A JOURNEY IN LANDSCAPE RESTORATION: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond
Edited by Phillip and Myrtle Ashmole (Eds)
Whittles Publishing, 2020, 224 pages
Paperback £18.99 ISBN: 978-1849954723
Review by David Blake
This book tells the story of how the 650 hectare Carrifran Wildwood in Scotland’s Southern Uplands was planned, funded and purchased, and of the people who made it happen. The ecological and the social changes in the area that have come about as a result are described and illustrated in detail. The text offers much more than a straight account of the project.
What was new and fascinating for me, probably because I am based so far away in the south in England, was how Carrifran has become an inspiration for so much more than ecological restoration to so many people. The book ends with a series of 18 articles and short essays that explain and demonstrate the influence that this whole venture has had.
I visited Carrifran in the autumn of 2005, when a few fledgling re-wilders met at the Trees for Life HQ at Findhorn to conclude, amongst other things, that “re-wilding” was an ambiguous term, unfit for purpose and unlikely to gain popular support – perhaps that judgement was premature. The event heard some great insights and inspiring stories, but perhaps the best thing we did was visit the Carrifran Valley. I remember being impressed by the scale of both the project and the ambition. At that time I was concerned that Carrifran had two huge problems: the physical geography and the project’s determination to be egalitarian.
Restoring a landscape through planting and encouraging native trees would be a lot easier somewhere less steep, less wet, less dark, and warmer with richer soils; but the great advantage of Scotland for this kind of scheme is that land is comparatively cheap and it comes in big dollops. However, it is cheap and owned in large chunks for a reason. Tree growth rates are low, species choice is limited, but the pests are no less pestilential. However, the Wildwood Group managed to turn this to their advantage. The remoteness, barren wildness, the topographical and climatic challenge of the Southern Uplands seems to have attracted a courageous band of volunteers, employees and partners of such resilience, patience and total commitment that some sort of success was guaranteed (although I bet it did not seem that way) from the start.
“This happy few” have confounded my scepticism about the delivery model. In doing almost everything with volunteers, involving lots of amateurs and even to go as far as (I shut my eyes as I type) ‘voting’ on things, seemed to me to be a recipe for inertia and failure. What they managed to do was attract over 250 people who have brought a vast store of knowledge, enthusiasm and skill to the valley and the project. They identified where they needed professional help and they had the good fortune to employ Hugh Chalmers as their first project officer.
The book’s editors, Peter and Myrtle Ashmole, have compiled a set of contributions that provide intimate and informative parts of the story. So in Stuart Adair’s account of the changes in plant communities resulting from sheep removal, we get the long answer to that eternal Borders question, “so whit happens whin thon yows cam off the knowes thin?” Well indeed, we have all wondered that, and when we visit Carrifran we will see the answer.
There is an excellent preface by Rosalind Grant-Robertson, Chairman of the Borders Forest Trust. She hopes that the Carrifran journey will give strength to those engaged in similar projects when the challenges seem too great and their determination flags in the face of opposition.
“Be bold in purpose, be consistent in execution and be passionate in vision” is her advice to all those embarking on such daunting journeys as theirs. It is a great call to arms but, I wondered as I opened the book, have the founders of Carrifran Wildwood hearkened to their own call?
The evidence from this collection of essays, accounts and surveys is ‘yes, indeed’. So why is this not happening all over Scotland? Depressingly, it seems that designation-lead nature conservation has tightened its grip rather than relaxed its hold, despite the acknowledged successes demonstrated by Carrifran and others. An unattributed source at Scottish Natural Heritage informed Phillip that such a project would not be possible now due to the way in which the Habitats Directive has been applied. So, while re-wilding seems so resonant as a popular cry to help wildlife, is it actually getting tougher to implement in the formal world of nature conservation?
On approaching this book I expected to read a well-illustrated but formulaic text such as a ‘report to our funding body’, but what I found was an engaging account of the struggle to create a vision that must have seemed very unlikely at times. The tussles with a grant and regulatory system wholly unsuited, but vital, to success, against landowner greed and local opposition. All conquered by logic, confidence and evidence. The story of Carrifran is not just a “journey in landscape restoration”, it is a lesson in wisdom and authenticity.