Reasons to be Cheerful
Davies’s farm orchard was on the other side of the rabbit wire. On our side the orchards were trained and mowed, and there was a milky bloom of dried pesticides on the leaves and on the fruit. On Davies’s side were huge ancient Perry pear trees, and Cider apples. We children were only allowed to eat windfall apples in the colonel’s orchards, and the colonel might demand to inspect our apples to see if the end of the stalk was the brown of a windfall apple, or if it was green, and thus illicitly picked freshly from the tree. We used to twist the stalks off, just in case, and rub off the poisonous chemicals on our jumpers. I guess habits like denying a farm worker’s children a few fresh apples straight from the tree sit deeply in the rich – that’s how they became rich in the first place.
We soon discovered that a big old tree leaning over the fence from Davies’s orchard had better apples than any of the colonel’s modern fertilised, sprayed and cossetted varieties, and took to eating them ostentatiously in front of the colonel, letting him know how nice they were. They were a variety much loved in Herefordshire and known as Blemins, properly called Blenheim Orange pippins, and they are still my favourite apple by a country mile, an expression I’m going to have to stop using pretty soon.
Everything about the Davies’s orchard was better than the colonel’s. The trees had holes and hollows, places for woodpeckers and little owls. There were turtle doves in those days; stock doves nested in the hollow trees, and the little owls called on drowsy afternoons. There was a gorse patch, and a herd of cows that often had to play the part of buffalos in our imaginations. The cows made pathways through the gorse, and left fragrant cowpats drying in the sun, decorated with golden dung-flies. There were cuckoos, and swallows, and pigeons cooing sleepily in the chestnut trees. In the bottom corner was a boggy patch of sedges, wild columbines and fragrant mint, and a stream where we built dams.
In our imagination the dam was the Grand Coulee Dam in America, and the cattle were the buffalo grazing the plains. We were the cowboys and the children in the council houses, of course, were the Indians. The buffalo strolled into the field each morning from the milking parlour. Their routine was to graze methodically across the orchard in time to arrive at the stream for a drink before grazing back towards the gate in time for milking. They behaved like a proper herd, with a boss cow leading them around, but they were a poor substitute for buffalo, a reminder to me that we had lost all our wild places and wild animals, a pain I alone seemed to have felt, not shared by any of the grubby little boys of my acquaintance. I coped with this by trying to see the countryside as a kind of Eden where there were large amounts of animals, no longer wild, living in harmony with us. Cows, according to this hopeful thesis, were just as good as buffalo, and farm animals were maybe more plentiful than wild animals had ever been. We had turned a world of feared and fearful animals into a world of happy little farms, full of contented animals. We didn’t have wolves or lions, but we had sheepdogs and cats. A comfortable set of notions that sat queasily with eating meat every day and twice on Sundays.
I’ve been suffering some level of the pain of a budding ecological awareness from a very young age, I see now. An early, troubling awareness was that the Highlands of Scotland had once been a huge wood, the Great Forest of Caledon, the Caledonian Forest. My father had walked in one of the last remnants of this forest, the Rothiemurchus Forest, and we children loved him getting out the maps and reliving these hiking holidays, teaching us how to use a map to visualise a landscape, telling us how beautiful these forests were, with their squirrels and deer, pine martens, wild cats and juicy bilberries. I have since then wished deeply and pointlessly that that forest, just one of the catastrophic losses we have inflicted, could return. Clearly pointless, hopeless, it was surely never going to happen?
The slow destruction of these forests had gathered speed during the Clearances, as the Highlanders were cleared off the land by the lairds to make way for sheep, which eat every tree seedling as if they are on a mission to prevent trees reproducing. Then the lairds got excited about the idea of deer-stalking, reliving a fantasy tartanised lifestyle inspired by Landseer’s painting of The Monarch of the Glen, and further revved up by Queen Victoria. She and her family embraced the fantasy, ensuring that they would continue for generations to wear the totemic tweed and tartan of the conquerors, crudely parodying the vanquished clansmen, wearing the ‘authentic’ tartans that were actually designed by the two dodgy Sobieski brothers in the 1840s. This led to huge areas of the Highlands being turned into deer forests, noted for their lack of trees, as the deer carried on the work the sheep had started. And then during two world wars it was discovered that the surviving Pine trees of this rare and precious ecosystem were ideal for making ammunition boxes, and huge areas of the remaining forests in places like the shores of Loch Maree in Wester Ross were clear felled.
