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 …
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…
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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”.
(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.
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.
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: