Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Mountaineering Scotland: Sleeping with the Enemy

The Last of the Clan
I wonder at which point someone in Mountaineering Scotland thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to put out a joint statement with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Voicing our concern about plans to re-wild the uplands through a tree planting programme’ ? The issue has been extensively covered in the media.Including national news media like The Guardian and Times. But if you haven’t been aware of the brouhaha or have been out of the country let me bring you up to speed.

According to the Guardian..'The two groups have written to Scotland’s environment secretary to raise issues about plans to increase the country’s woodland cover from 17% to 25% by 2050. The Draft Climate Change Plan includes a commitment to plant 10,000 extra hectares of trees between now and 2020, extending to 15,000 hectares per year by 2024.

Basically a quite reasonable goal which will go a small way towards restoring what was once an important ecological component of the uplands. Before human interference with the natural environment, large swathes of the Scottish uplands had been covered with trees. The Great Caledonian Forest according to Wikipedia, consisted of...'native pinewoods which formed this westernmost outpost of the taiga of post-glacial Europe-estimated to have covered 15,000 km2 (3,700,000 acres) as a vast wilderness of Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper, oak and a few other hardy species. On the west coast, oak and birch predominated in a temperate rain forest ecosystem rich in ferns, mosses and lichens.’

Most people who enjoy mountain pursuits, would I imagine support the Scottish government’s plans to restore a small part of what was once an extensive ecosystem which supported a diverse range of species, before large landowners decided that sheep, deer and grouse were more profitable than maintaining a healthy ecosystem. A system and social order which included the people who worked the land in a sensitive and sustainable manner.

What makes Mountaineering Scotland’s statement with the SGA so crass and ill judged is the manner in which it totally ignores one of the most shameful chapters in Scotland’s history; The Highland Clearances. When estate goons- forebears of the SGA brethren-drove the people off the land. Destroying communities and often burning out those who tried to resist.Apart from the ecological impact, the human tragedy was immeasurable. Communities and families torn apart and driven into destitution. For some members of what was essentially a pastoral community, they were driven to the coast and had to learn how to become fisherman. Others were driven to the cities.Notably Glasgow where they found themselves trapped in poverty and appalling social conditions. More still scraped together what they could and simply emigrated to the new world.

The Climbing writer and Highland Clearances authority, David Craig called it  ‘Scottish Biafra’. A genocidal act which destroyed a way of life and wreaked havoc and despair upon the long suffering highlanders.Whichever way you dress it up. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association are in the main still lickspittles to the Lairds, foreign investors and nouveau riche
landowners who still own much of the Highlands and who are still part of the ongoing issues surrounded sensitive land management and access.

By campaigning to keep the Scottish uplands as a tree free, moorland environment of limited ecological diversity, the philosophy which drove the clearances still dominates the thinking of groups like the SGA. Practices such as poisoning raptors, shooting mountain hares and foxes and ‘controlled’ burning, displays just how backward these people are. The late environmentalist and nature writer, Mike Tomkies, observed while living on the Scottish island of Shuna where shooting was part of the estate’s business model, the terrible impact of controlled burning by gamekeepers and estate workers. Witnessing how nests and habitats for birds, lizards,snakes and mammals like hares, voles and mice were wantonly destroyed to create the green shoots which pheasants and grouse eat.

Other environmentally damaging practices carried out in the interests of the sporting estates include using JCB’s to tear out tracks into the mountains, to enable tubby, tweedy chavs to fall off the back of a trailer pulled by a 4x4 and start shooting at anything that moves. Not that there’s going to be that much choice in such an ecologically limited environment apart from tame grouse and deer.

'Their skulls are made of lead,for that is why they cannot weep': Fedrico Garcia Lorca

It seems as if the mountain environment attracts two types of outdoor activist. Those who see it as an adventure arena. Simply a place where they can ride a mountain bike, weild an ice axe,run off a slope with a chute or climb a cliff; and those who can do these things but who can also appreciate the uplands as a living mountain. A natural environment which although degraded by human activity is worth protecting and improving. Even if that improvement is driven by government policies such as the Draft Climate Change Plan.

So.Mountaineering Scotland...what were you thinking ?!!!



  1. I'm not eager to defend Mountaineering Scotland, but this sneering and over-simplified blog is unfair and ill-directed. The enemy here is the Scottish Government, which sees the entire upland area in money terms, and is wholly blind to any notion of landscape value. It wants to plant commercial forest and has zero interest in re-wilding. Mountaineering Scotland sees hideous tree farms marching in the wake of the SG's hideous wind farms.

  2. What were we thinking? We were thinking first of all that Scotland needs an upland landscape policy to guide future development and avoid piecemeal degradation being allowed by conflicting policies. We were thinking that when the Scottish Minister for the Environment is approached with the same request from two bodies traditionally on opposite sides of the fence then she will sit up and pay heed – it’s certainly attracted everyone else’s attention. We were thinking that shouting at each other across the fence is all very satisfying but that conflict can only end when people start to speak. So we were thinking that where agreement could be found then it should be recognised. And we were thinking that if our joint approach to the minister was successful, and an upland landscape policy became a reality, its content would be the result of wide consultation with ALL interested parties and would help to protect the landscape – in all its diversity – which we all cherish.
    We were NOT thinking or saying that we agreed with or condoned any other policy or activity of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. We were not thinking that the conflicts or even crimes of past centuries should preclude an organisation which did not even exist at that time from reform. (Nor were we thinking that their collaboration on this one issue would constitute reform, though one can hope.)
    Did we get it right? The concentration on forestry as an example of upland landscape issues has certainly been a distraction, and the hostility to any relationship with the SGA has created a lot of noise – but the measure of whether we got it right or not will not be in the immediate media/social media brouhaha but whether, in time, we end up contributing with others to an upland landscape policy for Scotland – most probably arguing a different case to that of the SGA.
    (Incidentally, your post nowhere links to what Mountaineering Scotland actually said. You can read that in this story and associated links. https://www.mountaineering.scot/news/trees-mountaineering-scotland-and-the-sga )
    Neil Reid, Communications Officer, Mountaineering Scotland.

  3. This article is spot on, and I am sorry (as a mountaineer) that Mountaineering Scotland is wrong. Yes our upland deserts do have a desolate windswept quality which is memorable, and yes the marginal habitat does support interesting marginal species, BUT you only have to look at the uninhabited small islands on our Lochs to appreciate what the landscape should be like. A varied rich attractive ecosystem which could promote diverse and sustainable local economic activities. Just look at the alpine meadows with their varied grazing, selective forestry etc, etc.

  4. 'Wraight Shepherd''s comment is beside the point. These islands are low-level, and low-level land was cleared for farming eons ago, and always will be. We can't eat trees. If tree-growth were unchecked on higher land below the tree-line, in 50 years we would have temperate forest as in upland New Zealand, where every walk is along a cut track, every walk is the same walk, and nothing can be seen but the track ahead and the track behind.