HILL TRACKS IN SCOTLAND (November 2018) I personally think there should be a moratorium on all new hill tracks in Scotland: there comes a time when our upland landscape is just full-up with infrastructure and this time has been reached. Wild land is disappearing at an alarming rate, and new tracks, built for whatever reason, open up access to remote areas – as they do all over the world. Hence I support the sentiments of the Scottish Green Party as shown below, although perhaps more tracks are currently being bulldozed for hydro schemes, windfarms and forestry schemes than sporting estates (all are equally bad!). Media Release, Scottish Green MSPs, 31 October 2018 SNP And Tories Block Bid To Control Bulldozed Hill Tracks SNP and Tories MSPs should “be ashamed”, after blocking a bid by Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman to impose tougher controls on landowners who scar hillsides by bulldozing tracks for deer stalking and grouse shooting. At today’s meeting of Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee, SNP and Tory MSPs voted down Mr Wightman’s amendment to the Planning Bill, which would have required landowners to seek planning permission for tracks on land used for stalking and shooting, and on land in National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Scenic Areas. Andy Wightman, Land Reform spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP for Lothian, said: “The campaign against bulldozed hill tracks has been long-running, and I want to thank the numerous membership groups who helped build huge public support for my amendment, including Ramblers Scotland, RSPB, the National Trust and Mountaineering Scotland. It’s disappointing that SNP and Tory MSPs have bowed to vested interests in blocking this move. They should be ashamed. “The current system whereby landowners notify planners of a bulldozed track rather than seek detailed permission is clearly a sham. Hillsides both Highland and Lowland are visibly scarred, often ruining environmentally sensitive habitats, and usually in the interests of stalking and shooting, which the public have little sympathy for…” TIME TO STAND UP FOR THE EU (September 2018) Note: this was written in February 2016, before the EU referendum Everyone seems to be leaping onto the anti-EU bandwagon and even those who say they are in favour qualify their approval by saying it needs a major overhaul. However I fully support Judith Gillespie in her letter to The Herald of the 29th of January who argues strongly in favour of the EU. Where has all this anti-European rancour come from? Oft-quoted problems with the EU are trotted-out, particularly migration, over-regulation, lack of democracy, and worst of all, the ‘unaccountable Brussels’ bureaucracy’. People speak in generalities about these and, in the current herd mentality of Britain, they are echoed by politicians of all hues, by the press, even the supposedly impartial BBC. ‘There is a need for reform’, is the cry! Facts, indeed any evidence-base, appear irrelevant. I see this emotional, anti-EU rhetoric as a form of peer-group pressure: everyone is doing it, so there must be something in it. It is, if you like, the spirit of the age, not amenable to ratiocination; for at heart, we are not rational creatures but under the thrall of the emotional zeitgeist. In the past it might have witch-burning, anti- papist or reds-under-the-beds, today it is the EU. There are so many positives about the EU that it is hard to know where to start, but history is as good a place as any. Europe over the centuries has not always been a very edifying spectacle, with wars looming prominent. The Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War and two World Wars, to name but a few. In spite of all this aggression, culturally we in the UK have a lot more in common with our European neighbours than with the other countries of the world. In the past we in Europe have all acted like children who are for ever squabbling and fighting each other. The wars have sapped all the energy, with little left for trying to create a better future for everyone. It was only after the Second World War that the realisation dawned upon nations that ‘togetherness is strength’, that continual squabbling and fighting led nowhere and it was best to work together to achieve common goals. Hence the birth of the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Justice and the United Nations. But our memory is short and, unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it is harder to work together than fight each other, so we are descending once more down the path of least resistance: negative criticism rather than creative problem-solving. Working together means compromise, means giving up cherished positions, a lot of give-and-take, a willingness to see another country’s point of view, and an understanding that your position might not be in the interests of the greater good. Much easier to be the spoilt brat demanding his or her way! Thus the post-war optimism and unity has given way to the ‘each-man-for-himself’ mentality, with fragmentation back into nation states. And it is not only the UK which is pulling up the drawbridge. But surely the lesson of history is that fragmentation leads to eternal conflict?  I find it appalling that we in the UK take pleasure in sitting on the sidelines watching the difficulties of other countries or institutions, such as the Eurozone or migration, instead of rolling up our sleeves and doing our best to help our neighbours. I get the impression that those of a strong Eurosceptic persuasion would get great pleasure in seeing the whole EU collapse just so they could revel in saying ‘I told you so’. What petty-mindedness! But the problems out there are difficult, with no simplistic answers. They can be social, such as the length of the working day or income inequality, financial such as tax havens or fiscal accountability, environmental such as pollution or wildlife loss, agricultural such as food security or disease control, energy such as efficiency or a pan- European grid, or global such as terrorism or migration. We in Scotland and the UK cannot solve these by ourselves, and neither can any individual country. They are trans-national problems which can only be solved by all countries getting round the table and thrashing out solutions. But think what the EU has achieved to date on issues such as these. For the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ have always been selected as the brightest and best, people with an international outlook and who can horizon-scan and prepare us for the future. For example the EU has led the way for setting the standards for low emission cars:  if it were not for the lobbying by car manufacturers, today we would all have extremely fuel-efficient cars – to the benefit of the climate and us all. Rather than using the term ‘bureaucrat’, I think the term ‘back office support’ better represents what they do: no organisation can manage without such people. And they cannot impose regulation or uniformity: this can only be done with the agreement of the majority of the EU members: and does not the UK believe in democracy? I think the EU has produced immense gains for Europe. Without the EU Directives, would transboundary issues such as water quality, habitat and species loss, air