A seemingly peaceful scene of musk ox in the mountains of Dovre National Park, Norway, though an animal that commands respect and a safe distance. They were introduced from Greenland to Norway within the last 100 years and I’ve seen these huge shaggy beasts on several occasion. However, this is not about musk ox, but about the landscape in general and what people see as ‘wild’ or ‘natural’.
In my early 20s, apart from bird watching, my other passion was climbing mountains and I made regular trips from my Manchester home to the Lake District and Scotland. I revelled in the landscape and as the late John Muir once said “Who wouldn’t be a mountaineer! Up here all the world’s prizes seem nothing.” The uplands seemed wild and natural – I simply knew no different. Similarly when I saw my first dotterel one late summer on a grouse moor in the North York Moors, myself and friends commented on the ‘loveliness’ of the endless vista of purple heather. The problem is that we are not born with any generational memory of what the landscape really should be like without the hand of man. These days I find travelling to areas dominated by driven grouse shooting and sheep grazing, particularly inside our National Parks, utterly depressing and I rarely go there in my own time.
As I later started to work at the RSPB, and had the chance to travel more, I started to see the landscape far differently and realised just how impoverished our uplands are. Our National Parks should be our crown jewels for nature. However, all 15 UK NPs are designated IUCN category IV. None categorised for their wilderness, biodiversity or large-scale ecological processes. A real sad indictment of how bad things have been allowed to become.
One of the best books I have ever read was ‘A Sand County Almanac’ (1949) by the American environmentalist and visionary Aldo Leopold. His ability to observe both the exquisite detail in the natural world and also the broader picture was astonishing. The quote which has always resonated with me most, was “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
I expect Aldo Leopold was fairly alone in those days. Whilst our understanding of ecology is far better, it appears far too many people, myself included, were not given a sufficient environmental education. Perhaps that is part of the reason why as a society we have managed to get ourselves into our very dire current climate and ecological emergency.
In the last five years, I have made numerous trips to Scandinavia. Whilst, countries like Norway and Sweden have their own environmental issues, they still benefit from huge areas of the uplands in an environmental condition we can only dream about. A few weeks ago, having camped out overnight, I was sat on the hillside in the morning sun, not far from where this image was taken, about 750m above sea level.
I was surrounded by a host of Vaccinium species, with bilberries and cloudberries complementing my breakfast, along with flowering plants, willow, dwarf birch and sphagnum rich boggy areas adorned with jewel like sundews. Below me, woodland communities, gradually transitioning up the hillside through the scrubbier vegetation to my vantage point. Despite being just a few hundred miles north of the Scottish highlands, with its similar climate, geology and landforms, it felt a million miles away.
One of the more positive developments in recent years is the increasing interest in rewilding and attempts to restore land into good environmental condition to bring benefits to both nature and society. The impoverished UK uplands are an obvious starting point, and many places look to me like a blank canvas desperate for attention. The Carrifran Wildwood regeneration project is a dramatic illustration of how the landscape can be revitalised.
Within the European Rewilding Network we have ‘SCOTLAND: The Big Picture’ looking to drive transformational change towards a vast network of rewilded land & sea across Scotland. Can you imagine in the future, huge wild forests vibrant with life, rivers teaming with salmon and trout, wetlands with cranes and beavers, blanket bogs restored and sequestering carbon, apex predators being returned to the landscape. No wonder people are so excited at what could be achieved.
When you consider the colossal sums of taxpayers’ money being spent on highly questionable schemes like HS2, for a fraction of that cost, massive areas of our landscape could be restored with real and meaningful environmental and social benefits for all of us. Time is not on our side, and in some places, such as our National Parks, I believe compulsory purchase of some of the most degraded areas of land in private ownership should seriously be considered.