Thursday, 16 January 2020

The need to reduce deer numbers in Scotland

Deer are not the problem. We are the problem.

That deer numbers in the Scottish hills are far too high to allow forest regeneration has been known for many decades. The extermination of predators followed by the rise of deer stalking as a leisure pursuit of the wealthy are the causes. Stalking estates require large numbers of deer for their clients. With no predators other than humans it’s up to us to control the deer population. And we’ve failed, with numbers of red deer rising steadily from an estimated 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 today. In 1955 in his  West Highland Survey the great naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, then official adviser to the Deer Commission, wrote that the optimum number might be 64,000. In the same book he also wrote “The bald unpalatable fact is emphasized that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.” 

Overgrazing by red deer is one of the main causes, perhaps the main cause, of this.
Deer didn’t destroy the forests. We did that. But deer are preventing their return because of their numbers. This is no fault of the deer. Red deer are magnificent animals. I love seeing them. But I don’t love seeing the devasted land they create. In Scotland red deer are creatures of the open hills and empty glens, but only because the forests where they would naturally live have gone. A balance is needed. Deer and forests. Deer in forests. There’s currently only one way to achieve this, sadly. Kill more deer. Fencing out deer can let some areas regenerate but not that many. Squeezing the deer into smaller and smaller areas that become increasingly damaged cannot be the answer. Fences are expensive, unsightly, a barrier to access, and damaging to wildlife and habitats. Reintroducing wolves would be the ideal solution but I can’t see this happening for many years. In the meantime it’s up to us. I strongly dislike the idea of shooting deer but I can see no other answer.

This issue has come to the fore now because of a report, Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation, compiled by eighteen conservation and recreation organisations* and published by Scottish Environment LINK that calls for major changes to the way deer are managed. The report gives ten reasons why change is needed. Apart from more trees these include healthier peatlands (trampling and grazing dry the peat), more rural jobs (landowning environmental NGOs employ five times more FTE staff per square kilometre than the commercial deer stalking estate), fewer ticks (it’s highly likely the rise in tick numbers is connected to the rise in deer numbers), and a cut in greenhouse gases (a 20 per cent reduction in deer numbers would save the carbon equivalent of around 15 million car miles on Scotland’s roads each year).

*Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Cairngorms Campaign, Froglife, John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Nourish Scotland, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Scottish Raptor Study Group, Scottish Wild Land Group, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life, Woodland Trust Scotland. Plus support from non Link members Forest Policy Group, North Harris Trust, Reforesting Scotland.

I’m a member of seven of these groups, and a Trustee of the John Muir Trust.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Colorado Rockies: More Pictures

Stuck inside with a bad cold for the last week and tired of doing my accounts (late as usual) I've been looking through my photos from last year's long walk on the Continental Divide Trail in the Colorado Rockies. Reliving a walk this way is always relaxing.I've also been reminded of the variety scenery and the changes in the weather. I'm surprised now that I stopped to take photos of some huge storms instead of racing for the nearest cover!

Here's a few more photos that caught my eye.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

35 years ago I was planning my Continental Divide Trail thru-hike

Thirety-five years ago I was preparing for the longest walk I've ever undertaken, the 3,100 mile (5,000km) Continental Divide Trail that runs from Canada to Mexico down the Rocky Mountains. In 1985 this trail was in its infancy. There was no official route, virtually no waymarking, in many places no actual trail. Although there were guidebooks to a suggested route for the first 2,000 miles (3,200km) USGS topo maps were essential for navigation and I amassed dozens of these. Of course there were no GPS units, no mapping apps, no websites, no smartphones. No digital anything.

The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Northern Montana

At the time I was writing regularly for a long-gone outdoor magazine called Footloose and I arranged to send reports, hand-written of course, during my walk, along with rolls of  transparency films, whenever I reached a town. As the publishing schedule of the monthly magazine meant contents were decided well in advance it took a while for anything to appear. I began the walk in June, the first report appeared in the September issue. I finished in November, the final report was in the February 1986 issue. A long way from updating online blogs and social media as you go along!


I can't imagine now setting out on such a walk with so little information. Or on one where I was completely out of touch for weeks at a time. The world has changed. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do walks like this before electronic digital technology came along. Of course you can still choose to do walks in this way but it's different when you don't have to. In 1985 there was no choice.

Desert camp in New Mexico

One aspect of backpacking and long-distance walking that hasn't changed is an interest in gear. I'd forgotten I also sent back reports on how my gear was performing until I looked through old copies of Footloose for this piece. From the piece to the left I see that my Rohan clothing, Svea 123 stove, Field & Trek sleeping bag, Therm-A-Rest mat, huge 125-litre Karrimor pack and New Balance shoes were all doing well. Not so my Wintergear tent whose poles were breaking - perhaps after the 70mph winds I mention! - or my Meindl boots, whose soles were coming off. I see too that I was very impressed with a Rock & Run Hipsac. Using a front pack like this has only recently come back into favour. Maybe I was ahead of my time!

