The unsung heroes of Scotland’s forests: tree stumps, creepy crawlies and more
Scotland’s forests are home to some of our most beloved species: red squirrels, Scot’s pine, capercaillies and pine martens.
These iconic creatures often take the spotlight when the subjects of biodiversity and conservation are discussed.
Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), which manages 640,000 hectares of Scotland’s forests, is calling for more attention and praise for the unsung heroes of the forest floor.
Colin Edwards, FLS Environment Manager, said:
“Scotland’s forests are home to thousands of non-photogenic, sometimes downright disgusting creatures.
“These creatures don’t always make the headlines, but they perform critical services in different habitats and enhance our overall biodiversity.
“Having all these different species make forest habitats more resilient to climate change and increase the ability of these ecosystems to provide goods and services, like timber, clean water and pollinators, to Scotland’s people for generations to come.
“Worms are as important as wildcats, and creepy crawlies have as big a role as capercaillies in our forests.”
FLS asked its rangers, who spend every day in forests and have the opportunity to see all their wildlife, to nominate their favourite unsung heroes of forest biodiversity.
Wood you believe these acid-spraying ants
They’re hairy. They spray acid to defend themselves. They have big jaws and they bite.
But John Taylor, FLS Environment Advisor in West Scotland, says wood ants are his favourite forest insect.
“Wood ants are the largest ants in the British Isles. You can spot their mounds in Fearnoch forest in Argyll - at up to two metres tall, they’re hard to miss.
“They’re like forest ecosystem engineers. They help trees by eating the caterpillars that stunt their growth and they distribute seeds across the forest.
“Yes, they do spray acid when they feel threatened, but it goes to good use.
“Some birds actually agitate the ants on purpose, so that they’ll be sprayed with the acid - it kills parasites on their feathers.”
Why we don’t tidy up dead trees
Dying, dead and felled trees might not look attractive, but they’re essential for biodiversity. Deadwood is created by wind, when trees grow old and die or when trees are felled during timber production.
FLS is working to increase the amount of deadwood in Scotland’s forests: up to a third of all European forest species depend on deadwood to survive.
“Some visitors to Scottish forests might wonder why we leave so many dead branches or stumps in place.
“These help create vitally important habitats for animals, insects, plants and microbes, and even salmon.
“Deadwood also plays a significant role in forest nutrient cycles, carbon budgets, soil quality, and the natural regeneration of trees.
“Once you realise how important these stumps and branches are, I think you start to see the beauty in them.”
The spectacular stag beetle
Stag beetles come out at twilight, and only between May and July.
They’re the UK’s largest beetle, growing up to 7.5cm long, and the male’s jaws look like a stag’s antlers.
“Female stag beetles are usually on the ground, looking for some nice rotting wood to lay their larva.
“The males, however, fly around looking for a mate and they do tend to fly around face height, which can be quite unnerving.
“They look intimidating but they’re actually gentle giants and they do a lot for our forests and woodlands.
“They break down dead wood and rotting fruit, and return their nutrients to the soil, and they also provide food for birds.
“They’re not cuddly, but they are spectacular.”
Scotland is home to over 1500 species of lichen and 87% of all lichens in Britain.
Philippa Murphy, Environment Advisor East Region, “Lichens are the pale or bright crusty or fluffy patches you see on trees, or sometimes on the forest floor.
“They’re incredible. They’re not one thing or another, they’re a combination of fungi and algae. The fungus is the body of the lichen, and it protects the alga within it, with its intertwined cells. The alga feeds the fungus through photosynthesis.
“They’re incredibly sensitive and that makes them very useful indicators for air pollution in an area. They can change colour if they detect new chemicals in the air.
“They also remove carbon from the atmosphere and pump out oxygen.
“We have forest floors full of lichen in places like Culbin, near Moray, but you can spot them on trees and on walls in towns and cities across Scotland. Just quietly going about their business of storing carbon and alerting us to pollution.”
Dragonflies are among the more photogenic forest insects. They’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs, when they used to be as big as crows.
Dragonflies perform lots of helpful tasks in forest areas - they’re an indicator of clean water and healthy habitat, for example.
But they also perform a noble function, as FLS wildlife ecologist Kenny Kortland points out.
“They eat midges. We’re working with the British Dragonfly Society over the next three years to ensure we have enough ponds to provide them with welcoming habitats that will help boost their numbers.”
Dragonflies are found in FLS forests across Scotland, including Mabie Forest near Dumfries, Fonab in Perthshire, and Devilla Forest near Alloa. Glen Affric in the Highlands is particularly important for a number of the rarest dragonfly species.
Scotland’s forests are full of microbes, insects, plants, trees and creatures that perform amazing tasks and keep our forests healthy and thriving.
Find out how FLS is protecting and promoting them.
Notes to editors
Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) manages forests and land owned by Scottish Ministers in a way that supports and enables economically sustainable forestry; conserves and enhances the environment; delivers benefits for people and nature; and supports Scottish Ministers in their stewardship of Scotland's national forests and land.