Sunday, 18 February 2018

Thoughts on the Conservation and Restoration of Nature in Scotland

Gleann nam Fiadh, February 3, 2018

Walking up Gleann nam Fiadh in Glen Affric at the start of the igloo trip earlier this month (see this post) I was shocked by the state of the bulldozed track, constructed for a hydro scheme higher up the glen. The slopes for quite a distance either side of the track have been scoured of vegetation, including many young trees, leaving a muddy mess. The encouraging feeling of walking through a new woodland I remember from my last visit has gone. Back in July 2016 Mountaineering Scotland were assured ‘contractors on site are meeting planning obligations relating to protection of the environment, and that the works will be reinstated in accordance with the conditions of planning permission once complete’. Well, the obligations must be pretty minimal given the damage and I wonder when the reinstatement will take place. Update. Paul Webster of Walk Highlands says he thinks this is the reinstated track. In which case I'm truly shocked!

Earlier in 2016 Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, which has done much forest restoration work in the area wrote, in his blogI find it hard to comprehend that a small-scale hydro scheme is even contemplated for this watercourse. It’s in the heart of the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve(NNR), which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Natura 2000 scheme and a National Scenic Area (NSA). It’s one of the most designated areas of land in Scotland! Glen Affric is often cited as being the ‘crown jewels’ of the National Nature Reserve system, and is supposed to be managed for the ‘primacy of nature’. If it can’t be protected from industrial energy extraction, what hope is there for any area in Scotland?” A good question and one that needs answering.

Woodland on the slopes of Quinag, owned by the John Muir Trust

Whilst the Gleann nam Fiadh track is depressing there is much that is positive in the conservation and restoration of nature in the Scottish hills and elsewhere in Britain. Not enough certainly but looking at what is being done can counter the feelings of despair when more damage occurs. It can also encourage a desire to help protect what is left and restore what we can. Public pressure is what counts here. I doubt many politicians would do much without it (there are a few who would, perhaps). It’s easy to think that one person can’t do anything and that signing petitions, sharing and commenting on posts on social media, and writing to representatives achieves nothing. However any effect from these actions is cumulative. If enough people take part then sometimes a momentum can build towards something happening. The alternative is to give up.

As well as taking part in these activities joining and supporting conservation organisations can make a difference. It’s not just the membership fee, though funds are always in short supply, it’s also the numbers. The more members a body has the more notice is likely to be taken by those in power. 

The returning forest in the Pass of Ryvoan
So what positives are happening? I think the slow spread of natural forest regeneration is the prime one. Every time I walk through the Pass of Ryvoan or through Glen Feshie and see the young trees spreading up the hillside and poking up through the heather I feel uplifted. From Abernethy to Knoydart, Carrifran to Quinag, trees are returning and with them much richer flora and fauna. This is being done by various conservation organisations such as the John Muir Trust, RSPB, Trees for Life, and the Borders Forest Trust, in some places by Forestry Commission Scotland, and by enlightened private landowners. One of the last, Lisbet Rausing, wrote an excellent post for the Scottish Wildlife Trust recently on the work being done on the Corrour Estate. 

The reintroduction of wildlife is equally important. That beavers are returning to the rivers is wonderful. The success of the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles and red kites is also greatly heartening. Hopefully other species will follow. I doubt we’ll see wolves in my lifetime, though I think they will be back eventually. Lynx are much more likely. The spread of previously persecuted species like red squirrels and pine martens is also very welcome. Places are not wild without wildlife.

Red Squirrel

Wildlife diversity and habitat restoration of course go together. Each enhances and helps the other. The big obstacle to forest and hill flora recovery in the hills is over grazing, mainly by domestic sheep in the Southern Uplands, mainly by red deer in the Highlands, which are at unnaturally high numbers as there are no natural predators. This means control has to be done by us – either by fencing or culling. Fencing results in blocks of restored land and breaks the continuity of wild land essential for wildlife. It may be temporarily necessary in some places but I think reducing grazing pressure is the answer in the long term. I don’t like the idea of shooting deer but it’s the only way currently to reduce numbers to less damaging numbers.

A large herd of red deer in the Fannichs

I also view the growth of campaigning by organisations and individuals on conservation issues as a positive. Again, it’s the numbers. More people, more pressure. To that end below I’ve listed those whose words and work I think worth reading and sharing. They are all on social media and post on Twitter, Facebook and more.

Wind turbines on the Southern Upland Way

And the negatives? Wind farms and hydro schemes in the wrong place (anywhere wild land is damaged), bulldozed roads in the hills, overgrazing, raptor persecution, grouse moor industrialisation, golf courses and new towns on wild land. There’s much to campaign against.

Website & Organisation Links

John Muir Trust. Campaigning for wild land and named for the great conservationist regarded as the ‘father of the national parks’ in the USA. The JMT owns land where restoration is taking place in the Highlands and on Skye, and is now managing the Glenridding Estate in the Lake District. I'm currently a Trustee of the JMT.

Scottish WildlifeTrust. Owns several estates and campaigns for wildlife.
MountaineeringScotland. Representative body for mountaineers, does much good work on access and conservation.

RSPB. The biggest wildlife conservation body. Owns some big estates including Abernethy, the largest nature reserve in the UK.

National Trust forScotland. Owns much wild land including the Mar Lodge estate in the Cairngorms, Glencoe, Torridon and Kintail.

Ramblers Scotland.Walkers organisation that does valuable work on access and conservation.

