Defending the Wild Lands

South Uist Hills

South Uist Hills – Proposed Wild Land Area

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir

The Year of Natural Scotland included a celebration of the life of John Muir, the Scottish born explorer, conservationist, naturalist and writer. Born in 1838 in Dunbar in East Lothian he emigrated to the United States as a child and was ultimately responsible for the establishment of the world’s first national park system.
A remarkable visionary Muir believed that the integrity of the wilderness was part of God’s plan for life, that preservation of the natural order was central to the continuation of life and that wilderness was more valuable than civilization. He also maintained that it was important to protect the wilderness for its own sake and not for furthering human economic gain.

It is perhaps difficult to reconcile the idealism of a 19th century naturalist with the competing demands for land use in an increasingly over-crowded island, however, it provides the basis for the public debate.
Scotland contains some of the most extensive areas of “wilderness” in the British Isles, and a new map of wild lands is stimulating discussion, generating the usual amount of hot air and hyperbolic rhetoric.
The use of the term wilderness is inappropriate in Scotland, as we cannot meet the criteria of the IUCN  (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition:
an environment in which biodiversity and ecosystem processes (including evolution) are allowed to flourish or experience restoration if previously disturbed by human activity. Human use is limited, often allowing only those who are willing to travel of their own accord rather than via established touristic activities. Wilderness areas can be classified as such only if they are devoid of modern infrastructure, although they allow human activity to the level of sustaining indigenous groups living wilderness-based lifestyles
Our landscape has been shaped by thousands of years of human activity and although apparently wild in parts, ecologically it has been modified to some degree by settlement, agriculture or industry. Therefore, the term wild land has been adopted to describe those areas of mountain, moorland and coast which are
uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal
Inherent is this basic definition is the understanding that these landscapes possess the quality of wildness or perhaps it is a characteristic which we attach to them. Herein lies one of the problems in attempting to define an area as wild land –  the experience of wildness is subjective as it depends on individual perception and experience, thus wildness can also be experienced in places which could not be strictly defined as wild land.
I do not wish to drown in semantics or get mired in a debate on the philosophy of wildness, but for those who seek to protect wild land, it is important that there is an understanding of how it is defined.
Wild land is not necessarily devoid of human activity and often carries the ecological footprint of its cultural and social history. The fauna and flora in these regions is often extremely specialised, not necessarily particularly diverse, but usually extremely fragile. Not all areas of wild land could be classified as important for wildlife as some parts have been degraded by inappropriate land management, although they have the potential for recovery.

Alt Volagir South Uist

Alt Volagir Relict Native Woodland in South Uist Hills Wild Land Area

These are not empty wastelands, they are valuable both socially and economically. We can of course look at the bottom-line and calculate their monetary value and development potential in terms of tourism or natural resources. Alternatively we could take a different perspective and attach a value based on the wildness factor. This is the human response, aesthetic, spiritual and emotional, to the remoteness, isolation, space, solitude and quietness of wild land.
“an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded….but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer will seem mystical to them.” Wallace Stegner
It reminds us that we are part of the natural world and that there should be more to life that the current western zeitgeist of money, materialism and anthropocentricity. To quote Wallace Stegner again:
We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its
edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” (Wilderness Letter, 1960).
The current wild land map is not perfect, but for the first time it proposes to designate land in terms of something other than wildlife, geological, archaeological or landscape characteristics. It acknowledges that wildness is important and that before we set about destroying it we should think very profoundly about the consequences. It is not the modern equivalent of the clearances, it does not stop development, agriculture or wild sports, it is just asking land owners and local communities to take responsibility for maintaining the integrity of these wild lands. If you have enough influence, money or power it is possible to over-ride planning designations and convince government or local communities that the economic benefits of development are paramount. In fact if your arguments are very convincing they might give you a grant to help fund it.
I am not sure what it requires to “move public opinion in a more biosphere-friendly direction” (The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood) nor am I convinced that the required changes in cultural and economic values to move from land exploitation to stewardship are possible. However, it seems that those who wish to have the ability to destroy our wild lands also wish to constrain our ability to question their actions. The proposed new designation will not stop development or poor management practices, but it will clearly state that society values the concept of wildness and that there have to be very good reasons for it to be compromised.
The proposed designation should not be quashed because it is too subjective, because we can’t agree over boundaries and what is included or excluded, or because we don’t like the methodology or being told what to do by the Scottish Parliament. For once let us declare that there are somethings which are so valuable that they don’t have a price tag.
“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Edward Abbey


Advent Calendar – the Last Window

SnowdropsIt is Christmas Day 2013 and I have opened the last window in the Year of Natural Scotland Advent Calendar. So it is now time to wish you a joyous Christmas and Happy New Year, may you all grow and prosper. For those whose Christmas will be a difficult period my thoughts are with you.

Thank you to everyone who has visited the croft this year, you are always welcome and there is always tea and cake in the croft kitchen.

Year of Natural Scotland Advent Calendar

1st December 2013 the first Sunday in Advent and the start of my Advent Calendar.
I began 2013 with a post on the Year of Natural Scotland and have continued this theme throughout the year. So as our celebration of the flora and fauna of Scotland grows to a close I am going to use the device of an advent calendar to feature more of the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides.

Winds of Change

Langass Plantation North UistAutumn in the Outer Isles can be somewhat blustery and at times storm lashed. Each year we get our share of  violent storm force winds (Force 11 – winds over 64 mph) when it’s normally dinner by candle light and an early night with a hot water bottle.
The winds can be very destructive and, although the bane of every gardener’s, crofter’s’ and fisherman’s life, they helped save the island from being covered by the conifer plantations which blighted so much of Scotland. However, we did not escape entirely as there was some planting by the Forestry Commission and other land owners at the end of the last century. Many of the Commission’s plantations were experimental and slowly these have passed into community ownership. These are now being transformed into an educational and recreational resource for the benefit of local communities and visitors.

Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella

Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella

Langass Community Woodland on North Uist is one of our regular haunts, and although primarily Lodgepole Pine and Sitka Spruce, it supports a diverse community of mosses, lichens and fungi. The trees were planted in 1969 but in 2005 and subsequent winters many of the large trees have been blown-over by the gales. Some of the fallen stands of timber have been partially cleared creating sunlight mossy glades where ferns and wood sorrel flourish. These new open areas and fallen timber have done much to increase the biodiversity and landscape value of the woodland.
The island landscape is sculpted by the wind, its the physical form changing over millennia and sometimes more dramatically in the lifetime of a storm. Such elemental forces may appear to be superficially destructive but they are also creative, forming new habitats and acting as one of the many agents of evolution and natural selection.