Rassal Ashwood National Nature Reserve

Rassal Ashwood grows on a rare outcrop of limestone in Wester Ross.  It is the most northerly ashwood in Britain, and was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1956 for the hundreds of old ash trees and their uniquely valuable lichen flora.  The site was being grazed. So over the years fenced exclosures were put up allowing regeneration of ash, hazel, rowan and willow.  Some areas were planted with native species to speed up the process.

Early farmers did not ignore this relatively fertile site.  There are signs of past cultivation in the small, stone-cleared terraces set within wide stone walls.  They cultivated crops where the soil was deepest, and may have enhanced soil fertility by manuring.  They clearly controlled the grazing allowing the trees to regenerate on the rockier sites where cultivation was not possible.  The ash trees would have valued probably for leaf fodder, and certainly for poles and tools, as well as shelter for stock.

Rassal seems to be a historic wood pasture.  Sites similar to rassal are found in Scandinavia, and may be that the structure dates back to the Viking era.  It is now being suggested that in at least part of the site, the regenerating trees are the thinned out and cleared from the more obvious terraces to create open glades.  These will require seasonal grazing.  The plan would be to retain the character of the site and allow the stock of open-grown veteran trees with their rich oceanic lichen flora to be maintained.

Rassal is also a living example of ‘biocultural heritage’, a term used in Europe to describe features such as the old ash trees at Rassal, which have unique biological values (for example, as a habitat for rare epiphytic lichens) yet are themselves partly a product of man’s interaction with this land over the centuries.