The last few days have been great for walking around here, the rain showers clearing the air and the lowering sun bringing a fresh light to the views.

Our local loveliness …

We’re lucky to have this on our doorstep, and to have been here through lockdown and the current restrictions.

When you see how wonderful it is,  you understand better why people from the cities have, post-lockdown, burst into the countryside at what many would think is an alarming rate, to enjoy what we take for granted.

Photos, reports from national parks and other beauty spots show cars cramming onto verges when car-parks are full, and reports of dirty camping, littering and fouling. I’ve seen a lot of it myself.

Working on a footpath in Glen Nevis on Saturday I heard the wild meadows up at Steall Falls have become a favourite campground, with the Nevis Partnership team having to take daily visits up there to remind folk to clear up after themselves and not leave their (literal, not metaphorical) shite everywhere.

On my way up there very early on Saturday it was a bit like the old film Zulu: “Campervans, sir, thousands of ’em!” Every possible pull-in from Loch Lomond to Onich was packed with big white vans, little VWs, cars with stuff taped over the windows.

Most of those travellers will have got up, had their first cuppa, and then wondered where they were going to have their morning crap. A lot will not make it to the nearest public toilet …

I was covering the Finnich Glen beauty spot story again this week, and saw an unbearable pile of filth picked up by local volunteers for disposal there.

Landowner David Young points out the problem at Finnich Glen

Of course the people who are causing problems like this bear a responsibility, but look at parking: If you have driven from Glasgow to Ben A’an because it’s a place you know, went to as a kid, and want to show your own family, you expect to be able to park.

If the car-park is full, you maybe don’t know anywhere else to go in the Trossachs, and anyway, you promised them this great place… So you park on the verge. The response from the powers that be has of course been to close all the informal parking and ticket anyone who tries to park outside the car-park. Maybe they should direct them to somewhere quieter …

Nothing can excuse leaving litter behind, but people are people and they (kids especially) will need a crap while they are out and about. They’ll try to be unobtrusive, but when 70,000+ are visiting a 27-acre site like Finnich Glen, don’t expect it to be able to absorb that stoolage without impact. Up at the Fairy Pools on Skye they have had to install a treatment tank the size of a nuclear sub for the new toilets to deal with 200,000 bottoms a year.

At the same time the TV ads tell us to enjoy the natural wonders on our doorstep, for the sake of the economy; the pressure is on to cut long-distance travel; and the realisation that the natural world is in danger is encouraging a new appreciation of its wonders.

What that means is we need more and better facilities for people visiting the countryside. It does mean more car parks, and in the less frequented places, so they can absorb some of the hordes. It means better public transport – I don’t think there’s a bus stop less than 4km away from Finnich Glen.

It means new lavs, lots of them, all over the Highlands and in other rural areas, not closing them down to save money, plus places to empty chemical toilets  – aires like they have in France, maybe.

It means income from car parks such as that in Glen Nevis (£6 a day, I’d guess 100+ spaces?!) going back into the local tourist infrastructure, the crumbling footpath we were maintaining on Saturday, the council ranger service that has been cut.

And it means education. Not just signs, not just rangers politely informing people about the dos and don’ts: I haven’t see TV ads urging people to clean up their mess in the countryside, to run alongside the lavish films that tell us to go out and enjoy it.

And while I am sure it’s on the Curriculum for Excellence somewhere that you should take your litter and bog-roll home, and not leave your tent and beer bottles behind after camping, I’m just not sure it has quite enough emphasis…

A fine morning near Mugdock

Which of course brings me to residential outdoor education centres, so many of which are under threat of closure from being unable to operate under lockdown. They are the places young people from cities learn about litter, outdoor hygiene, and caring for the country. Yet they’ve had to launch a campaign for Government help to stay afloat. Maybe the Eat Out to Help Spread Coronavirus scheme’s cash could have gone on that …

So enjoy the countryside, folks, but don’t forget: it needs money, effort and political will to keep it the way we want it. Spread the word, not the sh……

 

The trout flashes golden in the sunlit water. I reel it in, seeing the spots and patterns of its sleek body, shaky with excitement. It’s totally unexpected: first cast, with the simple gear my father taught me to use more than 50 years ago. It’s a keeper, for sure, and it goes in the bag.

