Ecological impact of hill tracks (January 2019) Meanwhile the degradation of our upland landscapes carries on unabated: most NGOs and agencies do not seem to be interested in landscape conservation. What is surprising is that WWF Scotland, an organisation which is always, rightly, bemoaning habitat loss in other parts of the world, has little apparent interest in pursuing this in Scotland. It is recognised, for example, that building a road network in tropical forest is the first stage in subsequent ecological degradation. It is the same in the Scottish uplands: the ever-increasing length of new tracks being bulldozed into our hills and mountains provide a route for invasive plants to enter into the core areas. An example of this is the way that disturbed ground along the full length of the public road from Drumrunie to Achitibuie in Wester Ross has allowed gorse to colonise the whole stretch, introducing a new species into the landscape. Certainly we need to tackle climate change, but it also has to be accepted that new tracks built for renewable energy schemes (or for any other reason) can, in the long run, damage the very ecosystems that climate change mitigation is aiming to protect. The soil disturbance associated with tracks, in effect taking soil conditions back to early post-glacial conditions (well-drained, mixed soils with higher nutrient availibility), provides ideal linear conduits for plants, alien and native, which would otherwise be unable to colonise the surrounding vegetation underlain, as they are, by podsols and peats. No one seems to be tackling this issue, in the same way that no-one is tackling the issue of the the ever-increasing spread of Sitka spruce out from plantations. Hence our uplands are still continue to go to hell on a handcart… Or is that putting it too strongly?? Left , working down from the top Gorse seeding colonising the sides of a track Spruce seeding onto the sides of a track Rushes & grasses introduced into blanket bog at a windfarm site Broom colonising an new hydro track in a location where it is otherwise absent Foxgloves, rushes, grasses and gorse introduced along a new hydro track A brassica colonising a hill track in a location where it is absent from the wider countryside CONSULTATION ON SCOTTISH FORESTRY STRATEGY (November 2018) This is an important Scottish Government document out for consultation until 29 November. If implemented it will permanently change the face of the Scottish landscape, in the uplands changing it from a largely wild landscape to a largely designed landscape. Is this what we want? I personally think there should be a moratorium on all new forestry/woodland creation in the uplands while we sit back and take stock. The first half of my personal response to the consultation is given below. 1. Do you agree with our long-term vision for forestry in Scotland? No 1. Scotland is NOT part of the northern boreal zone as stated: it is in the oceanic Atlantic zone. Hence our forests are ecologically different from boreal forests. 2. "Ever since the first foresters entered Scotland's ancient wildwood over 6,000 years ago, our trees and woodlands have been felled and harvested." Where is the evidence for this? Most modern research indicates natural woodland decline from a postglacial maximum – as would be expected in this, the oligocratic phase of an interglacial. Woodland loss directly attributable to humans has probably been relatively small scale. 3. Hence although the "chronic lack of trees" is a "strategic problem for the country" from a timber industry perspective (although it might make more economic sense to import timber from boreal forest zones), in this vision it is conflated with a perceived 'biodiversity problem'. If the open landscape of our hills is largely natural, then there is no biodiversity case for bringing trees back: such intervention will only reduce the naturalness and lower the existing biodiversity value. 4. The fact that Scotland has a lower than average woodland cover compared to the rest of Europe is certainly relevant in creating a timber industry, but provides no justification for expanding woodland cover for the benefit of biodiversity. The 'lower than average' woodland cover is in fact a key biodiversity feature which distinguishes Scotland from Europe and ought to be retained. 5. It should be realised that there is an irreconcilable conflict between maintaining/expanding a forestry industry and the conservation of Scotland's biodiversity and natural landscapes. 6. The statement that 'forests and woodlands help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon' needs much greater scientific scrutiny: tree planting on organic rich soils (as found in most of the uplands) can release more carbon through soil oxidation than is stored by the trees; can prevent shallow organic soils from going on to develop into peat bogs (which would store more carbon in the long run); and, importantly, by significantly reducing the albedo of the landscape, can contribute to a WARMING of the landscape. Additionally, the soil disturbance associated with modern mechanical harvesting can also liberate the stored soil carbon. 7. Creating new forests on open ground, much of which is recognised as being of international importance under the EU Habitats Directive, in fact, by reducing the naturalness of the landscape, contributes to global habitat loss – and so can be seen as being detrimental to biodiversity conservation. Certainly if trees are planted on moorland, the diversity of species can increase with both woodland and open ground species now being present; but biodiversity conservation is ultimately about maintaining the natural habitats of the region, not adding species willy-nilly. 8. Evidence suggests a natural woodland decline over the past few millennia and reversing such a trend is more about zoo-keeping than nature conservation (sensu allowing natural processes to proceed at the landscape scale). The natural woodland cover of 4-5% cannot really be seen as 'a key part of Scotland's iconic landscapes', but more as adding local landscape interest in a few places. From a conservation perspective, the management of the whole upland landscape should not be predicated on the needs of a habitat types which naturally would play only a minor and declining role. 9. Some of the other benefits of forests are questionable: "purify the air and water" – conifers extract acidic aerosols, causing water acidification; forests will not reduce flood risks from extreme rainfall/snowfall events when most damage is done; landslides on Scottish hill slopes occur on both forested and unforested ones – is there any evidence trees will prevent them? 10. Forests in lowland and urban settings can improve the landscape setting and provide places for recreation. However commercial hill forests are the same across the country, and modern industrial-scale forest access tracks are not very inspiring places to walk along! Modern upland forests are currently in the extraction phase, and the resultant landscape can, for a few years, take on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic wasteland! 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
James Fenton A View from Argyll PREVIOUS BLOGS