Friday 31 January 2020

First Online Reading List, Part 2, Nature, conservation, rewilding.

Bynack More at dusk, January 26

Here's the second part of the online reading I've enjoyed since the turn of the year, covering nature, conservation and rewilding.

Book Review: Rebirding - Rewilding Britain and it's Birds by Benedict Macdonald

Praise for this book by Alec Roddie. I have it on order!

This can be the year when we recharge nature - and ourselves 

George Monbiot says as well as campaigning for nature we need to recharge ourselves.

A warm welcome? The wildlife visitors warning of climate disaster

New species arriving in Britain are not a good sign

The Return of the Taghan

Polly Pullar celebrates the return of the pine marten after centuries of persecution. Superb photography from

Lynx to the Past

Ross Barnett considers ancient DNA and says it can help inform the return of species that lived in Scotland.

A Wild Anniversary: 25 Years For Yellowstone Wolves

By bringing back the beaver, and allowing our rivers to freestyle through the landscape, we could revive these incredible ecosystems says ecologist Joshua Harris.

On the Trail of Beavers

Naturalist Dan Puplett goes in search of beavers in Knapdale and find plenty of signs.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Deer Working Group report calls for a reduction in deer numbers

Today the Scottish Government published the final report of the independent Deer Working Group, The management of wild deer in Scotland. It's a detailed 374 page document that I've only had time to skim through so far. There are 99 recommendations, of which the key one is probably the need for new legislation so that other recommendations can be implemented. I also picked out a few others:

"The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should ensure that the role of wild deer in increasing the risk of Lyme disease is given greater prominence in its policies for deer management in Scotland, and that greater priority is given to that risk in considering the need to reduce deer densities in locations across Scotland."

" The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should recognise much more fully than at present, the need for changes to the current statutory and non-statutory system for the management of wild deer in Scotland if the Scottish Forestry Strategy 2019-29 is to be implemented successfully."

"The Working Group recommends that the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage should have a much greater focus on the need to improve the management of wild deer in the Cairngorms National Park, to reduce deer densities in many parts of the Park to protect and enhance the Park’s biodiversity."

Scottish Environment LINK, whose own deer report I wrote about here, has welcomed the report.  Mike Daniels, Head of Land Management at the John Muir Trust, says "We welcome the courage and clarity of the report which confirms that Scotland’s existing deer management procedures and practices need major reform. If we were designing a new system of deer management today in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and the depopulation of fragile rural areas it would bear little resemblance to the ‘traditional sporting estate’ model found in large parts of the Highlands.”

This is an important report whose recommendations should be implemented by the Scottish Government as soon as possible.

Monday 27 January 2020

Looks like winter is returning. Hurrah!

Bynack More, dusk, January 25

After days and days of mild weather, grey skies, and no sign of frost or snow the weather finally seems to be turning wintry again. As I write this at midnight the temperature outside is -3c, the first sub-zero temperature for a long time. At dusk, when the clouds lifted from the hills, a dusting of fresh snow was visible. The forecast is for cold stormy weather with snow for the next few days. Maybe this time it'll last for a few weeks.

I hope it will as this coming week I'm planning on a hill day and next weekend the first overnight of the year. Whilst I'd rather have had winter conditions these last few weeks I would probably have felt very frustrated as a really bad cold has kept me from doing much. It's passing slowly now, just in time for the return of winter.

A dusting of snow on the Cairngorms, January 25.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Big Garden Birdwatch 2020

The mild weather of the last few weeks has seen a reduction in the number of birds coming to the feeders in our garden, so I wasn't expecting to see many for this year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. In fact though, there were forty-three birds and nine species, not as many as last year when it was colder, but far more than the sixteen birds and seven species of 2017. Maybe the change in the weather - it's a touch colder today with a dusting of snow on the hills and it's forecast to turn really wintry - has brought the birds out.

As usual there were far more chaffinches than anything else and counting them was difficult as they arrived in large flocks. I reckoned there were at least twenty at any one time. All the species were ones we see every day. Those we see often but not every week - long-tailed tits, goldfinches, siskins - didn't appear. Even so, doing the birdwatch was enjoyable, as it is every year. An hour spent watching birds is never wasted.

Here's what I saw this year:

Chaffinch               20
Blue Tit                   4
Coal Tit                   4
Greenfinch              4
Great Tit                 3
Dunnock                2
Robin                     2
Blackbird                2
Great Spotted Woodpecker    2

Thursday 23 January 2020

Guide to the NW Highlands, Countryfile online.

Liathach, Torridon
I wrote a piece on the NW Highlands in winter for Countryfile magazine that appeared in the January print issue under the title Discover The Land Of Ice And Fire. Countryfile has now posted some of the general information on its website, headed Guide to Scotland’s North-West Highlands: where to stay, places to visit and great walks.

First Online Reading List of 2020, Part 1, Outdoors - walking, camping, mountaineering, skiing ......

A colourful dusk, January 19

The first three weeks of the year have flown past in a blur as the worst cold I can remember ever having has made doing anything feel like wading through deep sticky mud. One result is I've been reading more on and offline and now have a long list of pieces I'd like to share as well as some books to review. Rather than produce a ridiculously long list of the online stuff I'm splitting it into three, starting with outdoor topics.

Was This Swedish Immigrant The First Continental Divide Thru-Hiker?

In 1924, long before there were any long trails, Peter Parsons set out from Mexico to hike to Canada along the Continental Divide. Barney "Scout" Mann tells his amazing story in this fascinating article that's illustrated with Parsons photos, including selfies!

The Continental Divide Thru-Hiker Survey (2019)

I wonder how Peter Parsons would have answered this survey of modern CDT hikers. Much of interest here for any long-distance walker.