Now, I worry, what’ll happen if I catch another good one on my second cast? That’ll be as much as I could possibly eat today, and I’ll have no more reason to stay here …

Fishing mad: that’s me on the right

This loch is a wonderful, secret place: a good size – maybe 400m long, 200m across – but invisible from anywhere other than the circle of low hills surrounding it. It’s not far from a big sea-loch and there’s a wide-open-sky feel here above the steep heather and bracken, birch and oak.

When I was a small boy, the family parked the caravan and our blue-and-white Austin Cambridge, 217 XTJ, on the sheep-cropped turf next to the road, maybe a kilometre away. We fished the loch we could see, and the burns, but had no idea this hidden loch was there.

Then dad met the gamekeeper. I remember him, a craggy man in tweed, pedalling along the narrow road on an ancient black bike, like the one granddad still had in the spare room, with its smell of oil and old newspaper. I saw a brown ten-bob note change hands. Dad came back with a smile.

“There’s another loch,” he told us. “Over the hill – you boys can fish it, but we can only take the two biggest you get.”

Over the hill next day, old cane rod over my shoulder, a big expedition. The loch sparkled then, too, with gnarled oak woodland running down to the shore, green, quiet, a lost world we felt privileged and thrilled to be in.

Dad supervised as my older brother and I set up, maybe a hundred metres apart, and waited. It didn’t take long then, either, and after maybe an hour-and-a-half I had two in my keep-net, and he had two. Bigger than our normal burn trout, a good dinner’s worth on each.

Then came the judgement of Solomon. I honestly couldn’t see the difference, but his two were appraised as being slightly larger than the ones I had caught, so dad ruled they were the ones to be kept. We took them home for mum to gut and cook for us. Good – but I couldn’t help wishing one of them was mine…

Happy families … mum worked hard

That holiday still burns bright in the memory. Two lads, maybe eight and 11, wandering the lochs, the burns with their dad; unearthing worms for bait from cowpats; trout sizzling in burnt butter; building dams in the small stream; seeing a barefoot pack of children outside a net-strung croft cottage.

Sunshine, midge bites, the smell of gas and boiling spuds in the caravan… Mum worked hard to keep us fed and vaguely clean, and I suspect my sister, five year older than me, hated it, but for me it was paradise.

Finding the hidden loch on the map again is no problem. Walking back over to it, I catch my breath when it comes into view, as beautiful, steeply hidden, silent and secret as before.

Two hinds shoot up from the long heather as I walk down to the water. The first time I was here, the sighting of a deer would be a wonder to be talked about for days; now they’re a commonplace. Is that why the oak trees seem sparser? There’s no sign of oak saplings – the only young trees are birches clinging under the steep loch banks were deer can’t get them.

I needn’t have worried about getting too lucky. After my first catch the next couple of hours are wasted happily, wading barefoot to cast, wandering the banks of the loch, without a sign of another bite.

I walk back over the hill to my car and gut the trout.  I’m not really sure if it’s bigger than those others, but at least it’s mine. I get out the stove and butter, and in the lee of a bank, the fish is fried, a few leaves of mountain thyme in its belly.

Crisp skin, a little salt, light pink flesh pulling off the bones: the finest food of all, tasting of the best memories.

 

Kate Holl visits a remnant of the native woods which once blanketed Scotland’s west coast:

A while back I had the pleasure of the company of Kate Holl, woodland adviser to Scottish Natural heritage, for a trip out to a very special place.

Kate Holl

I recorded our visit to a small speck of pristine rainforest, a hidden lost world, and  Kate’s deep knowledge and feeling for woodland is apparent on this tape. It was one of those days that make being my job brilliant.

The news that the Langholm Initiative had won a £1m grant from the Scottish Land Fund seems to have been generally greeted by colleagues in the media as a good news story for the Initiative’s bid to buy in 10,500 acres of moorland.

It is a significant sum of money (it would do me …) but I’m afraid the truth is that the award will be seen as a major disappointment by the Initiative, which wants to take over this chunk of the Buccleuch estate and turn it into a community-owned wildlife haven and nature reserve.

