Tuesday, 24 December 2013

From storm to silence in the Trossachs

2013 is roaring to a close in Scotland with day after day of rain, sleet and snow driven by stormy winds. Here in Fife on Christmas Eve the squalls are interspersed with dazzling bursts of sunshine and blue skies.

Yesterday I braved a vicious Atlantic front and took a turn around Glen Finglas in the Trossachs. Venturing on to the tops was out of the question but nevertheless a pre-Christmas dander was essential. I decided to explore the Woodland Trust's biggest property, acquired in 1996. The aim in Glen Finglas is to protect some very ancient woodland remnants and promote its regeneration and expansion. Interestingly - and perhaps controversially to some rewilding fundamentalists - free-ranging cattle are part of the mix here. In Glen Finglas and neighbouring Gleann nam Meann the vision seems to be to recreate a patchwork of woodland and open meadows in the valley floors with forest climbing far up the slopes on either side. That's one of the big questions about rewilding as a concept: should you be trying to re-create a landscape, and if so, how far back in time should you be aiming for?

Gleann nam Meann
Encouraging and facilitating public access to their woods is close to the core of the Woodland Trust mission. On the whole it is done well, I think. Waymarking is unobtrusive in Glen Finglas. Noticeboards are confined to the car park by the main road near Loch Venachar. A small visitor centre is under construction here. A fine path, well made and drained, narrow and unobtrusive, surfaced with gravel, winds up the hillside above Brig o'Turk and down into Glen Finglas. Around here commercial plantations have been clear-felled. Only a few Scots pines have been left standing. The rest is being reclaimed by native woodland.

The morning started dry but a storm was on its way. Behind me, the Menteith Hills and Loch Venachar would soon be overtaken.

There was new woodland...

...and old:

The storm arrived soon enough. I was ready to make a run back to the car in the event of heavy snow. What came out of the sky was mostly sleety at best, so I pressed on.

Gleann nam Meann meets Glen Finglas towards the northern end of the reservoir. Meall Cala drives a crag- and tree-flanked wedge between the glens, its spear-head thrust lost in colourless cloud. The air was thick with wind and wet snow. Lunch and a brew were taken in the lee of a small outcrop. Fat wet flakes swirled into everything.

A trail, following hill tracks, snakes up Gleann nam Meann from the Glenfinglas Reservoir, onto open moorland looking north to Balquhidder, then back down to the head of Glen Finglas. I imagined spring time in the glen: wild meadows studded with flowers, a glittering chattering river, a haze of green on the trees lining it and the new growth on the hillsides.

The snow became progressively deeper, making for tiring going. Once out of Gleann nam Meann the track was obliterated for long stretches by waist-deep drifts of snow with the consistency of wet sand. I ploughed on for a while but with an hour and a half of daylight left and another 500 feet to go to the summit of the track I turned around and slithered my way back down. The sleet turned to rain and the temperature rose. The rain stopped, started, stopped, each pulse weaker than the last. The wind disappeared and the light took on a luminous quality. Somewhere the low winter sun was weakly prying at the edge of the cloud blanket.

Night drew in as I walked the hillside trail back to the car. Mist sat in the valley and burns roared with melt-water. London inverted: a few little lights twinkled below, overwhelmed by the immensity of sky and land.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Daytripper #2

Sunday's weather forecast went downhill all week. I looked on like a gambler who'd bet the farm on the wrong horse; lavish dreams of spending weather winnings on a long, grand high-level walk over the Mounth were scaled back until I found myself on a dark, wet morning at Spittal of Glenshee.

The fairy glen has depth and history. Irish Celtic legends were transplanted here. There is a standing stone behind the church in Spittal of Glenshee. Remains of shielings and hut circles scatter the hills. The human connection here is long and misty, and Glen Shee remains a working landscape.

Yellow leaves skittered across slick black tarmac as I set off. The Shee Water, swollen and peat-stained, slalomed through its bouldery flood plain edged with scrubby woodland, and surged under the single high arch of the Caulfield bridge. Today on the cusp of winter the land looked tired and worn.

I traversed high above the grazing lands, following a deer fence. The Cateran Trail from the Spittal invites you to walk through muddy fields of cattle. I declined. Eventually I hit the estate tracks fanning out into the grouse moors and hill country. A faint track followed a fence up the prow of Black Hill - grassy sheep grazing on one side, heathery grouse moor on the other.

