Continuing loss of biodiversity in the Highlands September 2020The loss of biodiversity at a global scale has recently been in the news: a worrying trend of the continuing loss of natural habitats, plants and animals. Unfortunately nobody seems to be noticing what is going on at our own back door, in particular in the Highlands.At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Highlands contained what was possibly the largest tract of natural, unimproved vegetation (natural habitats) in Europe, with an unbroken link back to the ice age: nobody had managed most of it, or decided what vegetation should be where.Since then, with the end of the clan system, the history of the Highlands has been continual attrition of this vegetation. Agricultural improvement has encroached from the edges, tree planting has taken over large swathes, a process which, if anything, seems to be accelerating, and the creation of numerous tracks into the heart of the hills is providing corridors for invasive species, whether alien or native.If biodiversity is defined as the presence of natural habitats, then every loss of the natural vegetation contributes to an overall loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately, because 95% of the Highlands are comprised naturally of open ground habitats rather than woodland, nobody is noticing: everyone is focussed on woodland as the be-and-end-all of nature conservation. Open ground habitats are being sacrificed on the altar of woodland! This is in spite of many of the habitats being classified as being of international importance under the EU Habitats Directive, such as wet heath, dry heath and peatland.Owing to their high carbon storage, the deeper peatlands are an exception to this lack of interest in open ground habitats. However, shallow peats and wet heath, which have the greatest long-term potential for carbon sequestration, are now being planted with trees on a large scale, both new commercial plantations and large-scale ‘visionary’ plantations of native woodland. Interestingly, many of the new native woodlands planted on these organic soils will end up being less flower-rich than the wet heath they have replaced, the understorey often becoming dominated by purple moor grass. Additionally, the conservation of open ground habitats is now entangled with the political issues of deer stalking and grouse shooting.A more insidious threat to biodiversity is the spread of invasive non-native plants. As you travel around the Highlands you can see so many places where removal of a few rhododendrons now will prevent long-term takeover by this species. But who is interested in doing this? Another threat is the widespread colonisation of native vegetation by Sitka spruce seeding out from forestry plantations, even onto blanket peat: this has the potential, very long-term, to dry out the peat – converting peatlands from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Long-term also, this takeover by Sitka will transform the Highland landscape unless the self-seeded trees are removed: controlling them is much easier than controlling rhododendron as cut trees die rather than re-sprout. But who is going to do it?A continuing loss of biodiversity. But who is noticing?
My latest essay A Landscape Lost was published in May 2020 in the Geopoetics Journal ‘Stravaig 8, Part 2’This summarises my views on how we are treating (losing) the Highland landscapeClick here to view