ECOS 40(2): The meaning of nature conservation – a personal journey

Reawakening nature on your home ground – lessons from a collective effort in Dumfriesshire.

Looking back over our 85 years of life, my wife Myrtle and I realise how far we have travelled in our attitude to the living world around us. We were not pioneer thinkers, but responded to the people and landscapes that we encountered. But in our later years we have tried to initiate and physically engage in ecological restoration on a substantial scale, in the hope that we can leave behind some areas of beautiful and untrammelled land, rich in all the forms of life belonging there.

Early years

Conservation was not a common word during WWII, when we were first showing an interest in natural history. But even in the 1930s a few farsighted people such as Max Nicholson had realised the need for a scientific basis for protection of the natural world, and he went on to be involved in the foundation of the British Trust for Ornithology in 1932, the IUCN in 1947 and the Nature Conservancy in 1949. This same period, on the other side of the Atlantic, saw the publication of Aldo Leopold’s A sand county almanac, a landmark in the development of a conservation ethic in North America. But of course John Muir had blazed the trail.

In our schooldays we both became keen birdwatchers, but also occasionally collected birds’ eggs. By the time that we were zoology students in the 1950s we were well aware of the work of the prominent naturalists of the time, and had been influenced by friends, teachers and family members interested in the natural world. Both of us were early subscribers to Bird News and Bird Study, as well as eagerly reading the first volumes in the New Naturalist series published by Collins, and The life of the Robin by our mentor David Lack. We were thrilled by the RSPB’s acquisition of Minsmere Nature Reserve in 1947, and by the return of the avocet to England. But we were not conservationists – that came much later.

Experience overseas

During our decade in the United States we were excited by the chance to explore enormous National Parks and other government-owned land, where nature seemed untramelled. It was still easy to get away from crowds – as on Kauai in 1963, when we left our six-month-old daughter asleep on a beach in her carrycot and went for a walk along the coast, and even at the Grand Canyon in 1970, when we parked our family camper alone on the north rim just outside the park, and watched at night a chain of simultaneous summer thunderstorms creating weird moments of purple light along the chasm below. But while valuing the wild places, we had no compunction in collecting a tortoise and digging up a wild cactus to take home. Fifty years on, it still makes me blush.

Working on the guano islands of Peru in the 1960s, we had been shocked to find a long row of Andean condors hanging from a gibbet, killed because they were a threat to the nesting seabirds that produced the guano. Here we were forced to think about conflicting conservation values, but we did not become campaigners. 

For both of us, a key moment was when Myrtle was walking our seven-year old daughter Anna to school in New Haven, Connecticut, and they passed a scrap of unused land where trees and smaller plants were making use of their freedom. Anna said something like “I think a fence should be put up around it so that it would stay wild”. It was our first clear focus on the idea of self-willed land, but it lay dormant for many years.

Settling in the Scottish Borders in the early 1970s, we were puzzled by the naked hills and checked the few pollen records for the area. They confirmed our suspicion that we were living in an ecologically degraded landscape transformed by human activity – and especially by a millennium of intensive grazing. It was another two decades before we thought of doing anything about it, but then we launched directly into ambitious ecological restoration.

Helping nature’s potential

To us conservation refers primarily to caring for sites that are already significant in terms of habitat or their importance for particular species.  Management often involves maintaining the site in a somewhat artificial optimum state – for instance by controlling water levels in a wetland area and so minimising natural fluctuations that might disrupt breeding birds.  Ecological restoration does not depend on having a site that is ecologically rich at the start, although it does need potential. It involves removing the factors that caused the damage in the past, and then laying the foundations for an ecosystem that is as rich as the local conditions allow, often mainly by planting species that have been lost. This sets the stage for gradually handing back control to nature, allowing diverse habitats to develop and natural ecosystem processes to reassert themselves. It represents an attempt to return a more or less degraded ecosystem to a primeval state – more or less what it would have been like before major human intervention. 

Of course, humans belong in almost all terrestrial ecosystems, but their destructive impact is often extreme. Ecological restoration involves an attempt to repair the damage they have caused. As E.O. Wilson eloquently wrote in 1992, “There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us”. In 2019, we can be proud if we manage to reverse the progress of degradation in some parts of our local area, and also provide encouragement to others.

