Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Notes from a wildwood diary

Earlier this year we ran a high camp at Carrifran planting montane scrub. One of our attendees Sue sent us a diary report of her experiences. We thought it was so good that we wanted to share some of it on our blog for all to see. So find below the main bits of her entry.
After breakfast, we drove to the Carrifran car park just up the road, arriving a little early. It was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny, so I lazed around admiring the local song thrush (who had been listening to buzzards, also to someone working a sheepdog with a whistle), and the rather busy songs of blackcaps. Other volunteers arrived by ones and twos, looking both fit/experienced and relaxed/cheerful. When the group was complete, Lynn the camp/task leader gave us a short briefing. We shouldered our packs and set off along a short section of boardwalk, then on up the valley via a grassy track beside the burn. The birches here were coming into leaf, and the willows had “pussies” of various shapes and shades. Primrose-posies studded the grass, and the deeper puddles on the track were full of tadpoles. This definitely felt like walking through a young forest, whose naturalistic ragged edges straggled away up the hillside. With no older trees, or dead/decaying wood, this might have been a little bit how the valley looked during an earlier, post-glacial reforestation – although maybe there would have been much less grass around then, more bare rock and scree; more like parts of Greenland look now.
Further up the valley, tree height decreased as we moved through younger and younger plantings, growing in higher and more exposed conditions. All around us wood anemones – windflowers – were flowering through last year’s dead grass; a reminder of the woodland this once was, and is becoming again. During a short rest-break by an abandoned shieling, a young lizard briefly sunned itself on the warm dark strap of a doffed rucksack. We saw a pair of buzzards float over the brow of Raven Craig, being harassed by a pair of peregrines. (A few years ago, we saw peregrines breeding in the next valley, so maybe these were birds from that site.) Lynn pointed out the bare scars of a couple of recent avalanche tracks coming down from the high rim of the valley (both cornice collapses, I think), that had carried away or knocked over areas of young trees. “We wondered about replanting, but the management decision was to leave them. We have some horizontal trees that are doing very well.” By now we were walking past waist-high birches, knee-high oaks. Crossing the (now much smaller) burn for the third and last time below a gorge/waterfall, we started an ascending traverse to high cup of Firth Hope, across a steep grassy slope splotched with large patches of wood-rush (another woodland survival?). I found this awkward terrain; I couldn’t get my feet down flat. I think Lynn picked the route so that we a) didn’t wander too far to the right and get stuck in the river gorge, and  b) didn’t wander too far to the left and gain a lot of unnecessary height. I saw hard fern, bugle, thyme, and the tight rosettes of saxifrage leaves in a wet flush – an interesting mix of “woodland” and “open ground” plants – I was checking out what I saw with Crinan, a site Trustee.
After lunch, we walked to the “tree drop” close to the head of the waterfall/gorge (trees and planting equipment had been brought in by quad-bike). We were issued with spears (heavy, narrow-bladed spades), sturdy carry-bags, and sets of young trees (all plug plants grown from locally collected seed – the only trees at Carrifran which aren’t local are the high oaks, which were sourced from the closest remaining similar habitat in the Lake District), and chocolate biscuits. Lynn gave a planting demo (screef a planting site by stripping away vegetation with hands and spear, bang the spear blade into the underlying peat and rotate it to produce a plug-shaped hole, insert tree plug into hole, firm up surrounding soil), and told us to scatter and get planting.
R. and me went back to the campsite, crossed the burn, and worked up the far side of the valley, planting willow and juniper. I felt particularly pleased and lucky to have been given the juniper to plant, as it’s a really interesting, and increasingly uncommon, plant (and apparently it’s preferentially peed on by scent-marking wildcats – so if wildcats ever re-colonise this area, The Habitat Is There). We found that after firming up the soil, we were wishing each tree good luck, telling it that we hoped it would flourish and do well. I was surprised to find helping with planting such an emotional experience. I’ve spent a lot of in the Scottish hills, backpacking and wild camping, and I get such tremendous positive benefits from the land, that it felt like a real privilege to be able to give something back. Walking (in heavy boots) is one experience; spending a lot of time in this landscape on my knees felt... quite reverential. It was good to have the opportunity to pay close attention to a small piece of landscape, and the planting was magical and reviving.
After a couple of hours, we’d planted all our trees, so we wandered back to the tree/chocolate dump for further instructions/trees and a “little something”. I was feeling very sleepy, so I crawled back into our tent and snoozed in the sun while R. had a second round of planting. Partly because the weather was so good, the volunteers had no trouble planting all our trees – about 1100 plugs, mostly willow. Because this project covers a whole valley, Borders Forest Trust have paid contract planters to reforest large blocks of terrain, particularly some of the high, steep ground which is difficult to reach and awkward to work on – but the Trust have also always encouraged local community, and volunteer, involvement.
Rory stopped planting at about 6.00 pm, and we had a tasty and welcome supper. We brought a flat stone to cook on into the “front porch” under the flysheet. The Norwegian “Real Turmat” dehydrated meals that we use are not cheap, but they are by far the nicest we’ve found – bad dehy meals can be terrible! After supper, the wind dropped, and the evening light was amazing – a flawless bluegreen sky fading to lemon, apricot and rose at the horizon, with the late sun making last year’s dry grass shine like metal wires. For an after-supper walk, we followed a subgroup of volunteers up to the summit of White Coomb, with an amazing view of the roll-backed Uplands greying into dusk under a flawless sky. It was quiet: no wind, no rustle of grass, no water-murmur, no bird, no sheep – the sky-bowl ringing with silence like a Zen bell. Rory has walked White Coomb before, several times; this was the first time he’d seen anything other than cloud and rain.
On the way back down to the tent, we made a slight detour to look at a high bog pool (interesting and unusual habitat/terrain feature) and some trial work to prevent further erosion of exposed and vulnerable peat hags (using dams and mats of natural fibres), which hopefully will encourage re-vegetation of the stabilised bare peat. A few blades of grass were poking through the coarsely knitted bandages, and tiny cushions of moss were starting to live on the rope dams. (Peat restoration projects in other areas are also using slope re-profiling and scattering locally collected seed or cut vegetation to encourage regrowth).
A couple of weeks later, I had one of those why-have-I-never-realised-this-before moments. I started hillwalking on the moors around Buxton (Derbyshire) when I was about four years old. The moors had peat hags. Moors, peat, peat hags: for me that scarred landscape has always been there; it’s what peat does. But a couple of weeks after visiting Carrifran’s tiny peat-restoration trial, I suddenly thought: but that means peat hags aren’t “natural”. They are erosion, the sign of an over-stressed environment, and they shouldn’t be there. Footpath erosion I understand, it is caused by too many people walking over a fragile surface. But peat hags aren’t formed by human feet (mostly). They are formed... by... what happened in Iceland. Overgrazing. Too many sheep, too many deer. I am stupid, to have reached nearly-retirement age, and never to have realised that peat hags are abnormal. The trouble is, I’ve never known anything else. I had learned, not from the hills themselves but from books, that overgrazing prevents the natural regeneration of forests. I’ve watched trees start to grow across our local moor along the A-road that was sheep-fenced 25 years ago. I’ve listened to people praising Scotland’s wild, open country, “wilderness” created and maintained by human intervention and human management. And I have been blind; all my life I’ve been suffering from perception creep, from happy acceptance of the “new normal”. I am deeply, deeply grateful to the visionaries who have shown me, at Carrifran, that this is not how the land ought to be – and that it could be different. We could manage this land in a less destructive way. We need to do this.