quality and eutrophication (nitrate and phosphate pollution) have been tackled? Surely an independent UK, in seeking to gain a competitive advantage, would be leading a race to the bottom in environmental quality, arguing against these and other ‘regulations’? And what about the Common Agricultural Policy? Would we still have farmers in the less favoured areas of Britain, and food security, without the EU? What is going to happen without the CAP? And the grant schemes such as LEADER and LIFE have surely been beneficial? And whatever you might think about the Common Fisheries Policy, it at least provides a forum for discussing how a global resource best be managed. And the Euro? Any currency has its ups and downs: currently it is down, but has been very successful in the past. Has not the pound shown similar fluctuations? And what is so special about the pound? Certainly a common currency gets around one of the commonest scams in the world today: currency exchange and trading, a parasitic system and a licence to print money. And the idea of a European Defence Force is eminently sensible, defending our common European culture. And was it not the EU arguing for a cap on bankers’ bonuses and the UK government arguing against it? And similarly on working time? And surely passport-free travel is the aim of any civilisation? The concept of border controls and passports is largely a 20th century phenomenon and a regressive step at that. Certainly there are problems to be tackled in this world, indeed there will never come a Golden Age when all our problems are solved. But in these febrile times, a return to a world of fractious nation states would take us even further away from this platonic ideal. Mountain hares (August 22 2018) There’s been a lot of press coverage recently on blue or mountain hares. This reminds me that I wrote a song ‘Mountain Hare’ in 1991, the words and music of which you can download from this page. Mountain Hare There’s some would dig the hill for rock Nae harm in that ye’d think But it’s our land, our only land Our wild places shrink Chorus Mountain hare, white mountain hare Wild symbol of Scotland’s will Free on the hill, running free on the hill There’s some wad shoot ye still. There’s some wad plant the muir with trees Nae harm in that ye’d think But these nae belong, they’re dark and dreich And wildlife haunts just shrink. There’s farmland now where nae bird cries There’s just nae song to hear With dykes and bushes, hedges gone The landscape’s dull and drear. The land aroond the toon’s nae more There’s hooses, tips and sheds The place we paddled in the burn The fishes they’re all deid. There’s some that would preserve the land A place to look and play But it’s my home, my only home It’s here I’ll always stay. The desecration of Coul Links (June 21 2018) Sometimes it feels as I live in a Third World county, but maybe this is doing such countries an injustice. In fact it looks as if most modern democracies are currently reverting to a ‘Third World attitude’ of “development at all costs” – although I am not sure the Highlands ever left it. It is as if all the grand words and feelings of the 1970s environmental movement, of sustainable development (sensu considering  equally jobs, community and the environment) and grand concepts such as the Global Biodiversity Strategy and the Aitchi targets, are being thrown out of the window. Maybe it has been brought on by the current concept of ‘austerity’, although compared the past we are all rich. The above diatribe has been brought on by the recent decision of Highland councillors to approve the construction of a new golf course within a Site of Special Scientific interest (SSSI) at the mouth of the Dornoch Firth, three miles north of the town of Dornoch. Councillors went against the advice of their own planning officials who, presumably, were merely advising them to follow government policy. The 2014 Scottish Planning Policy states: 195. Planning authorities, and all public bodies, have a duty under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 to further the conservation of biodiversity. 212. Development that affects a National Park, National Scenic Area, Site of Special Scientific Interest or a National Nature Reserve should only be permitted where: – the objectives of designation and the overall integrity of the area will not be compromised; or – any significant adverse effects on the qualities for which the area has been designated are clearly outweighed by social, environmental or economic benefits of national importance. It is an exact repeat of Donald Trump’s Menie Links saga, where millionaire Americans believe they can get their own way, brushing aside any relevant policy. At Menie, the golf course was eventually given the go-ahead by government on the basis, if I remember right, that the new golf course was of ‘overriding national importance’ and therefore it was appropriate to site it within Britain’s last bastion of defence for wildlife – the SSSI system. However, if wildlife cannot be protected within an SSSI, then there is not much hope for wildlife (and here I mean both plants and animals) in the future. The picture below, taken from Google Earth, shows the coastal peninsula where part of the course is to be sited: it can be seen that it is an area of unimproved vegetation (coastal heath and grassland), of a type that hosts reservoirs of native species which used to be common around much of the east coast. Obviously, because it retains its natural aspects, it will create a more interesting golf course than one sited totally on the improved fields in the south of the photo, so you can see why the developer’s chose it for their own selfish interest. It is not as if there are no golf courses nearby. The Royal Dornoch Golf Club hosts two 18-hole course three miles to the south, one of which is rated one of the best in the world. And there are numerous other golf courses in the towns and villages round about. Better surely to develop these, rather than risk saturating the market? It is not too late to stop it. If the Scottish Government is to retain any of its green credentials, then it must call in the development and turn it down. Habitat loss is the greatest threat to biodiversity on a global scale. The above decision by Highland Council illustrates how such loss occurs in practice. The return of deep forestry ploughing (April 2018) Can there be a more damaging activity than taking a double mould-board plough and ripping it through the whole landscape? A technique developed in the past to enable the establishment of commercial trees on infertile and damp soils. I thought we had seen the end of it. But recently I have noticed it coming back, both in Argyll and on Dava Moor where these pictures were taken. Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of the government policy of 25% of Scotland under trees. But the plough rips indiscriminately through the archaeology, plant communities and soil, changing the drainage and releasing much of the carbon stored in the soil. The pictures show a whole hillside being ploughed, mostly through habitats recognised as of international importance on the EU Habitats Directive (dry heath, wet heath & blanket peat). If it happened in other parts of the world, would there not be an outcry?
James Fenton A View from Argyll PREVIOUS BLOGS