Thick clag and driving rain accompanied me all the way round to Monamenach and Craigenloch Hill. Rain mitts were put through their paces and worked well. Route finding was no problem on these typical grouse-managed eastern hills. Fences shadowed by ATV tracks followed the rounded ridges. The main difficulty was avoiding lengths of half-buried rusty wire. On the top of Craigenloch Hill a hare, conserving energy, let me pass very close by, its body tense and ready to flee in an instant. Its legs and underside were already white.

My route to and from Monamenach took me through a dying woodland composed mostly of larch and Scots pine, on steep slopes under crags and rubble. The hillside was littered with huge fallen trunks, but there were no young trees to replace them The wood is open to sheep and deer. Still, it was an inviting oasis. There were few big sweeping views to photograph today so I had a brew and a wander through the wood, turning my camera to different things instead.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Daytripper #1

I sorely needed a break from marching up and down the Thames path for kicks, so two consecutive October weekends in Scotland have arrived at just the right time, allowing for a couple of day trips - slightly frustrating as I'm gagging to try out my Trailstar! That may have to wait until the Christmas holidays providing that the Express's annual prediction of The Worst Winter In Decades doesn't come true this time.

For the first weekend I had cunningly arranged a work commitment in Glasgow for Thursday and Friday, allowing a day's walking on the Saturday and a return to London on Sunday. The in-laws in Glasgow had also yet to see our newborn, so we all piled on to the train at King's Cross on Wednesday afternoon.

On Saturday, with work out of the way, Dad and I drove down to Glen Holm in the Southern Uplands near Broughton with the intention of climbing Culter Fell. The drive was a delight through autumnal countryside. After day upon day of rain and a forecast for yet more, our expectations were low, which was just as well. It started dry and cloudy but quickly became very wet and very cloudy with plenty of wind thrown in. Crap weather has plagued my walks and wild camps this year. I take it as valuable learning and conditioning for the big walk next year, and a good test of new gear. I also secretly hope there's some cosmic meterological pay-off in store for the Tay catchment walk!

A burst of sunshine after the storm, in upper Glen Holm
Walking through a forestry plantation, we were passed on the track by a gamekeeper in a 4x4. My heart started to sink as he pulled up next to us. My abiding memory of gamekeepers is being screamed at by one near Tomintoul when aged 16, who threatened to shoot my dog. Somewhat rattled, my friend and I plus dog ended up getting completely lost on the Cromdale Hills in a white-out that day. We ended up near Grantown-on-Spey and had to hitch a lift back over to Tomintoul.

This gamekeeper however turned out to be friendly and constructive: there was deer stalking taking place in the woods, and would be consider taking an alternative track through? It was interesting that at no point were we told we couldn't continue on our planned way: it was simply 'for our information'. I got the strong impression that this gamekeeper was familiar with Scottish access legislation, and that this probably reflected a positive attitude to access on the part of the landowner.

We were happy to take a detour, staying low by the burn to the edge of the woods and starting our climb from there, rather than continuing up through the woods to the open hillside. The encounter left a positive impression. Co-operation is so much better than confrontation!

The hills around Glen Holm are smooth and rounded from a distance, with some steep slopes overlooking the glen. On closer acquaintance however the going is rough. There were plenty of bogs, peat hags and tussocks to negotiate on the way round to Culter Fell. Navigation wasn't a problem though as a fence led all the way to the top, though I backed this up with compass work and estimating walking times between points, more for the practice than out of necessity.

The fence continued south to an expansive col of peat hags and treacherous-looking bogs covered in sphagnum moss. A wintering flock of golden plovers wheeled away with a single call. The rain had stopped and the cloud was lifting. Rolling heathery hilltops beckoned us on but time was against us so we dropped down to the upper glen for a brew and some sandwiches. We even had a bit of sunshine. A big, ragged flock of birds - fieldfares we reckoned - appeared over the brow of the hill opposite and tumbled in to land a couple of hundred metres upstream from us.

Cloud clears from Culter Fell
Bracken utterly dominates the head of the glen. In a landscape that's endured merciless sheep grazing for many generations, it's one of the few plants that does well, helped by a near-complete absence of trees which would otherwise crowd it out.

