Wednesday 29 April 2020

Rewilding: More Thoughts

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

Rewilding has become an emotive and controversial word in recent years. To some it is wonderfully positive, a call for the restoration of glory to wild places. To others it smacks of elitism, exclusion, a threat to countryside access and ways of life. What though does rewilding actually mean when applied to Britain and disentangled from overblown desires and overblown fears. In the mass media it’s often used to mean the reintroduction of big predators such as wolves and bears – nothing like a story about these to send a frisson of fear through people and provoke a strong reaction. This comes in part from its origins in the USA where it was first used by conservationist Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the interesting Wildlands Network, to mean the conservation and expansion of ecosystems big enough to support large predators. 

In the USA, though, there are still large wilderness areas, many already with bears, wolves and mountain lions. The situation is very different here, on a small quite heavily populated island with no real wilderness and only remnants of natural forest. For comparison California is over twice the size of mainland Britain but has only two-thirds the population, Alaska is over eight times the size with just 750,000 people. We have to think differently.

In Britain rewilding can only mean the restoration of natural processes to wild places, small and large. It is, I think, the final part of a conservation strategy. This begins with preservation – stopping the continuing destruction or degradation of an area – and continues with restoration – repairing damage. Then the renewal of the land can begin, which is really what rewilding means, allowing nature to restore itself. 

The result of rewilding should be a healthier environment with greater biodiversity, which benefits everybody. An increasing number of studies show how important nature is to people’s mental and physical health. Rewilding is not just for an elite, it’s for everyone. Indeed, we are part of nature, not apart from it, and the health of nature is our health.

In the Cascade Mountains

Sadly though, what many people regard as a healthy natural environment is actually quite damaged and degraded. The concept of shifting baseline syndrome explains this. Each generation tends to assume that the state of the natural world they grew up with is the norm. This can result in keeping places in a poor condition or even trying to return them to that condition. This is a natural reaction. I remember first visiting the Lake District as a boy and thinking of it as a huge natural wilderness, pristine and perfect. Then I discovered the Scottish Highlands and thought I’d found paradise (I sometimes still feel that!). Only after returning from half a year spent walking through the magnificent wild forests and mountains along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Western USA did I notice how bare the hills and glens were, how few trees grew in the British hills. Why weren’t they there? I’d read about the Caledonian forest in the writings of Frank Fraser Darling but only when I’d seen the glorious forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains did I start to understand what we have lost. 

In the Sierra Nevada
Knowing how damaged much of our wild land is could be dispiriting. The great American conservationist Aldo Leopold in The Sand County Almanac, an important book published in 1949, decades before the term rewilding had been invented, said ‘ one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen’. Today I think we have more cause to hope than back in the 1940s. More people do understand the damage that has been done. Educating the others is a key task though. To support rewilding people need to understand why it’s necessary. Shifting baseline syndrome again. If you think the land is as it should be you’re not going to support moves to change it.

Glen Affric

In Britain I think rewilding starts with forest restoration. In this sense it’s only a new name for something that started many years ago. One of the key figures in this was the late Dick Balharry, former John Muir Trust Chair, when he was warden at Beinn Eighe, Britain’s first national nature reserve, in the 1960s (see Beinn Eighe: The Mountain Above The Wood). He continued this work in the 1980s at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. In both places healthy regenerating forests can now be seen, which is very heartening. Since then forest restoration has increased in many areas such as the John Muir Trust’s Li and Coire Dhorrcail on Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart, which won a Scotland’s Finest Woods Award in 2015, and other JMT estates like Ben Nevis, Quinag, and East Schiehallion.

Glen nevis
Elsewhere the  RSPB at places like Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms, many Woodland Trust estates throughout the UK, and Wild Land Ltd's Glen Feshie all have flourishing forest regeneration. Then there’s the work of Trees for Life in places like GlenAffric and the Borders Forest Trust with the Carrifran Wildwood. Forest and Land Scotland (formerly the Forestry Commission), once a main cause of the destruction of natural forests, is now allowing some forests to recover such as Glenmore in the Cairngorms. Perhaps most encouraging of all is when organisations work together to the same ends. Cairngorms Connect is an encouraging exampled with its “bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.”

Glen Feshie

In the Lake District the Wild Ennerdale project is particularly interesting with its vision ‘to allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology’. That last phrase could be a definition of rewilding. Like Cairngorms Connect Wild Ennerdale is also a partnership of different bodies, public and private, and local people. This is important. Rewilding needs the support of communities and a wide range of organisations. It should grow out of places rather than be imposed from outside. That means rewilding may be a slow process in some areas, but local support is essential if it’s to be successful in the long run so if it takes time to gain that we just have to be patient. 

Once forests start to regenerate and spread the richness of the fauna and flora rapidly increases. Walk through a new forest and see the wide variety of undergrowth and the number of birds then compare this with the bareness and silence of a treeless valley.  This was the case at Creag Meagaidh where sheep and deer had led to a bare degraded landscape. Since it became a nature reserve in 1986 and the over-grazing was ended the change has been startling as a healthy new forest emerges.  

Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve

With regeneration wildlife moves in, previously over-grazed vegetation flourishes. There is a problem in Britain though. And that is being an island. Animals already here -pine martens, red squirrels, badgers and more – will move into new forests. Birds can arrive from overseas, mammals can’t. On mainland Europe predators like wolves, bears and lynx are slowly increasing their territories. They can’t reach Britain though. Apex predators like these are not just important for directly controlling the numbers of grazing animals by hunting them but also by the effect they have on their behaviour, keeping them moving so they don’t over-graze an area, keeping them out of areas that could be seen as traps. This concept is known as a trophic cascade and was first described by Aldo Leopold when he noted overgrazing by deer after wolves were exterminated. 

Ryvoan Pass
We don’t have wolves, but we can mimic their behaviour. In popular areas this happens by accident. The paths through Glenmore Forest to the Ryvoan Pass are walked regularly, often by large numbers of people. I’ve never seen any deer or even signs of deer here. Forest regeneration is extensive. In the woods round my home there are roe deer. Until a decade or so ago our neighbours had dogs that often roamed free. Seeing deer was very rare and I never saw them outside the forest. Since the dogs went the deer have become bold and I often see them out in the fields far from the nearest trees even in the middle of the day. They’ve learnt it’s safe to do so.

Trees for Life has an interesting scheme at their Dundreggan Estate in the Scottish Highlands called Project Wolf. In this teams of volunteers walk through the woods in the evening, night and early morning to disturb the deer and give seedlings a better chance of survival. I think this is a fascinating idea that could be used elsewhere. 

Until the climate is right for the return of wolves, which I think is a long time in the future, culling deer, removal or reduction of sheep numbers, fencing woods, and schemes like Project Wolf are the only ways to ensure forest regeneration. This in Britain is rewilding. 

This is an edited version of a piece originally written for the John Muir Trust.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Memorable Mountains 2: Ben Macdui

View across the Avon basin to Ben Macdui

Second in this series of memorable mountains I'm thinking about during the lockdown is one I've climbed well over a hundred times in all conditions at all times of the year. I've been up it in hot sunshine, torrential rain, blizzards and at night. I've been up it in sandals and on skis, snowshoes and crampons. I've camped high on its flanks.

Ben Macdui is the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Scotland and has been a 'local' hill for thirty years.  It's a great hulk of a hill that's not particularly distinctive and which doesn't stand out from afar. The best viewpoints in my opinion are across the trench of the Avon basin and across the Lairig Ghru from Braeriach.

Ben Macdui from Braeriach

Ben Macdui's glory doesn't lie in its shapely summit though but in its remote position on the southern edge of the Cairngorm Plateau and the sense of space and wildness all around. Reaching it always feels an achievement, especially in winter when the snow is deep and daylight hours short.

In summer the walk to the summit across the Plateau or by steeper routes from other directions is stony. This is a rock mountain, too high, too windswept, and too cold for much vegetation to survive.

