Monday 31 August 2015

Of Wolves & Woods: Thoughts on Rewilding

Regenerating forest spreading up Coire Ardair, Creag Meagaidh

Rewilding has been in the news recently, following the high-profile launch of Rewilding Britain, inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral. Unsurprisingly all the attention has been on wolves and other big animals. They’re not known as charismatic megafauna for nothing. Important though these creatures are, rewilding is about far more and starts, in my opinion, with the land, with ending over-grazing and allowing forests, grassland and moorlands to regenerate.

The forest returns to a once heavily grazed field

I’ve been watching this happen for over a decade in the area around my home in the far north-east corner of the Cairngorms National Park. Twenty-five years ago when I came to live here there were two working tenant farms not far away. Large flocks of sheep and herds of cows kept the rough pastures fairly close-cropped and prevented the growth of trees, long grasses and many flowers. Then those farms closed and the land was shared out amongst more distant farms. The number of cows and sheep dwindled and only some fields were used. Trees began to return, grasses and flowers flourished. The land changed. 

Fifteen years ago this was over-grazed

Livestock used to regularly be driven up and down the track leading to my house, nibbling everything along the way. Now there are birch thickets, beautiful long grasses and masses of wild flowers. Even the pastures still grazed by cows and sheep have a richer vegetation as the smaller numbers means the animals don’t over-graze any area. The roe deer that live in the woods now venture into the meadows far from the trees. Farmers and, particularly, farmers’ dogs are no longer around to disturb them.

Roe deer buck in a field by my house

The main way for rewilding to take place in the higher and remoter areas of the Highlands is to reduce red deer numbers and end over-grazing. In the absence of large predators this can only be done either by increasing the numbers shot or by fencing deer out of forests. Where deer numbers have been reduced (and sheep removed) the results are startling as can be seen at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve where a new forest is springing up. 

Forest regeneration, Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve

The new forests that appear when overgrazing is ended won’t be – can’t be – replicas of the old Great Wood of Caledon. (Jim Crumley reckons there were actually four separate ‘Great Woods’ anyway). It would be impossible for this to happen and futile to attempt it. What period would you pick as the model to try and emulate? 5,000 years ago? 8,000? Conditions have changed. None can be copied. New forests will be just that – new. And some will inevitably include introduced species such as European larch and even the much-maligned Sitka spruce – they might even be the dominant species in places. Sitka spruce, now the commonest tree in Scotland, would be impossible to eradicate anyway. Also, when not grown in regimented lines in dense plantations it is a magnificent tree.  Ending the plantation system and the clear-cutting that leaves areas devastated would greatly improve commercial forests and make them wilder too. I often see self-seeded spruce and larch growing outside of plantations and I delight in seeing these free trees.

Missing wild animals are still needed of course. But even without them a new wilder and more natural landscape is emerging in many places and this provides a better habitat for the animals that are already here. 

Black bear in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada, California
Rewilding is also about the experience it gives us, about the intensity of being in a place that is truly wild. On walks in North America I've seen grizzly bears, black bears and wolves. These top predators make the wilderness real and add a feeling that can't be had when they aren't present. Knowing they are there means being alert, watching out for signs, taking precautions and realising that you are not the dominant animal. (That said, for those worried at the thought of bears roaming wild domestic dogs and cattle are far more dangerous and kill and maim vastly more people). 

Fresh bear print over a hiker's footprint in Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains

Many years ago on my long walk in the Yukon Territory I had one really special encounter that remains a highlight of all my days in wild places.

I was crossing a big meadow when the feeling came over me that I was being watched. I stopped, looked towards the forest a few hundred yards away and froze with a mixture of awe, excitement and, I must admit, slight fear. On the edge of the trees a pack of wolves was watching me. There were six of them, ranging in colour from pale grey to almost black, all silent, alert, magnificent. I stayed still and after a few seconds the wolves began to slowly move away in single file, one of them always staying stationary, watching me. When the watcher fell to the rear of the line another would stop and the pack would continue. After several minutes they vanished into the trees and I breathed out and relaxed. Later in the evening I heard them howling, a wonderfully wild sound.

I saw wolves once more on that trip and heard them howling many times more. How I would love to hear that sound in the Scottish Highlands! The Highlands are wild but could be so much wilder.

Bison and elk in Yellowstone National Park

A few years ago I read three excellent books on rewilding and the reintroduction of wildlife. Two were by Jim Crumley – The Last Wolf and The Great Wood. The other was Feral. Crumley’s books are about wolves and forests in Scotland and discuss the history of these as well as proposals for the future while Monbiot’s book is more general, though centred on Wales. The message of these books is that for our wild places to become wilder, for their ecosystems to become healthier and more robust, extinct species, especially predators, need to be reintroduced. Crumley particularly wants wolves, which he sees as being the key to the renewal of the Caledonian Forest. Monbiot spreads his suggestions more widely and accepts that wolves are unlikely in the near future. Lynx however could be brought back now. Both authors mention the results of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park, which has led to far more positive changes than expected. As well as keeping deer numbers down the wolves have kept the deer moving, reducing grazing pressure. The deer now completely avoid some areas where the wolves could easily trap them too so in those places there is no browsing at all. This has allowed many plants to flourish and with them a host of birds and animals. It is a fascinating and inspiring story.

Realistically wolves are unlikely to be reintroduced in the near future, due to the opposition of estate owners and the false picture created about them over the centuries (well described in The Last Wolf). Other less controversial species could be reintroduced though such as lynx while beavers, already present both officially and unofficially (the latter seem to be doing best), could be released in more places (Cairngorms National Park are considering this

Rewilding results in a more diverse landscape with a greater variety of plants and animals. It could be done very easily in far more places if the will was there.

Monday 24 August 2015

Yukon Walk Photo Gallery

Tombstone Mountain & Talus Lake

Back in 1990 when I walked south-north through the Yukon Territory I took many photographs, all of them on transparency film. Recently I've had a few of these scanned. One appears in the September issue of The Great Outdoors as I've written about the walk in my column. Here are the others.

Post-storm light on Pilot Mountain in the Miners Range

In the Ogilvie Mountains

Sunset over the Yukon River at Fort Selkirk

All my gear

Tombstone Mountain and Talus Lake

Stop for soup in the Richardson Mountains

In the Richardson Mountains

Photographic note: When I checked my notes I found I'd taken more camera gear on this trip than I think I have on any other long distance walk. I carried Nikon F801 and FM2 SLR bodies, Nikkor 35-70 f3.3-5.6, Nikkor 24mm f2.8 and Sigma 70-210 f4.5-5.6 lenses, a Tamron 2x converter, and a Cullman 2101 tripod. Films were Fujichrome 50, 100 and 400. In total I shot 66 rolls of 36 exposure film (batches went in my supply boxes). The total weight of my camera gear including padded cases was, I am now shocked to discover, 9lbs/4kg.

Sunday 23 August 2015

The Great Outdoors September issue: Walking the Yukon, wild camping, A Walk In The Woods, water treatment & containers

In the Ogilvie Mountains in the Yukon Territory

Twenty-five years ago I was in the middle of a 1000 mile walk through the Yukon Territory, the remotest and wildest walk I've undertaken. I've written about the walk in my Backpacking column in the September issue of The Great Outdoors, which has just come out. I'll be posting some more pictures from the trip here soon.

In September the film A Walk In The Woods, based on Bill Bryson's book about his Appalachian Trail walk, will be released. Is it worth seeing? My review is in this issue.

The magazine has a big section on wild camping, to which I've contributed pieces on finding a pitch and dealing with stormy weather plus selected five each of tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and stoves and three headlamps. In the gear pages I review ten water filters and purifiers, seven water containers and the Jottnar Hymir Neoshell smock.

Also in this issue Emily Rodway interviews comedian Mark Thomas about how the Kinder Trespass inspired his new show; Dougie Cunningham has a musical trip to Rum; Paul Beasley has a mysterious time on the Lych Way across Dartmoor; Stewart Smith photographs the Lake District in the early hours; Ronald Turnbull bivvies on summits; Will Renwick talks to Kenton Cool about his amazing Everest record; Phoebe Smith visits the Hida Mountains in Japan; Carey Davies scrambles up Jack's Rake; Roger Smith wonders about the new Rewilding Britain group; and Jim Perrin praises Lynn Schooler's Walking Home: A Journey in the Alaskan Wilderness.

Friday 21 August 2015

My BMC TV Hillwalking Videos Online

The film crew on the slopes of Moel Siabod

The hillwalking videos I made back in June in Snowdonia (see this post) are now available on BMC TV.

There are eight videos (we had a busy day!) covering GPS, grid references, map bearings, types of jackets, packing a day sack, footwear, emergency gear and emergency procedures.

Thursday 20 August 2015

A Night on Braeriach


Far below Loch Coire an Lochain was pale against the dark cliffs. Far to the west the last faint glow of the sun was fading. The rocks on the broad ridge were still distinct enough that I didn’t need my headlamp though the mossy patches between them were pools of blackness. High above the first stars were appearing as the last clouds disappeared. There was no moon. I tapped ahead with my trekking poles, wary of unseen holes between the stones. Judging the height and angle of rocks became difficult and I banged against a couple then skidded off another. The ridge eased off and spread out into the vast undulating plateau of Braeriach, one of the most massive mountains of the Cairngorms. I stumbled again. It really was time for my headlamp. Instantly a cone of light made the landscape in front of me stand out sharp and clear. Outside the lamp’s beam the darkness was absolute. 

Looking across Braeriach to distant Ben Macdui

I wandered across the plateau, weaving over the stony ground. For a camp I needed water and ground soft enough for tent pegs. I knew where that would be, beside the little stream that ran from the Wells of Dee across the plateau and then crashed down the cliffs into huge An Garbh Choire – the Rough Corrie. I heard the water long before I reached it, the sound carrying far in the still air. Beside the little stream, swollen from recent rain, were patches of grass and moss where thin gravelly soil had formed on the stones. At midnight I pitched the tent. Time for soup while staring out at the stars and the outlines of distant hills then sleep. 

The cliffs of Braeriach
Snow patches

A loud clicking sound woke me. I peered out. Something large skittered over the stones. I looked again. A reindeer ambled away. In the distance I could see several more. Beyond them the first orange glow was appearing in the eastern sky. I dozed for another hour. The air was chilly and there was ice in my water bottles. In mid-August. I couldn’t remember that happening before, even at a high camp like this one. Thin streaks of cloud in the eastern sky caught the first rays of sunshine then the sun appeared and the world burst into brightness. There was no sign of the reindeer. Leaving the condensation and dew-soaked tent to dry I wandered to the summit of Braeriach and gazed down the snow-spattered cliffs – I couldn’t remember this much snow still lying in August either – across to Ben Macdui and down the long Lairig Ghru pass.

View down to the Lairig Ghru
Tent with reindeer

Back at the tent I found the reindeer had returned, a forty-strong herd slowly browsing their way across the slopes, occasionally glancing at me but overall unconcerned at my presence. They are used to humans of course and I was doing nothing to disturb them. The sun grew hot. Sunscreen, sunglasses and sun hat essential. Heading away from the summit I reached the steep path that cuts across the hillside and down into Gleann Einich. Across Loch Einich the great eastern wall of Sgor Gaoith and Sgoran Dubh Mor rose in a series of rock ribs and gullies. Rock fall had destroyed the path in places. In others snow melt or heavy rain had washed it away. For a few hundred yards the descent was quite tricky, the ground wet, loose and slippery.

Loch Einich, Sgor Gaoith & Sgoran Dubh Mor

Down to safer ground I followed the path to the broad track in the glen. The river, the Am Beanaidh, was rushing down, fierce and fast. Soon the first trees appeared and then I was in the lovely old pine forest of Rothiemurchus. Down here the heat was strong, the hottest weather I’d walked in this summer. Soon I was back at my car, the short but intense trip was over.

A last view of the mountains