Restoration in the Southern Uplands

In Scotland, our inspiration came primarily from the pioneers in Reforesting Scotland and Trees for Life, as well as the work of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB. We saw the efforts being made to restore the Caledonian pinewoods of the Scottish Highlands, but noted the absence of comparable initiatives in the south of Scotland, where broadleaf trees had once held sway. 

In 1993 we responded by organising – with a group of local friends – a high-profile conference on Restoring Borders Woodland, where we focused both on the role that could be played by traditional landowners and on more radical approaches to land use. It included the bold idea that a group of grass-roots activists could start the ball rolling by buying a whole valley and bringing it back to life. 

The idea had come to Philip in a ‘road to Damascus’ moment during a walk in the Border hills earlier that year, when he found many native woody species surviving in the otherwise denuded Gameshope valley, on a cliff inaccessible to sheep and goats, and then saw trees on an islet in a high loch, surrounded by treeless eroded moorland. The idea lay dormant for a year or so, but when the Millennium Forest for Scotland Trust offered a chance of lottery funding for local projects, we joined with friends across the Scottish Borders to form the Wildwood Group (and a little later also Borders Forest Trust) and began the search for a site.

Our vision was ambitious, clear and simple – features that may have been largely responsible for our success in fundraising from members of the public. We also wanted the vision to be set in stone, so Myrtle insisted, before we even had a site in view, that we should draft a formal Mission Statement. A quarter of a century later, we would not change a word. 

Mission Statement of the Wildwood Group

The Wildwood project aims to re-create, in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, an extensive tract of mainly forested wilderness with most of the rich diversity of native species present in the area before human activities became dominant. The woodland will not be exploited commercially and the impact of humans will be carefully managed. Access will be open to all, and it is hoped that the Wildwood will be used throughout the next millennium as an inspiration and an educational resource.

Having a clear vision was a good start, but to counter the risk of being written off as a bunch of idealists with little knowledge of forestry or ecology, we had to build credibility and to focus on the long-term. So when we managed to get a two-year option for Borders Forest Trust to buy Carrifran, a magnificent valley on the eastern fringe of Dumfriesshire, we made use of our connections with Edinburgh University and organised a major conference at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The aim was to establish principles for broadleaf woodland restoration in the south of Scotland, an area sidelined in the campaign to restore Caledonian pinewoods in the Highlands [1].

Some people may note the lack of emphasis on plans for research in the Carrifran project. This came from a determination to keep our strategy simple, and from a worry that research could overshadow the primary aim of bringing nature back in all its richness. During a group study tour in 2001 we visited the government-owned island of Rum, where we gained the impression that first-rate research on red deer – along with an array of other constraints – had taken the focus off ecological restoration. So, although we have always tried to base our work at Carrifran on science, research projects are expected to keep a low profile and never to hamper progress towards re-creation of self-willed land, or to reduce the sense of being in a wild place.

We aim to let nature create a calm, remote atmosphere with a background of birdsong and other wild animal noises, along with the sound of the wind in the trees and the play of light on the contours of the land.  Solitude and relief from the pressures of modern life are now rare features of British landscapes, but are widely recognised as assets in relation to mental health and general wellbeing. While visitors and groups of students or professionals are always welcome, we try to minimise their impact, always remembering that our primary aim is restoration of a rich and naturally functioning ecosystem.

In reality things are not as simple as that. The Carrifran Wildwood site is relatively small (650ha) and our perimeter stock fence is only too visible, often with hungry sheep and feral goats just outside. Many walkers bring dogs, which is known to reduce the encounters with wildlife for other visitors; and the young people who can benefit so much from experience of wild land tend also to make a good deal of noise. For fit and energetic people, however, it is now easy to reach parts of Carrifran that convey a sense of wild nature.

Another potential complication is the “conservation prison” evoked by journalist George Monbiot [2]. Carrifran falls within the Moffat Hills Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which now also has the status of Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under European legislation. Monbiot points out that although such designations are designed to provide protection for particular habitats and species, they can sometimes constrain attempts to make radical restorative changes, in cases where human actions have caused major damage to primeval ecosystems.

When we explained to Scottish Natural Heritage in 1997 that we were planning to buy the bare valley of Carrifran in order to restore it to a more natural state similar to that which may have existed 6000 years ago (the date of an ancient longbow discovered on the site) we might have encountered serious obstacles. In a telling off-the-record recent comment, an SNH person suggested that if the SAC designation had been in place in the mid 1990’s, we might have been prevented from undertaking the ecological restoration of Carrifran. It’s a depressing thought.