It had asked for £3m towards the £6m that the Duke of Buccleuch is asking for the land, having already raised maybe £200,000 towards the buyout through a crowdfunder and the John Muir Trust. Even that would have still left the Initiative folk with a mountain to climb, maybe a summer Matterhorn, challenging but doable for the fit and able. Now it looks a bit more like K2 in winter, in roller skates and boxing gloves.

The Langholm Initiative’s crowdfunder appeal

The basic problem is that the land fund has a limit of £1m on individual grants. This was breached a couple of years ago to give more than £4m to the buyout of 5,000-acre Ulva off the west coast of Mull, so that might have given hope to the Langholm folk, but clearly this was not judged to be so important. Perhaps Ulva, as an area brutally depopulated in the Highland Clearances, was of higher significance as a symbol of land reform.

But despite being the most expensive community buyout proposal ever in Scotland, the Langholm Moor project is significant and has a lot going for it.

Langholm Moor was the site of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, which ran from 2008 to 2018 and was intended to come up with answers as to whether grouse moors could be run differently to bring greater benefits to nature. That will mean a lot is known about how it works, its flora and fauna, and how it can be run to benefit nature.

Importantly the proposal is being put together by local people, with local support. The Langholm Initiative has been around since 1994 and has a string of other projects to its name, benefiting people in this remote corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

I am convinced that a local approach – rather than some outside NGO or agency marching in and looking to make the place “wild”, while pissing off the locals – is one of the best ways for environmentally beneficial projects to thrive, and privately staff at some of those NGOs agree.

A few months back I was down on the Eddleston Water near Peebles where a whole-catchment experiment in natural flood prevention is going on, with tree planting, remeandering and dams which mimic the work of beavers.

The project’s success is already becoming apparent, with locals noting smaller flood peaks downstream in Peebles.

And it has had excellent buy-in from landowners – not always the keenest on enviro-schemes that don’t make them money – because it’s being run by what a 2016 report describes coyly as “a trusted intermediary.” More straightforwardly The Tweed Forum which is delivering the scheme on behalf of the Scottish Government and others has its roots in the local  fishing and land managing community itself: they know the people involved from the start.

The Langholm plan is not the same but this similarity, in local roots and drive, is what makes me think the project deserves support, a chance, because local people will back it to the hilt.

There are also around a dozen lettable houses, and a working farm, on the buyout site which should mean it can be a viable business from the get-go, with money coming into its coffers to pay for support workers and schemes. Not all land buyouts have this advantage…

Those homes and farmland, of course, will have been one of the factors in pushing the price so high, but you have to question the valuation of £6m. It’s based on “current market values” but beyond the houses and farm, upland ground has no great commercial value.

It might be hoped, of course, that the Duke would look kindly on the locals at this point and lop a few quid off his asking price: what would a couple of mill matter to him? That is perhaps unlikely (!) so some other rich benefactor will probably be needed if the project is to raise all the cash by October as it must to keep its £1m from SLF.

At a time when we’re ever more aware of the degradation of our environment and the need to repair it, this situation of dependence on wealthy folk to help out of the goodness of their hearts seems crazy.

I’m not one for doing a Mugabe (or giving some the chance to suggest a Mugabe is being done) but are there grounds for suggesting that areas of land such as this might have to be sold at a discount to local people, if they have a good plan for it that will bring major benefits? Maybe “market value” is less than an ideal way to approach these issues?

Without Government intervention, the folk of the Langholm Initiative will need supplementary oxygen, down suits, crampons specially adapted to fit round the wheels, and a hefty slice of luck up there. But let’s hope anyhow they can get to the top. They deserve to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the woods … Jenny’s Burn

I’m as confused as everyone else by the different Covid directives on outdoor activities from different governments, so for the moment I’m still staying pretty local with any adventures. That can be a bit limiting, or you can take it as challenge …

On the other side of the road from my house is Jenny’s Burn, which flows down off the Campsies from a few different sources including Jenny’s Lum, currently just a wet streak on the rock but filmed during the last big storms as a proper smoking lum, with the wind blasting the water upwards in a cloud of spray. Went a bit viral, I think.

