To the outside observer the Scottish Highlands may appear wild, but in reality they are a managed landscape for timber production, sheep grazing, rambling, grouse hunting and trophy deer hunting. The heather is regularly burned off to control the deadwood. Bracken, which tends to grow thick and choke up forests and hillsides, is controlled by weed killer. The deer, whose population is presently at an all time high, must be culled every few years. Some gamekeepers even control the populations of golden eagles, hawks and falcons to safeguard their grouse population. Illegal Eagle poisonings are at an all time high.
For over a century timber production has relied on dense plantations of a commercial varieties such as Sitka spruce, grown to maturity and then clear cut.
Are those practices sustainable in the long term? The loss of biodiversity, already noted by the Scottish Government, our reliance on herbicide to control bracken, and a burgeoning deer population suggest that the land management is anything but sustainable.
Biodiversity — An Imperative
Unlike job loss or high energy bills, biodiversity loss is not normally a subject that makes tabloid headlines. Not until the endangered species are Scottish symbols such as the Capercallie or Red Squirrel. Or pollinating insects such as bees whose disappearance has economic consequences. Yet for every headline grabber, thousands of other unknown species are registered as in decline due to climate change, invasive species, unsustainable practices such as overgrazing and herbicides. Does it matter?
It does when you realize that biodiversity loss inevitably results in the appearance of new pests and diseases. A loss of beneficial plants and insects, and an overall decline in the land’s fertility. Climate change makes this even more important. Every ecological study shows that the more diverse plant and life systems are the most robust against the effects of climate change. Or against new pests or diseases. The Scottish government has recognized the importance of developing biodiversity its 2004 report. It has thrown its support behind policies that promote sustainable agricultural practices that halt the loss of biodiversity. Without major changes in land management, the decline is likely to continue.
Extensive grazing by deer and sheep ensure that young tree and plant seedlings do not get established. In the absence of wild boar resulted fern thickets crowd out both heather and other indigenous plants. Every few years a deer cull attempts to control the deer population, an expensive and temporary measure that does little more than maintain the status quo.
The current loss of species, though accelerated by climate change and unsustainable practices however began long ago with the loss ofCaledon, our indigenous forests. And with the loss of large animals that inhabited it and maintained an ecological balance.
The Return of the Wolf — A Case Study
In 1995 wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park. The political debate lasted almost thirty years before the laws were changed to allow wolf re-introduction. By 2008 Yellowstone was host to 12 wolf packs. There are now over over 1500 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Within a decade, the wolf transformed Yellowstone. Willow trees, once rare because they were popular fodder for a large deer population, were among the first beneficiaries. Once large stands of willows were established, beavers who needed willows for building dams became more plentiful. The dam building resulted in the establishment of new ponds and wetlands — home to songbirds, fish, amphibians, wildfowl and other animals. All in the space of a decade.
The Scottish Problem
Despite the Yellowstone story, Both Scotland and England are reluctant to embrace the return of wolves and other large animals. George Monboit, writing in The Guardian, summarizes the problem. Even though the ecological benefits are well documented, the main counter- arguments are, that it’s OK for the United States to have wolves, but Scotland is geographically too small a place for them. We have a high human population density, and too many sheep. Of course the UK’s overall population density is high, but the Scottish Highlands contain large tracts of land that are still relatively underpopulated, with barely 10 people/ square acre.
Most livestock farmers oppose the wolf’s return. As in the US, many farmers are ambivalent as long as they are compensated for lost animals. The Scottish tourism board has registered its opposition, citing the wolf’s unfavourable effect on trophy deer hunting, even though such hunting is uneconomic. Curiously the Ramblers Association, concerned about high fences required to contain wolves, also opposes any reintroduction plans.
A WAY FORWARD
The Wolves and Humans Foundation, a charity established to provide facts about wolves and their reintroduction, suggests a way forward, out of the present impasse.
Lage tracts of land such as Alladale Estate north of Inverness, could be returned to their natural state, provide a home for large animals such as the wolf and boar to roam freely, confined by appropriate fences. From such a study we could convince ourselves of the ecological benefits that the animals would bring . We could learn how to co-exist with them. Such land could be also a boon for ramblers and naturalists, giving them an experience that is currently unavailable in the entire UK.
Wouldn’t you want to camp out, where you could hear wolf calls?