Country diary: the spruces’ time is up

Wolfhopelee, Scottish Borders: Clear-felling has turned a patch of open tussocks fringed with trees into a quarry

Felled Sitka spruce in Wolfhopelee, Scottish Borders




Felled Sitka spruce in Wolfhopelee.
Photograph: Tom Allan

I’ve walked the forest track a thousand times, but in the flat grey of this January morning the view is unrecognisable. The first Sitka spruces were notched into the grassy Borders hill just over 40 years ago, making them almost a decade older than me. For all my life, Wolfhopelee hill – which shares its abstruse name with, and is visible from, the house I grew up in – has been covered in rows of trees. When they were smaller, adders basked along the crushed stone track, and the grassy rides remained as fragments of the old sheep-grazed landscape. As the trees grew, the rides shrank and woodland species arrived: goldcrests, siskins and the occasional red squirrel.

Felled trees in Wolfhopelee


‘This whole section of forest is being felled and will be replanted.’ Photograph: Tom Allan

Now the spruces’ time is up. This whole section of forest is being felled and will be replanted. Clear-felling is banned in Switzerland and has largely been abandoned in Germany, but is still favoured by British forest managers: it is faster and more profitable than selective felling.

I watch a contractor load logs on to his eight-wheeled forwarder, picking up giant scoops with the claw-like grab arm. Using the grab as a counterweight, he bumps over an undulating mat of twigs and broken branches to the log stack. It’s skilled work. The best lengths will be milled for construction or fencing, while thinner sections go for biomass pellets or chipboard.

The Cumbrian naturalist Derek Ratcliffe likened a clear-felled plantation to a battlefield, and this is what awaits me round the corner. I pass a forester’s caravan with a satellite dish and a sign warning me that I am on CCTV, and reach the summit. What I remember as a patch of open tussocks fringed with spruce (a favourite viewpoint) is now a quarry, the hill gouged out to remove the shale that surfaces the tracks. Otherwise there is nothing but a flattened mess of brash, with the occasional dead tree left standing, like the survivor of a wildfire.

Birds resting on a dead tree


‘There is nothing but a flattened mess of brash, with the occasional dead tree left standing, like the survivor of a wildfire.’ Photograph: Tom Allan

Then I hear a familiar sound. Through the still morning air comes the rising and falling chinking and clinking of a flock of crossbills in flight. They land in the bare branches of a dead tree and begin preening, their bodies silhouetted like miniature parrots against the grey sky.

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