Anyway, I’ve been down into the burn bed to pinch a few stones for the garden, and looked down into it from the bridge on the Pipe Track on the hill above here, and wondered for a while what a small expedition, from source to sea (or at least the Blane Water, which it joins at the bottom of the road) would be like.

On a hot day I pack: a short rope, a sling, a harness, a helmet (all useless in the end), a head-torch (quite handy for the last bit) and head off up the Pipe Track. Turning right through a gate after the last house takes me up onto the high apron of ground in front of the steep crags of the Strathblane Campsies.

From high up this track, I head across around 600 metres of the cattle-poached ground for a large solitary ash in one of the upper gullies of the burn.

As soon as I drop down into the dip I feel I’ve found something a bit magical. A ewe and her two lambs are asleep in the shadow of the tree, so I skirt well round them and begin to follow the trickle.

There is shade from the odd tree and bush, tiny flowers, the slight sound of the burn, and a feeling that I am in a hidden landscape, richer, quieter, and more complex than the swathe of moorland above.

At first there’s no need to get my feet wet, then I lower myself down a couple of short steps in an effort to stay in the stream-bed proper. At the point where another trickle flows in from the right, it’s clear neither of these is a trickle in winter: a 5m cliff of rubble stands above the junction, source no doubt of some of the rocks across the road from home.

A bit more water in the bed now, the igneous rock changing to sedimentary, splashing through pools and across slippery slabs, and then the burn and I head into the woods. I worry I might end up visible at the bottom of someone’s expensive garden, but I only glimpse one big property in the distance on those upper sections.

There are trees and branches across the watercourse, all needing hopping, a few small water slides, but it never gets so steep I can’t walk down it with care. It’s a sunny day but there are deep pools of shade here and sometimes it’s a struggle to adjust my eyes to the changes in light.

Quite soon I’m below the Pipe Track bridge. Water gushes out of an outlet pipe, I think from the water-works, more than doubling the volume in the burn, and below here I get a fair bit wetter, with water on occasion up to my shorts.

I come to the first properties that sit right on the burn, and think someone has spotted me. Nothing happens but I scuttle quickly down a bit further, stinging my hand on something that afterwards makes me feels like I’m getting a small electric shock to the skin.

Next it’s down, around a bend and into the first tunnel – under the main A81– and through a tangle of vegetation to the channel opposite our house. Below here everything is a lot more disciplined, with a built bed and a couple more short tunnels. The deep channel runs right in front of some houses, past a mass of ivy, then I get to the last bit, where the burn disappears under the road for about 60 metres, before it emerges into the Blane.

I told myself before I started that I wouldn’t do this: the locals might think I was mad or dangerous, maybe it is mad or dangerous …

But then I think: it’s source-to-outlet, not source to 60m from the outlet. At least I can have a look…

I get the bag off, and I’m getting my head-torch out when a couple of small children trot over from the garden next to me and look down curiously. The smaller says: “Man in stream. Oooh.”

Fortunately their mum, drawn to see what they’re looking at, is a tolerant lady: she just asks kindly if I am all right, and smiles the smile normally reserved for your children’s harmless, innocent idiocy when I admit I am going through the tunnel. I dump the rucksack on the side to retrieve on my way back, and set off.

The first bit, under the entrance to Blane Crescent, is pretty cramped, requiring a crab-crawl style, but then it falls away a bit, before the next bit of tunnel, older brickwork, again cramped at first but then easier.

Then out I pop out into the Blane, allow myself a smile of satisfaction and scramble up the gabions opposite onto the bank. Expedition complete, and a success, I think.

Walking back the few yards to the road I affect the air of a man just out for a saunter for the benefit of some passing locals, forgetting I am muddy and dirty and wet, and am wearing a lit head-torch on a brilliant sunny afternoon. They probably assume I’m a crazed dentist who’s got badly got lost.

Then it’s back up the road, grab my bag and home.

It’s hard to explain the satisfaction from something as small and daft as this: it’s a tiny adventure with no huge challenges, but it’s right there, and I wonder who else has ever done this? OK, who would want to!? But … it was as much fun as I have had outdoors in a while.

Would recommend.

I’m pleased to have got an honorable mention in the Mountaineering Scotland annual writing competition, for this bit of writing that’s a bit more personal than my usual material. Fourth place didn’t come with a prize or publication, but it’s no’ bad.