As we had already completed the tree planting, we spent the morning removing vole guards from trees planted in previous years. This was sometimes easy (pull!) and sometimes surprisingly difficult, where tree roots had grown through the guard, or it had become folded and deeply buried during planting. We tied up the flattened guards in bundles of 10, for later transport back down to the road. This work, in a small, scattered group, grubbing in the earth, working gently but steadily, having slow, extended conversations of a single sentence every 5 minutes: this is how our gatherer ancestors lived. This is what we evolved to do. It feels right.
Although we found a good number of dead (or missing) trees, it was also clear that many trees were surviving and thriving on this challenging site. I found myself feeling very positive and hopeful – maybe we can do some good in the world... maybe if we can improve one piece of overgrazed, deforested land, there’s hope for the rest of the world. Because we’d been planting krummholtz, I was reminded of one of my favourite landscapes in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, where Sax Russell (one of my favourite characters) is planting at the foot of the Arena glacier. Instant post-glacial landscape – that’s what we’re trying to do here! We’re Terraforming, I thought in delight. If we do ever get the chance to colonise another planet (unlikely), we’re going to need plenty of practice in creating viable habitats. And we have plenty of land to practice on right here – some very difficult sites, with not enough water, or too much salt, or difficult heavy metals... we have a lot of work to do, to remake the Garden of Eden, in all its variety.
This got me thinking about lots of stuff, while stripping off vole guards, like what do we mean by “nature”, what do we mean by “wild”? It’s called “Carrifran Wildwood”, but every tree has been carefully and deliberately planted by humans. And the valley is managed with as light a touch as possible, but with a great deal of thought and care – sheep are excluded, roe deer are culled. But those are the big, easy things that we can do to mimic post-glacial recolonisation. Would it help to do more? Dead wood, ground flora, bryophytes, fungi, insects, microlife... will they find their own way here? Would this place benefit from a bacteria fix? We will never be able to recreate the woodland of 6000 years ago – we don’t know exactly what was there (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), the climate is different, we’re starting from different conditions (grass rather than gravel), the timescale is different... It’s an experiment. Quite a Romantic experiment. Must find out more about “re-wilding” as a philosophical and aesthetic movement.
 Why can’t we do something like this locally? Answer: because the “wild” North York Moors (just like “wild” Scotland) are owned land, valuable property, carefully managed – our moors for grouse shooting and sheep, much of “wild” Scotland for grouse and red deer hunting. The shooting estates are high status enterprises, land ownership and land rights are big, difficult issues. Should land be owned by privileged individuals, or by communities, or by charitable bodies like the John Muir Trust, or by the Government of the day. Who can own “the environment”? Who should take responsibility for “the environment”... if not us? Who cares? How can we care for something we don’t own? We evolved to “own” a handful of stuff we could easily carry around with us, just like we evolved to be able to “throw away” stuff not of immediate use. When we “threw away” stone, antler and wood, and odd bits of dead animal, we didn’t change the world all that much. Now we’re throwing away plastics, heavy metals and greenhouse gases, radioactive residues that will remain mutagenic for hundreds of thousands of years, longer than human history. Oops.

So, back at Firth Hope, after the group had pulled up about 1200 vole guards, we had lunch, struck camp, and walked back to the car park. Lynn asked if the group could carry down the planting spears and the carry-bags, so we divided them up between us. Just like travelling to/from the Arctic, I noticed how much a change of environment had changed my perspective. Walking in on Saturday morning through the young trees at the head of the valley, I’d thought “Oh, what small, twisted, sparse trees!” Walking out on Sunday afternoon, I thought “Oh, what lush, flourishing, sturdy trees, how big and healthy they’re growing here!”  Down in the valley, I saw a vole – a brief flick of dark brown fur.
This was a wonderful way to spend a weekend, one of the most rewarding things I’ve done for ages. I hope I can do something like this again. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so hopeful. I don’t think I have ever participated in an event (ritual or non-ritual) that made me feel so deeply connected to the past, the present moment, and the future. It makes me feel that maybe it is possible not to live in a destructive way. Maybe we can live co-operatively. Maybe I can learn how to co-operate with juniper. That would be good.
Carrifran Wildwood volunteer


  1. this is a really wonderful piece, combining so skilfully description with reflection, and with such authentic passion - lovely; thank you

  2. Thank you for sharing that beautifully written and inspiring blog. The changes to the vegetation at Carrifran must already be affecting the valley's ecology. You get a sense of this beginning to happen from the annual bird survey data published in the book of the project. Is this survey ongoing and, if so, is it published anywhere?

    1. Hi Duncan. Many thanks for your comment and interest. Our volunteers have just completed the 10th year of our bird survey. The plan is to pull all the data together and publish the results. If you'd like more information then drop us an email to Carrifran@bordersforesttrust.org and we can put you in touch with the volunteer who is leading on the project.