Who is right? Welcome to 2018! The year when we finally become objective about the ecological history of upland Scotland? I would argue that we would perceive our mountain landscape differently if Frank Fraser Darling had not come along. For he seeded the idea in people’s minds that the Highlands were ‘a devastated landscape’. Through him we know that our eyes are seeing a landscape where humans got rid of all the trees, and so giving us a moral imperative to ‘restore it to its former glory.’ This does makes a satisfying story, in keeping with the spirit of the age where most human action is seen as destructive to the environment. But what if Fraser Darling had not come along: would we still see the same landscape? In 1866 the eminent geologist, James Geikie, having studied numerous remains of old forests in peat bogs throughout Scotland, read a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1866 in which he concluded “It can be shown that the destruction of our ancient forests has not been primarily due to man…”. This opens our eyes to a different way of seeing the landscape. If we know that it is naturally open moorland rather than forest, we would become concerned if people wanted to start planting trees all over it. So who is right? Who would you believe more? James Geikie or Fraser Darling? The answer to the question is of fundamental importance to those concerned with the conservation of the Highland landscape. Wild land There has been some interesting correspondence recently on wild land. Writing in The Herald about SNH’s Wild Land Areas, David Johnstone of Scottish Land and Estates states: “There is almost nowhere in Scotland which has been shaped only by nature and therefore might be considered wild land or wilderness.” He has a good point – but only if his statement is true. I have been arguing that upland Scotland has one of the most natural vegetation patterns remaining in Europe, i.e. natural forces have been dominant in shaping its pattern. Hence I believe that there is a lot of ecologically wild land in Scotland. However, if you believe the upland landscape is largely man-made through deforestation, burning an ‘overgrazing’, then he has a point. Additionally, the world is never black and white and there are degrees of naturalness: indeed, the recent IUCN report on wilderness states clearly that most wildernesses have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by people, or at least have had a human population. However I think we would all agree that there are locations on this planet where natural forces are still the main determinant of the vegetation pattern, i.e. there are in fact wilderness areas. And David Cameron, currently chair of Community Land Scotland, said at the organisation’s annual conference on Skye that “there are now a range of established views, policies and forms of designation on land use, that seek or have the effect of keeping our countryside devoid of people. Those policies value emptiness, what some perceive as wildness, and give scenic considerations a higher value, it can seem, than the value of having people in the landscape.” I am sad to read this, the standard “ochone, ochone, the empty glens” and it seems a hark back to the confrontational debates of the 1980s. It also annoys me, as someone who has spent much of his life living in the Highlands, because it implies that, as a supporter of wild land, I don’t like people and want to thwart local communties’ reasonable expectations! In fact it does not reflect a true understanding of the history of the Highlands: there always have been large, unpopulated areas. To quote Haldane in his book The Drove Roads of Scotland:  “When cross-country droving on a large in Scotland on an appreciable scale first began, and for many a year thereafter, a great part of the Highland and upland areas of the country was common land, or at the least land which, while nominally owned by the local chieftain, was in fact unused and uncared for. “In the earliest rentals for Islay and Kintyre … the figures representing the total of the ‘merk lands’ held by the tacksmen from the local chieftains do not amount to more than about one-third of the total extent of these areas as shown on modern maps. The rest was wasteland which was gradually merged into the tacksmen’s holdings with the progress of agriculture. “ …not until sheep farming on a large scale became common in the Highlands were these upland areas put to fuller use than for the grazing of cattle from the shielings in summer and early autumn.” It would appear that those, like me, arguing the need to keep some areas wild, still have a long uphill struggle … An untidy country I am recently back from a holiday in Tiree – a beautiful, windswept island and friendly people – but I was saddened to see the amount of plastic rubbish around: some certainly washed in by the sea and blown ashore, but some definitely farm waste, in particular fragments of silage bags caught in the barbed wire – at times colourful, including pink, green and red plastic. Many years ago I wrote a song called ‘Plastic in the Wire’ as I believe that such plastic, whether on farms, industrial estates or merely beside the road, is a symbol of our times. We are an untidy nation, but I am sure we all condemn mindless littering, whether dropped when walking, thrown out the car window, or dumped over bridges: have you noticed how much litter is below bridges visible from the Glasgow suburban rail network? Also