The Big Picture. Photographers group campaigning for rewilding.

Raptor Persecution UK. Campaigns for raptors and posts detailed information and analysis on raptor persecution.

Parkswatch Scotland. Incisive and trenchant detailed comment and criticism on Scotland’s two national parks.

Trees for Life.  Dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest.

Mark Avery. Very active campaigner for wildlife.

Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels. As the name suggests!

Scottish Wild Land Group. Works to protect and enhance Scotland's wild land.

Border Forest Trust.  Works to restore native woodland in Southern Scotland.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Celebrating the Lives of Two Very Different Figures: Charles Darwin & Nan Shepherd

Today is the anniversary of  the birth of Charles Darwin, born early in the nineteenth century in 1809. Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Nan Shepherd, born late in the nineteenth century in 1893. Two very different people whose key works - On the Origin of Species and The Living Mountain - have influenced me greatly. Darwin of course changed the whole world. Shepherd's influence is much smaller, though growing, but her words are just as important to me.

Whilst the English scientist and the Scottish writer may not seem to have much in common I think what they shared was a profound understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Just consider these two quotations.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”. Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. 

"Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain – eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. The reason for their swiftness is severely practical: food is so scarce up here that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity.” Nan Shepherd. The Living Mountain.

I wrote much more about Darwin's importance to me in this piece nine years ago. I haven't yet written much about Nan Shepherd. I must remedy that this year.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Great Outdoors March Issue: winter sleeping bags, a visit to Komperdell, slope angle measurer

The March issue of The Great Outdoors is in the shops now. In it I review a dozen cold weather sleeping bags and the Slope Angel measuring device plus describe last autumn's visit to Komperdell in Austria. Also in the gear pages Judy Armstrong looks at three pairs of winter boots at different price points.

The theme of this issue is winter in the Highlands, very appropriate this year as snow conditions have been wonderful and look like continuing so for some time. Alan Rowan has a challenging stormy day on Creag Meagaidh, David Lintern visits two lesser known Glencoe hills, and Cameron McNeish talks about the pleasures of the winter hills in an extract from his new book There's Always the Hills. These mouth-watering winter pieces finish off with a glorious photo-essay on Glen Affric by Damian Shields.

Away from Scotland Hanna Lindon interviews mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick, Roger Smith looks at the UK government's environment plan, Jim Perrin celebrates Arenig Fawr in Snowdonia, Stephen Goodwin describes a winter circuit of Bowfell and Crinkle Crags in an excerpt from his new book Winter Walks In The Lake District, Laurence McJannet has a slow adventure on the Coleridge Way in the Quantocks, and Ed Byrne scares himself on the Honister Slate Mine via ferrata.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Igloos in Glen Affric and a magical winter mountain day

For several years the Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club has held an igloo building weekend early in the year. This year the meet was held in Glen Affric. Due to a good forecast I decided to go a day early, hoping to have a fine winter camp under starry skies. It was not to be. I drove to Glen Affric under leaden skies, walked in on a slushy, muddy track and camped amongst young pines on wet snow. During the night it rained, heavily. Walking back down the track to meet the others early the next morning under a dark sky I was contemplating going home. I was to be very glad I didn’t.

In the spindrift

The eagerness of the rest of the party to get up into the hills and build igloos shook me out of my rather gloomy mood – a mood made worse by the appalling state of the bulldozed hydro works track up Gleann nam Fiadh. Once we were climbing into appropriately named Coire an t-Sneachda – the corrie of the snows – I was looking forward to the day despite the still overcast sky and an increasingly cold wind.

Igloo building
On the side of the corrie at around 730 metres we found a good site for the igloos. The snow here was at least two metres deep. As there were seven of us we decided to build two igloos and out came two of Grand Shelters wonderful IceBox igloo building tools, one of my favourite pieces of gear and one that really is unique. The cold wind and frequent blasts of spindrift kept us going and the igloos were complete in around four hours, quite a good time, especially when some people had never built one before. Inside we were soon warm and comfortable and cooking our meals. 


Dawn came with a hint of red in the sky though still much cloud. This quickly cleared and the sky turned blue. The wind dropped and stoves and breakfast were taken outside, a rare occurrence in the Highlands in winter.

Three of us decided to head up Toll Creagach, some 320 metres above the igloos. This Munro isn’t particularly distinctive but it is a grand viewpoint and at its best when under snow. On this day the vista was superb with snowy hills rising sharp and clear above brown glens. Under the deep blue sky the feeling was alpine. The sun was warm too and there was no need for hats, gloves or jackets on the summit. 

Toll Creagach
I wandered the extensive summit area revelling in the mountains, the colours, the brightness. For once the winter hills felt friendly and welcoming. There was a peaceful air and a sense of wild beauty.

Ben Nevis from Toll Creagach

Eventually we had to depart and return to the igloos. I was on snowshoes and simply walked straight back down. The others had skis and swept back and forth across the slopes, reaching the igloos a fair while before me – they had the stove on for a brew by the time I arrived. 

Skiing down
Before departing we climbed onto one of the igloos using an ice axe as a foothold, the only time one was used. Then we packed our gear, said farewell to the igloos, and headed down in the sunshine, arriving back in Glen Affric at dusk. It had been a magical day, a glorious day of mountain perfection. What a privilege to have been there.

View across Loch Mullardoch

The igloos

Thanks to Andy Ince of IBSC for organising the meet and to Andy and the other igloo builders for making it a great trip.