IMAGE: Loch Garry 2010. Source: walkhighlands
I am particularly pleased to publish this article by Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell. In light of the ongoing problems with landslips on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful and further west in Glen Kinglas, Ron and Derek remind us that they were advocating substantial ecological restoration over 30 years ago. They pioneered, from first principles and scientific observations, an approach that would restore the ecology of much of Upland Scotland. But official Scotland and vested interests blocked their plans.
Ron Greer is, by profession, a freshwater biologist with a 40 years specific interest in Arctic Charr, Ferox Trout and the management of the large glacial ribbon lakes/hydro-electric reservoirs that are their primary habitat. He is co-author of several seminal papers on Scottish Arctic Charr and author of the book ‘Ferox Trout and Arctic Charr’. He is one of the Scottish representatives in the International Society of Arctic Charr and has been a participant in and co-organiser, of their international conferences over the last 25 years
As a corollary of the above, he has developed a parallel interest in strategic land use/tenure reform, riparian silvicultural management and Boreal biogeography. He initiated the Loch Garry riparian woodland project in 1974 and was co-founder with Derek Pretswell, and others, of the Loch Garry Tree Group in 1986. He was a member of the Highland Forum team who helped organise the 1987 Land and Community conference at Drumossie and considers the outcomes from it as a work still in progress. He was co-founder and initial Convenor of Scottish Native Woods and worked with Derek in its formative years.
He is widely travelled in North America, Fennoscandia and Northern Europe, both in relation to study trips pertinent to freshwater and land use issues and as a guest lecturer in these subject areas at various universities/colleges, NGO institutes and sporting organisations.
Derek Pretswell is a zoology graduate of Aberdeen and started working on forestry and landuse with Ron in 1982/3 while both of them were fishery biologists with the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. A founder member of the Loch Garry Tree Group and Perth Bat Group, he served on the management committee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Loch of the Lowes and was a Trustee of Scottish Native Woods for 10 years. In addition, he was a member of the Cairngorm Community Circle and a member of the SNP environmental policy group which, along with Ron and under Roger Mullin’s leadership, formulated the SNP’s main policy document.
Together with Ron, Derek founded Natural Resources Scotland in 1992 and developed the New Caledonia Project which is a holistic long term project that encapsulates the three tenets of sustainable development to bring about the ‘blossoming’ of our biological, social and economic landscape. Derek now teaches environmental education to schoolchildren from North Lanarkshire at an outdoor centre in Oban and during the summer takes to the lochs with Ron to research Arctic Charr populations.
ERODING THE MOUNTAINS OF INERTIA
Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell
Sitkasaurs and Contortasaurs still stalked the Earth. There had been no substantive land tenure reform for 900 years. A tribal confederation of the ‘Negataibh’, more especially the clans of McCannae, MacShouldnae and their even more dangerous comrades, the Clan MacWulnae, managed the landscape on behalf of the Moorland Myth Brigade, The Cellulose Factory Managers, The Starbirders and other sectional vested interest groups with a finger in the subsidy pie and a ticket for the gravy train. Aye, such was the state of Highland Scotland in the early seventies of the last century. A region variously described as a ‘wet desert’, a ‘wasteland ripe for development’ or ‘the last great unspoiled wilderness in Europe’. Would anyone out there recognise this picture today?
Into this world of private and State sectional vested interests, replete with a compartmentalised bureaucratic administration (bunkered in intellectual fall-out shelters), a young freshwater biologist, blissfully unaware of the atavistic nature of most of the above, initiated a pioneering study of Arctic Charr and Brown Trout in Loch Garry, a long established hydro-electric reservoir, lying at 400 metres altitude and a cat’s spit away from Perthshire’s Drumochter Pass (of winter notoriety). Details of this fisheries study have been published in the relevant peer-reviewed literature but even more important wider strategic issues and conclusions arose from it that not only challenged established shibboleths and perspectives in terms of freshwater ecology in Scotland, but also in a much broader, regional and national environmental sense. Charr, previously considered a rare fish in Scotland, turned out to be very common here and indeed in many other lochs in the Highlands which begged the question – why? Was there perhaps something wrong with the received wisdom on the perspective of Scotland’s bio-geographical realities? A question which kept arising as the follow on from the fisheries study developed.
