Friday 30 May 2014

The Devastation of the Eastern Highlands

The summit of Tampie at 723 metres. All photos taken May 2014.

Roads, fences, gates, burnt heather. A savaged, stripped, blasted land. That’s the Eastern Highlands, beyond Mount Keen. Walking through these hills on the TGO Challenge recently was a depressing experience. Nowhere else in the Highlands have I seen such devastation and destruction. And all in the name of grouse shooting and deer stalking, all so that a few wealthy people can spend a few weeks a year killing birds and animals for fun without having to make any effort or suffer any discomfort. 

These hills have been damaged by the shooting industry for many decades now with regular heather burning and bulldozed roads but recent developments have taken this destruction to a new level. There are many new roads, not just bulldozed but built up, raised above the peat bogs on hard foundations, roads I could drive my car along. And with the roads there are miles of fences. These are often double, one of the pair being electrified. Many are tall deer fences. Beside them run the rusting posts of the first fences, erected in Victorian times when these hills first became so-called ‘sporting’ estates. There are gates too – massive metal ones big enough to allow trucks through with side gates for walkers. These roads and fences run over summits and along ridge crests, often at over 700 metres. Surrounding them are the neat rectangles of burnt heather, creating a dowdy, unnatural, patchwork quilt effect. There are buildings for shelter too. In one place metal steps led from the road to a wooden-floored grouse butt so the shooter wouldn’t even have to touch the ground with their shoes. Can’t get those green wellies muddy.

Old fence posts, new fences

Walking through this ravaged landscape I saw little wildlife. There weren’t even many grouse. I did see a few mountain hares – one of them lying dead beside the road – and some golden plover, whose lonely sad piping seemed very appropriate, plus a few crows. There were traps though – cage traps and spring traps – and notices from estates explaining these were legal and were to keep fox and crow numbers down to protect ground-nesting  birds (for which read grouse) – though some I saw were too small for foxes and looked more designed to catch stoats. One notice said the estate was installing CCTV because people were damaging their traps. Other notices explained that deer stalking was necessary to protect the forest. I didn’t see a sign of a tree above the fenced forests in the glens, nor even a bush. This landscape is like this to make grouse and deer shooting easy and for no other reason.

Grouse shooting has become an issue due to the strange coincidence that the areas where raptors are rare or non-existent happen to be the same as grouse moors – though of course the estates protest that this is nothing to do with them and they love raptors. In England there is now a petition calling for driven grouse shooting to be banned in order to protect hen harriers. The petition says ‘intensive management of upland areas for the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting has led to the near-extinction of the protected Hen Harrier in England, as well as increased risk of flooding, discolouration of drinking water, degradation of peatbogs and impacts on other wildlife.’

George Monbiot, author of the excellent book on rewilding Feral (see my take on it here), has also written about the state of parts of the Highlands recently in his usual provocative style. In an essay entitled Highland Spring he writes ‘it is astonishing, in the 21st Century, that people are still allowed to burn mountainsides – destroying their vegetation, roasting their wildlife, vapourising their carbon, creating a telluric eczema of sepia and grey blotches – for any purpose, let alone blasting highland chickens out of the air.’ 

That people are allowed to do this, and allowed to build roads and put up fences and gates, is astonishing. No planning permission is required as it comes under the heading of ‘agricultural purposes’, which is a joke of course. As a report issued last autumn said these tracks should come under planning control (see this post from last December). Until then keeping up the pressure for change – letters, emails to politicians and the media, posts in blogs and on social media – is needed. The situation is deteriorating in too many areas. Something must be done. Wild land coming under new planning regulations should be the answer but this hasn’t happened yet.

If protection can be gained for these destroyed areas the next task will be restoration. They are beyond the stage where they can be left to recover. Roads and fences need removing before this can happen.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

The Great Outdoors June Issue: Keeping Notes, Camp Site Selection, Waterproof Jackets and a Tent Review

Camp high in the Monadh Liath on this year's TGO Challenge - there was just enough flat dry ground for two shelters.

The June edition of The Great Outdoors is just out. My backpacking column is about the pleasures of keeping notes on walks. This came out of reading my Pacific Crest Trail journals for the first time in many years for my book on that walk and a photo of pages of these journals illustrates the column. In the Hill Skills section I give some suggestions on finding good wild camp sites, a skill that was tested on the TGO Challenge this year as so much of the ground was sodden from snowmelt and recent heavy rain. On the first day of the walk I did think my companion Tony Hobbs might have doubted my abilities in this area when no dry site appeared in the glen I'd chosen and we ended up walking 32km instead of the planned 21!

Also on the TGO Challenge I used the waterproof jacket that I've given Best Buy to in a review of eleven recent garments. There was some heavy rain at times and the jacket did prove excellent. Also in the gear pages is my review of the Nordisk Telemark 2 ULW, which featured in a dramatic trip earlier in the year, which I posted about here.