In winter the mountain is transformed into an arctic-like wilderness. It's hard to believe it's the same place.

The Cairngorm Plateau and Braeriach

The summit is broad and gently sloping with a big cairn surmounted by a trig point. Views are foreshortened. For the best ones you need to walk a short distance south or west.

Summer or winter Ben Macdui is a favourite mountain and one on which I've had many great adventures and wonderful times. I'll be returning as soon as the lockdown is over.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Crossing the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Trail twenty years ago

The Grand Canyon

On March 24, 2000, I reached the place that had led me to walk the Arizona Trail, the Grand Canyon, the most awe-inspiring landscape I have ever seen. This was my second visit and the effect was as overwhelming as ever. That evening I walked to the South Rim and stared into the black impentratable depths.

The Colorado River

The next day I descended into those depths, down the turning, twisting Bright Angel Trail as it cut through layers of rock, millions of years, to the Colorado River where the rocks are 1.8 billion years old. Down here I felt I was in deep time itself, the great cliffs rising thousands of feet to the present far above me.

That evening I walked out along a side trail and bivouaced under the stars. I woke as the first rays of the sun turned cliffs high above red and gold. A raven called harshly. From a yucca came the much sweeter song of a cactus wren. Otherwise I was alone amongst this vast beauty. It was one of the best camps of my life.

Early light on Zoroaster Temple

A long hot marvellous day ensued as I wound my way up the North Kaibab Trail some four and a half thousand feet to the North Rim. There I camped amongst big ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. I'd left the desert for the forest.

The North Kaibab Canyon

Four more days and I was at the Utah border and the Arizona Trail walk was over. It had been a tremendous trip, one of my favourites. And the highlight was the Grand Canyon, splendid, immense, unfathomable.

View from the North Rim

The full story of my walk is told in my book Crossing Arizona.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Memorable Mountains 1: Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney & Timberline Lake, October 2016

During the lockdown many people are sharing favourite views, trips, campsites, mountains and more. I've joined in with reminiscences of my Arizona Trail hike. Today I'm starting a new occasional series about memorable mountains I've climbed. I find thinking about these trips and looking at my photographs a reassuring thing to do at this time.

The first mountain is far away in the High Sierra in California. It's one I've climbed twice, far apart in time and conditions. The first was in 1982 during my Pacific Crest Trail hike. The second was in 2016 during a walk from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. Both trips are highlights of my outdoors life and Mount Whitney was the high point on both of them.

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous States and the terminus of the John Muir and High Sierra Trails. As with all highest summits from Snowdon to Everest it is very popular and permits are required to climb it in order to control the numbers.

On the ascent, May 1982

Hiking the PCT in 1982 my permit for the trail included Whitney, not that there were any rangers on the mountain to check it. The High Sierra was still snowbound, the trail buried. I went through with three other hikers, feeling it was safer in a group. We took a day off to climb Whitney. Ice axe and crampins were needed throughout and in places the ascent was quite scary as we edged along narrow strips of snow with big drops to the side.

On the summit, May 1982

My second ascent was completely different. It was in October after a long dry summer. The mountain was barely recognisable from thirty-four years earlier. Instead of snow there was rock in vast quantities. My route was the same but this time there was a trail and other people, many other people.

The trail up Mount Whitney, October 2016

What didn't change were the vast views, the sense of wildness, the beauty of the landscape. Mount Whitney is a wonderful mountain in a wonderful place and remembering my two ascents always lifts my spirits.

On the summit, October 2016

Monday 20 April 2020

A failed attempt on the San Francisco Peaks on the Arizona Trail twenty years ago

The San Francisco Peaks from Fremont Saddle

On April 20, 2000, I set out to climb the San Francisco Peaks. These are the highest mountains in Arizona, reaching 3850 metres (12,633 feet) on Humphreys Peak. At the time there was no official Arizona Trail route, though it was planned to cut below the summits, as it now does. I wanted to climb them, even though they were snow-capped and I wasn't equiped for snow.