It is extraordinary, then, that there is any of the Caledonian Forest left. By the time I was living in the Highlands forestry was in the hands of the Forestry Commission, a quasi-military organisation much influenced by wartime thinking and apparently unaware of any ecological concepts. They simply existed to plant rectangular stands of non-native trees such as spruce and Douglas fir. If they planted pine, it was usually the North American Lodgepole Pine, a tree similar enough to the Scots Pine to make one wonder if they were slighting native species almost on principle. The nearest remaining patch of genuine Caledonian Forest was in Glen Affric, and the forester in this remote place was given the plans for its conversion to a commercial forest of Sitka spruce and suchlike. Astonishingly he ignored his orders and contrived to preserve both his job and a lot of the ancient pine forest. Now, when you visit Glen Affric, the information boards of the commission, now called Forest Enterprise, will tell you how they are looking after and extending the precious pine forests, with no mention of how they would have destroyed them but for Mr MacRae the forester. State forestry in the UK has always preferred what they call commercial forests of alien species and only paid lip service to conservation. But while Forest Enterprise carried on with its dreary plantations, an extraordinary vision was developing that is leading to the transformation of the Highland forests, and the idea of Scotland as ‘the first rewilding nation’. This has been the result of the passionate enthusiasm of inspired individuals and of conservation organisations, something you might do well to remember when you feel helpless at your inability to bring change. The slow fermentation of the ideas of these people has resulted in the idea of Scotland becoming the first Rewilding Nation. An idea fast becoming a reality.
The first pioneer was the ecologist Frank Fraser Darling, years ahead of his time, who chaired a government research project that resulted in the publication of the West Highland Survey in the 1950’s. One of the central conclusions of this work was that the landscape of the West Highlands was degraded and impoverished by both forest clearance and by overgrazing by sheep and deer. In a world where MP’s and Lords took off every August, put on their tweeds and tartans, and shot grouse and deer all over the Highlands, this was not a popular view because for them the bald mountains and the grouse moor heather monocultures were what we must surely have to stop calling iconic, because they aren’t and anyway the phrase is overused. Fraser Darling’s conclusions made him so unpopular in such circles that he had to find work as a wildlife ecologist in North America for a while, but I think his views eventually influenced a whole generation of ecologists.
In Scotland maybe the deer stalking estate was a moribund idea anyway; and landowners all over the UK have been getting excited about the rewilding project at Knepp, or the transformation of Mull into Eagle Island, and the realisation that there is money to be made by rewilding your estate. And the Highlands were already being softened up by the work of organisations like Trees for Life, which had begun work on forest restoration in the Highlands in 1995 and set an example for many subsequent projects, supported and funded by the public and by volunteers. They have now planted 2 million native trees in Glen Affric, Glen Cannich, on their estate at Dundregggan and at Achnashellach and in Glen Urquart. Around the same time the National Trust for Scotland bought the Mar Lodge Estate, which covers 29,000 hectares in the Cairngorms. It was typical deer forest, bitten to the quick by deer and sheep, but there was a scattering of ancient granny pines. They started to cull the deer and reduce the sheep and the transformation has been amazing. Last time I was there a young forest of birches and pines was regenerating among the granny pines, which helped to give it the appearance of a proper mixed-age forest, and since then the new woodlands are expanding and the Trust is working to restore the river systems and nurture rare willows and the result is simply beautiful. Young pines growing higher up the mountainsides and along the rivers have an urgency and a dark green youthful gloss about them which seems to illustrate that this ancient battered landscape now has a new vigour and vitality. Where the old landscapes were stern and forbidding, these new young forests have a warmth and richness, and a luxuriant growth of bilberries and heather, that invites you to lie down and rest among the springy undergrowth to browse the berries.