Image 1 – Loch Garry truncated morraine 1990
A core outcome of the study was that hydro-electric regulation causes profound and negative impacts (largely through destroying littoral zone aquatic plants) on the ecology of the lake concerned. In similar Scandinavian lakes classic ‘before and after’ studies revealed that up to 70% of the aquatic invertebrate that supports higher animals can be lost (with important depressive effects on subsistence and commercial fisheries). We are without the great detail of these studies, but recent work indicates that the barren stony shores of reservoirs like Ericht, Cluanie and Quaich are every bit the aquatic desert they appear to be. Further background research however revealed that a massive potential (up to 90%) source of plant material to support the aquatic food-chain could be derived from riparian deciduous woodland. The main fisheries management problem turned out to be what was happening on the land. What was happening on the land was derived from its land tenure system and the aims and management of its owners, historically and extant. Why was that land treeless? The then ‘orthodoxy’ was that it was because of the harsh climate and the poor soil; perhaps scrubby birch and willow? Challenging that orthodoxy were the basic bioclimatic facts, ecological history and empirical experience in other montane ‘Arctic Charr countries.’ The challenge of re-establishing deciduous riparian woodland was taken up. In so doing it opened up even bigger challenges in realising a wider strategic potential.
Image 2 – Loch Garry truncated morraine revegetating
The first inklings of the potential were stimulated by both a literature review related to the physical habitat requirements of Arctic Charr and site visits to Norway in 1971, 1973 and 1974. But the biggest single advances in this area, both in respect of the specifics of tree species/origin/provenance selection and the wider national strategic overview we were developing (in parallel to other initiatives we were involved in) were study visits to Iceland in 1981 and Vestlandet in Norway in 1984. In respect of the former we were lucky indeed, before his death not long after, to draw on the extensive knowledge of Hakon Bjarnasson, the father figure of Icelandic forestry who, apart from his silvicultural expertise in a country where the most favourable tree growing conditions were climatically closely akin to Drumochter Pass, had a profound interest and experience of soil conservation and environmental protection issues in challenging boreal and austral conditions. Proud as he was of his country’s culture and living standards, Hakon was fully open about the shocking devastation that comprised much of the Icelandic environment, perhaps the most eroded country in Northern Europe and had spent much of his professional life trying to redress it.
George Monbiot has described the Scottish and British uplands as ‘sheep-wrecked’ (see for example this article in relation to the A83 Rest and Be Thankful slope failures). In comparison, Iceland has had a thousand years of ovine-wrecking, (compared to our mere 300 years), where a land once 40% covered in mixed broadleaved forest (of species also once common in Scotland), had been reduced to looking like a movie set from a desert world in Star Wars. Though the cessation of headage payments may have helped us a little, nonetheless, Iceland gives a stark warning of what might occur if we don’t change our perception of what the uplands can biologically sustain. Indeed, Hakon, on seeing photographs of erosion gullies in the Grampians, opined that unless restorative, protective forestry took place, that we would, in two or three generations, perhaps 100 years at the most, have no vegetation left on the hills. He would not be surprised to see the repeated landslips on the A83 (the Rest and Be Thankful) or the A85 at Glen Ogle, and neither very sadly, are we.
IMAGE: Slopes to north of A83, Glen Kinglas, the site of a recent landslip of 100 tonnes of soil. The red circles indicate existing slope failures on this overgrazed terrain. Click on picture for a larger image.
More prosaically, was the comment proffered without sarcastic irony, of another Icelandic forester on being presented with a fairly comprehensive bioclimatic profile of Loch Garry ‘oh you have a very good place to grow trees then’. Which then begs the question of what else it and much of the Grampians as a whole, might be capable of more than we currently believe. The advice on tree species and origin provided by the Icelandic foresters has been invaluable over the years as was their introduction to the potential of Nootka Lupin as a soil improvement and erosion control agent. The future might be more blue, but not necessarily more sad. Unless of course, we continue to go down (or rather up) the exponential Humpty Dumpty curve of deforested erodability, with the politicians shouting out ‘so far so good’ before we all pay for the splat, as the mountain comes down to the A83 and other roads like it.
Image 3 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Trees well-established.
