I was up at the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve on beaver business recently, and liked it so much we decided to go back for a stroll round on Sunday.

Views to Ben Lomond

The views of Ben Lomond and the southern Highlands from that area, the colours at this time of year, and the  crunch of ice underfoot made it a great place to spend an hour.

The  reserve is carefully managed and has an understated charm. There are big carved wooden benches and a shelter next to the carefully-constructed pond-dipping area, but the human touches don’t detract from the basic wild, wet, woody feel of the  place.

Find of the day had to be superb ice feathers on an old stick. The explanation for this phenomenon, which happens in damp woodland on sub-zero nights, is that a fungus is involved, according to this BBC article.

The fungus produces something called a recrystallisation inhibitor, and this somehow makes the feathers more stable. Yep, even the explanation on that link doesn’t stack up that well. Weirdly beautiful though.

So the place was a hit with us, but I would have driven straight past it without knowing it was there, as indeed I did, many times, before I had to find it for work.

There are bright signs at wall height but you just don’t see them until you’re at the turning, and then it’s too late.

No criticism of the RSPB, who do such a great job there, but it seems the signage was put in when there weren’t many facilities there and they weren’t sure they wanted to pull in huge crowds. It’s also in a National Scenic Area so that was a consideration.

It’s now under review, I understand, and I really think they should blow their own trumpet on this one and advertise themselves more, so more people can enjoy the understated delights of this lovely place.

Living in the country is a not unreasonable aspiration; I’ve moved out of Glasgow myself recently. And I know that many big landowners act reasonably, and take care of the environment they own.But the recent spread I saw in Country Life magazine  kind of set my nerves on edge.

 

Headline news …

The story here is basically what it says on the tin, but it masks all sorts of assumptions. For a start, a family home in Surrey is a lot less than £2m, the price mentioned in the article, for all but people who I would regard as the rich. A little over half a million will get you a nice semi in Oxted. Good enough for my family, if still rather outside my budget.

So we’re writing here for rich people, certainly by my standards and those of most of us north of the Border. The magazine waxes lyrical about all the sporting opportunities available to the purchaser. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but they don’t mean your kids could get into a shinty club or a local footie side, or there’s a good municipal golf course… it’s huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’.

And then there’s the massive assumption that buying up huge tracts of  land in Scotland for your own use  is an entirely appropriate thing to do.

I sent Calum MacLeod, policy officer for Community Land Scotland (CLS), a link to the story. His characteristically dry tweet in response: “Pour yourself a stiff drink, check if it’s still the 21st century outside and read on … ” One response: “Sudden urge to be violently sick…”

But it is still the 21st century, and despite the efforts of CLS and others there  are still big problems with land ownership in Scotland.

Interestingly the writer also pointed out that with the move towards more environmentally friendly land policies, grants and handouts would be readily available to estate owners to help safeguard their investment.

That of course points to the policy dilemma for the Scottish Government: it is keen to be seen to be green, and encourage trees for habitat and carbon sequestration, but that will mean handing wads of cash over to people who are already at least rich enough to think £2m is just the price of a family home.

As I recently discovered, there are some advantages to having big landowners for some rewilding projects: get them on board and you can have 40,000 acres on its way back to being a rich mix of woodlands and montane scrub. And there are benign landowners, who really mean well.

But – and this is the big but – it only takes one change of ownership,  that Country Life style sale to someone with a rosy vision of living like a laird,  for all that to change. The lack of certainty is what worries tenants and local people whose livelihoods might depend on the local countryside, and if your family from Surrey has different ideas on how to run the estate – putting deer before people, intrusive development, not repairing houses, blazing hill tracks through the landscape, and they can do it because it’s their plaything – you might understand how tenants, neighbours, and the local community get worried.

The solution to these things isn’t simple, and the extreme answer of just breaking up these big estates by law would lead to headlines about Robert Mugabe and land grabs. Community buyouts can make progress but there are limits to what the Scottish Land Fund can cough up for.

So is it maybe time to look at saying land holdings over a certain size should be subject to a board of local people, with a veto over developments they can show are counter to local interests, and  the power to force landowners to treat tenants fairly?

Those kind of burdens might make the Country Life reader with a big house in Surrey and more money than sense think twice about taking on a slice of our precious, fragile landscape.

The fact that you really notice it is maybe an indication of how bad things have got in the Highlands

Coming down off Stob Ban at the end of a weekend away with the Lomond Mountaineering Club, I came to a fence. On my side there were a few birches, mostly past mature and falling into decay, but no seedlings, saplings or scrub, just cropped, wet, tussocky grass.

The other side of the fence was a mass of birch saplings, and, lower down the hill, young Scots pine, all scattered about in a random way.

Great colours and light in Glen Nevis

The small muddy path that runs down from the north ridge of the mountain went through a gate in the deer fence and then through the new woodland, with some of the new growth across the path, which probably doesn’t get a lot of use as most Munroists (and lesser folk) bag Mullach Nan Coirean as well and come down a different way.

Of course fences are not the only way to prevent browsing and nearby I saw some regeneration on what I think was the open hill – perhaps evidence of reducing the deer numbers in the area.

The fenced area is on the Glen Nevis estate, and there is other regenerating woodland in the glen – all connected, I assume, with the work of the excellent Nevis Landscape Partnership.

I see more and more of these areas as I travel around the Highlands these days: I noticed regeneration up in Coigach at Easter, with new woodland spreading between Beinn More Coigach and the road; and near Balquhidder, much closer to home, a fence has brought startling regeneration to the bottom of Inverlochlarig Glen.

But it is the contrast with the huge swathes of land that is almost totally denuded of trees that is surprising. After looking at the woods in Glen Nevis, and the glowing autumn colours around the Polldubh crags, driving back through Glen Coe and then over toward Bridge of Orchy was especially bleak, with the Bridge of Orchy Hills standing out as treeless, coverless, and grim, where perhaps I had once enjoyed their sweeping lines and a stark beauty.

It’s a bit like the way my feelings changed about invasive rhododendron once learned that the beautiful purple flowers are a sign that a hugely damaging invasive plant is taking over and destroying the native vegetation.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people recently about deer management and woodland regeneration, and one thing is clear: more woods in the Highlands will be a good thing, as a carbon sink, to enhance the landscape, and to provide woodland products, shelter for the deer themselves and a richer landscape better able to cope with both climate change and our efforts at rewilding.

How we get there will depend on government decisions, land managers, conservation groups, and a lot of co-operation. Traditional estates tend to favour fencing, while owners focused on conservation tend to prefer deep culls, reducing deer numbers and scaring the deer away from the richer woodland sites.

But the co-operation is coming, and whether they’ll admit it or not the traditional estates are sounding an awful lot more like the conservationists than perhaps they once did.

Scottish Field Magazine quotes Richard Cooke, chair of the Association of Deer Management Groups, this week as being optimistic that the forthcoming review of the state of deer management by Scottish Natural Heritage will be favourable to his members: ‘The evidence from the review will we believe show that our sector is at the forefront of ecological and habitat regeneration, enhancing the landscape, and managing Scotland’s iconic deer herd sustainably – all a far cry from how, and too often, we are portrayed.”

Many in the conservation world will be understandably a little cynical at this but perhaps it’s time for them to step outside their silo and look at what’s happening on the other side of the fence (quite literally in some cases…)

While they may well want more of a big stick approach to landowners who don’t curb deer numbers properly, and with some justification, the reality is that politics and pragmatism mean they have to work together with landowners, so showing a little sympathy might help.

A lynx in Norway. Photograph courtesy Scotland: The Big Picture

I was pleased with this chat I had with John Nicholson for talkRADIO. John clearly knows his stuff but gave me plenty of time to have my say.

Rewilding is the flavour of the moment, even though a lot of it is just standard conservation practice, but the name is a useful tag. There’ll be a lot more of this to come, if only because I’m keen on it!!

Ps Apologies to the Herald, being on the staff is still just a dream for me…

Public bodies and Government agencies are usually the target of  journalists, and rightly so: without that scrutiny God knows what the likes of Alexander Johnson would get up to.

I was reminded of this talking to a Polish friend recently, when I  mentioned that journalism is … ahem … not the best-rewarded profession in the UK.  She was shocked as she knows from her own country the value of a free press, and I have done my fair share of badgering politicians and local authorities and other people in power.

But just for once I want to big up the work of a Government agency:  Forestry and Land Scotland.

Who they?  you say… it is of course the new name for the part of Forestry Commission Scotland that’s been turned into a separate agency. Anyhow, they are sometimes maligned for charging for parking, and obviously the many acres of Sitka spruce they planted back in the day are not the most popular part of our landscape.