Upper Glen Holm
I enjoyed the hills here. The Southern Uplands is great country for long tramps, backpacking and wild camping, and possibly best for autumn and winter. However you cannot escape just how heavily managed and suppressed this landscape is, much more so than the Highlands, which itself is managed to a high degree. Glen Holm has the lot - commercial forestry, arable farming and swarms of pheasants in its lower reaches; hordes of sheep in its upper reaches (you could walk for miles and tread in sheep shit every step of the way); and giant wind turbines presiding over it all from the hilltops across the glen from Culter Fell.

What does this weekend hold in store? Weather looks okay-ish for now...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Raising funds for Venture Trust and Scottish Wild Land Group

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that I now have a fundraising page on this blog. I'm using the walk to raise money for these two terrific charities, and you can read more about them and why I've chosen to raise funds for them here. Links for making online donations are also up and running.

Venture Trust have published an article about the walk on their website, and there will also be a piece about it in the next edition of Scottish Wild Land Group's 'Wild Land News', due out any day now (if you download PDFs of their excellent magazine, please do consider taking out a membership!).

The walk is still several months away and you might want to wait until nearer the time to think about donating, perhaps when you're more certain I'm going to go through with it, or indeed successfully complete it!.

That's fair enough, but please do keep it in mind. I believe we're at a cross-roads now, both in our understanding of how important nature and wild land is to our well-being, and sadly also in the struggle to preserve it.

If you think wild land really matters, you could hardly support two finer charities.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Quharity mystery

Tracing out the boundary of the Tay catchment was easy. The watersheds are clear on the maps, everywhere except for an area west-north-west of Kirriemuir. It's the mystery of the Quharity Burn. This water flows out of the southern fringe of the Mounth, only to be lost in a bog and have its waters stolen and rustled into the Loch of Lintrathen (off the bottom left of the map below) and eventually the River Isla. However the burn and its name are resurrected a short distance further on, re-starting the journey from small beginnings towards the River South Esk.

Humans are probably the culprit here. The Inzion Burn, which steals the original Quharity Burn's waters and takes them south-west, is suspiciously straight. It looks like a channel deliberately cut to drain the bog. Newton Moss, at the head of the Inzion Burn, is still marshy according to the map.

So here's an example of where the watershed has been altered by human intervention. What implications does it have for my route? Should I follow the watershed as it is now, or as it should be?

The latter seems the more purist approach, but misses out a cracking hill: Cat Law (671m). It stands proud right at the edge of the Mounth and would make a great entry into the Highlands. Given its height, position and relative isolation I'll bet the views from the top are terrific. The purist approach would mean a less dramatic introduction to the Highlands, creeping in circuitously via the back door over the lower moorland whalebacks of Creigh Hill and Milldewan Hill.

Ultimately, pragmatism will probably win. If it's a fine day it'll be hard to pass up a visit to Cat Law. If the weather is rotten, the lower level route will probably seem more attractive.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Trailstar has landed

My Trailstar tarp arrived just over a week ago, and had its inaugural pitching this morning. It requires a bit of work to get it ready for use. The parcel contained the tarp itself in a yellow stuffsac, a bag of stakes and pegs (five of each, which I'd added to my order as they're not included when you order the Trailstar), a tube of Silnet seam sealer (included), and a very long length of yellow cord for the pegging points (also included). There are no instructions provided. This is about as far removed as you can get from buying a pop-up tent from Decathlon: the customer is assumed to have some practical nous and not to need their hand held. Once you apply the seam sealer, the tarp is non-returnable, so taking care and having a reasonable idea of what you're doing at this stage is particularly important.

This is a tarp designed to withstand stormy weather, and the stakes provided are therefore very substantial. The pegs are also bigger than I expected, much bigger than the needle-thin 1g titanium pegs for my Terra Nova Laser Photon 1 tent.

Stake and peg set for the Trailstar (loo roll tube added for scale)
The tarp itself is essentially a large pentagon-shaped sheet of silnylon, or rather five triangular sheets of silnylon stitched together. The five main seams run from the centre out to each of the corners where the main pegging points are: these are where the stakes are used. Halfway along each edge of the tarp, between the main pegging points, is an extra pegging point which can be used with the smaller pegs for additional stability, although in settled conditions you could get away with just using the stakes.

