Rectifying devastation inflicted on the land

Jim Crumley's recent column in The Courier on the need for rewilding.

Jim Crumley's recent column in The Courier on the need for rewilding

I was watching the red kites when, strictly speaking, I should have been watching the road. I was driving the hill road between Braco and Comrie, the weather had suddenly turned fine, there was an eager breeze out of the west and the red kites were dancing on it, but slowly. These are dangerous conditions to be in a car with me.

But I was alone in the car and the road was otherwise empty so I lowered the window, slowed down to a dawdle and watched the birds, while at the same time I tried to keep the car on the road and find somewhere to pull off. It should be possible to buy green flashing lights that alert other road users to the presence of a working nature writer.

Luckily, I have the kind of car that rather relishes being pointed at the open hillside if there are no suitable lay-bys. All I need is an absence of rock and ditch, and having found these, I could watch the kites properly. My binoculars travel behind the front seats, ready for exactly this kind of situation.

For quarter of an hour I watched four red kites at different altitudes above the moor, and because I watched from the car they were untroubled and two of them drifted to within twenty yards of the open window. This, I told myself, is a great country.

The word ‘beauty’ might well have been invented for the explicit purpose of ennobling what nature unfurled right there, right then. Yet what it says about your species and mine that it is still capable of responding to such beauty with poison and a slow death is a reality for which I am still having trouble finding the right words. Or at least, the right printable words.

Highland estates killed off the red kite in the 19th century. Some Highland estates are trying to kill it off for a second time in the 21st century. The recent deaths of 14 kites and five buzzards near Muir of Ord stung the RSPB into drastic action and infuriated public opinion. As it happened, I was a guest of the RSPB when the story broke, having accepted an invitation to spend the day on their Abernethy estate in the Cairngorms.

So the leisurely rhythm of that day crackled from time to time with discussions between senior staff on the reserve and in Edinburgh, and soon it had been agreed to post a £5000 reward for information that would unmask the poisoners. That sum has now reached £26,000 as a result of public donations, including a significant donation from a group of sympathetic estates and farms.

So the day revealed simultaneously the two extremes of a modern conservation body at work: one was the fast-changing media story of the poisonings and the decisive nature of the RSPB’s response, and the other was the eloquent demonstration of what it takes to implement a strategy for the evolution of a landscape like Abernethy with a 200-years vision.

Yes, two hundred. This is the kind of thing I get excited about. Back in 1990, I wrote a book about the wider Cairngorms called A High and Lonely Place in which I suggested that one of four principles essential to their future wellbeing was ‘a one-hundred-year government commitment to the restoration of the Cairngorms wilderness…it is an arbitrary number that may prove too short’. Twenty-four years later, serious conservation thinking in Scotland is not being driven by the government, even less by its advisors Scottish National Heritage, but rather by organisations like the RSPB and the John Muir Trust.

At Abernethy, for example, the RSPB is unpicking the landscape regime of plantation forestry of its predecessors to recreate more “natural” conditions. This means blocking drains to allow natural bogs to re-establish, felling selected trees to make space and improve ground cover, creating deadwood by pulling some trees over with a winch (re-creating the impact of storm conditions) and by ring-barking trees, a technique that kills the tree but leaves it standing. Planting broad-leaves like birch, rowan, aspen, hazel, willow (which the old plantation regime regarded as weeds to be weeded out), extending the reach of the predominantly Scots-pine-dominated forest up the mountainsides to re-establish something like a natural treeline at between 2000-2500 feet, and – crucially – controlling deer numbers to ease grazing pressure…all these amount to the sown seeds of a revolution in the management of wild country.

Meanwhile, the newly published spring edition of the John Muir Trust Journal is dominated by its enthusiastic embrace of “re-wilding” which is the newish buzzword I don’t much care for (but I haven’t come up with anything better). In its Scottish context it can be summarised as the process of rectifying the devastation inflicted on the land and every vestige of biodiversity by 150 years of the Victorian philosophy that begat the grouse moor and deer forest. Among other things.

JMT chief executive Stuart Brooks wrote: ‘Rewilding is seen as rather a modern concept , but it’s what the Trust has been doing on its land for a long time – working to re-establish natural processes on properties and improve their ecological function. For most of our properties, the initial objective has been to reduce grazing pressure…to a level where trees and shrubs can begin to grow again. Once the foundations are established, birds, mammals, plants and insects can recolonise under their own steam…’

He writes too about ‘a burgeoning coalition of the willing’, a phenomenon which is also reflected in those red kite donations. Conservation is probably in the best shape it has ever been, it is getting better, more confident, and its voice is getting louder. A dodgy buzzword is a small price to pay.

Scottish Government please note: the burgeoning coalition of the willing also vote.

This column was first published in The Courier on 15 April 2014.

Read the latest edition of the John Muir Trust Journal

Jim Crumley's latest book, The Eagle's Way, is out now.