What is happening at Mar Lodge illustrates very graphically that rewilded landscapes are much richer and more productive than the sheep-gnawed uplands. Their riches are greater in total, in terms of the productive biomass they hold, and they are also richer in terms of the less tangible benefits available to all of us who need good air quality and healthy rivers and recreation and the opportunity to educate our children about the natural world. And the rewilding movement is also about developing a nature-based economy that will create interesting opportunities for communities no longer dependent on destructive land-management systems. The whole movement is gaining momentum, encouraged by the success of Knepp and Mar Lodge, and driven and funded by a public connected by the internet and social media, who can drive change collectively with their massed subscriptions.
A group of individuals who set up the Carifran Wildwood in the Scottish borders had the support of 600 founder members and have gone on to utterly transform 7500 acres of the bald countryside of that region into vibrant woodlands full of birds and flowers and insect life not seen there for many generations. In 2006 a wealthy Dane bought the Glen Feshie estate in the Cairngorms and started to cull the deer and evict the sheep on an area of 12 square kilometres, and immediately the forests started to regenerate and spread up the sides of the glen. This estate joined forces with the RSPB, which owns a large area of the surviving Caledonian forests, and other local landowners, to form the Cairngorms Connect project that aims to revive the natural wildland landscape over a huge area (60,000 hectares), while slightly further north the Alladale Estate has similar ambitions. So much is happening that it is hard to keep track now. The Affric Highlands project that started in 2015 is a similar alliance of bodies like Trees for Life, The National Trust for Scotland, Rewilding Europe and local landowners. The project is notable for its emphasis on winning the hearts and minds of communities to build a new kind of nature-based economy right across Wester Ross, while connecting habitats right cross the region. And all the time bodies like the Woodland Trust, powered by people like us, are buying up degraded deer forests such a Couldoran near Sheildaig, where they plan to restore an area of 10,000 acres or so to a nature-rich wildland connecting the ancient pines of the Sheildaig SSSI with the Rassal Ashwood SSSI by planting an initial 1000 acres of new woodland. The story goes on, and will go on. There is the Northwoods Project, a coalition of landowners committed to rewilding, and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance of forty estates and farms and community projects. And there is the Tarras Valley project, several thousand hectares of former grouse moor bought by a local community group under Scotland’s progressive community buy-out legislation. The restoration of the Caledonian Forests has a seemingly unstoppable drive to create extraordinarily vital nature-rich wildlands all over Scotland to replace the sterile devastation of the previous ‘wilderness’. It is almost too good to be true, and way beyond any of the wildest fantasies of my childhood. The unstoppable logic of this movement will see wolves and lynx and beavers back in this landscape when it has healed enough to be fit for them to live in, and if that funny little boy I must have been, lamenting the loss of the Forest of Caledon when he should have been collecting football stickers, does not live long enough to see this, at least he knows that it will inevitably happen. The Forest of Caledon is being reborn. You can become a member of Trees for Life, or a volunteer tree planter, or you can just go up there and enjoy the second childhood of this ancient battered landscape.
It is important in the context of Scottish rewilding to remember that Scotland has enacted progressive measures to enable communities to buy the land around them when it comes on the market, with government help to raise the money. This legislation was linked to the establishment of the Right to Roam in Scotland. These changes were the result of an awareness that land ownership in Scotland was in the hands of a very small number of people, that there is a natural justice in allowing people access to nature, and that access to nature is vital for the health and well-being of the people, especially those living in large cities. And so on. You could write a book about it.
On the other hand most of Scotland is still in the hands of a tiny number of people. That many of them are interested in rewilding, something popular with environmentalists, may mask the reality that they have the power to do almost exactly as they please on ‘their’ land. We all have a stake in the well-being in the planet but there are not many systems that allow us to influence how land is managed even in the communities where we live. Communities may not get the chance to take advantage of community buy-out measures if companies trying to exploit the rewilding fashion in order to deal in carbon credits do secret deals with landowners without the land being offered to the public.