Hazel woods – a link to our past
An extract from the Atlantic Hazel Audit Report, by Roz Summers
As part of the now complete Atlantic Hazel Audit project. led by the Assynt Field Club, Roz Summers has written a comprehensive report of the work, and the findings, which makes fascinating reading. To give you a taster here’s an extract from the introduction to the report – a fantastic description of our hazel woods, why they are so special, and how we might protect them better.
We sometimes think of Assynt as a spectacular but stark place with so many areas of rock, heath and bog – but here and there are plenty of trees – marvellous woods, those on better soils often dominated by hazel trees of amazing maturity hosting stunning lichens, mosses, liverworts and fungi which are unique to these type of woods. On a sunny day all the greens are there: the bright leaves, the subtle mosses on trunk and rock, and the really wild range of lichens. There are leafy, crusty and hairy forms on old, thicker stems and magical runic-style writing: dots, dashes and startling colours on the fresh younger growth. The young stems grow the crust-like “graphidion” (writing-like) lichens and as the bark thickens and the microclimate changes, leafy lobarion (ear-like) lichens and others move in.
The trees themselves are in a myriad of forms, multi-stemmed and groaning outwards, mega-stemmed with an astonishing range of ages in one tree, broad single-stemmed trees with wide boles at the base, decrepit-looking ancients falling down the hill. These, however, are rarely dead, indeed they seem to morph into new forms, even possibly reverting to upright multi stems. This is the Celtic Rainforest.
Coastal Temperate Rainforest was identified as a rare and distinct part of a priority “Major Habitat Type” by WWF. It is confined to only seven areas of the world. The West Highlands of Scotland are part of the Northeastern Atlantic sector. The Atlantic hazelwoods are special because of the high rainfall, lots of wet days, proximity to the coast and relatively even temperatures. They are also invaluable because they are still here – perhaps having survived in some form since the last ice retreated 10, 000 years ago.
A history of hazel in Assynt and Coigach
Lake sediment profiles from Lochs Sionascaig and Cam give clues to the vegetation history of Assynt and Coigach. After the last Ice Age hazel arrived in Assynt around 9,500 years ago, and was an abundant part of the forest cover on mineral soils along with Scots pine and birch. The mineral soils became progressively washed out over time as the climate cooled and got wetter. The tree cover began to retreat from 5,000 years ago, and peat began to spread, with no evidence of human influence. Pine declined steeply just before 4,000 years ago, when there is a sudden increase in water-logging of peat.
Birch and birch-hazel woods on mineral soils seem to have been cleared by fire from 3,500 yeasr ago, surviving as fragments on brown forest soils. Human history in this area, close to the lochs, has been dated from around 4500 years ago. so the Neolithic cairns were being built when hazel and other woodland was still fairly plentiful, and it is possible they were gradually cleared for agriculture.
Our ancestors must have valued, indeed revered, hazel. Hazels provided the 300,000 carbonized nutshells found in a 5m pit in the island of Oronsay, Inner Hebrides, dated to around 7700BC. Hazel shells were found in Skara Brae, Orkney, eaten 5000 years ago. It is possible our Mesolithic ancestors helped to spread, and possibly even managed hazel for tools, building and heat.
The natural growth habit of hazel means it is possible to select the exact size of stick or pole you need for a multitude of uses, particularly building works and stock management. Hazel trees may well be the main reason the ancestors could survive in North West Highlands, and would have been vital up until 100 years ago. I don’t think the ancestors could have lived here without hazel, and, indeed hazel wood is in Clachtoll broch, carbon 14 dated to around 2000 years ago and also found in the 2017 excavation. I have seen it.
In Celtic memory the hazel tree was the tree of wisdom. They believed the hazel nuts would fall from the tree into the river and be eaten by salmon, which made them clever enough to travel out to sea and find their way back. Humans eating the salmon would gain that wisdom. The spots on the salmon were evidence of their diet, they said. Hazel is also one of the nine sacred woods used to light the Beltane fire every year.
To find out more about the Assynt and Coigach project, and what the audit discovered about these very special trees do read the full report. Hundreds of hours of volunteer work went into carrying out the surveys and processing the data – a huge achievement which will help inform action to help landowners and managers to protect these trees for the future.