Thursday, 6 August 2020

Book Review: Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker

My much-thumbed copy, complete with coffee stains

Wildlife and conservation organisations have huge memberships. We are often described as a nation of animal lovers. Yet the natural world is in serious decline. Mark Cocker asks why this is and what can be done about in this important book.

Much of the book tells the story of organisations like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, campaigns successful and unsuccessful (especially Cow Green Reservoir and the Flow Country), plus the government bureaucracies set up to look after 'nature'. Small local successes exist but overall the story is of big failures. Too many committes, too much rivalry, too many acronyms, too many designations. And a big split, the 'Great Divide', between landscape conservation and nature protection, as if these were unconnected. But these organisations, however big, were unable to combat the devastation of the environment "largely through the instrument of farming and forestry policies".

The book isn't just a requiem for what is lost however. Mark Cocker looks at the core of the problems and the radical change in attitudes needed for change. "Ecological thinking entails that we see ourselves within nature, and that we understand everything we do has ecological consequences. We can, in truth, never escape nature." (Italics are the author's).

The tangle of designations, says Cocker, "have constructed a barrier to the general public's understanding of nature and of environmental activity". He calls for just one name. The same, he argues, applie to organisations. "The most important single measure to improve all environmental effort would be to forge genuine systemic unity among all parts" - an "NEU - National Environmentalists' Union".

This is a thought-provoking book packed with facts and ideas and well worth reading by anyone concerned with the future of nature in Britain, our future in fact.

Monday, 3 August 2020

Along the Yukon River & through the Klondike Goldfields. Stage 4 of my Yukon walk, July 13 - August 3, 1990

Beyond the little settlement of Carmacks (see my last Yukon post) I would not cross a road or pass through a village or town for twenty-two days. Yet during this long remote section of the walk I met more people than on any other. This was because for half the time I followed the Yukon River, down which a procession of canoes and small boats drifted and paddled, pulling into the bank to camp, and for much of the second half I was in the Klondike goldfields where there are still miners working.

I was still alone most of the time though, only camping with others on a few nights. The river is the way to travel here. I met no-one else on foot. I could see why. The land is forested and gently rolling. I could walk all day and see little change. The walking was tough at times too. There were paths and old tracks in places but sometimes I was bushwhacking through dense spruce forest.

This forest was beautiful in a soft, subtle way though, and there was much wildlife. That included bears. I never saw one but I saw plenty of signs such as droppings and tracks. I made sure to cook and eat well away from my tent and to hang my food in the trees, though few of these had branches long enough to stop a determined bear. Usually I set my kitchen up by the river, my bedroom back in the woods.

The first half of the walk was hot, very hot, with temperatures in the 30s Celsius every day. Even in the shade of the trees I sweated continuously. At dawn and dusk there were mosquitoes. Drifting down the river did seem appealing.

After a week I arrived at the abandoned settlement of Fort Selkirk, which was being restored as a historic site. Here was where I was meeting the Youcon Kat tour boat, which was bringing my supplies from Whitehorse. I was two days early however so had time to relax, watch the river, and talk to people. I laid out my gear and photographed it. An awful lot, I thought. It was.

My pack was about to get much heavier though. The Youcon Kat arrived. I unloaded my food box. I had packed enough food for fifteen days. I knew I'd need it but I wasn't looking forward to carrying it all.

At Fort Selkirk I left the Yukon River, having been advised that following it would be difficult. The alternative route wasn't easy at first though, with more dense forest to negotiate and several rivers to cross. After six days the first signs of the Klondike began to appear. Ruined cabins in the trees. Old roads. Then blasted terrain. Working gold mines. The romance of the 1890s exists in the tourist area around Dawson City. Beyond it is the reality of an environmentally highly damaging process, the land stripped bare, great gouges hacked out of the earth.

I was relieved to reach Dawson. I had a bad cold, which didn't help my feelings in the goldfields. I was tired too. From here I would be back in the mountains. But first I needed a rest.

I wrote a book about the walk. It’s long out of print but I expect there are second-hand copies around.

Photographic Note: I carried two SLRs, the Nikon F801 and FM2, plus Nikkor 35-70, Nikkor 24mm,and Sigma 70-210 lenses, plus a Cullman tripod. Films were Fujichrome 50 and 100 slide ones. The total weight with padded cases was 4kg. To digitise the slides I photographed them on a lightbox with my Sony a6000 with a Sony E 30mm macro lens.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

What's in name? Wild camping, backpacking, backcountry camping, bivouacking ......