The workmanship is excellent and I couldn't find any flaws in the stitching or the fabric.

The first task in preparing the Trailstar for use was to cut, prepare and attach ten lengths of cord for the pegging points. I cut a 240cm length for the door and 60cm lengths for the rest of the pegging points. The cut ends of the cord fray very easily so it's important they're sealed - I did this by melting them carefully with a cigarette lighter. However it's best to thread them through the linelocs first before doing this - there's not much room to get the cord through here, and a melted lumpy end of cord may not go through.

Next I threaded the lengths of cord through the linelocs at each pegging point. For the door you need to select one of the secondary pegging points, i.e. one halfway along the edge of a panel rather than at the end of one of the seams, and attach the long length of cord here. The picture below shows a lineloc with the cord threaded through:

 I made the loop for the peg at the end of the cord that is threaded through the lineloc nearest the tarp fabric. At the other end I tied a simple knot to prevent it being pulled out altogether. The lineloc is ingenious and simple. In the position above (flat) it cinches down on the cord, keeping it immobile. It won't move out of that position when it's under real tension when the Trailstar is pitched. To adjust the cord you pull the lineloc up to a near-90 degree angle, then the cord can move freely through it.

Next up was seam sealing, the task I was dreading the most. The best, and certainly most efficient, way to do this is to pitch the Trailstar, seal all the seams in one go, and leave it standing to dry for several hours. For me this wasn't an option. I'm an urban flat dweller with no access to any green space suitable for leaving a tent pitched all day. There is the local park but I certainly wouldn't leave it there unattended, and didn't fancy spending hours standing guard next to it, fending off funny looks, smart-arse comments and annoying questions. We also have access to some communal gardens but didn't want to rub the landlord or neighbours up the wrong way.

Therefore it had to be done indoors, and over several evenings I sealed a seam at a time and left it to dry overnight. The key thing was to make the seam as taut as possible before applying the seam sealer, mimicking the amount of tension if the tarp was pitched. The picture below shows how I did this:

Preparing a seam for sealing
The Silnet seam sealer is horrible viscous stuff that starts going gummy almost as soon as it's out of the tube, so you have to work very quickly. I applied it neat as advised on the Mountain Laurel Designs website rather than mixed with a thinner as many bloggers advise: I decided just to keep it simple and avoid any catastrophes. Starting from the top of each seam (at the centre of the tarp) I worked small beads of seam sealer into the stitching with my index finger, working on a few inches at a time. I probably used too much of the stuff as I made too big a hole in the tube, making it harder to control the flow. However, whilst not the neatest job in the world, the end result looks comprehensive. Next time we get a wet weekend I'll pitch the Trailstar outside for an hour and check for any leaks.

So finally today I was able to get the thing outdoors and have a rough-and-ready go at pitching it. This proved to be very easy and quick, even for a first attempt. It took two or three minutes, with a few extra minutes for adjustments and faffing around. I'll need more practice to get it perfect, and try out some different pitching styles. Here I think it's pitched quite high. Getting the door panel taut enough is tricky - perhaps the trekking pole outside the tarp entrance should have been a bit higher (it was set a few cm shorter than the one inside).

Bags of room inside, as expected:


Overall I'm really happy with it so far and think I'm going to get on well with it. My goal is to perfect the pitching, and by the time I embark on my walk to be an expert at pitching it in a variety of ways.

Useful Trailstar resources

I came across a number of reviews and other things on the internet whilst researching the Trailstar. The most useful and comprehensive review I could find is by Colin Ibbotson, and I'll be going back to this next time I practice pitching the Trailstar when I have more time: http://www.andyhowell.info/Colin-Ibbotson/Trailstar-review.pdf

Colin Ibbotson and Chris Townsend go on a walk to pitch and compare three different Mountain Laurel Designs shelters, including the silnylon and cuben fibre versions of the Trailstar. The cuben fibre version is lighter than the silnylon, but how does it compare in other respects? http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/2012/03/trailstar-wars.html

This video by Tony Hobbs about pitching the Trailstar is also well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc480j2jScI

Also for inspiration I like to look at this post from time to time. The author David Lintern walked the entire Haute Route Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, mostly wild camping with a Trailstar. There are some interesting pitching styles featured here, including using one of the main pegging points at the end of a seam as the door, creating a huge and open entrance.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Washed out on the Downs

Last week my mum and dad were down from Scotland for a few days' visit. The occasion was the birth of our second daughter, who arrived right on time at 9.30am on 10th September. Once things had settled down a bit I took my dad down to Kent to walk part of the North Downs Way. We covered about 10 miles, taking the train to Otford just north of Sevenoaks and following the route east to Vigo Village, before doubling back and heading for Borough Green to catch the train back in to London.

