Photo by Mila Tovar on Unsplash

Our humble Birch, ubiquitous in Scotland’s woods, parks and gardens, is of true historical and ecological significance. Since the end of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago it was the first tree to dominate the landscape, becoming the most common native tree growing here. It is easy to believe this, too; almost all woodlands and thickets in this country are graced with the presence of these slender trunks with their whitish bark and trembling leaves. In fact Birchwood is the most common and widespread type of woodland in Scotland, making up around 100,000 hectares of woodland; no wonder it has been referred to as ‘an opportunist that rides with the wind’ (https://www.scotlandbigpicture.com/rewilding-stories/uisge-beatha).

Today there are two main types of Birch populating the landscape, Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). It is easy to tell them apart from the leaves – Downy Birch has rounder leaves than Silver and it doesn’t quite reach the height of the latter. It’s a fun exercise for the whole family to ID the Birch in your local area, especially because you are bound to be surrounded by them wherever you are! Woodlands Trust have some great resources for this, including an app that can be used for UK tree identification.

So why did the Birch prevail in the Scottish woodlands? I short, it likes the climate here; unlike other countries in Scotland it tends to live quite long for a tree its size and disposition, around 60 – 90 years. It is very tolerant of the wind, uses the sun effectively and, perhaps most importantly, it grows fast. In fact it is one of the fastest growing deciduous trees, guaranteeing it a place in the woodland where often the fight for the sun, space and nutrients is relentless.

In return for its place in our woodlands it contributes extensively to the eco-system. Birch improves the soil and supports a myriad of insects and the mycelial network. For those who forage mushrooms the Birch Bolete, for example, is a highly valued edible, growing to a generous size and sporting the distinctive orange cap. Another highly valued mushroom associated with Birch woodlands is a Chanterelle, in this writer’s opinion one of the tastiest mushrooms there is!

Tree professionals have noted the significance of these pioneering species: ‘They are deep-rooted, and their roots draw up nutrients into their branches and leaves, which the trees use for their growth. Some of these nutrients are returned to the surface of the soil each year when the leaves fall in the autumn, thereby becoming available for other organisms in the forest community. An indication of the scale and significance of this nutrient cycling can be drawn from the estimate that birch trees will produce between 3 and 4 tonnes of leaf litter per hectare per year’ (https://treesforlife.org.uk).

A Birch Bolete, photo by Sophie Dale on Unsplash

Considering the importance of Birch in Scotland it is reassuring to know that action is being taken to preserve and encourage the survival of this tree. It is known that the rising population of deer (due to increasingly mild winters) is affecting many species in the uplands, a situation that is currently being mitigated by the inclusion of Birch in the Scottish Biodiversity list. This list holds the public bodies accountable for protecting and enhancing biodiversity, which is an essential step in a country where human interference in natural habitats and woodlands is at an all-time high. In fact there is a current initiative that will use lessons learned from Norway’s efforts to repopulate its mountainous woodlands – appealing to both public bodies and individual hillwalkers the Mountain Birch Project aims to bring back Scotland’s lost ‘Birch Belt’. You can find out more here: https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/features/bringing_back_the_birch_belt_-_scotlands_lost_mountain_woodland-14025

To conclude, the importance of Birch in Scotland’s eco-system has been reflected in how people have been using this tree for survival, culture and crafts. Ever since early humans started to create fire and make things this tree has been invaluable. Birch bark is highly flammable which made it perfect for the first firelighters and torches; its sap was used to make the first ever glue, as well as the first ever chewing gum to keep the teeth clean. The tree was also tapped for its sap to drink, being a safe source of nutrition. Both the bark and the branches were used to make baskets and bags, while the bark peeled in larger bits and dried was used as paper. In fact it has been suggested that the name Birch comes from ‘bhurga’, a Sanskrit word for ‘a tree whose bark is used for writing upon’.

While Birch lacks the grandness and longevity of our other beloved trees such as a Oak and Ash its armies of black-and-white trunks have played a vital role in the Scottish landscape we see today. May it see us through until the next Ice Age!