Walk into the wilds with your camping gear on your back, pitch your tent, sleep, pack your tent, move on. What are you doing? Backpacking, wild camping, or something else? The name shouldn’t really matter, it’s the activity that counts. The name is just a convenient label, shorthand to describe what you do quickly so others understand. The name becomes a symbol of identity too. It joins you to a tribe. With others using this name you can make assumptions, share experiences, use words that may mean nothing to those outside the group. 

In the last few decades wild camping has become a common description to describe those of us who camp in the hills, in wild places, having carried everything in on our backs. Much more recently wild camping has been used by the mass media to describe roadside camping outwith campsites, sometime not even in tents but in campervans. In particular it’s used to describe those who leave litter including discarded tents and other gear, light fires, hack branches off trees and generally cause mess and damage.

Unsurprisingly there have been strong objections to this recent use of wild camping. People don’t want their style of wild camping with its philosophy of leave no trace sullied by association with campers who leave a mess. People are concerned too that if wild camping gets a bad reputation in general then there may be restrictions placed upon it that will affect everyone. 

To address these concerns there have been suggestions for a name change for wild camping or a new name for those causing problems. For wild camping ‘bivouacking’, ‘lightweight camping’ and ‘leave no trace camping’ have been suggested. I don’t think these will catch on. In the UK the first usually means sleeping out without a tent (in some countries it does include using a tent, as long as it’s not tall enough to stand up in). The other two are not, I think, specific enough. Wild camping is, I suspect, here to stay. The mass media is slow to change. As to changing the name for the campers who leave a mess all the ones I’ve seen are pejorative – ‘dirty campers’ and similar. I don’t think this would be helpful. There are likely to be many of these campers who simply don’t know what they should be doing. Education and help can achieve changes in behaviour. Insults are unlikely to do this.

For myself, I’d be quite happy to go back to backpacking to describe the activity. When I started out in the early 1970s there wasn’t a word in the UK for it. I went fellwalking and camping. Then the word backpacking was imported from the USA, where it was used to distinguish those who carried all their gear on their backs from those who used pack animals. The first books I bought on the subject all had backpacking or backpacker in the title. The Backpacker’s Club was formed and there were backpacking columns in camping magazines (there were no walking magazines). I had a name and a tribe. That continued through the 1980s and early 90s. My first three books all had backpacking or backpacker in their titles.

Then the mass media began to use the word to mean “a form of low-cost, independent travel, often staying in inexpensive lodgings and carrying all necessary possessions in a backpack” (Wikipedia definition) and I had to get used to being misunderstood when I used the word outside outdoor circles, except in the USA where it still meant the same. Around the same time ‘wild camping’ came into being, to describe what backpacking used to mean. And now ‘wild camping’ is changing meaning too. Damned awkward thing language. It just won’t stay still. 

Backpacking in its original meaning has been subdivided by proponents into traditional, lightweight, and ultralight backpacking. All these refer to the weight of equipment carried. The activity remains the same. I wrote about these labels here. Then there is thru-hiking, which means backpacking a multi-day route, usually a trail, to distinguish it from weekend backpacking. It’s also a relatively new description and didn’t exist when I began hiking long-distances. I was a thru-hiker before the term existed!

Possible alternatives to wild camping could be borrowed from North America just as backpacking was. Frontcountry camping and backcountry camping make sense. Backcountry has been taken up by ski tourers here to distinguish themselves from resort skiers. Perhaps wild camping could become backcountry camping and roadside camping frontcountry camping. Perhaps.

Whatever the name good practice, which means minimum impact camping, is essential and I think all of us who go out and camp in wild places should not only do this but should show we do it, both to set an example and to let those who might want to restrict our activity know that the majority of us are responsible.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Poisoned eagle in the Cairngorms National Park. Please write to the Scottish Government

A grouse moor in the Eastern Highlands

A young white-tailed eagle has been killed by poisoning on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park, the latest in a series of deaths and disappearances of birds of prey on or near grouse moors. (see Raptor Persecution UK). This is a disgrace and has rightly caused a big stir on social media.

This latest case makes a mockery of the National Park designation. I have to say I'm not surprised though. There are areas of the park and the Eastern Highlands I won't visit again as they are wildlife deserts with bulldozed roads, animal traps, and ugly muirburn. Their sole purpose is to ensure there are large numbers of grouse for a few people to enjoy killing.

