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Battle is raging once more across a WWII Commando training ground but this time the fight is to save spectacular remnants of ancient Caledonian pinewood.

Felling and extraction of 70,000 tonnes of non-native timber has started at Loch Arkaig Pine Forest near Spean Bridge in Lochaber. The mammoth effort will free remaining native trees to take back the site in one of the biggest Caledonian pinewood restorations ever attempted.

Woodland Trust Scotland and local group Arkaig Community Forest bought the spectacular 2,500 acre site in 2016.

Site manager Henry Dobson said: "A huge amount of preparation has been required since then to allow us to start extracting timber. The bridge over the River Arkaig had to be strengthened and the access track into Glen Mallie upgraded to accommodate the vehicles removing the timber. COVID19 delayed us by a year but we have finally reached what is a major turning point for the restoration of the site."

Loch Arkaig is one of just 84 native pinewood fragments left in Scotland. Its ancient, wide-crowned 'granny' pines were in danger of dying out without reproducing – squeezed out by non-native commercial conifers planted in the 1960s. 70,000 tonnes of mainly Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine will be removed over the next five years to allow the remaining Scots pine and other native trees to repopulate the landscape.

The project is being funded thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery Laura Chow said: "This is an exciting leap forward for this extraordinary place. I’m delighted that funding raised by our players is contributing to the comeback of the magnificent Caledonian pinewood and is helping to make sure these unique woodlands can have a thriving future."

Loch Arkaig Pine Forest comprises two blocks off woodland – Glen Mallie which can be reached via the new upgraded track, and The Gusach which is usually visited by boat. Woodland Trust Scotland plans to barge timber out over the loch from this more remote block starting in 2022.

Woodland Trust and Arkaig Community Forest bought the site in 2016 from Forest Enterprise Scotland under the National Forest Land Scheme. Their aim is to restore native woodland habitats; re-connect local people with the management and stewardship of the site; and use the woods to underpin sustainable rural development in the nearby communities of Achnacarry, Bunarkaig and Clunes.

Ten tree seed collection volunteers have been recruited for a two-year pilot project to supply seeds for direct seeding, enrichment planting, and woodland creation in and around Loch Arkaig Pine Forest. Their efforts will also support the establishment of a local tree nursery based at Clunes run by Arkaig Community Forest. All demands for local provenance seedlings will be met.

Arkaig Community Forest has also been developing a deer larder and a woodlotting scheme supplying firewood.

Ghost Pines and Fire Lichen – The World War II Legacy

British Commandos and Allied Special Forces including the Free French trained at Loch Arkaig during WWII. During exercises with live ammunition in 1942 forest fire raged across the hillside. Scots pines cooked in their own resin were preserved and still stand today. Pale in colour they have been dubbed “ghost” pines.

Scientists have discovered rare “fire” lichen growing on the stumps of trees destroyed during the war. Carbonicola anthracophila only grows on charred conifer trees and has been recorded at just three other locations in the UK: Glen Affric, Glen Quoich and Glen Strathfarrar.

Harry Potter Location

Loch Arkaig was the location for a sequence in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry, Hermione and Ron cling to a dragon as it flies above the forest before jumping off into the Loch below. Filming on the shore was cut short because the midges were too fierce!

Jacobite Treasure

According to legend, there is a buried treasure chest in the wood containing gold brought from France to support the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It was destined for Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose allies reputedly hid in the woods, but he fled before the gold reached him. Gold coins found in the forest in 1850 support this tale.

Wildlife

The forest is home to wildlife including pine marten, badger, red deer, red squirrel and wild boar. Some of the UK’s most impressive birds of prey - osprey, sea eagle and golden eagle - can be spotted swooping over the loch. An osprey nest camera streams online from March to September.

The standing deadwood is home to a wide variety of lichens and invertebrates. The azure hawker dragonfly, found only in Scotland, has been recorded in the forest. The rare chequered skipper butterfly, which is confined to this area of Scotland, is also likely to be spotted at Loch Arkaig.

Loch Arkaig is in the rainforest zone running down Scotland’s west coast. Where conditions are right the clean, warm, moist air coming in from the Atlantic supports a lush growth of lichens, mosses and liverworks under the tree canopy. The restoration of native woodland on the site will also expand rainforest habitat