Morning before the ascent

The night before the ascent I camped in a beautiful grove of aspens. The temperature fell to -3C and there was a cold wind. Frost coated the inside of my tarp.

Below the snow

The sun was soon warming the air however and the initial walking was easy as a good trail led through beautiful forests. Soon though snow patches appeared, some knee-deep in places. My boots were quickly soaked and my feet cold. The snow became continuous, a mix of soft deep drifts requiring arduous post-holing and bands of hard old snow that I had to edge carefully across - a slip would have sent me sliding into the deep ravine below. After three and a half hours I reached Fremont Saddle on the edge of the Inner Basin over which I could gaze at Humphreys Peak. I'd walked just 6.4km (4 miles).

I could also see the route stretching out ahead, steep and snowy. I had no ice axe, no crampons, no gaiters. I had no idea how stable the snow was, or how icy on some long traverses above big drops. Reluctantly I turned away. My attempt on the San Francisco Peaks was over. Fremont Saddle at 3292 metres (10,800 feet) would be my high point.

Looking back to Humphreys Peak

An hour and three-quarters later I was back at my campsite, having descended straight down some of the snow drifts. A lower snow-free walk around the southern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks led to a campsite on the edge of a meadow looking back to Humphreys Peak. It had been a good day.

You can read the full story of my Arizona Trail walk in my book Crossing Arizona (Countryman Press).


Sunday 19 April 2020

What I've Been Reading Online No.18

View over the forests of Strathspey to the Cairngorms. April 17.

Much to my astonishment it's two months since I posted a piece on my online reading. The world has been moving fast and time has sped by. Unsurprisingly much of my reading has been about the Covid 19 crisis - not the medical or political stuff but rather the personal and environmental, how it's affecting people and what it means for the future. There are also pieces about the outdoors, nature and conservation.


Covidvirus shaming

A moving and powerful piece by Feargus Cooney about the crisis and mental health. A reminder not to make judge people whose circumstances you don't know.
This, Our Mythic Moment 

A thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by Vanessa Spedding about this moment in time, its meaning and the possibilities that flow from it. "This monumental pause presents a monumental opportunity to at least plot the route: to catalyse a shared and simple sense of direction, back home, to deep social and ecological belonging."

How you can help support outdoor writers during the coronavirus pandemic

Practical suggestions from Alex Roddie.

'The impossible has already happened': what coronavirus can teach us about hope.

A typical insightful, deep, and optimistic essay from the brilliant Rebecca Solnit.

Finding Beauty in the Local Everyday

Dan Bailey describes how to enjoy local walks with words and suggestions from other outdoor people.

Rhythm and blues - nature's undisturbed cycles bring comfort in the chaos

Ben Dolphin describes the highs and lows of dealing with the lockdown day to day and how nature simply continues as usual.

Covid-19 and national parks: lessons learned so far

The Chair of the Peak District National Park Authority, Andrew McCloy, makes some excellent points about the lessons of the crisis.

The Grand Canyon


Who mapped the Grand Canyon? This forgotten female mountaineer

Nina Strochlic tells the story of Barbara Washburn who made first ascents in Alaska and was the first woman to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America. And with her husband she spent seven years making the first complete map of the Grand Canyon.

The Evidence of Things Not Seen - W.H.Murry. Review.

Natalie Berry reviews Scottish mountaineer W.H.Murray's biography, which has just been republished by Vertebrate.

Cause and effect - five walks that changed my life

Ben Dolphin reflects on five walks that turned out to be major life events.

A pair of lapwings seeing off a red kit. Strathspey. April 17.


Yellowstone's Window Into The Wolf World: Celebrating 25 Years

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park after an absence of over 70 years. Jenny Golding looks at what has happened since and what the future holds.

Why Italians Are Growing Apples For Wild Bears

Italians in the Apennine mountains are reviving abandoned apple orchards to provide food for bears and reduce conflicts with people. 