Nothing seems to be done to curb the wildlife slaughter on these industrialised grouse moors. It's time that changed (my view is that driven grouse shooting should be banned). One way to do this is to put pressure on the Scottish government and I urge everyone concerned to email the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Environment Cabinet Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham.

Many people have already sent emails and the progress of the campaign can be followed on Raptor Persecution UK.

Thank You

I'd like to give a huge thank you to all those who've supported my blog with donations. I really appreciate this. 

I love doing this blog but it does require time and effort that could be spent on paid work. The blog will always be free but your donations do make a big difference. Thank you again.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Camping in the Lake District in the long hot summer of 1976

In Hollow Stones

As the rain continues to beat down outside I've been sorting through more old photos and came across some from a very different summer, one where it was dry for week after week after week. 1976. I made several trips to the Lake District, alone and with friends, walking and camping in the fells. The heat made for an indolent relaxing idyllic time, ambling to the tops, relaxing in the sun. A summer like no other.

Near Bleaberry Tarn with Crummock Water far below

My pictures, taken on an old point-and-shoot Instamatic, are soft and grainy and the colours have faded. They do bring back that glorious summer for me though.

A rare cloud! Great Gable from Lingmell

Bowfell Links from Three Tarns

Scafell Crag from Lingmell. My pack is on the right - Camp Trails Ponderosa bag on a Camp Trails Astral Cruiser external frame

Hollow Stones

Monday, 27 July 2020

The camping problem, nature and wild land: a perspective

The problems of so-called wild camping that I wrote about a month ago have not eased. The media is still full of stories and pictures of trashed campsites, abandoned gear, and damage to the environment. Whatever you call it (I’ll write another post about that) this type of camping is anti-social, unpleasant and upsetting. Maybe some of the perpetrators are doing it out of ignorance and could be educated. Some undoubtedly don’t care.

What I want to do here though is put all this in the context of conserving and restoring nature and wild land. Yes, this vandalism does do damage, especially when tree branches are hacked off and campfires are burnt into the ground. Clearing up the mess creates chores for rangers who could be doing other work. Trees take time to recover. But fire rings can be erased, and litter collected. The areas with these problems are not large, but they are very visible as they’re usually next to roads and often in popular beauty spots. Overall, the damage caused is limited. Of course, it’s to be condemned and everything possible should be done to reduce it (I don’t think complete prevention is possible) but in the overall picture of what is happening to wild land it’s not one of the big problems.

Let’s take campfires for a start. Mostly these create a small patch of burnt ground and perhaps some damage to nearby trees. Very occasionally one gets out of control and devastates a larger area, which is terrible. Certainly, such campfires should be banned and people heavily discouraged from lighting them. But far greater damage is caused by heather burning on grouse moors, which takes place on vast areas of high ground every year, killing wildlife and creating an ugly monoculture. Animals and birds can be killed by litter that isn’t cleared up, which again is terrible. But thousands are killed deliberately on those same grouse moors, all so a few people can blast small birds out of the sky. The devastated landscape of a driven grouse moor is vastly more damaging than some roadside campers leaving rubbish behind. (See Raptor Persecution UK and Mark Avery’s Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands).  

Those grouse moors mean roads too, bulldozed across the hills. In recent years there has been an increase in these and an increase in their size. I’m reminded of the late Edward Abbey who said about chucking his beer cans out of the car window “after all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.”. Now  I wouldn’t do that myself or condone anyone else doing so but I think the point he’s making is right. Roads into wild areas are ugly, damaging, and bring problems with them. (This is a good essay on Abbey and roads and beer cans). 

Then there’s over-grazing, monoculture spruce plantations, wind farms and hydro plants. The first two lead to biological deserts with little wildlife and poor vegetation. (For overgrazing see this report from Scottish Environment LINK, for plantations see this piece from the Scottish Wildlife Trust). 

When I walked through the Southern Uplands on my Scottish Watershed walk I was dismayed at how little wildlife there was, most of the hills consisting of sheep pasture interspersed with plantations and the occasional wind farm. Wind farms and hydro plants bring roads and further damage, both visually and to the land. Glen Etive is one of the areas that has suffered from inconsiderate roadside campers. However they’ve had minimal effect compared to the damage that will be done by planned hydro developments (see Save Glen Etive).

Industrialising wild places is the big threat, not roadside camping.