Sunday, March 2, 2008

Blanket bog and its defenders

Blanket bog in the flow country of Caithness, picture from Edinburgh University

Well, we're here at Alladale right now. And we're having a very good time being scientists, explorers, and just hanging out with a very interesting crowd. Paul Lister, our host, has conceived of this next few days as a kind of cross between a "brains trust," or in American, "think tank" gathering, and a reunion of Alladale supporters, in which a combination of problems scientific and philanthropic are worked out. I like science and policy problems, and helping solve them, and I love my homeland and it's brilliant mountain country, so I'm very happy.

The key problem, however, is the life cycle of Scot's pine, Pinus sylvestris. Restoring the ecological productivity of this Highland landscape means releasing this tree species, and others, from a trap of poor ecological performance induced by previous over-cutting, and previous and contemporary overgrazing, made worse by accumulation of water and acid in former forest soils and duff. These soils form a blanket layer of pure peat or peaty soils over the Highland landscape in many places, and this blanket acts as a barrier to the pine seedlings in their efforts to reach a fertile and slightly basic mineral subsoil. Add over-grazing, and you have a very low ability for seedlings to set and mature. But break the vicious cycle of blanket bog, by culling and plowing, and you get a productive forest. We passed through the results yesterday, in Strathspey, where the trees are coming back. Road cuts in particular, a kind of plowing treatment if you think about it, are full of dog-hair thick lodgepole and Scots pine, happily regenerating.

But when my sainted socialist grandfather William Womersley helped organize the Kinder Trespass, he was unwittingly perpetuating the blanket bog system. He had not seen Maine or Montana, had never eaten deer meat and never caught a salmon, unless poached, but he had spent a lifetime of weekends (and all those wonderful, long paid vacations he and his Labourite ilk fought for), hiking our island hills, and so he thought that blanket bog was good and natural, and even painted in his spare time these wonderfully romantic Highland scenes featuring this acidic ecology front and center.

There is a socio-political thing called Access in the British conservation milieu, which dates back to the trespass movement, and it is a bit of a third rail. Touch it and die. As a Manchester Rambler myself, I know why and how this happens very well. But it isn't very good ecology. And I could go into more detail about how the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which my grandad also had a little to do with, also sets up the ecological system to stutter and fail at times.

So when Paul treated us to a sneak preview of the BBC TV show about his work last night, a very vociferous Defender of Access was shown attacking him quite meanly. Ouch.

So, here I am, the grandson of a Kinder Trespasser, about to sell my working class soul. But I would, to see the forest spread. If you've never hiked one of the remnants of the great Caledonian forest, you've not really seen the British isles. Last night in particular we came through a magical landscape, just as the sun was setting, and were treated to the sight of two roebucks in fresh velvet. Pure delight.

So the 6.5 million ramblers that make up the UK's largest countryside conservation lobby would rather perpetuate blanket bog than see access only somewhat restricted by the fences it would take to break the blanket bog cycle.

Go figure.

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