It is almost de rigueur these days for those promulgating land tenure and land use reform in Scotland to compare our situation with Norway. As major promulgators of that comparison since 1984, after a ‘culture shock’ study trip with Angus McHattie of the Scottish Crofters Union, participants in several media documentaries on the subject and providing technical support to the later Reforesting Scotland Norway Study Tour, we can hardly decry that comparison. However please nota bene, we do not consider simply copying Norway as the final destination, but rather that it helps point the way to a ‘better place’ than we are in now. The geobotanical, phytogeographical and bioclimatic similarities to the Vestlandet of Norway and the vibrant cultural landscape obtained within it, give the lie to accusations of the ‘McCannaes’ that there is no other end point of tenure and use possible for upland Scotland, than the current indulgence of a landed minority in what for many of the rest of us is a quasi feudal, Victorian-Edwardian nightmare-world supported by public subsidy.
In over three decades of establishing and managing grass roots organisations, e.g. Scottish Native Woods, Highland Forum, Loch Garry Tree Group, or developing the New Caledonia project or cooperating with other established organisations and individuals that arose in the euphoria of the environmental movement in 1975-1995, we have seen, shared and experienced, shattered hopes, plagiarism and sheer outright betrayal on the attempted road to a resolution of environmental degradation and conflict. For example we were in at the grass roots level with the Millennium Forest Project and were part of a small committee to look at locations. We originally thought committees were platforms for compromise, but our experience makes us believe that they are cul de sacs up which good ideas are lured, then silently strangled.
The agendas of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will always prevail when individuals are outnumbered by such organisations. Our argument was based on generating a momentum that would carry past 2000 and create a platform of reforestation that everyone could be part of, based on 5 major forest centres; Glen Affric (Trees for Life), Cairngorms, Central Belt and one each in the Southwest and Southeast Borders, with a target of joining them all up creating one contiguous forest linked by forest corridors, allowing communities, local forest groups and FC plantations and their grannies to take part and have ownership of the process. Had we gone down this road there would have been no better way to say that we all live in the environment and it is not something that ‘happens over there’ and that we all inclusively contributed towards it.
Image 4 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Forest ecosystem restored.
We have always been centred round the idea of revitalising the soil/vegetation complex and using this landscape, when functioning as the best it can be biologically, as a platform for social and economic development. Two things shocked us in the development of this philosophy; the complete underestimation of what is possible due to the lack of perception of where we are bio-climatically, coupled to the habitual mismanagement by generations of landowners and land managers; and the conservatism, generated by the vested interests of the resource holders and policy makers. This includes NGOs, though there are as always exceptions at all levels. The mismanagement is not obligate, it is facultative, and the managers choose their endpoint, having inherited their start point, for the bulk of our rural landscapes. We need rurality built into the urban environment and not urbanity into the rural one, as is happening.
Patrick Geddes talked of work people and place, sustainability models talk of environmental, social and economic factors, most of the ‘environmentalist movement’ and politicians use the word sustainable, but how many have read the Brundtland Commission Report or the earlier World Conservation Strategy that coined and defined the phrase and intend to implement the recommendations. In many cases it is a bit like the bank that likes to say yes but doesn’t understand the question. We are driven to solve problems, Loch Garry being a case in point, but our solution is to focus on the problem and this in turn exerts an enormous influence on our thinking. What was initially perceived as an aquatic problem at Loch Garry was in fact a land problem and likewise the A83 events are not a road problem, but a land one. Well for forestry’s sake there are too many problems for us! If we go back to the basics of the soil vegetation complex then we need to make it the best it can be, so plant the trees that originally created the organic layers that are there and held it all in place.
Let’s work towards goals – you know, ideal situations that could make these problems disappear. At one point in relation to the A83, there was talk of tunnels and a budget of £90 million, well for that money we can buy the land, reforest it, give it to the people to manage and still have money left over to build a better road!
We live in the world’s most beautiful ecological slum but we have the advantage that this slum is not on the northern edge of the Mediterranean it is on the southern edge of the Arctic and it has an amazing northern potential. Our challenge is to bring about the realisation of that potential and so finally, a recommendation to politicians. If you want ideas that are outside of the box don’t go into the box to look for them!