But they do lots of good things. Before the name change they supported the archaeological dig I worked on in Glen Nevis a couple of years back …

The Dun Deardail dig in Glen Nevis

Then they have constructed all sorts of mountain bike tracks in their woodland, which I’ve used for years and thoroughly enjoyed.

Most recently I visited their woodland at The Lodge at Aberfoyle. Not my usual idea of a day out, too touristy. But with an eight-year-old and a disabled person along, what could be better? We were able to borrow a wheelchair and our wee pal could run around through the woods, exploring the tasteful but exciting added extras on to the Waterfall Walk.

Much of the site is given over to the Go Ape operation: the zipwires and treetop trails don’t seem to be too intrusive, and in fact Go Ape run the pretty decent cafe too.

It feels like this particular public body has got the message that it’s looking after an asset that belongs to us and we should be able to use it. I don’t want to spoilt the positive mood, but perhaps this could be an example for others …

 

Land ownership in Scotland is a tricky subject, with the classic figure “432 people own more than half the country” guaranteed to leave most reasonable folk envisaging the tweed-clad ruling class and hankering after change.

It’s a useful number in summing up many of the wrongs of what I call the Big Land system, but the truth, of course, is far more complicated than that: an awful lot of the land they own is economically useless hill and bog, and I suspect conservation NGOs and even community owners are among the 432 “people”.

Ripe to rewild: Rothiemurchus in the Cairngorms National Park. Pic: Scotland:The Big Picture

(Do the maths: for instance the Knoydart Foundation community owner has 44,000 acres, about 0.2% of the whole of Scotland, and if 432 owners had 0.2% each they’d own 95% of the land; so they’re a player, as will be other community land groups, the John Muir Trust, and the National Trust for Scotland. Unless, of course, I have made some order-of-magnitude error and my sums are way out…)

Anyway, leaving my geekery and dodgy maths behind, I was interested in a couple of mentions of land ownership at last weekend’s conference on rewilding at Stirling University, organised by Scotland: The Big Picture.

It was a fascinating event, with great speakers, including old friends such as Nick Underdown from Open Seas, outdoor education guru Peter Higgins, and Ian Mackenzie of Scottish Wildlife Trust, plus the charismatic American rewilder, Sean Gerrity. One point many emphasised was the importance of people in the “rewilded” landscape, giving the lie to the idea that rewilding is about parkifying or de-peopling.

Franz Schepers from the Rewilding Europe umbrella group stood out as giving us a very different perspective. Over there, on the mainland we’re about to become even more disconnected from, they’re bringing back large herbivores of the sort that cause us so many problems here in Scotland, because their woods are growing too well. I could see Steve Micklewright of Trees for Life going slightly green as he listened to that one.

It tells us that getting the balance right is not that simple, but Franz went on to make another very practical point. He was talking about rewilding in Portugal, including the Greater Coa Valley , and mentioned how hard it is to get the hundreds of small farmers, some of whom only have a hectare or two, on board.

He looked enviously at Scotland’s much derided land-ownership situation: get one laird with 44,000 acres on board and you’ve gone a long way towards rewilding a whole river catchment.

I guess there are two ways of getting landowners into with rewilding: make it pay or tug at their green heart-strings. Incentives to grow trees, cull herbivores, or tolerate carnivores can work; in Scotland’s case, kind-hearted environmentalist billionaires who have bought into rewilding are proving very useful.

Another speaker on Saturday was Jeremy Roberts from the Cairngorms Connect project, who is building a wildlife and woodland corridor across around 150,000 acres of the beautiful mountain and forest landscape on the great northern apron of the range.

A very big part of that 150,000 acres belongs to Anders Hoch Povlsen, the Danish billionaire whose holdings centre on the alpine and imposing Glen Feshie.

There’s an old saying in conservation: Grab it when you can, ’cos there’s not a lot of it about. Actually I just made that up, but it is what conservationists have to do, and by connecting up the Povlsen land with NGO and Government estates, Roberts and his team are taking a pragmatic approach. Povlsen has already proved that, whatever you think of him as Scotland’s biggest landowner, conservation is a major concern, and his wingman in Scotland, Thomas MacDonnell, has a great reputation for pushing the conservation agenda and being one of the good guys.

Roberts, who also gets other philanthropic cash, told the conference: “That funding, that support, is vital to us.”

The idea that we’re dependent on handouts at the whim of the wealthy to improve our environment will stick in the craw of many of us, and perhaps in the longer term a growth in community land can change things, but for now pragmatism dictates that Big Land in the shape of the rich is part of the answer to our environmental problems, in the short-to-medium term, at least.

