There’s plenty of debate about the uplands these days – including issues of land ownership, raptor persecution, re-wilding, deer and grouse moor management, plantation forestry, renewables and peatland restoration.
Much of this is about keeping the hills as they are, in all their loveliness. Only the more extreme advocates of land reform and rewilding invoke any radical visions of change – in somewhat opposing directions depending on the presence or absence of people.
But there’s an elephant in the room – degradation. Much of the land is wrecked. There is a magnificent beauty in that open, elemental combination of water, mountain and sky which somehow excuses the desperate state of the vegetation. This land has been grazed and burnt to a shadow of its former self by these unsustainable practices, tolerated for so long that many people think the resulting landscape is natural.
This is a matter of immense significance to the rural economy, raised repeatedly by others in the past – Frank Fraser Darling, Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell, Reforesting Scotland, and others – but greeted with deaf ears and blind tradition.
To be clear, much of this land is naturally poor and beaten by lashing rain for much of the year; there’s little prospect of wheat and barley on these hillsides. But it doesn’t need to be a wet desert.
Helen Armstrong’s excellent two-part paper for Forest Policy Group invites a fresh appraisal of the potential contrast. The fact is that the uplands could support much more natural woodland – always allowing for elements of the other habitats that make the uplands special – heathland, mire, herb rich grassland and scrub – preferably in a rich mosaic. As Helen shows with abundant evidence, trees are extraordinarily good for this kind of land – they belong there. They enrich the soil, stabilise slopes, capture carbon, regulate water flows, diversify the habitat, improve river fisheries, provide shelter for livestock, and energy and materials for people.
How could this happen? We don’t need more costly blanket planting schemes with unsightly mounding and fencing, all at the public expense; this just endorses and perpetuates the status quo on the rest of the land. Instead, we need bold resolve at a policy level to regulate the intensity of grazing and burning so that trees can get on with doing what they are good at – regeneration.
This would require a re-think on sporting estates, obliging them to adopt practices which reflect more of the public good. Contrary to popular myth, there would be no less need for the gamekeeper – deer will thrive better in these landscapes and need to be controlled and harvested. There would be more to sustain the livelihoods of farmers, foresters, fishermen and others; this is restoration for people.
Where this has been done by landscape restoration projects across Scotland and in much of south west Norway, it is outstandingly successful. We just need much, much more of it. The unwilling, by contrast, would be wise to note the First Minister’s recent emphasis of the Scottish Government’s view that Scotland’s land should be ‘an asset which benefits the many, not the few’.
Looking at the full range of issues – social, environmental and economic – it’s hard to find evidence to support the perpetuation of the current model of land use which dominates the uplands. An alternative vision is required. The sooner we allow our imaginations to be inspired, the sooner those landscapes – caustically described by some as MAMBA (miles and miles of b—– all) – could be on their slow road to recovery, restoring the natural capital of the land and its ability to yield benefits for generations to come.
Simon Pepper June 2015