Sadly the weather was terrible and it rained almost non-stop all day. Still, it was a good to get out and I saw enough that made me want to come back again for more regular walks along the many trails that criss-cross this area, once the first few difficult months of caring for our newborn are over. Our oldest should be ready by next year for little walks on these fairly undemanding trails as well. Also it was a good test for my dry bags and trekking poles, and to further wear in my North Face Hedgehog trail shoes which I'll be wearing for the lowland parts of the Tay catchment walk. These shoes are Gore-tex lined and kept my feet dry and comfortably warm all day.

The first few miles of the walk were lovely, even in thick mist and rain. The path climbed steeply out of Otford, tunneling through dense woodland before emerging onto a meadow fringed by woods on the top of the Downs ridge. We carried on through this mixed landscape of woods and fields, often sharing our path with horses, before dropping down a steep bank and across a muddy field to meet the Pilgrim's Way. This ancient trackway was the route taken by pilgrims travelling between Winchester and Canterbury. The North Downs Way shadows it for much of its length. The Pilgrim's Way tends to follow the foot of the Downs escarpment, perhaps because this is where natural springs tend to be located, rather than the tops of the Downs which are dry.

Reaching Vigo Village we were far from dry but definitely parched, and were glad to find a small pub. The windows were dark and it looked empty, but the door was open, so we went in to find a startled-looking woman behind the bar. I think she'd accidentally left the door unlocked! We were about to retreat but she was happy to serve us drinks, so we had a beer whilst a young Boxer left his tennis ball on our table, and attempted to climb on to the table to retrieve it when we didn't throw it quickly enough.

From here we backtracked down a steep section of path that tunneled through overarching trees. We went under the M20 and over the M26 as we threaded various little-used footpaths together to make our way to Borough Green station. These two motorways meet around here with the unfortunate village of Wrotham wedged in the tight angle between them. The noise of the motorways is a constant, wearing roar, even from a mile or so away, and overwhelms this section of the North Downs Way. Their embankments are strewn with litter hurled by morons from their vehicles. Living near this constant noise can't be good for blood pressure and must surely promote heart disease. Even central London is more peaceful!

Nevertheless there's lots of fine countryside here, and huge potential for linking up sections of the North Downs Way and other long-distance paths such as the Greensand Way and Wealdway to make long one-day or overnight trips. The High Weald in particular looks to be heavily wooded enough to enable sneaky overnight bivouacs, maybe something to consider for spring next year. Heading further south into Sussex and the South Downs there are also a lot of possibilities.

It's not exactly Scottish hillwalking, but from a training and preparation perspective at least there's the opportunity on the doorstep for some lengthy walks on paths and trails on rolling, even hilly terrain, and through some fine woodland. At the moment all my training walks are along the Thames path in central London - flat and paved all the way. Carrying around 12kgs on my back and getting to grips with walking with trekking poles, which I've never done much before, adds to the work-out. However, although it's great being out by the river at sunrise, it doesn't beat a walk in the countryside.

The walk also gave some food for thought regarding maps. I took a standard paper copy of OS Landranger 1:50,000 no.188 (Maidstone & Royal Tunbridge Wells). I didn't have my plastic waterproof map holder with me (something I would never be without when hillwalking in Scotland) and the map was in a sorry state by the end of the day, especially as I had to use it a lot for micro-navigation towards the end of the walk. The OS produce laminated weatherproof versions of their maps (Active Maps). They're expensive in the shops but can be found at a good discount on Amazon and Ebay. I'm beginning to think they're worth the expense, and bought a replacement sheet 188 and sheet 198 for Brighton & Lewes, covering much of the South Downs from Amazon for half the RRP.