No word from Raven Crag

Remembered: Ice-cold alloy gear sticking to my hands, and to the frozen ground. Just at dawn, the small car park at Thorneythwaite Farm, on a dry, snow-free February day, in the old days when I lived south of the Border.

Today, it’s the end of March. The same path for Glaramara leads up into scrubby woodland, thorn trees, bracken. I see the magnified beauty, the pretty detail and handsome hillsides of Borrowdale, the green, lush, stone-walled farmland bordering straight onto the craggy steepness, the peopled landscape edged by mountain piles. It’s a far cry from the cleared glens of my adopted home.

We’ve forgotten the water bottle, so the lad dashes back for it, and while I wait I recall our heavy-laden walk up this path. She had the rope and I had the gear, up and into the combe, crisp blue sky and rock-hard ground, a hint of anxiety at tackling a long mountain rock route, however easy, in freezing February.

There was verglas on the first pitch and we pulled it off with our hands. After that our timing seemed perfect as the sun came onto the face, instantly warming, relief to chilly hands and cold rock.

In those days the hawthorn tree next to where I sit was probably a strong young tree. Now it’s open on one side, a decaying core exposed, but on each side of it two sturdy strands have grown up like curled banister rails, its strength recovered.

There’s rich orange bark on another tree, curiously whorled and shaped around a hole made perfectly for some animal or bird to raise a family.

He’s back, and we walk on in my old footsteps, he with a long flaming mane of hair – I was the same at that age – and easy stride. I try to push the pace, but I’m the only one panting.

As the path for Glaramara rises we sidle off on the small track into the bottom of the combe, at first heading right, towards the big crag. My memory is of rough dark rock, always with a hold to go for – we whooped with joy at the hand traverse, so much exposure and excitement for an easy grade.

But the well-worn old climb is topped with cloud today, and the sun is slipping away from it. Changing plan seems simple here compared to home, with all these fine rough mountain crags to head for, charted and laced with climbs, a star here, three stars there, inviting and tempting us to sport.

Ahead now to our left is the rock-slip buttress, complicated and pinnacled, pale and dry with the slight silver-watered sun gleaming onto it.

We reach the lowest rocks, gear up, and I lead an entry pitch to a stance amidst holes, pinnacles, slots and boulders. From the broad belay I have time to watch a pair on the buttress opposite, hoping to catch them on the hand traverse and maybe hear the whoop again.

He comes through and takes his time to carefully step up onto the hanging slab above, but then his progress is swift and easy.

I know he’s fine, and I have always lived in the belief that a life without risk and challenge is no life at all. I love that he climbs, and is steady and competent, but you can’t help fearing for them.  “Time for a bit of gear, son?”

That last time: she led out in her turn, confident and smiling. The choice was justified, the risks were right, it was a perfect day, rising all the while up the narrow band of clean rock.

And at the top we coiled the ropes in grins and hugs, sunshine and easy companionship. How could we have known then what was to come? No terrible fall, no crippling hate, just life making it harder to get back to those perfect days: kids, jobs, houses, tiredness, changing hearts, changing focus …

The lad is belayed in a small cave and I step up onto the arête above, easy climbing but no gear, to top another pinnacle and face the final small obstacle, a tough little corner, awkward and smeary, a guessing game for the higher holds. I guess right and with an awkward pull I’m through it, and onto the top.

Belay on, I take in. He’s fast up it and I hear voices floating from the combe below, but no word from Raven Crag. It’s too distant and the wind is blowing towards it, to whip away stray sounds.

We coil the rope, and when I look over the other pair have topped out and are clear in profile right above the climb, heading back along the ridge, the well-remembered walk with views across and down, hard-rocked hills and green dales all around, a view to make a life for.

Did we warm ourselves by a cottage fire that night, did we camp and head for the pub? I can’t recall the rest of that old day, blurred into so many Lakeland trips, but those crystal moments remain, the pure unmixed pleasure and intensity of a climb with someone I love.

Now we’re on another route, on the slab on the left of the crag, and he steps neatly through the overlap. He’s unprotected and I look away, then gear slips into place and he follows the break up and into the final groove. It’s a long pitch and I know we packed for easier climbing, but he never complains, just eases himself over the lip to the stance at the top.

