Can’t see the wood …

Battling through a steep, densely planted, tumbledown stand of Sitka spruce in Cowal the other day reminded me of the strange new alliance Mountaineering Scotland (MCoS as was) has forged with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Jock Nimlin would have been turning in his grave, having waged a war of defiance against the servants of landlords, but MS (is that the best way to sell yourself, guys?!) teamed up with the SGA to warn against proposals to create acres of new woodland.

Trees, hills and wet snow in Cowal
Trees, hills and wet snow in Cowal

The representative body of climbers and mountaineers fears more block plantations and blighted views. As I clambered over the roots of another fallen tree and grovelled up another greasy rock, unable to see where there was solid even ground to head up, and with little idea of where I would come out, I had a bit of sympathy. Compared to striding over open hills this was sheer murder, and more of it was not feeling like a good idea.

But the same debate produced equally unlikely bedfellows in the shape of woodland and conservation charities such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and Confor, the representative group of the commercial forestry business. The logging industry is obviously keen on targets to raise Scotland’s woodland cover from 18 per cent to 25 per cent. Confor told me they can no longer plant in blocks, their plantations should not block access to the hills, and they should include a mix of native trees. After some maths I reckoned the rules under which they work would mean only about half of the extra woodland would be non-native conifers, the dark-green aliens such as Sitka which many feel are a blight on our landscape.That explains the enthusiasm of the nature-lovers, among whom climbers would normally count themselves, and I wondered if the MS stance was based on experiences like mine in Cowal.

A few days later we were climbing a hill on part of the Rob Roy Way near Pitlochry through a pleasant mix of native trees and aliens,  full of bird song and beautiful lichens, and it helped me to see where SWT were coming from. From what Confor told me it seems unlikely too that important mountain areas, high bare ground, will be planted under the current government drive for more trees, and wildlife could benefit; there will be constraints on wrecking our views.

But there again – James Fenton, the respected ecologist, was drafted in by the SGA and the climbers to bolster their argument, and he says we should not consider our bare landscape  a result of human action but more the product of  natural change  involving deer and other herbivores. He deplores the rush to reforest, and I sympathise with his desire to see the biggest threat to Scotland’s woodlands – the complex hybrid swarm of the invasive rhododendron – dealt with before we put cash into creating more woodland.

Rhodies have overwhelmed native woods near Lochgoilhead
Rhodies have overwhelmed native woods near Lochgoilhead

Like so many policy goals and numbers that governments like to stack up, the Scottish Forestry Strategy looks green and virtuous and is an easy win for ministers because it is unlikely to cost them very much and sounds so positive. It has however created this odd polarisation among groups that love and value our outdoor spaces, and probably agree rather more than they think – Confor is not planning to plant grouse moors with trees, the climbers are really not against more trees, they just want them in the right places, the wildlife trust and MS will have an awful lot of members in common, and all would probably agree that Jimmy Fenton is talking a  good deal of sense when he says we should get on with clearing the rhodies.

But that is going to cost money, and take  decades, and there’s no easy voter appeal in it. Reforesting will take a while too but that target – I am sure some minister has called it “ambitious”, as if that means something other than “We’re saying it but it’s unlikely we’ll ever do it” – sounds good now, and the consequences of failure are zip. It’s playing politics with our natural environment when bold decisions are needed on rhodies, plastic, red deer, squirrels and lots of other things.