Even using a waterproof map holder, paper maps still get worn out quickly, especially if you're folding them back on themselves a lot. On wet backpacking trips, the dampness will still get to them even if they're protected.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Indian summer

Some beautiful weather in London this week. Early morning walking has been a pleasure. Yesterday I put 8kg of iron dumb-bell plates, camera (a kilo at least), a sleeping bag and a couple of blankets into the Berghaus Vulcan II and was out at 6.15am for a seven mile walk by the Thames. Sadly the camera had only enough juice left for one picture:

Victoria Tower Gardens
The tide was low and still ebbing evidenced by the current breaking against the upstream faces of the bridge supports, the water like molten metal in the early sun. A heron stood hunched on the mud near Lambeth Bridge, then high-stepped through resting gulls, its long bill tilted disdainfully upwards.

Powder-blue skies, mist over the Thames, dew on the grass and a big bank of fog at Vauxhall Bridge. It had all the makings of a frosty morning minus the frost. Autumn is just around the corner all right.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Gimme shelter

This week I made a big decision that I've been orbiting in ever-decreasing circles for months. I always knew it would end this way. I've just ordered a Trailstar tarp from US company Mountain Laurel Designs:

MLD Trailstar (image from www.mountainlaureldesigns.com)
Also in the post is a custom-made 'bathtub' groundsheet from Oookworks based near Castle Douglas in south west Scotland.

So now I'm committed to living under a single-skin shelter for a month.

The Trailstar is a shaped tarp meaning it looks like a tent when pitched, giving all-round protection from the elements. If all the rave reviews I've read are to be believed, it's very stable in windy conditions and not as noisy as a tent. Using a couple of trekking poles, it can be pitched in a variety of ways to suit the conditions: high with a big entrance for good weather, low to the ground so it sheds the wind in stormy weather.

If I had to summarise why I've opted for a tarp rather than a traditional tent it would come down to one word: space. The Trailstar has bags of space for spreading out gear, getting dressed and undressed, sitting and reading or relaxing or watching the world go by or the rain come down outside. It's also possible to cook undercover fairly safely provided you're near the entrance and it's pitched reasonably high.

The decision was really made during my Foinaven trip in May. The rain throughout the evening was incessant. Unable to sit outside, I was confined to my tiny, porch-less tent which quickly became a damp claustrophobic coffin. A second night of that would have driven me berserk.

Weather-wise I'm assuming the worst for the Tay watershed walk. There'll be plenty of evenings when I'll want to stay under cover, I'm sure. I figured that being able to stretch out in space and comfort and actually live a bit rather than be mummified in nylon will be key to keeping up morale through the bad weather times.

That's the sensible and logical justification anyway, but there's more than that. Tarp living just seems so romantic. It's closer to nature and closer to the outdoors. The Trailstar is essentially open: there are no zips, no clips. There are many Trailstar evangelists out there now. It's hard to look at Chris Townsend's pictures of his wild camps from his recent Scottish Watershed walk, for example, and not catch the appeal. Shelter worthy of a rolling stone.

I may hate it, I may love it. If I hate it I'll just have to grow to love it. As if walking 300 miles wasn't enough of a novel and challenging experience in itself...

Thursday, 15 August 2013

From wasteland to wilderness

'Shifting Baseline Syndrome' (SBS): in conservation terms this means that the version of the natural world we experienced as children is the one we see as normal, the 'baseline'. Therefore, this version  is what grown-up conservationists tend to want to recreate and maintain. Britain's natural environment seems to have deteriorated sharply in a few short decades. Wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate and children are becoming ever more disconnected from nature. No wonder people who care about these things want to get back to the relative natural abundance of their childhoods.

However, SBS is central to what is wrong with the British conservation mindset, according to George Monbiot in his recent book Feral. This inspiring read explores the concept of 'rewilding', essentially allowing land that is no longer used, such as abandoned farmland, to be left alone. Not actively managed in any way (except to control particularly damaging invasive species) but allowed to be truly 'self-willed'. The book demonstrates that this is anathema to many mainstream conservationists: they confuse conservation with gardening, according to Monbiot. So much of our conservation revolves around maintaining landscapes that are far from natural: most notably barren uplands where there would be forest were it not for centuries of repeated clearance and over-grazing.

For us these denuded landscapes are the 'baseline'. They are what we think of when we think of wild land in Britain. Our affinity with landscapes such as the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales shows how much we equate the countryside with farming as well. Yes, to us the neat little fields and drystone walls are a relatively 'old' landscape, and a preferable one in terms of biodiversity to our modern-day prairies of wheat and oil seed rape, but to conserve it is to continue to heavily manage it, to suppress and prevent ecosystems from re-establishing themselves.

Sheep and a knot of trees mark Curr ruin in Glen Brown
As Monbiot's book points out - and as anyone with a pair of eyes who has ever walked in the Scottish countryside knows - people are in long-term retreat from the land. There is a sad and beautiful place near Tomintoul, in the northern foothills of the Cairngorms, a valley called Glen Brown in its upper reach and Glen Lochy in its lower where the Burn of Lochy joins the River Avon. Growing up, I came to know it very well. For its length it is dotted with ruined farmsteads in various states of decay, plotting the gradual death of the community over a number of decades. Its hub was the Bridge of Brown, where there was a school.

The final blow came with the Depression years in the 1930s. That seems to be when the last few houses began to be abandoned (what role if any the landowner had in 'clearing' the glen, I'm not sure). Sheep are still run there and lapwings and curlews still fill the air with their calls in summer, but the people are gone and the human link to the land is broken. I think it's such a sad place because although it's uninhabited, it doesn't feel as though it has moved on. It is still waiting for its people to return and renew the bond, but the only people that occasionally pass by are alien visitors from a different world: walkers, tourists, seekers of peace and solitude in a place only lately fallen silent.

Glen Brown showing its potential for re-growth of native woodland.
So where now for Glen Brown and Glen Lochy? The 'baseline' for us is a working valley of small farms. Letting go by re-setting the baseline and accepting that this old life has gone forever is painful, but offers a great opportunity to develop a new and authentic bond through re-wilding.

Hardy old Scots pine in Glen Brown
Through decades and more of habitation and grazing, Glen Brown and Glen Lochy have managed - just - to retain some fragments of native woodland. Scattered and solitary Scots pines can be found in upper Glen Brown. There is birch wood in Glen Lochy and juniper on the hillsides near Bridge of Brown. If the sheep are removed and deer controlled or kept out, forest could quickly and easily return here. One could imagine a protected corridor of land linking the regenerating forest in Glen Brown with the substantial Scots pine woods of nearby Abernethy Forest. Pine marten, capercaillie, red squirrels, even wildcat, could extend their ranges into new habitats. The charity Trees for Life are attempting this on a large scale, their purchase of Dundreggan Estate part of a plan to link through to the Glen Affric forest to the north.

If the people aren't coming back and the only tenants are some sheep, what better use could there be for this land than to let it revert to something more wild and less predictable? And this is where re-casting our relationship with the land into something more authentic to the times comes in.

Tombreck, Glen Brown
Barring some meltdown of civilisation we are never going to go back en masse to our old relationship with the land. Yet we still need and deeply value nature, and we want our children to experience it too. The fact that they are engaging with it less and less disturbs us. The thought of being completely cocooned in culture, of there being nothing out there that is self-willed, unpredictable, wild, threatening even, repels us. Allowing a place like Glen Brown and Glen Lochy to re-wild creates environments we can really explore, and where we aren't the measure of everything. We can reintroduce a healthy little dose of unpredictability into our lives.

The opportunities for rewilding are great, and nature's powers of regeneration are immense. But we're at a critical moment when the natural world is under the cosh as never before. With people, and especially children, losing their engagement with nature, the more chance there is that exploitation will accelerate with less and less opposition. It's therefore critically important to re-engage people with nature, and an inspiring programme of rewilding could be a big part of that.

A lot of hidebound landowning, shooting and conservation interests won't like it; but ask yourself, what do you want your grandchildren's baseline to be?

A few more pictures from Glen Brown and neighbouring Gleann Iomadaidh...

The garden at Tombreck

A lonely survivor on the moors near Dorback, looking towards Geal Charn (821m)

Letteraiten, near Dorback

Stand of Scots pine in Gleann Iomadaidh

Woodland remnants in Gleann Iomadaidh

Scots pine, Gleann Iomadaidh



Half-buried ancient car near Bauminich ruin, Bridge of Brown