He builds a perfect belay – engineering is now his profession – and I struggle up the overlap, before trying to regain my dignity on the rest of the pitch.

We walk back down the combe in a light, soaking drizzle, delighted to have got it right again, beaten the weather, had the best of the day. There is a warm tightness in my heart, pure, unmixed pleasure and intensity.

That past sits sit easy now too, unsullied by what followed: the gall is gone, replaced by a soft, sweet sadness and a memory of the best of times. After all, when life is short, what’s the point in remembering the hard, rough, tear-filled days that ended in my flight to the north?

Tonight the lad is good company, and when we get our pints I drink a self-conscious but heart-felt toast: “To the good times.”

And I hope there will be many more, for me in my life, for her in hers, but especially for our children.

 

A look at the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 is sobering, if not frightening. In a complete inversion of the norms of society, we are not allowed by law to leave our homes, except for very specific reasons. That’s the biggest legal constraint on our people, ever, including during two world wars.

We all know why, and few would doubt that these laws and our compliance with them is necessary, at least until science and the Government has got to grips with the nature of the challenge posed by SARS-CoV-2.

Ben Lomond has plenty of space for social distancing

It’s been translated by both the UK and the Scottish Government into the simple, powerful, single ‘stay at home’ message. That, I suspect, stems from Westminster, and I think we all know why: it has to be simple enough for members of the UK Cabinet to understand.

But one of those specific reasons you can have for going out is for exercise, and it’s here that actually there’s complexity, and space for debate, based on science and rational thinking, and maybe the idea that the public can make sensible judgements.

The LAW says you can leave your home for exercise, without a time limit or mention of where that exercise should be. The written GUIDANCE from the Scottish Government https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-staying-at-home-and-away-from-others-social-distancing/pages/staying-at-home/ then suggests that it should be for as short a time as possible, with no official guidance on whether you can travel anywhere for that exercise.

Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s respected and now well-known National Clinical Director, has taken the guidance further on exercise, and said: “This is about going for a short walk locally, a run or a short bike ride, not spending time on your favourite sport or hobby.

“If you travel further afield, there is a risk you might come into contact with other people, whether you plan to or not, so please keep this to an absolute minimum. “

So there is a clear law, then some guidance, and then additional guidance, and, surely, a question over why travelling a bit further than your immediate locality poses a greater risk of contact with others.

For instance, some might think exercising in a local park in Glasgow, with perhaps dozens of others about, poses a greater risk that driving out to Mugdock Park or the Whangie, Conic Hill or up into Arrochar and the Trossachs. There might be dozens of people there, but they are spread over a much larger area. Yes, bring your own picnic, don’t go in the local shops when you’re in the countryside, be sensible, but surely a walk in empty country is as low a risk as you can get?

Then there’s the question of how long you go out for. Once you’re out, maintaining social distance and avoiding contact with gates, which pose a tiny risk, could we not spend a few hours tramping the hills?

Jason Leitch’s line about ‘not spending time on your favourite pastime or hobby’ does him a disservice: he’s been a star of this crisis, but it’s a wrong call. If you’re going out for exercise, why not enjoy it on your mountain bike on some local trails? Why not to enjoy the peace of a riverside, and maybe take photographs of wild birds while you’re out? Our slice of freedom doesn’t have to be drained of all joy.

And there’s enforcement. The cops can enforce the law, but they should be careful not to try to enforce the guidance – it is, after all, just guidance. The furore over sunbathing down south also reminds us that ‘going out for exercise’ is a pretty middle-class idea, and other people’s needs – for a bit of sunlight on skin and relaxing in an open space – shouldn’t be ignored.

Going out for relaxation and recreation, within social or physical distancing limits, would be a better phrase.

And then we get on to farmers and other country dwellers we’ve heard of trying to bar city-dwellers from the countryside … a whole other can of worms, but the sound of pitchforks being sharpened is never attractive.

There is so much to say about this, and I may be barking up a whole copse of wrong trees, but there is space for debate.

You can at present contact the Scottish Government on Covid-19 issues such as the regulations and guidance via the feedback section at the end of this document: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/pages/10/

There is no specific email for views on the exercise side of things at the moment: it seems to be a secondary issue to Government, but don’t let that stop you.