Elsewhere in gear Daniel Neilson tests eighteen lightweight softshell jackets and there's a piece on the new OutdoorGearCoach initiative, in which I'm involved. 

The issue starts with the now usual striking double-page photos. Particularly stunning is Dave Newbould's pre-dawn picture from Y Garn of Tryfan and Moel Famau rising above a sea of mist. Fitting in with this is a feature on scrambling in Snowdonia by Hanna Lindon. And for those who've never done any scrambling there's advice in the Hill Skills section from Jon Jones, Head of Mountaineering at Glenmore Lodge.

More superb photography appears in David Lintern's feature on the Bridge of Orchy hills and the Tigh Nam Bodach. Elsewhere in this issue Ed Byrne tries sea cliff climbing; Tanya Oliver finds freedom after completing the 214 hills in Wainwright's guidebooks; Alan Rowan has a strange encounter above Glen Quoich in an excerpt from his book Moonwalker; Carey Davies experiences the unique challenges of walking in Palestine; Roger Smith considers the sale of Blencathra and reviews the very interesting sounding Reading the Gaelic Landscape by John Murray (I must get a copy); and Jim Perrin likes On Foot In Devon, a little-known book by Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson;

Tuesday 27 May 2014

TGO Challenge 14: The Final Days


Morning in Ballater came with hot sunshine and a clear sky. The River Dee sparkled as I left the town for the long climb to Mount Keen, the most easterly Munro. However as I gained height I came into a cold south-east wind that took the warmth from the sun and had me donning my windproof jacket. High thin clouds began to drift across the sky too, turning the sun into a hazy white ball. To the west Lochnagar was still shining under a blue sky but eastwards the sky was darker and the land less bright. And east was my direction.

The River Dee at Ballater

From the summit of Mount Keen, which gave extensive views over rolling moorland hills with a western backdrop of snow-streaked steeper and higher mountains, I followed sketchy paths over a series of lower heathery tops – Braid Cairn, Naked Hill, Hill of Gairney, Cock Cairn – before camping in a narrow col below the last where there was just room to pitch my shelter on some tussocky grass between steep heather slopes. These hills are heavily managed for grouse shooting with many areas of burnt heather and many new bulldozed roads but from this site I could see little of this and it felt quite wild.
Camp below Cock Cairn

The following day the damage done by what appears to be an attempt to so sanitise the experience of grouse shooting that those involved need never feel they are outdoors or in the hills at all (at one point metal steps led up to a wooden-floored grouse butt so the user need never tread on the actual ground) was much more extensive with new raised roads everywhere – roads along which I could drive my Ford Fiesta. There are buildings too, presumably so people can stay inside if the weather should dare to be inclement. And also fences, many fences. Double fences, electric fences, deer fences. There are gates in the fences – big metal gates, wide enough for lorries to drive through, with side gates for walkers. There’s one of these gates right across the summit of 723 metre Tempie. I escaped these developments briefly on the greener slopes of Mount Battock, on the summit of which I met three other Challengers and four day walks – the most people on any top, but they could be seen all around.

Mount Battock
From Mount Battock I continued over more grouse moorland, mostly on new roads, to the distinctive tor on Clachnaben, the last summit on the walk. After the brief easy scramble up the tor, which resembles those of the high Cairngorms away to the west, I finally left the hills to descend through some lovely mixed woodland to the Water of Dye and the less attractive commercial Fetteresso Forest plantations. Looking back to Clachnaben I could see the sun splitting the sky over the summit, with dark clouds to the north and blue sky to the south. The clouds appeared to be winning.

I knew that a wind farm was being constructed in the heart of the forest but I hadn’t realised just how vast an area it covered. The wind farm isn’t on the maps yet and the forest tracks marked have been obliterated, along with the trees. For the only time on the walk GPS was useful, for finding a way through the maze of new roads. The clouds were thick and low now, with the turbines disappearing into them, and the north wind was cold. Finally escaping the turbines and back in the trees I had a last camp on a cut line in the forest, a pleasant grassy site with no roads or turbines in view.

View from the last camp
I woke the last morning to mist drifting in the tree tops and drizzle pattering on my shelter. As I set off the last turned to steady rain and I was soon exposed to the strong and cold north wind. This lowland walk to the coast turned out the coldest and wettest day of the whole walk so I was relieved to finally reach Stonehaven and the comfort of a café. My 15th TGO Challenge was over.

There was of course still the matter of catching the train to Montrose, checking in and collecting another t-shirt, certificate and badge, chatting to other Challengers and attending the big dinner in the Park Hotel. Here I was privileged to sit next to Roger Smith, editor of The Great Outdoors when the Challenge began and the man who ran it for many years. Roger and I reminisced about previous Challenges and how it had changed from that first one 35 years ago when just 60 of us had set off. We are both somewhat astonished  - and pleased - at how the event has lasted and how successful it has become.

Monday 19 May 2014

TGO Challenge Update

Eleven days of the 2014 TGO Challenge have passed and there are just three to go. This has been a Challenge of contrasts. For the first time in many years I set off with a companion, Tony Hobbs, who accompanied me from Plockton by way of the thunderous rain and snowmelt filled Falls of Glomach,  the beautiful forests of Glen  Affric, the canal town of Fort Augustus, and the now sadly road-threaded Monadhliath, to a finale on his first Munro, Carn Dearg, before descending to Newtonmore. This had been Tony's longest backpack in both distance and time and his first in the Highlands. Unfortunately he came down with a cold and sore throat in Newtonmore and decided it would be unwise to venture on into the Cairngorms.
Unexpectedly alone I headed for Glen Feshie and then the vast Moine Mhor on the sunniest day of the walk so far. And also the windiest. Some gusts sent me staggering sideways. Without trekking poles I'd have been flat in the peat bogs. The next  day the winds eased a little but the clouds returned and with them the rain. After three stormy summits I stayed low, curling round the mountains to a lovely camp in the Glen Derry pinewoods. From there a linking of passes and glens and one cloud - shrouded hill led here to Ballater.

Whilst the big views have been mostly absent in the cloud and haze the walk has had other rewards. Water in rivers, burns and falls has been a dominant feature, rushing and roaring and sparkling. Birds and flowers and fresh-leaved trees have made nature feel prolific and bountiful, even in the over - grazed, over-burned, over-managed Monadhliath and Eastern Cairngorms. A big dark golden eagle flying low over peat hags, sandpipers calling shrill by burns, lapwings wheeling over meadows, bubbling curlews, croaking ptarmigan, repetitive cuckoos - the birds give life to the land.
The unsettled weather is forecast to continue and with it my unsettled plans.

The picture shows my camp beside the Allt an t-Sodhail after the windy day on the Moine Mhor.

Thursday 8 May 2014

The Great Outdoors Challenge 2014 - Ready To Go

Maps printed, food sorted, pack packed (just!) - I'm ready to head off later today for Plockton and the start of my 15th TGO Challenge and the 35th Challenge in total (and I was on the first!). 

For the first time in many years I'm not going alone but will be with Tony Hobbs on his first ever Challenge. Indeed, his first ever backpacking trip in the Scottish Highlands. I've planned what I think is a scenic route showing some of the best the Highlands have to offer. I hope Tony agrees. There's quite a few summits involved - whether we climb those will partly depend on the weather.

As has been the norm in recent years the forecast for the first few days is for rain, more rain and wind plus snow and sleet on the summits. But it doesn't sound as savage as on the last Challenge I did two years ago (see this post). As usual I have a fair bit of gear to test, including a waterproof jacket - I should soon find out if it's as good as it looks - plus pack and sleeping bag.

En route I hope to post updates when I can find some wi-fi - here if I can and also on Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday 4 May 2014

The Great Outdoors Backpacking Special: Scottish Watershed, History & Future of Lightweight Gear, Linking the Lairigs, Cookware

On the Pacific Northwest Trail
The Spring issue of The Great Outdoors is out now and it's all about backpacking. It's a big thick issue too - 180 pages. I've contributed pieces on my Scottish Watershed walk, lightweight gear, cookware, my recent Cairngorms Linking the Lairigs backpack, and stoves and fuel for backpacking. I also answered some questions on backpacking along with Keith Foskett, Lorraine McCall (currently linking all the Corbetts in one walk -she also describes the gear she's using), Andrew Skurka, Leon McCarron and Colin Ibbotson.

Also on the backpacking theme there's a look at ten top British backpacking routes and ten top worldwide backpacking routes; Ed Curwen walks Wainwright's Coast-to-Coast; Mark Waring hikes 1000 miles through the Swedish mountains; John Manning does the Kerry Way in Ireland; Emily Rodway talks to Roger Foreman about his marathon backpack along all of Britain's national trails in a year and Markus Petter about his circular Wester Ross Trail; advice on backpacking gear care; John Manning bravely spends three weeks living on specialist backpacking meals; and David Lintern goes backpacking on the island of Rum.

Away from backpacking Alan Rowan, author of the new book Moonwalker, picks six Scottish mountains for moonlit ascents; Ian Battersby tries bikepacking; Carey Davies looks at limestone and the landscape it creates; Roger Smith considers environmental stories including the latest climate change report and Jim Perrin recommends the anthology The Mountains of Wales and reviews Jim Crumley's new book The Eagle's Way, which is on my to-read list. In Hill Skills there's advice on ticks and Tristan Gooley describing how to use trees as a compass. In the gear pages I review a Skogstad fleece; Daniel Neilson and James Reader review the Vivobarefoot Trail Freak shoes; Daniel also tests ten hiking shirts; Judy Armstrong tries six women's trekking sandals; and James Reader visits Rab to see how sleeping bags are made.