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

Letteraiten

Rynelrick

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




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