Admitting defeat: why I am quitting nature conservation

Professional conservationist Mick Green explains why he has lost faith in the big nature conservation bodies. The piece isn't as negative as the title suggests though as he also says "rewilding to my mind is the way forward – the full ecological restoration of large areas to functioning ecosystems" and that he will "continue to work with smaller organisations that are less bureaucratic".

Global rewilding charter strengthens worldwide call for nature recovery

Endorsed by over thirty NGOs across the world this charter "reinforces the message that rewilding must be prioritised as a critical solution to our current climate and biodiversity emergencies."

Friday 17 April 2020

Book review: Life on the Mountains by Terry Abraham

Terry Abraham's films on Scafell Pike and Blencathra are much loved and highly successful and the third in his Lakeland trilogy, Helvellyn, is eagerly anticipated. Before that film appears this book about Terry and his life will be published. It's a magnificent coffee table book, packed with Terry's dramatic and beautiful photography. Life on the Mountains is due to come out on May 9. Signed copies can be ordered in advance here.

I first met Terry Abraham over seven years ago when he approached me about making The Cairngorms In Winter DVD (which makes a cameo appearance in the book). We've been good friends ever since and I knew many of the stories in this book. Quite a few were new to me however and further increased my admiration for him and the struggles he's had to achieve his goals.

The book is an autobiography, told by Terry to John Manning, who wrote the text. I don't know how much editing was done but John did it well, Terry's voice coming through loud and clear. Reading it I felt I was in a pub listening to Terry talking. This really is his story, and it's a powerful story too, emotionally wrenching, passionate, and devastatingly honest.

Despite setbacks including illness and injury Terry never loses sight of his dream. Once he has found his desire, to make the films, he doesn't let up. Reaching this point is difficult too, with career changes, tragedies and redundancy along the way. In the mountains Terry overcomes appalling conditions - there are some exciting and dramatic adventures - as he puts together his vision for the films. Many nights are spent camping high in the hills in all weathers to get the shots he wants. He tells how his approach developed from film to film as his experience grew, and how he selected the people, including myself, who appear in the films. He gives sympathetic portraits of  many of them, with a little gentle fun poked at some of us.

Terry's story is fascinating and inspiring. This lovely book with its superb photographs does it justice. I'm biased of course but this really is an excellent book that should appeal to everyone who loves Terry's films and everyone who loves the Lake District.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Continuing along the Arizona Trail twenty years ago

The San Francisco Peaks

Twenty years ago on April 16 I was on the Arizona Trail approaching the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain range significant in Arizona and to me personally. Reaching 12,633 feet (3,851 m) these are the highest mountains in the state and the only ones to rise above timberline. I was doing this walk because of the first time I'd seen them.

I was on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, during a two-walk. Looking south over the Canyon I could see a distant mountain range rising above dark forests. I wondered if there was a way to walk to them. After this walk I did some research and discovered the new, barely-developed Arizona Trail, which crossed the San Francisco Peaks and the Grand Canyon. That would be my next long walk.

A week earlier the walk had changed. For thirty-two days I'd mostly been in the desert, only passing through small areas of trees on mountain tops. I was used to vast horizons, immense space, stony hills, and spiky plants. Then from the little town of Pine I climbed up to the broken cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile long escarpment that marks the southern edge of the huge Colorado Plateau, which covers 130,000 square miles. This plateau is mostly at an elevation between 4000 and 6000 feet and is a mix of forest and high desert grasslands, split by deep canyons. Ponderosa pines spread mile after mile after mile.

East Clear Creek

Sometimes I was walking beside streams and rivers, a new experience on this walk. There were still arid areas though and I still needed to know where water was and carry plenty. Camps were in the trees without the extensive views I had come to love. In the woods the wildlife made up for this. At one camp I was woken by a woodpecker drumming then cackling raucously as it flew off. Squirrels chased each other over the forest floor and up into the trees. Birds I couldn't recognise sang high above.

A chilly forest camp