I well remember beside the traffic lights on the off-ramp of the M74 to East Kilbride being a grand examplar of litter accumulation: is this still the case? But it is not just this easy-to-condemn mindless littering, but also the littering of our coasts and harbours from abandoned boats, ropes, lobster pots, even outboard engines: even well-to-do people seem to abandon boating paraphernalia on the free-for-all that is our sea-shore, not to mention pipes, ropes and buoys floating ashore from fish farms – organisations which make a lot of money. I hope fisherman no longer just fling things overboard, but the commonest item along our sea shores appears to be fragments of green propylene rope and string: why do we even along lobster pots and ropes to be made of such non-biodegradable material? Another situation where the ‘out of sight is out of mind’ mentality is paramount is the dumping of garden waste over the fence on neighbouring farmland, or onto the seashore: common throughout Scotland and one of the easiest ways for non-native invasive species to colonise the surrounding countryside. Opposite my house, for example, Spiraea, Montbretia and Convolvulus  are making merry progress into the nearby woods. I could go on about the mess left on the ground after mass events such as pop concerts or firework display, or the proliferation of urban graffiti, or litter abandoned by fishermen on the shores of our freshwater lochs, or the sheer ugliness of litter-strewn industrial estates and many supermarket carparks, or the abandoned cars, caravans and tractors on croft and farmland, or the sides of our trunk roads … Why are we so careless of our environment? Favourable condition The main tool for measuring the success of nature conservation management is ‘favourable condition’. This was developed in the 1990s on a UK-wide basis. However I remember being concerned at the time that the approach had its limitations when applied to vegetation. Classifying plant communities is an inherently difficult process and dependent on statistical analysis. A given plant community, as defined by the National Vegetation Classification, for example, is an abstract statistical entity: no two plant communities are ever identical in their exact species composition or distribution. However common standards have been developed (see ‘Common Standards Monitoring’ on JNCC website) with a given plant community having to have its parameters within a pre-defined range to be assessed to be in ‘favourable condition’. For example, the sward height has to be so-and-so and certain plants have to be present for a habitat to be judged to be in favourable condition – wherever the habitat occurs in the UK. Common standards may be convenient for a box-ticking exercise, but the real world is complex and muddled. I do think the approach has its strengths when applied to remaining islands of habitats within largely man-made environments, but it does not really work when applied to the open landscapes of the Scottish uplands. One problem, as recognised by SNH, is that it is often impossible to have all the habitats present in favourable condition at the same time: “When developing management plans the most important thing is the setting of clear objectives for the site. It may be hard to devise a management regime that will maintain all the habitats in favourable condition. In these situations some compromise may be required with priority given to one or more features. This will have to be done on a site by site basis.” From Developing guidance for managing extensive upland grazing where habitats have differing requirements. SNH Commissioned Report No. 402 (2010). In practice we have to make value judgements as to which habitat to manage for; and in the current times the condition of woodland is (arbitrarily) given greater weight than that of other plant communities. Another significant problem with the favourable condition approach is that the condition of the chosen parameters can be arbitrary. Let us say that to be in favourable condition, the sward height of a given community has to be between 15 and 20 cm high. Where does this figure come from? Possibly because at this height there will be the maximum diversity of species, and/or this will indicate a medium level of grazing; or because ecologists in the 1990s thought it ‘seemed right’. However, over the years I have to the view that, for the unenclosed uplands, there is no answer to the questions “What is the optimum level of grazing for the landscape?”, or even “What is the optimum balance of habitats?” Choosing any particular grazing level or habitat composition will be arbitrary; and over the decades or centuries the grazing level and habitat balance may well have varied considerably through natural causes. Additionally, erosion is generally seen as a ‘bad thing’ so any peatland seen as eroding is seen as being in ‘unfavourable condition’, even though erosion is a natural process. In practice there has been very little research on Scotland’s upland vegetation, and most of what there has been has been in eastern or southern Scotland where the research institutes are (or were) located. As it is, I believe the favourable condition approach is seriously flawed if used as a tool to assess the conservation status of our hills and moors. In practice it means managing the landscape to achieve a pre-defined vegetation pattern. It takes away any natural variability, any possibility of ‘nature being in