 

 

 

 

I’m in Barra for a holiday, staying at Ardmhor on the edge of the vast Traigh Mhor: cockle bed, big sky, and of course, airport extraordinaire.

Icy swims, walks across the sands, surfing down at Vatersay, watching the weather come sweeping in, laughing a lot – my kind of beach holiday.

Traigh Mhor

But the most extraordinary part of this trip happened the other morning when we braved  torrential rain and wind to go for a walk over the back to the big west-facing beach which is the opposite of the flat calm here.

We watched the swell, leaned against the wind and marvelled at the wind-blown breakers, then trekked back to the airport cafe for a warm and a drink.

It was there that the really weird stuff happened:  we walked in dripping wet to the sound of a full 40-piece orchestra bashing out Scottish tunes, then Toto’s Africa … Violins, saxophone, trombone, French horn, bongos and drums, filled the tiny departure/arrivals lounge/cafe/shelter.

Unknown to us it was a stopping point for the amazing Nevis Ensemble, a group of young musicians who have the habit of popping up in all sorts of unusual places.

The Nevis Ensemble

There were probably more musicians than audience, despite a flight being just in, but the sheer joy the live music brought was stunning – you couldn’t not tap your feet, start to sway, sing along, even if your boots and shorts were soaking, and water was still trickling down your neck.

No stuffy suits or formal wear, just talented young people in jeans, wearing rucksacks, teeshirts, mixing with the crowd – giving it their all. We were grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole thing.

It seems they’re on a tour of the Hebrides and Barra was their first stop, rounded off with this airport show, before catching the ferry north.

Jon Hargreaves, conducting part of the show, looked as pleased as the audience and was still slightly breathless when we spoke to him afterwards to thank him for an unmissable experience. The musicians were still grinning too.

I doubt I will ever have another experience quite like that again, but you never know – if you come to a place like Barra, get out in the wind and rain, put yourself out, magical things do happen…

If you didn’t see the film of this earlier, here’s the wee clip:

This Nevis Ensemble …

 

We were looking for somewhere to  swim, and had driven out along  Loch Ard in the Trossachs, just west of Aberfoyle.

Camping and parking bans, access problems and grumpy landowners were all in the back of my mind as my son Rob kept saying “This looks good” … “Why not here?”

We’d struggled to find the spot referred to in a  guidebook as “perfect for swimming” – no grid ref, map or directions that made sense – and had turned as a last resort onto the road that leads on to some houses and the sailing club at the head of the loch.

So imagine my pleasure at seeing the welcome laid on by the good people of Kinlochard. We’d actually gone past this sign and I reversed back to it expecting to see the usual “keep out”, or a list of charges and what was banned.

Not only were we being made welcome to use this green field running down to the loch, the car-park at the village hall opposite was open and we were invited to use it.

We had a great swim in the loch, including the novelty of watching a heron on the bank from the water, and seeing ducklings scurrying down the bank for what may have been their first swim.

Next it was up to Loch Chon, just up the road, looking for somewhere for a quick dip to round off the trip. The spot recommended in the guide could be found easily this time  – but signs told me I was forbidden to use the car park there unless I was officially resident at the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park camp-site there.

We went back instead to the scruffy car park 300 metres back along the road, where we swam but found a pile of broken glass and hundreds of nails, evidence I’m sure of the former misuse that the LLTNP camping rules and regulations are intended to prevent.

I couldn’t  help wondering, though, what harm it would have done to park at the other spot, and wander down to the loch through the campsite, or on a path round it.

They’re two contrasting  attitudes to how to manage outdoor spaces in popular tourist areas, close to towns and cities and therefore well-used .

The good folk of Kinlochard clearly have the right idea:  I’m not sure if local  tourist businesses feel the benefit but they deserve to as  visitors who are essential to the  area’s economy are made to feel welcome, as  if something is laid on for them.  It probably also stops some people blundering through livestock or private grounds to get to the loch.

And of course we put a small donation in the honesty box when we had finished and packed up there: why wouldn’t you?

I’ve been cycling down to the office in Partick fairly often recently and it’s a joy to make a swift green journey, only five minutes longer than by car.

EXCEPT for this piece of appalling cycle  lane, and what follows…

I waited to see if a cyclist would come to make it a nice picture but none did. No-one uses it.

I don’t know if it’s the worst bit of cycling infrastructure in Glasgow but I’d love to hear about any that are worse.

From Shawlands I can use back roads and  the Shields Road quiet cycle route and subsequent cycle lane.  Then you’re directed on what appears at first to be a proper cycleway under the M8. Apart from being a bit ill-lit (there are plenty folk who would not use it at night) it’s not bad – and then it pops out into a cobbled wasteland: technically setts, but you know what I mean:  pavé, like in those nightmare Belgian bike-race  surfaces for men with cast-iron arses. There is an ever-narrowing stretch of tarmac next to it that almost  disappears. It feels like you’re being directed through an old bombsite.

Then you are shoved out through the industrial estate and onto Seaward Street, with the busy junctions through Kinning Park and on towards the BBC, all mobbed with traffic straight off the motorway, and some terrible road surfaces.

Now I’m pretty road-hardened, and can tackle the worst of junctions, but I don’t particularly like this bit of road: it’s busy, congested, there is painted-on cycle lane alongside part of it but not much, and until you can swing off past the Premier Inn next the BBC to Bell’s Bridge, you’re on your own. For those more tentative cyclists who we are trying to encourage to cycle to work, get fit, go green etc, this could be a real deterrent.

And like many of the worst cycle lanes we see – the ones that run right next to rows  of parked cars, ready to door you; the ones that stop dead, the ones that cars HAVE to go through or be stuck forever at traffic lights etc – a simple  cheap solution to much of this is at hand.

First, we could find a trailer full of tarmac and get it down on some of those setts. Some nice white paint to make it look a bit smarter, and even a few planters to make it feel you’re not going through the  set of Mad Max: problem solved.

Then we get clever. Instead of shooting out onto  Seaward Street, you could go straight on, past Forrest furniture which already has a private road there, down through the fence onto Paisley Road and then down to the Clyde through the Festival Park flats.

There is perfectly good riverside path there, and it would only take a minor excavation under the Squinty Bridge to make it safe for bikes. Except, of course, that for some reason developers have been allowed to claim this bit of riverside as private, fence it off and put keep out signs up along it, so from the Atlantic Quay commercial park to the Squinty is a no-go zone for the public.

The promised land: the city council says it’ll try to do something about this private riverbank

Like the true rebel I am I rode along this recently, flicking the Vs at that “private” sign, and it’s just the same as the rest of the riverside track. It’d be good if the city council claimed this back as another rather faded sign says it’s trying to do.

Anyway that’s my cure for this particular area but I am posing this challenge: Is there a worse piece of cycle track in Scotland? Post up, with pictures and description of why it’s so crap…

And this might be of interest:  http://bit.ly/2LgPGDJ  

 

I was at a fascinating event at Strathclyde University this week: A Social Justice Approach to Community Land, Energy and Forestry. which touched on many of the topics that I write and rave about – land reform, hydro schemes,  tourism, the NC 500’s impacts, and tax, along with the state of local democracy.

Massed campervans at Gairloch on the NC500

The speakers were uniformly excellent – Angela Riddoch and Andy Wightman are always good value, with excellent points about one of my pet subjects, the lack of local democracy in Scotland and the way community trusts and companies are filling that gap.

There was a blast of reality from Angela Williams from Knoydart, who fuelled the idea that all the noble community efforts which lead to community power generation schemes and buyouts have to happen because people in often remote areas don’t get the stuff that we all take for granted. If we had to make that effort just to get electricity or secure tenancies in cities most of us would be permanently exhausted, or give up, so don’t expect that it doesn’t happen to volunteers in the less-privileged areas of the countryside.

Engineer Paul Tuohy from Strathclyde came up with a remarkable observation about Kinlochleven where he has been looking at energy use.  There are huge amounts of power generated there by the hydro scheme, originally installed for the bauxite smelter and now feeding power into the National Grid, yet local people still pay normal rates for electricity, often burn wood to heat their homes and have to travel 13 miles to Glen Coe and back to fill up their cars. Why can’t they just tap into the turbine stuff, and use a small fraction of it to run electric cars, heat their homes and make the world a wee bit greener?

Agricultural subsidies came up, and a member of the audience asked the question about whether they could be reformed as a result of  Brexit, with EU subsidies being replaced.  I think we all agreed that this at least might be a benefit from Brexit (probably the only one…) and I was reminded that some time ago (almost two years, I fear) I sat down with Jonny Hughes, who just a month ago stepped down as the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

The result was a tape setting out the Trust’s pans for reform of agricultural subsidies, and I still think it bears a listen, I think.