What does the future hold for Scotland’s wild lands?

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A COUPLE of summer’s ago I was fortunate enough to walk the length of Scotland, from Kirk Yetholm in the Borders to Cape Wrath, the most north-western extremity of the British mainland. After walking the route on my own I returned with a television crew to film the route, the Scottish National Trail, for two hour-long programmes for BBC Scotland.

It was a fascinating project, particularly at a time when Scots are being asked to consider if our small nation could go it alone, a time when many of us are evaluating just what this country means to us, and it was partly because of the current political atmosphere that I became interested in walking the length of the country. Was Scotland comfortable enough in its own abilities and potential to leave the not-always-cosy embrace of the Union and go it alone in the world? And could Scotland, minus her traditional industries like steelmaking, mining and shipbuilding, survive on tourism and the nascent industry of renewable energy?

In the context of my long walk I hoped to get a feel for the answers to some of these questions, but more than that I wanted to experience the diversity of landscapes and horizons that Scotland had to offer, I wanted to soak myself in her wild lands and rugged beauty, I wanted to walk the byways of the land, to seek out the quieter places and familiarise myself with an aspect of the nation that rarely makes it into political manifestos.

Most crucially, in the course of a 470-mile walk through a nation I was given the opportunity to observe things at closer quarters than I would have done if I had just driven through it. Travelling by foot not only allows you closer proximity to the land and the people who live on it but it also takes you into the kind of  landscapes that most people, including policy-making politicians, are totally unfamiliar with.

Initially I thought I knew Scotland fairly well but I soon realised that even on a linear route through the country there were areas I was totally unfamiliar with. While I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland I really wasn’t so familiar with that broad swathe of land south of Edinburgh, an area that I’ve since discovered to be rich in history and magnificent walking possibilities. However, delightful as the walk through the Borders was, I also noticed that there have been massive changes in those areas in my own lifetime, with huge conifer plantations shrouding historic hillsides, the loss of hedgerows and patchwork fields due to large-scale agro-industry practices and in more recent times the growth of industrial scale windfarms.

Between Kirk Yetholm and Edinburgh there were few days when the horizon wasn’t dominated by spinning turbines and I was a taken aback by the sheer size of some of vast prairie-like ploughed fields. I had been looking forward to rambling through the rural pleasures of a patchworked, green landscape, but where had all the wooded copses gone, the hedgerows and the bush-filled ditches?

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that hedgerows were a fundamental part of our landscape, providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. They provide valuable sheltered routes along which wildlife can move more freely across the country between fragmented woodlands, function as screens against bad weather, provide cover for game, contain and shelter stock and crops, act as windbreaks and help control soil erosion. Of course our countryside can’t remain static, but the rate of disappearance of our hedgerows in recent times has been astonishing. As recently as 1945 we had over 500,000 miles of hedgerows in the UK but modern intensive farming methods are obviously not compatible with a pretty countryside and flourishing wildlife.

It would take a little stretch of the imagination to describe my walk through the landscapes of the Borders and Central Belt as a wild land experience, but further north the coniferisation is no less severe and the constant drive for renewable energy sources will inevitably change the face of highland Scotland forever, unless we can, somehow, mitigate the visual effects of it. Hillwalkers and those who love Scotland’s wild landscapes are being asked to make a sacrifice in the fight against climate change but how much of a sacrifice are we willing to make? Climate change is a very real issue. The Arctic ice-pack has melted to a record level this summer and while conditions could become uncomfortable for us in Scotland there are countries in the world where weather conditions could become intolerable. Climate justice is about developed countries like ours doing all we can to tackle the problem of climate change to help others and Scotland is certainly one of the few countries in the world seriously attempting to tackle the issue.

Energy is another vital issue and until renewables like wave and tidal power come on-stream then politicians have to embrace whatever option is available. Giving that few Scots want nuclear power stations on their doorstep that alternative, for the moment, appears to be wind power, both onshore and offshore. But the dichotomy is that large-scale windfarm industrialisation is the biggest threat to Scotland’s wonderful landscapes, areas that attract thousands of tourists to Scotland every year and I firmly believe we need those areas of wildness, places where people can find renewal, and peace!

The American writer Edward Abbey once said that we need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. Slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps but I would agree with the concept. Even in Scotland, with our much-acclaimed land reform legislation and freedom-to-roam, many of us still think of land predominantly in economic terms, rather than in aesthetic or philosophical terms. Perhaps it’s time we took the advice of another great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold? He said that when we consider land as a commodity to be bought and sold we tend to abuse it. If, on the other hand, we think of land as a community to which we also belong, then we will treat it with love and respect.

I lost count of how many times I sat beside some long ruined habitation and  thought of those who had once lived there , many of whom were later evicted. Large scale sheep farming replaced people after the Highland Clearances and today, in many areas, those sheep have also gone. Victorian sporting estates still dominate the highlands and large areas of the Borders and one wonders how sustainable they are in these very uncertain times. Very few of these estates are profitable and many landowners keep them on as hobbies, as playthings. While some landowners are working hard to regenerate native woodland and control deer numbers most estates are run on a monoculture basis, managing vast acres as a wet desert for grouse shooting or deer stalking. Could there be more Government intervention, offering subsidies for woodland regeneration and lower deer numbers? Can landowners be encouraged to manage the land in a more sustainable way or is the Victorian sporting estate the only future for Scotland’s wild places?

It’s an intriguing question and if hunting, fishing and shooting fall prey to the current economic uncertainties what’s the next throw of the dice for Scotland’s wild land? Land reform is one answer, where communities control the land on which they live and work, and there have certainly been some success stories in recent years in places like Knoydart, Assynt and the Isle of Eigg, but large-scale community buy-outs are still a long way off, particularly under the current economic climate.

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My end-to-end walk threw up lots of questions, but few answers. Renewable energy appears to be the most obvious bet and that isn’t a pleasant option for those of us who treasure the wild places, unless we can find a means of balancing our energy/climate change needs with landscape conservation. On the plus side, onshore wind is a stop-gap until the marine renewables sector really gets going and existing onshore turbines can be removed.

Folk of my age have arguably enjoyed the best of Scotland’s wild places in our lifetime, but all is not lost. Walking the Scottish National Trail offered me the opportunity to walk a route that is as good, as varied, as majestic, as grand as any other walking trail in the world. We have much to be proud of in Scotland, and the glory of our landscapes is equal to any. If we can get the balance right I’m pretty certain Scotland can still attract visitors in their tens of thousands while, at the same time, boast a renewable energy industry that could be the envy of the world.

Scotland End to End, the book of the Scottish National Trail and the double disc DVD, are both available from www.mountain-media.co.uk

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