19 March 2019 by Helen Todd
A few years ago I was enjoying a spring walk with my husband alongside a burn in the Scottish Borders.
Dramatic snowmelt was causing the burn to swell and undercut the field above.
Then, a panicked bleating sound drew our attention to a lamb in difficulties. We eventually spotted the poor animal, trapped and shivering beneath a turfy overhang. I clung to my husband’s legs as he hauled up the lamb, which ran to its mother who was grazing unaware nearby.
It felt great to have saved that lamb and helped the farmer upon whose land we walked.
I know that many walkers will recognise the satisfaction that comes from caring for the countryside, nature and landscapes we love – perhaps by fixing a blocked drain, reinstating a fallen signpost, or simply picking up litter as we walk.
However, there are limits to the impact that we can make as individuals.
If we zoom out, and look at Scotland’s walking environments on a broader, landscape-scale, something is wrong...
Muirburn in the Pentland Hills
Sadly, there are still too many examples of questionable land management practices, especially given the growing threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.
We’ve grown used to wandering through empty glens with the ghostly ruins of past townships, shielings and old field systems. This cultural heritage is a sad reminder of the people whose ancestors once lived in these places, but who were moved out many decades ago due to land management decisions that still impact upon nature today.
We’re accustomed to dark boxes of Sitka spruce lining our hillsides, creating dense forests with straight lines as borders, alongside treeless hills.
A sharp-edged conifer plantation
Most new forestry plantation in Scotland, large or small, native or non-native, is enclosed within fencing which is often needed for trees to grow and to justify forestry grants. This is because our upland areas have high levels of deer which, along with sheep, will graze on young plantations or stop natural regeneration from taking hold.
Yet deer numbers are kept artificially high to ensure clients have an increased number to shoot. This may help estates’ incomes, but it’s bad news for nature and deer welfare.
Deer are natural woodland animals and belong in forests; without this shelter, there can be a serious effect on their survival.
And then there are the grouse moors which some people estimate cover almost a fifth of Scotland. Walkers will recognise them from the strips of burnt heather, trays of medicated grit and predator traps, as well as the miles of vehicle tracks which help shooting parties drive to grouse butts.
A group of deer on Ben Alder
Lack of balance
All these practices are legal, and these land management practices do generate a degree of desperately-needed rural employment. Yet surely we need to have a wider public debate about how we manage land most effectively? We must mitigate against the effects of climate change and slow the catastrophic loss of biodiversity – while also supporting local communities.
Over-intensive management and mono-cultures - whether grouse moors, dense plantations or empty deer “forests” - lead to a lack of balance in nature.
The many negative impacts affect us all.
For example, our treeless moors, fields and hillsides can lead to a heightened flood risk downstream. Water flow slows down when it’s soaked up by trees and vegetation – and if that doesn’t happen then landslides such as at the Rest and Be Thankful become more likely.
The response may be to reintroduce beavers to create wetlands, or plant more native trees, or just to allow heather to grow rather than being burned so regularly. Modern forestry standards are already ensuring that new plantations are softened by native trees around the edges.
There is also a growing number of estates which are working to meet these challenges, such as the Cairngorms Connect project where landowners from the private, public and charity sectors have come together with an ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.
Others in north-west Scotland are also working together on the Coigach Assynt Living Landscape project, one of the largest landscape-scale restoration projects in Europe.
A Cairngorm pine wood and its rich biodiversity
Our countryside faces weighty, long-term challenges.
We must keep doing everything we can as walkers to support and protect it.
Let’s fill bag upon bag of litter. Let’s leave every single gate as we find it. And let’s keep helping create and maintain good-quality paths.
But let’s also encourage the Scottish walking community to be more aware of why our country looks the way it does. By doing so, we can all better understand and influence the debates that decide future of Scotland – and the planet.
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