It’s vital, so fire in a view: you may even think the law or the guidance needs tightening up, you might want them changing in other ways, but without folk lobbying, nothing will happen, and the assumption that going out into the open air and actually enjoying it is a bad thing will sink ever deeper roots.

 

There’ll be plenty of people getting a bit down about the current restrictions on our daily lives, but of course we can keep our social distance and still go out for a walk. It’s recommended in fact, and to do just that I have been exploring one of Scottish Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves. I talk to myself a lot anyway so last week I thought I would record my thoughts and the sounds of the reserve on a sunny morning to bring a bit of nature and peace to everyone at a time when we all need a some…

It’s the Loch Ardinning reserve at NS 564778 just north of Glasgow, on the A81 about 5km north of Milgavie, 12km north of Glasgow city centre.

 

On Sunday I joined about a dozen brave ladies for a swim in my local loch. They opted for the sensible wetsuit option, and I got in just in my shorts. You can imagine who stayed in for longer …

The ladies of the loch …

Getting in in just your skin is all about self-control. As soon as you step in the water your ankles start hurting, but you have to ignore it. I stayed in long enough to get my breathing under control before I began to think I should get out: without a timer on the bank to tell you how long you’ve been in, it’s quite easy to underestimate the duration of your dip. I opted for caution, and I reckon I was in for less than two minutes.

Nevertheless I enjoyed the benefits that are now being widely promoted of swimming in cold water – in this case about 5deg C, I was told. Dressed and dry, I swiftly warmed up with a flask of coffee, my skin was glowing, and there was a genuine feeling of well-being: it was deeply relaxing.

Those with suits and tow-floats swam across the loch and back, some managing proper front crawl despite the pain of the water on their heads.

I did a similar but even shorter dip in the Lake of Menteith on New Year’s Day, which thanks to a whipping wind and scudding waves felt even colder, and maybe that had boosted my resistance for another go five days later.

Open-water swimming, wild swimming, cold-water swimming – whatever it’s called, it seems to have got into the public’s imagination in the last couple of years. I have always been one for a leap in the sea, but staying in beyond the pain threshold is fairly new for me. It started in 2018 when I began to prolong my summer sea dips, and then I went in the sea a few months later in December at Wardie Bay in Edinburgh with open-water swimming legend Colin Campbell for a radio tape.

It’s such a massive contrast to how we live our lives these days. Done with care it’s safe, but you have to focus on yourself, your surroundings, your breathing: stay in too long and you can be in serious trouble. Like climbing, mountaineering, many other outdoor activities, you have to be self-sufficient – there’s no safety net other than your own common sense, no cotton-wool culture.

Some would call it risk, but it’s better expressed as adventure, stepping into the unknown. A swift dip in a local loch is about as quick an adventure as you can get, but even such slivers of visceral enjoyment are enough to makes us whole and give life its savour.

The taxi driver taking me from Waverley Station wasn’t sure that the climate emergency was human-driven. Sure, he said, it’s a good idea to plant more forests, but actual climate change? Maybe it was sunspots, maybe a natural cycle …

He wasn’t the most extreme I have heard, but there’s always someone in the pub or the office who’ll say our environmental problems are a bit exaggerated, we will manage because we always have, the nuclear apocalypse didn’t happen so why should we expect this one to …

He dropped me at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBGE) in Edinburgh. I’m sure the 200 or so scientists and conservationists meeting there for the RBGE’s Scottish Biodiversity Science for Nature conference wouldn’t say they were 100% sure all climate change was driven by people – that would be unscientific. After all, the only things we can ever be really sure of are death and taxes…

Exciting times at the SBS conference…

But what the scientists did have to say, about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and the whole web of interrelated environmental changes we’re making, removed any remaining complacency in me about what kind of action is needed. Let’s take a look at some of them and what they had to say.

After the introductions, first up was Dr Mark Eaton of the RSPB. Not a crusty, then, and not a bloke who would be likely to spread alarm without good reason; the representative of a highly-respected conservation charity, who rattled through the State of Nature Summary, the document published earlier this year with all sorts of worrying statistics for the UK.

