HEROES and Villains

Robert McMorran has written a clarification of his research for these meeting notes, which can be found on the Feedback Page


Supported by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)
21 March 2007 at the NTS Glen Coe Visitor Centre.

The initial urge for this meeting came from Bob Aitken, a long-known advocate of wildland in Scotland. Around 40 people fetched up to hear a pretty solid morning of quality talks in the grand setting of Glen Coe.

Bob set the scene for wildland in Scotland - a bewildering array of wildly different concepts and widely divergent practice on wild land, rewildling, and reintroductions. He collected together the players and the diversity of dynamics at work, and concluded that in spite of all this, and even the arrival of Peter Taylor's book, that wildland was still a sectoral interest. He put up a great quote that perhaps sums up the problem, certainly in Scotland, if not overall on this rock: "Everyone who ever mattered is dead and gone"

Bob says forget about the Highland Clearances, land disputes, oppression etc. in Scotland and get on and move forward!

He was followed by Rob McMorran, who had previously given an initial presentation of his work on the typology of wildland in Scotland at the second Wildland Network meeting. His work is now published as a report by SNH. I read his report before going to the Glen Coe meeting and found it naive, the shame being that it could have been so much better if more experienced heads had assisted him. The fact is now that this SNH report lays there and will be used as reference. Perhaps at least it will stimulate more work on wildland typology, and it is certainly needed in the other home nations.

John Mayhew (NTS) gave a delightful talk about the initial land acquisitions in Glen Coe, the luck and negotiating skills of Arthur Russell with £1500 in his pocket to spend, and the generosity and key role of the keen mountaineer, Percy Unna, in financing more acquisitions, but also in shaping the philosophy of their use and management (the Unna Principles - "Primitive condition for all time"). John acknowledged that the NTS didn't always get it right, dissatisfaction in the 80's leading to supporters walking away and setting up new organisations such as the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group!

Thus after a period of losing sight of the Unna Principles, John says that he feels they are back on track as an organisation, and that the Wildland Policy that NTS produced in 2002 complements the Unna Principles and does not replace them. Interesting to note that the use of zoning is identified in the Management Approach in the Wildland Policy, and John said that zonation is a tool used in the internal property statement process in NTS.

McMorran had zonation as a point in his presentation, and he later commended its use in the two Scottish National Parks, which is evidence of some necessary revisionism in emphasis from his written report, where zonation was almost obscurely buried.

Nigel Hawkins, a co-founder of the John Muir Trust (JMT) spoke next. An inspiring talk that linked the legacy of John Muir with a determination to repatriate his landscape philosophy back to Scotland. Nigel believes recreational and landscape values are tied up with nature. He gave some great quotes: "Nature defines what is wild" "Where golden eagles fly" "Where nature flourishes, wildness increases and the recreational value of land increases" On rewilding "Beyond our lifetimes, over 3-4 generations, nature will take land where it wants to go and not where humans want it"

Nigel's hostage to fortune was his discomfort at the word "restoration". It got him trapped into appearing to disfavour projects like Trees for Life and Carrifran, but that was not his point although it really was not satisfactorily resolved, especially since it could play into the hands of those with idiosyncratic views, who would say that the current highland landscape is exactly what it should be as a wild landscape (eg James Fenton). As I noted, and as Carrifran and Trees for Life show (see later) a landscape that has been without key component species for centuries is not suddenly going to re-acquire them unless some new source is re-introduced.

Going further into this, the McMorran typology ranked Mar Lodge at the top of a table of 23 "wild" landscapes, but with Carrifran at the very bottom. While McMorran did tabulate "Management Theme" along with his typology, he made no attempt to modulate that typology on the basis of management outcome. Thus his typology looks to the past, and not to the future. Moreover, McMorran was ambivalent about the vegetative state of landscape cover, reflecting a key feeling for quite a few in the room that a barrier to wildland understanding is the "untutored" perception of the general public about what could constitute that vegetation.

Alan Watson Featherstone gave his own "Muir-esque" reasons for why he set up Trees for Life. He was "called by the land, called by the trees to do something". His philosophy is that nature knows best, and his aim is to assist land away from anthropocentric domination. The key for Alan is to "think like a pine", a lovely borrowing of a phrase from Aldo Leopold. Alan works on connectivity, overcoming the isolation and fragmentation of relic woodland in his target area by regeneration planting that creates nuclei of new forest that can lead to wide area regeneration. Scale is everything to Alan - he says we need forests that we can walk through all day!

He has strategic vision - the linking of forest areas across watersheds, the re-establishment of key communities such as montane scrub and riparian woodland, and the re-introduction of predators. It is in fact the re-establishment of ecological processes across the landscape, recognising that a key barrier to regeneration is the level of herbivore pressure. He feels the ad hoc, opportunistic activities that have gone on so far need replacing with a larger, integrated vision, with a stronger ecological basis that has land use zoning at both the national and Highland level, and which goes far beyond the indicative forestry strategies of the present. Alan wants the current funding that is available to back that ecological basis rather than the amenity criteria for conservation that it uses at present.

David Hetherington gave a fine talk, which was a synthesis of his own area of advocacy for lynx with that on beaver and wild boar as being realistic candidates for re-introduction into Scotland. David put up an excellent graphic, showing the congruence between Scottish landscape types and that of Scandinavia and the Baltic states, postulating that the wild mammalian species extant in the latter should find a home in Scotland. Except that Scotland had extirpated 80% of its wild mammal species, in contrast to Norway which had retained them all.

To David, these re-introductions were justified not just on an ethical basis, but also on a legal (Habitats Directive) and ecological (natural processes) basis, but which may also have an economic imperative (ecological services etc.). David went through the landscape benefits of re-introducing wild boar, beaver and lynx in a way that was a compelling argument for their re-introduction, and which covered and defused some of the problems associated. He was able to update the continuing survey of sheep loss from re-introduction of lynx in Switzerland, which in the first year was a loss of 200 in 1999, but which fell to 25 in 2005. The number has fallen again for 2006, where 7,000 roe deer and chamois were taken by the lynx but only 15 sheep were taken.

Toby Aykroyd had the dustcart shift, but made very effective use of it in running through the economic, environmental, and social benefits of wildland (especially health, youth issues, education, and conflict resolution - all of which benefit from the transformational aspects of inter-action with wild nature), although he is beginning to describe it in terms of Large Natural Habitat Areas (LNHA) to avoid resistance or misunderstanding. He urged us to become much smarter in relating the value of these benefits to the "bottom line" where these may lend a commercial advantage. He also introduced us to the concept of Contingency Valuation which relates to the support that the general public would bring to LNHAs - how much would they pay?

Toby sees various factors as currently providing the best opportunities in history for promotion of LNHA: the marginality of some farming and forestry uses of land; the economics of climate change; the awareness of wildland attributes; and the benefits based approach to LNHAs. This is a pan-European phenomenon that needs a parallel response, especially where influence could be exerted on Pillar 1 and 2 reforms of CAP, and on the basis of European protection for wildlife (Toby noted the farmlands of recent accession countries that deserve protection from the pressure of agricultural "improvement").

Toby briefly introduced his Wild Europe proposal of a Brussels-based grouping tasked with a focussed work stream and with the support of significant players in WWF, IUCN and the Commission. It was a way ahead that kept sight of the core philosophy while taking advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to protect and restore. We would need courage and vision, and must think outside of our own interests.

The lunch was sumptuous (especially on top of my haggis breakfast) and unfortunately they vastly over-catered!

Bob decided that he would replace the afternoon workshops with a plenary session of open discussion and questions to a panel of the speakers. Perceptions of wildland popped up as an issue and, as usual, the multi-plethora of divergent experience meant that every viewpoint was validated, which got us everywhere and nowhere.

Three interjections from private land use interests were notable. A land manager from the Glen Feshie estate, owned by a Danish fashion house, wanted to know why he couldn't receive funding to manage the land for wild attributes when NGO's got grants for doing so. The manager at Mar Lodge (NTS) had earlier wondered how he could get people/tourists to pay for his management of the estate, but then he did get those grants that Glen Feshie didnít!