The Dark Side of Everest - A Personal Reflection

Di Gilbert, the first British Female in history to lead clients to the summit of Mount Everest on two successful trips, reflects on "a side of Everest that is often not talked about – the cost of human life and the impact that has on others who choose to climb" in a disturbing piece.

You Might Be Hiker Trash If .....

A humorous look at things long-distance hikers have sometimes done ...

The Meaning of Adventure: Hiking the Haute Route Pyrenees

On a tough day on the HRP Alex Roddie wonders if he'd put himself through this if he wasn't going to tell anybody about it. A thoughtful piece that I responded to in my last post.

The Cuillin Ridge in winter 

Adrian Trendall, author of the soon-to-be-published Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse, describes a winter trip along this alpine ridge, illustrated with dramatic photos.

Snowshoe Thompson Had To Be The Most Badass Backcountry Skiing Mailman Ever

Astonishing story of Norwegian-born John Thompson who for twenty years in the mid 1800s made the 180-mile round trip through the deep snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California twice a month carrying an 80lb mailbag.

Ten Things I Learned From A Failed Thru-Hike

Having failed to complete a thru-hike of the Long Trail in Vermont in the USA Anna Kulinski gives some good advice.

25 Greatest Walking Songs Of All Time

A list to disagree with! There are songs and artists here I love and others that make me shudder.

Please Add Model Years To Backpacking Gear Product Names

A plea from Phillip Werner for gear makers to sort out naming gear. I find it confusing as a gear review. What chance consumers?

Saturday 18 January 2020

Reminiscences and Thoughts on Long-Distance Walking and Writing, inspired by a piece by Alex Roddie

Writing notes on the Pacific Northwest Trail

In a thoughtful online feature called The Meaningof Adventure Alex Roddie recalls a tough day on the Haute Route Pyrenees and asks himself the question “If I could never tell anyone about this trip, never publish anything about my experience or share any of my photos, would I still put myself through this?” This is not something I’ve ever thought, and it started me considering the relationship between outdoor activities and communication and the huge difference between when I started out and the present. As I’ve written elsewhere the biggest changes in outdoor activities in the last few decades have not been in equipment but in electronics and digital communications. Alex’s article shows the effect this can have, especially on those for who have grown up with social media.

Back when I began long-distance walking the only means of communicating about outdoor activities was via club journals and a few commercial magazines. When I undertook my first long-distance walks I had no thoughts of writing about them. I simply wanted to see what it was like to walk in nature for days at a time. After a two-week walk (the Pennine Way) I knew I wanted to do something longer. After Land’s End to John O’Groats I knew I wanted to do something wilder. That desire became a round of the Munros in several 200- and 500-mile walks and then the Pacific Crest Trail. 

On the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982 with a ridiculous load.

After my Land’s End to John O’Groats walk I did wonder if anyone might be interested in reading about it. I enjoyed reading about outdoor activities (the walk was inspired by John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain). Maybe others would enjoy reading my stories. I’d always kept a journal, going right back to nature notes on local walks when I was a young boy, and I liked writing. Tentatively I sent off some hand-written articles to outdoor magazines (of which there were very few). Eventually I had a couple of articles published in a long-gone camping magazine. I enjoyed writing them but didn’t think of them as significant. Other writing work came along, mainly gear reviewing, which has been a mainstay ever since. I could, I thought, perhaps make enough money from writing to fund other long walks. And so it turned out. A book contract came along, and then another, which surprised me. 

This is why I walk. In the Colorado Rockies last summer.

The long walks always took primacy though. This is what I wanted to do. I never doubted that if the writing work dried up I would find another way to fund the walks. I never felt under pressure to do walks in order to write about them. I did sometimes feel pressure to stay in and write when I’d rather be outdoors (and still do, deadlines are deadlines!).

Social media didn’t appear until well over twenty years after I’d begun writing. Suddenly there was a new way to communicate, a way that could reach unimaginable numbers of people. I had a small niche audience – books sales in the thousands, magazine readers in the lower tens of thousands. And everything took time. Books appeared a year or so after I finished writing them, magazine articles often after several months. Social media, including blogs, was instant. Communicate to the whole world just like that. Marvellous!

Going back to Alex Roddie’s question I know that I would continue long-distance walking if I suddenly had no audience but I can see that the pressures are different now, the opportunities to tell people what you are doing enormous, as are the opportunities to read about other people’s experiences. The online long-distance walking literature is vast. Alex writes about reading blogs and social media accounts about Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Some became jaded after a couple of months. I can’t imagine that. I’ve never become fed up with any long walk. Of course, there have been times during every walk when I’ve felt bored or exhausted or the weather has been awful or the terrain difficult, but I learnt early on that such times would pass and that the best thing to do was keep going.

This is why I camp. On the Cairngorm Plateau

Alex also wonders if his expectations of his HRP walk had been shaped by reading about ultralight trends online. It’s easy to look at many of these and see a proscriptive approach – this is the right way to do things, everything else is wrong. Alex meets an ‘Instagram influencer’ who typifies that view, criticising others with bigger packs. This reminded me of meeting someone like that on the John Muir Trail. This person really annoyed another hiker, who pointed out to me that he liked his big pack and anyway was walking further each day than his critic. I’m glad when I started out there were no pressures like this. It was difficult enough to find any advice, on or off the trail. There were no traditional, lightweight, or ultralight backpackers.

It's not always sunny.

At the end of his feature Alex Roddie answers his question. He was hiking for itself but sharing the experience was part of it. That’s what I feel too, though I internalised it long ago and hadn’t really thought about it until reading Alex’s feature. Maybe if I’d been able to communicate instantly and easily when I began I’d have had to think this through back then.

Writing notes in the Cairngorms.

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.