Tuesday 30 April 2019

Visiting New Hills in the Cairngorms

In a familiar area it’s easy to always go to favourite places, ones that you love and are happy to see again and again. Sometimes, maybe, you’ll look the other way and think “I must go over there one day” but you never do. I’ve done that many times. But on my last trip I decided that ‘one day’ should actually be ‘this day’ and I finally explored an area of the Cairngorms I’d only looked at from a distance before. 

From Glenmore through Ryvoan Pass is a standard route I take many times a year, sometimes turning west up Meall a’Bhuachaille, sometimes heading east and then south for Bynack More. To the north lay Abernethy Forest and I have occasionally followed the track from Ryvoan into the trees. But to the east lay a big area of woods and heathery hills I’d only seen from afar, always turning away for  higher more rugged hills. Not this time.

At the bridge over the River Nethy I turned away from the path climbing the hillside towards Bynack More and took a faint narrow trod beside the river towards the edge of Abernethy Forest. The indistinct trail came and went amongst tussocks and the first small trees of the spreading woods. The river ran in a gorge here, swirling and crashing out of sight. I’d set off late in the afternoon and the sky was darkening when I found a perfect camp site, an area of flat grass beside a long-fallen pine. 

Rain fell during the night, wakening me as it spattered on the tent. Dawn was dry but showed low clouds over the hills. There was no wind and the air was damp. Walking through the wet grass and heather I was soon soaked from the knees down. Little pools appeared on the edge of the forest; the trees reflected in the water in perfect silhouettes. A pair of  goldeneye ducks sailed out from a reed bed, leaving v-shaped wakes in the smooth water.

Boggy slopes led up big, bulky Carn Bheadhair. Ravines with shattered rock towers and splintered crags broke the regular curves of the hill. There were no paths, but a large cairn marked the summit. A golden eagle soared high overhead as I approached. To the south the clouds were beginning to break up over Cairn Gorm and Bynack More. I went onto the next top, Carn Tarsuinn, the walking easier here, just above the bogs and the deep heather. 

The view from Tarsuinn was superb, a great sweep of Cairngorm hills – Ben Avon, Beinn a’Bhuird, Beinn a’Chaorainn, Bynack More, Cairn Gorm, Meall a’Bhuachaille. From this perspective they all seemed surprisingly close together. All were familiar hills, walked many times, yet I’d never seen them from here, never seen them like this.

Carn Tarsuinn marked the easternmost limit of my walk. Now I turned south-west, heading back towards the track to the bridge over the River Nethy. The going was soon tough again with peat hags, endless tussocks, bogs and deep heather to negotiate. Maintaining a regular rhythm or a straight line was impossible. Below deep banks lay last remnants of snow. If I came this way again, I thought, it would be on skis or snowshoes when the snow lay deep. That would be much easier. 

The track gained I relaxed. No need to concentrate on footing or route now. Just walk the familiar stony path back to Ryvoan and Glenmore, satisfied after a new look at the Cairngorms.

Saturday 27 April 2019

The Great Outdoors May issue

The latest issue of The Great Outdoors features Alex Roddie's winter Cape Wrath Trail story. His account is thoughtful and thought-provoking.  (I joined Alex for a few days in Torridon, described here).

My pieces in this issue are reviews of thirteen lightweight waterproofs, three multi-tools, Rab Xenon gloves, and the latest edition of Hostile Habitats: Scotland's Mountain Environment.

Away from the Cape Wrath Trail Hanna Lindon wanders the Lake District looking at its Viking past; Ed Byrne tries sea kayaking, Jim Crumley recalls an amazing encounter with a rock climbing badger, Dan Aspel visits Llyn Stwlan in Moelwyn hills in Snowdonia, and Rudolf Abraham has an extraordinary muiscal experience in the Dolomites.

In shorter pieces there's advice for TGO Challengers, a review of Kathryn Barnes' The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Chiara Bullen, Roger Smith questioning the low priority given to countryside funding, and Jim Perrin on Kinder Scout and its political significance.

A plug for the June issue: it'll feature my account of my GR5 Through the Alps walk.

Friday 26 April 2019

What I've Been Reading Online No. 5

The Cairngorms, April 2

Another set of links to pieces I've been reading online. There are so many in the last month that there'll be two posts, the next in a few days. I need to post these links more often!


Footprints over Ingleborough

Alex Roddie discovers a familiar hill still has something new to offer.

A Single Narrow Gasping Lung 

Messner and Habeler and the first ascent of Everest without bottled oxygen.

On the trail of Britain's big wild cats  

Are there panthers and pumas in the countryside? Mark Wilding considers the evidence.

9 Expert Stream Crossing Tips

Some sensible advice from Phillip Werner.

An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning

The original long-distance trail was the centrepiece of a much wider vision.

Leave the car at home: see the UK coast without driving

In the first of a series Phoebe Taplin takes trains and buses to the Vale of Glamorgan.

Is Spending Time Outdoors A Basic Human Need?

In the first post on his new blog my old friend and colleague John Traynor looks at a new study on 'outdoor as a human need'. 

The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland - a glimpse into the past 

Clifton Bain looks at the history of Scottish pinewoods

The Cairngorms, April 13


Monarch or Menace?

Peter Cairns of Scotland: The Big Picture  considers the place of red deer in the Scottish Highlands.

It's a climate emergency. Let's restore nature at scale.  

Averting Climate Breakdown by Restoring Ecosystems

Rebecca Wrigley of Rewilding Britain looks at the idea of natural climate solutions - rewilding as a solution to climate breakdown. 

George Monbiot looks at the science behind this approach.

The English Shooting Estates That Rear 20 Million Pheasants A Year

What's the ecological effect of releasing millions of pheasants into the wild every year? Guy Shrubsole looks at the estates doing this.

The scandal of calling plantations 'forest restoration' is putting climate targets at risk

To combat climate breakdown natural forests not monoculture plantations are needed, say Simon Lewis and Charlotte Wheeler.

Jim Crumley: 'Wolves are expanding across Europe - it's time they returned to Scotland'

Susan Flockhart takes a walk with nature writer Jim Crumley.

Glen Etive Hydro: a Symbol of Sacrifices to Come 

Ecologist Texa Sim looks at the damage that will be done by the hydro schemes in Glen Etive.






Thursday 25 April 2019

A Misty Spring Day on Meall a'Bhuachaille

An unusual day of dark swirling clouds and occasional hazy sunshine. A lack of clarity. A fuzziness to the world. Colours muted, air heavy. Warm in the forest as I wandered along to An Lochan Uaine, all green and silver and mysterious. A breeze rippled the water, rustled the trees.

Beyond the lochan the wind grew stronger, coming in gusts that bore the faintest hints of dampness, just touches on the skin that might have been minute rain drops. The ground was dry and dusty. No rain for many days. Signs warned of extreme fire danger. Not that far away to the north, and not far from my home, a wildfire is burning, twenty square miles of moorland and forest in flames, one of the biggest ever it is said. Rain is needed.

From the path up Meall a'Bhuachaille I could see hills fading into thick grey nothingness, the world restricted. But the new forest springing up on the slopes was brightening with the spring, oblivious of the sombre weather. It's always a delight to see these young trees, speaking of a healthy future. Broom in flower was startling, the yellow blossoms almost too vivid for this day.

As the last little trees faded behind me I was enveloped in the cloud and chilled by the now strong wind. No sense of spring up here. The summit cairn gave some shelter for a brief stop for chocolate then I was starting down. No views, no landmarks. It could have been any hill, anywhere. Just a path to follow.

The first trees appeared again. Loch Morlich, prominent on clear days, was lost in the mist. Pale curving ridgelines appeared above indistinct forest. Then I was in the forest and back at the car. Another day on a familiar hill but one that always has something different to offer.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Collected Posts on Rewilding, Conservation & the Environment

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of links to my posts on rewilding, conservation and the environment. Some are general thoughts and views, some more specific to places, times and campaigns (victories, defeats, and undecided yet).

Wildlife is wildlife, never vermin

State of Nature 2019 report - sadly, not a surprise

Rewilding & Climate Change: tying it altogether

Rewilding in Scotland

Rewilding: Some thoughts on the debate

Rewilding, Wind Farms, Wild Flowers & Wildlife

Thoughts on the Conservation and Restoration of Nature in Scotland

The Thirlmere Zipwires - just what are National Parks for?

The Ethics of Outdoor Gear

Planning Controls for Bulldozed Roads in Scotland - At Last

Outdoor Gear and the Environment: what's happening?

The Year of John Muir

John Muir Centenary

Thoughts on George Monbiot's 'Feral'

Of Wolves and Woods: Thoughts on Rewilding

The Devastation of the Eastern Highlands

Edward Abbey

Visionaries of the Wild

Controversy 2: Wild Land, Wind Farms & Climate Change

Allt Duine, Wind Farms & Wild Land

The Future of Wild Land in Scotland: Some Thoughts on Government Planning Policy

Forest Destruction at Loch an Eilein: is this conservation?

Loch an Eilein revisited: how's the damaged forest?

Keep It Wild! Campaigning Conservation Organisations 

Some Good Conservation News: Scottish Beavers Can Stay

Reforesting the Hills

In Praise of Ravens

Thoughts on the Cairn Gorm Fiasco

A Sad, Damaged Landscape

Hen Harrier Day Highland 2018

Cairngorm Funicular Criticised By Public Accounts Committee

Across Scotland with Pylons (and Fences and Roads and Plantations)

What's going on in Coire na Ciste on Cairn Gorm?

Scottish Wild Land Map Consultation: My Response

Good News for Scottish Wild Land?

Allt Duine Wind Farm Inquiry: My Evidence

Wild Land Saved! Allt Duine Wind Farm Rejected

Destroying the Wild: the Dumnaglass Wind Turbines

John Muir Trust takes on Helvellyn

Saturday 20 April 2019

Rewilding & Climate Change: tying it all together - and a petition to sign

Caledonian pine forest, Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms

With climate change in the news this week due to Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg all successfully raising the profile of this crucial issue I've been thinking about how this relates to rewilding and nature. Climate change is ultimately a natural phenonmenon. It is the result of how one species, us, is affecting the natural world. Climate change isn't outside nature, just as we're not separate from nature. And it's natural processes that can slow down and mitigate climate change.

My thoughts crystallised after attending an excellent talk on rewilding by Peter Cairns of Scotland: The Big Picture at The Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival in Grantown-on-Spey (a really wonderful event, I'm pleased to hear it'll be held again next year). One of the questions after the talk was about climate change and whether it might render pointless years of rewilding work unless resilience of some sort was built in. Peter Cairns replied that with Cairngorms Connect, an ambitious project to rewild a vast area, this was being taken into account though of course the future couldn't be predicted.

The question seemed to assume rewilding and climate change are separate, unconnected issues. They're not. Both are natural processes and directly affect each other. It's not one way either, not just climate change being detrimental to rewilding. Rewilding can have a major positive effect on climate change. How and why is described in detail by a new body called Natural Climate Solutions. Its key statement is this:
"When living systems – like forests, peat bogs, saltmarshes and the seabed – are allowed to recover, they draw down carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the chances of climate catastrophe.Their restoration will also minimise extinction and ecological collapse, and create a richer world of wonders for us to enjoy."
So rewilding - restoring nature and allowing it to flourish - is an important part of combating climate change. I'm not surprised. It's what I've felt for many years from my understanding of how the natural world works. Now there is science to back this up.
However natural climate solutions receive little funding and support from governments and organisations concerned with climate change. To push it further up the agenda Rewilding Britain has a petition calling on the UK government "to restore nature to help stop climate breakdown". I've signed it and I urge everyone concerned with the future to do so.
Forest regeneration either side of Ryvoan Pass, Cairngorms

Wednesday 17 April 2019

A New Lens for Backpacking: Sony E 18-135 f3.5-f5.6

Sony E 18-135 with lens hood

For several years my photography setup for backpacking and hillwalking has been Sony a6000 and NEX 7 bodies with Sony E 10-18mm and 16-50mm zoom lenses. This system went on the GR5 through the Alps walk last autumn and the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk two years before that. I've found it versatile and easy to use. Two cameras, two lenses, slung across my body in padded cases. Never any need to change lenses, always accessible.

Sometimes though I've wanted a longer lens - for wildlife, to zoom in on distant features, to pick out details. I've had the Sony E 55-210mm zoom lens for many years and this often comes with me on day walks, rarely on longer ones, as I like the two cameras and lenses system and I don't want to give up either of the shorter zooms. That leaves the 55-210 in the pack, where it too often stays, forgotten.

Sony E 18-135 fully extended

I accepted this two, sometimes three, lens system as there were no compact lightweight alternative lenses to the 16-50 that had a longer reach other than an expensive Zeiss 16-70, and the extra cost and weight didn't seem worth it for a measly 20mm increase.

Then, a year ago, Sony brought out the first new lens in many years for the a6000 series cameras, the 18-135 f3.5-f5.6. Light, compact and with a 7.5x zoom as opposed to the 3x zoom of the 16-50 this interested me straight away. I then spent a year deliberating!

Of course compared with the 16-50 the 18-135 is enormous and considerably heavier - 360 grams as opposed to 127 grams. The 55-210 is 380 grams so the saving over that lens plus the 16-50 is only 147 grams. I think though that the longer reach is well worth the extra 233 grams over the 16-50.

The big benefit of the 18-135 for me is that it extends my two cameras, two lenses system considerably. 10-135mm is a big range, equivalent to 15 to 202.5mm in 35mm/full frame. This is the biggest range in two lenses I've ever had.

I've had the 18-135 for nearly two months now and I've taken 310 images with it, half of them at focal lengths over 50mm. I'm pleased with the results. Reviews - and I read quite a few - suggested the image quality was good, better than the 16-50 in fact. I'm happy with that lens so I expected to like the 18-135. It's certainly sharper than the 55-210.

I did sometimes crop images taken with the 16-50 but this does mean lower quality and, more significantly to me, I found it harder to 'see' the image. With the 18-135 I can compose much more precisely. Looking at the data (ah, the wonders of Lightroom!) I can see that I've used just about every focal length at least once.

Carrying the 18-135 hasn't felt noticeably different to the 16-50 despite the difference in size and weight. I do have a bigger case of course but I carry it the same way.

I think for now I have found an ideal combination.

Here are some 18-135 images at different focal lengths, all taken in the Cairngorms on April 5.