birds, conservation, environment, Farming, George Monbiot, nature, uplands
Last week I spent some time in the central belt of Scotland, walking the hills around Pitlochry, including the Munros of Ben Lawers and Schiehallion. The weather was great, the views endless, there was coffee in the flask and my enthusiastic Border Collie was doing five miles for every one of mine. Everything was great, well, nearly. Trouble is, I’ve read Feral. (1)
Miles and miles of short-cropped grass stretched in every direction, creating a typical English, Welsh and here Scottish upland view. The Lake District, Snowdonia and much of Scotland are full of them. It’s what the general public expect to see on a day out to such places. Unfortunately George Monbiot’s book, Feral, has changed my view of the views that were on offer on these Scottish mountains. I’ve always been aware of the lack of diversity in our uplands. They tend to be either heavily-nibbled grass or great swathes of heather. In both cases biodiversity is low, and often very low. As I wrote in a previous blog, ‘ In April I spent a day in Snowdonia – one of our national park ‘jewels’. After 8 hours of walking my birdlist was……… five. Five species – in a national park for God’s sake. If it hadn’t been for half a dozen Herring Gulls scavenging sandwiches at the summit of Snowdon the total of individual birds seen wouldn’t have been much more than five.’Here I was again, at altitude on a beautiful day, but, despite the glorious weather, the whole experience was slightly depressing. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while but then the penny dropped. There obviously wasn’t a bird or animal for miles. Six hours produced Meadow Pipits, a few Ravens and precious little else. It’s now that bits of Feral hit home. Monbiot’s description of these landscapes as ‘sheepwrecked’ says it all (2). Often a term as clever as this doesn’t quite hit things on the head. There has to be a bit of tweaking to make it fit. But not here. Sheepwrecked is what these hills are, as far as the eye can see. Sheepwrecked is the perfect description of this green monotone – with the help, in this area, of quite a few deer – and it’s taking the edge off my day. I can’t help but think what else these hills could be, what life they could support and how much more interesting that would make them to the millions of us who walk in them. Hill farming is hard and it’s uneconomic. Most of these enterprises don’t turn a profit and simply couldn’t exist without subsidies. In fact, the average subsidy for a Welsh hill farm is £53 000 against a net income of £33 000. In other words we – you and me – pay £20 000 a year on average to each farmer to enable him or her to create a landscape that is virtually devoid of life. Let’s just say that again – we pay through the nose to create and maintain lifeless green deserts in most of our hills and mountains. It’s madness and we’re all affected by this bizarre use of the uplands, both in the pocket and in the experiences we’re denied when we’re out in these landscapes – the chance encounter with a fox, a hunting stoat, a hare or a raptor. As Mark Avery says in ‘Inglorious’, ‘Upland landowners need to recognise that everyone has an interest in how the uplands look and what goes on in them because everyone is paying for those activities’ (3). But it’s not just the landowners or hard-bitten tenant hill farmers who need to do the recognising, it’s the government. They make this madness possible. They subsidise uneconomic activity which creates environmental harm over huge areas. There has to be a better way.
On the way down Ben Lawers, sun still shining, coffee consumed, dog finally showing her 13 years, we come across a glimpse of an alternative future. A tall fence encompasses a small area of land that has been able to regenerate without the limiting presence of sheep and deer. Wow. What a difference (You need to click on the picture to really appreciate the difference). There are trees and shrubs, with birch, willow, juniper and rowan. The ground vegetation is tall and much more diverse. There are bees and crane flies everywhere. And….. there’s a bird. A Stonechat flits across onto a nearby rock and eyes us warily. I realise it’s the first bird we’ve seen in nearly an hour.
Is this a glimpse of how our uplands will look in the future? Is it possible that huge areas could look like this, with such a dazzling array of life? It could be, but first we need to decide on the nature of the benefits.
What kind of ‘benefits’ will be deemed more important? Will they continue to be benefits paid to upland farmers – in the form of subsidies perpetuating such an uneconomic and environmentally damaging way of life? Or will they be in the form of benefits to society as a whole of regenerated, diverse and exciting upland landscapes with all the opportunities they could offer? We pay for what goes on in the uplands. It’s up to us to press for the uplands we want.
(1) George Monbiot – Feral (Allen Lane, 2013) p.153
(2) ibid p.158
(3) Mark Avery – Inglorious. Conflict in the Uplands (Bloomsbury 2015) p. 187
You might also be interested in: rewildingbritain.org.uk and carrifran.org.uk
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An excellent post, which I reblogged. The results of banning sheep can be seen in Cwm Idwal where bog asphodel etc are coming back
Excellent and incisive piece, Steve. The photo itself is simply startling, a clear reminder of the land’s possibilities.
Donna Rainey said:
Walking the Sperrins and Antrim Hills gives me the same sinking feeling! People think this is how mountains should look,I disagree.
Excellent article, the pennies next to the Derwent Reservoir Durham, is depressing. not a tree for miles and miles. An empty wasteland that really needs to be brought back to life.
Graham Harvey said:
Excellent post! This is something that i have been trying to explain to people i work with for many years. There are a number of very small areas that have been fenced off in North Wales. In Snowdonia Cwm Idwal is the most obvious. What is surprising (to me) is whilst sheep-scape outside of the fenced areas is always very similar, the areas within the fence are often markedly different to each other. Presumably this reflects the geology, drainage, aspect, altitude etc.
If you don’t mind i would like to use this post as a discussion point with our undergrad outdoor education students?
Steve Mills said:
Steve Mills said:
Thanks for all the kind words. It’s good to know that others feel the same.
Stewart Abbott (@birdman1066) said:
I live on the edge of the Peak District and people always say how lucky I am. ‘you must love walking in the hills?’ The answer to that of course in NO. I very rarely go into the hills as there is nothing to see apart from scenes like the ones you have described. Landscapes full of nothing, even the stunning heather moorlands are devoid of life as they are dredged of all predators for the sake of Grouse. Excellent piece Steve.
Steve Mills said:
Hi Stewart, I grew up on the edge of the Peak District and things were better even then. There would be Merlin, the odd Short-eared Owl and plenty of Twite. Now I live on the North York Moors where, like you, I don’t often go because they’re largely empty.
Great post and slightly depressing. Economic arguments always out trump ecological ones. I believe trees are essential to man’s spiritual/mental health, (not to mention the worlds environmental health!) but how do you quantify that?
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Pam MacPherson said:
Lived in North Wales for 23 years and saw the damage done by the sheep, unless they were fenced out. Visited Glen Affric when I was 50 and absolutely knocked out about what we found inside the deer fence when outside(in January) was absolute devastation and the deer were being fed at feeding stations in order to keep them alive. I’m now 67 and finishing our self-build in North Uist where there are sheep and deer. The deer are habituated to people and are a real nuisance if you want to grow anything without a deer fence. There are other ways to make money than raising sheep and shooting deer – can’t understand why the many alternatives are not yet being taken up.
Mike Ball said:
From a very short visit to Norway a few years ago this is exactly what their hill pastures are like. The birds include Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Goldcrest, Ravens, Sparrowhawk etc. Much greater diversity in trees and plants and presumably everything else.