charge’, and hence is the antithesis of rewilding. See the ecology pages of my website for further discussion of this topic. Website update You will note that I have just updated this website because it was getting muddled and cluttered. Hopefully you will now find it a bit easier to navigate around. You will also note that over the past few years I have been arguing for a more evidence-based approach to the conservation of our Scottish uplands. I was hoping that there would at least be a debate on the underlying nature conservation rationale, but this has not come about. It continues to be business as usual in spite of the fact that, in my view, the emperor has no clothes: current action continues to be divorced from an understanding of Scotland’s ecological history and the ecological processes that have underpinned it. Hence I have been singularly unsuccessful. But I am not giving up! Next year I will be submitting papers to the online journal Mires and Peat on the growth and decay of peat bogs in Scotland (and the Falkland Islands), and thereafter I hope to write an ecological monograph on the ecology of the Scottish uplands, perhaps published by Edinburgh University Press. This latter, though, is a few years away. Meanwhile we will continue to convert our wild Highlands into a designed landscape I will, though, continue to debate these issues on my website. Loss of wilderness There is a paper in the current issue of Current Biology titled ‘Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets’. Although it is based on analysis of very large areas of wilderness, the declines could equally apply to Scotland. Indeed, Scotland seems to be amongst the leaders of the field of wilderness loss, owing to the imposition of hundreds of tracks, hydro schemes, windfarms and woodland plantations in our wild areas. All of these need infrastructure, whether dams, roads, power-houses, turbines, deer fences or mounding. It would now appear that any glen with a decent sized burn contains a dam, a pipe and a track. But nobody seems to notice: landowners want to maximise income from land (the Protestant work ethic applied to land!), the statutory agencies support government policy, and the conservation NGOs are too focussed on other issues, such as raptors, deer or trees. They seem to be missing the bigger picture. This is surprising when organisations such as WWF are always going on about loss of wilderness in other parts of the world. In Scotland, why is they are not noticing what is happening on their doorstep? There is a huge gulf between the government saying how proud it is of the Scottish landscape and the actual situation of continuing attrition. New Paradigm Reprint I have now reprinted my New Paradigm for the Ecology of Northern and Western Scotland. This was first published in 2011 but remains largely topical. I have made a few minor revisions, including adding the impact of new woodland on surface albedo (page 38) and expanding the peat erosion pathways (page 21). See the ‘New Paradigm’ page of my website for further details. The printed version is available for only £5 and please contact me at info@james-hc-fenton.eu if you would like one sent to you. I have also some copies to give away for free that contain a printing error (some pages printed too dark). Free .pdf copies can also be downloaded from my website. It still seems to me that much of the conservation action being promulgated by the conservation NGOs remained divorced from ecological reality, something that this booklet is trying to address. The issue of moorland management is currently much in the news. The section on Moorland Management (page 36 written in 2011) states: “Grouse moor management can be likened to intensive farming, with heather burning, dosing, killing of predators, application of grit, digging of scrapes, reduction of red deer, killing of tick hosts (mountain hares) and use of dosed sheep as tick sweepers. In spite of this, and of red grouse being one of the most studied birds in the world, grouse numbers still fluctuate considerably. “It is likely that grouse moors in the north of Scotland have been Calluna-dominant heaths and bogs for hundreds, if not thousands, of years (see map on page 8) and represent a natural vegetation-type. Frequent burning affects the natural vegetation pattern, mainly through increasing vascular plant diversity. Calluna does not need burning to persist (see picture 2, page 9), and burning may open moorland up to subsequent tree colonisation. “Grouse shooting provides an economic incentive to maintain heather moors, but the intensity of management reduces much of their naturalness, and probably also contributes to global warming through preventing storage of carbon in the soils. Associated management reduces some wildlife, such as mountain hares, foxes and stoats, although it can increase the numbers of certain breeding waders through providing areas of shorter vegetation.” It concerns that, in this social media age, the debate on moorland management has become intensely polarised: no-one is encouraging bridge-building between the various factions. I am not an apologist for intensive moorland management, but I see a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: if owners stop grouse shooting or stalking, then the likelihood is that we will lose our upland moorland to forestry – causing further disintegration of our unique Scottish landscapes.
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