They included the idea that more than one in 10 of the 6,400 species assessed in Scotland for the report are in danger of extinction from Great Britain. There were declines in abundance, distribution …there were also some statistical positives, but on the whole Dr Eaton didn’t seem too chuffed.

Next was Debbie Bassett – I’ll dispense with titles in the main, just assume they’ve got a PhD in baffling stuff, unless I say otherwise (in which case they’re probably writing up their thesis as we speak…). She works for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government wildlife agency, where she’s the biodiversity strategy manager. So, a civil servant, paid to take a balanced view.

She spoke about the IPBES report, details of which were published in May 2019, which told us nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, and grave impacts on people around the world are now likely.

The biggest drivers of these changes, she said, were land and sea management and exploitation, but with third-placed climate change coming through on the rails.

And she spoke of the need to make this information, these ideas about nature, part of the mainstream discourse: “This is a truly pivotal time for people and nature,” she said. Her focus was on people and how they had to get the message and she urged us to talk to strangers about these issues: “We are doing good things but it’s just not enough,” she said.

Clive Mitchell, also from SNH, gave a nice simple explanation of why things need to be done by 2030: Since 1950 we’ve already produced half the extra carbon needed to drive the climate past the level where it’s going to be at all tolerable; current forecasts show us producing the rest in the next 11 years without big changes. I’d say that worried him.

The list went on: there was Rachel Tierney (not a doctor, but sharp as a tack) telling us about the Scottish Biodiversity Information Forum, which seeks to make all the bits of data about Scottish wildlife, plants, and nature in general, available to scientists and researchers, and the public.

Important? Yes, and especially so in the context of getting the message across to people about habitat loss, changes in populations – the changes humans are bringing about, directly and indirectly to the landscape. If you’ve got the data, it’s quite hard for taxi drivers or politicians to dismiss what you’ve got to say (unless of course they’re the ones who like to dismiss experts and present “alternative facts” …).

Professor Mark Blaxter from the University of Edinburgh is playing a big role in the Darwin Tree of Life programme to try to sequence the genomes of all the plants and animals in the UK. This, he says, could transform the way we do biology, and lead to new drugs, new bioengineering techniques – and of course it will put us in a position to know better what we’re losing.

Richard Lilley told us about the importance of seagrass, which stores 15 per cent of the carbon stored in our oceans; he is busy on a project helping to restore it around the UK. Roxane Andersen from the University of the Highlands and Island had come from Thurso to tell us about the benefits of peat restoration, locking up carbon in the most efficient store for it there is.

One of my favourites was Kirsty Blackstock, who’s not a biologist at all but a social scientist at the James Hutton Institute. Its website tells me her special interests are “governance, particularly public and stakeholder participation in environmental policy-making and implementation.”

Exciting stuff, but not only that, she’s also a whizz on Giddens’ Double Hermeneutics. (The fact that she made this stuff sound interesting just emphasises the level of expertise, passion and purpose these folk have.)

That Giddens thing is, I gather, the idea that while natural sciences like biology study stuff in a one-way process, with no feedback from what you’re studying, social science has a two-way understanding thing going on: the people and groups you study are looking at you and learning from what you do. Rocks and animals don’t do this – although  anyone who’s been caught in the curious gaze of a grey seal bobbing up next to a boat might argue that’s not quite true…

The message I got from her was that it’s all very well knowing stuff, but getting people to understand it, and connect with the natural environment, is what’s important.

This took me back to Debbie Bassett’s point about talking to strangers, spreading the word – persuading people.

As well as a lot of interesting ideas for future features and stories (and apologies to any scientists reading this who feel I have traduced their work or their presentations: I do my best to understand), that need to communicate was the essence of what I took from this event.

So instead of vaguely muttering to the taxi driver : “Well, the scientists kinda do think climate change is all down to us, but yeah, hmm, your sunspots theory is interesting…” we need to look at what scientists really do know, and have the tools to persuade people that we need to act, on carbon emissions and the interlinked problems of loss of habitat, biodiversity and species.

Whether it’s a bloke in the pub or a politician, they need to know how the land really lies. The views of 200 scientists, or those of a taxi driver: who do we really think knows best?