After considering the likelihood of re-introduced beaver over spilling and wreaking havoc in cultural landscapes, a lady from the Reindeer Company Ltd. complained about NGO's not managing the "vermin" on their land, expecting the RSPB to shoot all the magpies and foxes at Abernethy rather than have them ranging out onto others' land. A more thoughtful contribution came from a lady farmer who considered Soay sheep and Eriskay ponies as good equivalents to modern day wild grazers as neither needs the involvement of humans to survive. (Eriskay ponies have Norse and Celtic connections. A handful remained on from their nineteenth century varied use into the present on the small island of Eriskay, which lies between South Uist and Barra in the Outer Hebrides.) This lady taxed David as to why a case wasn't being made for re-introduction of wild ponies into the landscape, at which David could only respond about a lack of evidence of their post-glacial presence (but see later).

An SNH man was invited for an agency view that in the giving was pretty departmental (non-committal) and which drew its support from public opinion polls that were unclear about the need for any wildland over and above the landscapes that already exist in Scotland. Someone responded to the SNH man by suggesting that what he said was the best reason for why SNH should cease to exist. He thought there was a need to educate people to appreciate a more valuable landscape of the future, and that we should not have to rely on the perceptions of untutored people.

As a final round, Bob asked NGO panel members whether they would be acquiring more land as the future route for wildland in Scotland. This had been one of the key questions that Bob had hoped to cover in the meeting. Both Nigel (JMT) and John (NTS) said they weren't, as they fear the situation where that land would be taken off into an institutionally-derived direction that might not be the right one (this reaction could be the result of a lack of a national strategy that could guide them, and in its absence they don't seem to have the courage of their convictions). They saw the future as working with and alongside private land owners.

This appealed to McMorran as one of the conclusions in his report is that "inclusion of traditional land uses within the concept of wild landscapes could have considerable benefits for the overall conservation and promotion of the resource". This is perfectly acceptable where there is an understanding about the need for a continuum of land use, where each end of the spectrum has a right of existence, and that the continuum itself provides the mechanism for all these land uses to exist without necessarily prejudicing each other. Except that the NGO's and McMorran didn't put it into that context. It took Alan (Trees of Life) to highlight this when he said he was only just getting into land ownership and that his beneficial ownership would allow him to do the things that he needed to restore the ecology of the landscape. The implication was that without it being in his ownership, negotiation with a private land owner on what was needed could be compromised away from the point on the continuum that was intended.

I had raised this earlier, perhaps far too obliquely, by referring to all the public subsidy that was received by the various organisations in the meeting in one way or another; how this showed already a public will and backing; and that beneficial ownership facilitated by public subsidy was often the key to land transformation. I gave the observation that public ownership itself was the key principle in serious wildland conservation around the world.

I felt I had to respond to the lady that sought the massacre of magpies and foxes, explaining that 75% of Britain was farmland in which every threat to its commercial use had been eliminated, whereas wildland couldn't be managed on that basis, that we can't choose what should live or die, and that the key to both wildland and farmland both existing was ensuring that there was a system that buffered between the needs of wildland and farmland. I left that hanging in the air as Bob was closing up the meeting, but I went to talk afterwards to the lady who had championed the Soay sheep and the Eriskay ponies.

She was deflated as she felt she hadn't got her point across to the meeting. I explained that it was pity there is no Grazing Animal Project (GAP) equivalent in Scotland (or was not at the meeting) so that she could see some supporting context. Except that I felt her point was vastly more important than anything that GAP has to say, as she had recognised the role of the sheep and ponies as crucially being capable of free-living and independent of humans. On that basis, I ventured to her that they could be one example of the buffer/transition land use on the continuum between wildland and farmland. I think we were both able to leave with some relief that we had agreed something positive between us.

This was a good meeting, with good people and well run. We could have done with a few more varied audience contributions (if only to shut me up) and we did not deliver on some of the key questions that Bob had set as the focus of the meeting, such as how to achieve a unified multi-dimensional approach to wild land, whether statutory support for wild land protection should be sought, and should the focus be widened away from mountain areas towards wild coasts and islands? I am beginning to see that this is never going to happen in a one day meeting if you spend time first with the "educational" phase of listening to speakers, albeit they were excellent.

Granted that with an open invitation audience, there is a need to bring people along to the same level of information, but then you would need a second day of time to get people to use that information to work out some of the bigger questions. Perhaps we need a one day meeting of people with (self) acknowledged understanding in which we could dispense with speakers and get down to business. If we don't, then we have this lovely, shiny thing called wildland that we really don't know what to do with.

Mark Fisher 23 March 2007

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk