Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Wildland Access and Preservation

By Barry Larking

Ed: The following polemic is simply too enjoyable to remain only as a comment on the blog entry by Stanley Owen. It is only slightly edited. Barry, please contact me if you are unhappy with this.

I have just returned from walking in the 'wildland' of Sutherland and Caithness. On one long trek in the sunshine the rest of the UK was not getting I noticed an old friend: the innocent, fragrant Myrica gale, or Bog Asphodel. It brought back memories ...

One afternoon sitting at my desk at the Scottish HQ of the old NCC, minding my own business, I was interrupted by a colleague anxiously seeking help. The problem was urgent, or as urgent as anything at the NCC could be. Tax Dodge Foresters were circling around a prize piece of Highland property, threatening decapitation by furrow and Sitka. How to 'sell' this piece of rain-swept, apparently lifeless, hunk of rock and vegetable waste-ground to the 'Big Public'? 'Bog' did not sound like a good place to begin.

Belatedly the NCC had discovered that science alone cannot turn on the Big Public's juices. Descriptions of oligotrophic processes, infertile build-ups of plant matter and specialised micro-climate strategies (the total absence of anything resembling a life-form, as it is generally understood, was not mentioned, obviously): none of this could swing a reprieve. Even now an official would be standing over a politician, pen in hand, telling him to sign away the future of (putative) eagles and falcons for the good of the country's timber supply (allegedly). What to do? Think up a name that would elicit the Big Public's sympathy.

For some reason Myrica gale got the gig. Could I think of another way to describe this plant in such a way as to grab the Big Public's imagination? Drop 'Bog' for starters, obviously. Too many unpleasant connotations ... or not enough, anyway. Could I re-invent this harmless little plant in the spotlight? I think I was too abashed at being asked such a question. I could not.

My colleague left the room, deep in travail. Eventually, the NCC's hand was forced and Creag Meghaidh was purchased for the people. Problem solved. My little friend grows on in humble innocence of its near moment of greatness. But what has this to do with 'wildland' and access?

Forty years ago British conservation met its Waterloo at Cow Green, Upper Teesdale (1). The failure to secure this site for its great significance to natural history created a deep and lasting shock wave within conservation circles. It was concluded that lessons had to be learned. Now history is full of examples of wrong lessons being learnt from such traumatic events and losses ... and the fall-out from Cow Green, I suggest, was among them.

The conclusion drawn at the time was that the presentation of the case against the reservoir by the objectors – scientists to the fore – was flawed. Lawyers for the scheme's promoters were able to demonstrate that the expert witnesses were either ill-informed or simply unable convincingly to prove a case. What was required then, by future conservationists, was data: solid, verifiable, statistically valid fact. This eventually gave me a job behind a desk in Edinburgh, so I should not be too harsh. But it was clear to me then - and is now - that the case for defending 'wildlands' does not rest with science. It is a political question.

Nearly all professional conservationists I have encountered are apolitical and distrust the political process. One can hardly blame them. Politicians are by training and experience 'hedgers and trimmers' - they must be to survive and prosper. The 'ecology' of politics is for only the most adaptable of creatures. But politicians have power and must be studied. Their Achilles' Heel is their love of winning – elections, votes, arguments – and wrapping themselves in the warm glow of public adulation. So threaten their votes.

'Wildlands' are the least inviting places to the Telly Generation it is possible to conceive. I hardly exaggerate - most normal people would not regard a windswept, wet, steep, soggy, potentially dangerous stretch of upland country as anything but 'uninviting'. Unless a road goes through it, it remains attractive to a few ... and then intermittently. To some - and I am one - the remoteness is attractive. But we are not many and political strength is weighed, not counted. The route to enlarging understanding of, and protection for, 'wildlands' lies through political action.

Foremost, the Big Public must be made to care about places few would wish to visit, leave alone walk over. This will be best achieved by cultural forces. One outstanding example of this was the recent programme made by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, about Orfordness, where a combination of histories – national, individual, private, ecological and spiritual - were woven together. Orfordness is a woebegone place in many ways, but a beautifully crafted film and a superb script did a masterful job of convincing us just why such places are important. It made a point and it stuck.

Sucking up to landowners is meat and drink to conservation bodies ... it always was and it remains the case. We are none of us permanent features and landownership does not confer anything. It is just a consequence, not a constant. In the few places where the feeling of 'wildland' can be plausibly summoned up, ownership is as much a liability as anything. Few can offer more than shooting wildlife for sport as an opportunity for income. Forestry ought to be a busted flush by now (does anyone work out how much it costs to go and get this fifth-rate junk?) and tourism would need to be for fatalists or masochists.

Where is the tax payer in all this? Can we afford to finance the lifestyle of these people for much longer? The Arts Council exists to encourage the arts, to create opportunities for performance and endeavour, to create a space of the arts in everyone's life. The Sports Council, ditto, for sport; and also the Crafts Council. The Nature Conservancy Council existed to discourage anyone going anywhere near wildlife unless it was in their own backyard. It pinned its colours to the masthead of the landowners and perished. The broken remnants continue, but I expect the policies are similar, the results equally dim.

In fact, conservationists have realised that the easiest way to deal with this 'wildland' access issue is to ignore it. Remote places will protect themselves. That - and a certain snottiness on the part of one's hirelings - will deter the 'Mob of the Unwashed' or, pace Owens, merely envious, from venturing far from the lay-by. So it is with the creatives that the task of cherishing, celebrating and, finally, preserving wildlands, must rest.

(1) 16 June 2007 16:32


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