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