Later in the year I'll be posting more photos from the trip. I just have to get round to scanning them. Until then here's one from the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, one of the toughest sections.

Friday, 10 January 2020

A New Year, A New Decade: the challenge for nature

A few trees cling to the sides of a burn, out of reach of deer. There should be a forest here.

Last year saw a sudden upsurge in concern about the intertwined problems of climate change and wildlife extinction. This is heartening but only if it leads to action. Nature is being depleted rapidly world wide. Here in Britain each State of Nature report shows a steadily worsening situation, one that has been going on for many decades. Something has to be done and we should all be involved.

I've written many pieces on conservation and rewilding over the years (links here). I think I should write more. I'll also continue to support many organisations doing what they can (another list here) and write letters and emails to politicians and businesses. It's not much but if everyone does a little ...

I'm reading Mark Cocker's excellent but rather discouraging Our Place: Can We Save Britain's Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? In it the author tells the story of nature and landscape conservation since it began in the nineteenth century. All those organisations, all those dedicated people, all those government bodies, reports, councils, acts of Parliament. And still nature declines. Was it all for nothing? Surely not, surely, sadly, it would be even worse without all that work. But clearly it was not enough.

The reasons why this is so are complex. But I think in part it lies in duplication, in the plethora of organisations and designations. And also in what Mark Cocker calls the 'great divide' between landscape protection and wildlife conservation. A healthy environment needs both. Simplifying appoaches and goals, working together on big landscape and wildlife projects, involving local people, avoiding mystification. These are all needed. And they are starting to happen. There are great opportunities.

The 2020s are before us. Let's work to make the world a better place for nature, which means a better place for us.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

My Photography in 2019: Favourite Pictures

Sunset from Meall a'Bhuachaille, Cairngorms, January. Sony NEX 7, Sony E 16-50mm @ 34mm, 1/250 @ f8, ISO 100

Last year I took 3,500 photos (not including phone ones). As always many were of gear, camps or for reference. Less than half were taken to capture a beautiful or spectacular scene. Here I'm posting my favourites of those, with technical info for anyone interested.

The Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui, February. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 42mm, 1/160 @ f8, ISO 100

My photo gear underwent one change. I finally bought a second-hand Sony E 18-135mm lens after mulling about it all 2018. It became my most used lens by far. I took it and my Sony E 10-18mm on my two long walks of the year, the TGO Challenge and the Colorado Rockies CDT, and found the combination excellent. I still used the Sony E 16-50mm on many days out and it was my second most used lens, followed by the 10-18mm then the Sony E 35mm and the Sony E 55-210mm.

Loch Avon, Cairngorms, March. Sony a6000, Sony E 10-18mm @ 10mm, 1/50 @ f8, ISO 100

Stob Coire an t-Sneahda, Cairngorms, April. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 19mm, 1/640 @ f8, ISO 100

Sunrise, Loch Beoraid, Western Highlands, May. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135 @19mm, 1/200 @ f8, ISO 100

Binnein Mor & Binnein Beag, the Mamores, May. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 42mm, 1/80@ f8, ISO 100

Mount Aetna, Colorado Rockies, August. Sony NEX 7, Sony E 18-135mm @ 50mm, 1/80 @ f8, ISO 100

Dusk, Colorado Rockies, August. Sony NEX 7, Sony E 18-135mm @ 74mm, 1/15 @ f8, ISO 400

Thunderstorm, Rio Grande Pyramid, Colorado Rockies. Sony NEX 7, Sony E 18-135mm @ 49mm, 1/320 @ f8, ISO 100

Autumn, Strathspey, October. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 135mm, 1/80 @ f8, ISO 100

Dusk, Strathspey, October. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135 @ 135mm, 1/60 @ f8, ISO 100

Snow & mist, Strathspey, November. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 51mm, 1/13 @ f8, ISO 400

Cairn Gorm rising above mist, Strathspey, November. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 135mm, 1/25 @ f8, ISO 100

Dusk, Strathspey, November. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 51mm, 1/60 @ f8, ISO 100

Mist in the forest, Strathspey, November. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 90mm, 1/13 @ f8, ISO 200

View from Carn Ban Mor, Cairngorms, November.  Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 28mm, 1/400 @ f8, ISO 100

Braeriach in the mist, Cairngorms, December. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 135mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 100

Snow forest, Strathspey, December. Sony a6000, Sony E 35mm, 1/10 @ f5.6, ISO 400
Solstice in the Cairngorms, December. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 21mm, 1/200 @ f8, ISO 100
Dusk, Cairngorms, New Year's Eve. Sony a6000, Sony E 18-135mm @ 95mm, 1/30 @ f8, ISO 100

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Farewell to 2019 with a favourite walk on Meall a'Bhuachaille

View west from the descent

The last day of the year. After a week of rain, clouds and hidden hills,  a frost and sunshine. A New Year's Eve walk. Wanting time to think and reflect a familiar favourite seemed wise. Meall a'Bhuachaille beckoned.

