the council’s award-winning Tree for Every Citizen scheme – will go a long way to achieving that and it is great news that work is getting under way at pace.
“Tullos Hill provides marvellous vantage points and the woodlands have been designed so that the sweeping vistas across the city and the sea will be preserved. This exciting project will not only revitalise the landscape of Tullos Hill, but also help promote its wildlife and archaeological significance. Public access will be improved as part of the scheme, so the hill can continue to thrive and be used for a range of activities for people from all walks of life.”
Catriona Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in rural and environmental affairs. Born and bred in the Highlands, she is passionate about the landscape, culture and wildlife of northern Scotland and has a keen interest in community issues. www.catrionaross.co.ukTweet
This is an article from the May 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.