Frost and sun and a returning forest

Setting out I took little footpaths through the woods rather than the main track. After a very wet year the ground was sodden, the paths often deep in water, the forest floor soft and muddy, though the surface was crisp with frost. I soon retreated and joined the masses on the path from Glenmore to Ryvoan Bothy. Dogs, bicycles, children, buggies, families - the woods were alive with people, all happy, smiling, enjoying the beauty of nature. It was good to see.

Lochan Uaine

A wind rippled the surface of Lochan Uaine but in the woods it was still, the frosty air only felt when I paused. Looking up the slopes on either side I relished the regenerating forest. For thirty years I've watched the trees climb the slopes, returning the forest to its rightful place. It's one of the most heartening sights I know. I remember when there was a just a scattering of tiny saplings dotting the moorland above the old woods. Now it's a young forest. 


The bothy seemed the main destination, with many people stopping outside to eat, drink, chat and play. Once I set off up Meall a'Bhuachaille the numbers fell away. For most of the ascent I was alone. Across the gash of the Ryvoan Pass, Lochan Uaine shining far below, the brown Cairngorms rose, bereft of snow.
Cairn Gorm across the Ryvoan Pass

There were three others on the summit, sheltering from the now strong and bitter wind. Out to the west the sun was sinking, the sky turning gold and orange. I didn't linger, soon setting off down to escape the wind. My descent was slow though, due to the spectacular sunset that slowly developed in front of me.

Loch Morlich

Once the sun dropped below the Sgorans ridge the western sky became a sheet of bright colour, the distant hills etched sharp.

After sunset

I was walking in shadow, the magical world of gold and orange out of reach, always ahead, never touched. But that didn't matter. The beauty was all. Entranced I descended into the dark woods. Through the silhouettes of the trees the brilliant sky shone. A crescent moon hunger above Cairn Gorm. The world felt renewed. I felt renewed, optimistic, hopeful. A new time is beginning.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Last Online Reading List 2019. No.14.

The Cromdale Hills in late December 2019

Here's my last list of online reading I've enjoyed in 2019. This covers the last two weeks.

The Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Survey (2019)

Interesting and comprehensive annual survey.

Walking for Mental Health - Doom, Gloom and Green Shoots in the Scottish Hills

Alex Roddie goes from despair to hope in the ecologically devastated Blackmount hills.

The Deep Sea 

A fascinating and surprising scroll-down graphic showing the depths at which various creatures live.

The World's Oldest Forest Has 365-Million -Year-Old Tree Roots 

The oldest forest shows tree roots are much older than thought. Important findings and research described by Katherine J.Wu.

New Year Power Ups

Rewilding Britain lists some positive rewilding stories from 2019.

The religious case for Christmas is well known. But there’s a scientific one too

Alice Roberts says a midwinter festival reflects a real, celestial rhythm.

Werrity - a long wait for not very much

Mark Avery is disappointed in the Grouse Moor Management Group to the Scottish Government, describing it as 'an inexpert report which helps no one'.

Carbon carnage: the real cost of grouse-shooting 

Excellent description of the disastrous effects of grouse-shooting by Lisa Rausing.  

Solstice reset

David Lintern marks the solstice with a contemplative 24 hours in Glen Feshie. Illustrated as usual by his superb photographs.

Lessons from Australia – the environmental crisis, dingoes and deer!

Nick Kempe considers the environmental crisis in Australia and looks at a book showing how the environmental destruction caused by livestock farming there could be reversed, and says this has lessons for farming and re-wilding in Scotland’s National Parks.

Beaver fever – the wonderful benefits of bringing back the little people

Ben Goldsmith praises the beaver and says its return is something to celebrate.

‘Humans were not centre stage’: how ancient cave art puts us in our place

The anonymous, mysterious cave art of our ancient ancestors is exhilarating, says Barbara Ehrenreich. 


On the anniversary of John Muir’s death, a wish to see Hetch Hetchy restored 


John Muir died on December 24, 1914, a year after it was decided to drown the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, which he had campaigned to save. Barbara Mossberg says restoring Hetch Hetchy a 'wound will be healed, as the valley itself begins to re-establish its flowers and falls and flowing streams and fauna'.


History's Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin 


Mining the sea is going ahead and the negative consequences are unimaginable says Wil S. Hylton in this disturbing piece.


'Mother Nature recovers amazingly fast': reviving Ukraine's rich wetlands


Finally some optimism. Vincent Mundy shows how removing dams and bringing back native species have restored ecosystems in the Danube delta.