At that time and subsequently, however, SNH were generally supportive.  The primary reason for the SSSI designation – evidently based on Derek Ratcliffe’s personal knowledge [3] – was the array of mountain plants recorded from high up on these hills, mainly on crags inaccessible to sheep and feral goats.  Ratcliffe started his paper with the sentence “More notable for mountain plants than any other part of the Southern Uplands is the stretch of hill country lying between Moffat and Tweedsmuir”. No wonder we were excited when we clinched a deal for Borders Forest Trust to buy nearly a quarter of the relevant SSSI [4].

Bringing the Carrifran back to life

Some people suggested that we should simply leave Carrifran to recover on its own, but our group felt that the lack of a significant seed bank in the soils of the valley would severely reduce the chance of natural regeneration of a fully diverse native flora, and thus of the native animals.  The loss of species had been so great that unless we laid foundations, the valley would remain an impoverished ecosystem, lacking those wild things that are poor dispersers and poor colonists. After 20 years, we still need to bring back some shrubs, woodland plants and perhaps certain animals, although birds are rapidly colonising the woodland [5].

Carrifan valley with sheep in January 1999
Photo: Philip Ashmole
Carrifan valley with woodland April 2019
Photo: Philip Ashmole

Our plan was to plant 300 ha of broadleaved native woodland in the lower part of Carrifran, using the Forestry Commission Woodland Grant Scheme. The low proportion of shrubs permitted under this scheme led us to undertake a subsequent programme of ‘enrichment planting’ to boost diversity in the understorey. In this work we made use of the guidance provided by the Forestry Commission [6]. Above about 450m, however, we planned to leave things largely to nature, so we were able to argue that our tree planting was unlikely to have a significant effect on the special mountain plants. It was mainly this that enabled SNH to approve our restoration plan.

What happened next, however, was a surprise to nearly everyone, though it shouldn’t have been. The removal of sheep and feral goats was followed by rapid expansion of several of the mountain plants (such as mountain sorrel, sea campion and roseroot) from their refuges on crags to surrounding areas [7]. Some generally rare habitat types have also developed, demonstrating the ecological benefits of drastic change to the grazing regime.

Luxuriant mountain sorrel, sea campion and other flowers on banks of Priest Gill, Carrifan in 2018
Photo: Philip Ashmole

We are fully aware, however, that the current absence of large herbivores (apart from roe deer) and large predators is unnatural, and although we hope gradually to hand over the ecological development of the ecosystem to nature, we shall need to go on intervening in a few ways, for instance by culling deer to mimic the effect of lost large predators (especially lynx) and perhaps bringing in cattle or pigs for short periods, in spite of the bureaucratic complications involved.

Some things may get easier as time goes on. Carrifran was the first large land acquisition of Borders Forest Trust, but the Trust now owns two other large areas – Corehead & the Devil’s Beef Tub and Talla & Gameshope, the latter contiguous with Carrifran and the former only 2 km away. With a holding of over 31 square km, we are moving forward under the banner ‘Reviving the Wild Heart of Southern Scotland’. An increase in the size of the restored area increases the sense of wildness, and this is always in our thoughts at Borders Forest Trust: the future for one strand of conservation is clearly ecological restoration on a landscape scale.

Conservation around home

At home near Peebles, however, our approach is different and on a relatively tiny scale. We have gradually increased our landholding from less than 2 acres to around 12 acres, and we manage most of it as semi-wild land, attempting to create a variety of habitats – a traditional conservation approach. Trees that we planted 45 years ago have now reached full stature, and there is lots of scrubby woodland edge with fruiting native shrubs. Wet woodland – a habitat doubtless once flooring all the steep-sided valleys of Peeblesshire but now extremely rare – occupies about an acre, and the 25 years since its initial planting have been enough to see massive accumulation of dead wood among the alder, bird cherry, gean (wild cherry), aspen, sessile oak, ash, downy birch and a posse of willow species. Expanding clumps of bird cherry and guelder rose, along with honeysuckle and rampant bittersweet, are rapidly creating a swampy tangle that threatens to become impassable without a machete. Add beaver engineering, and it’s no wonder old trackways were on the dry hill slopes!

There are five ponds and nearly half a mile of burn, giving a total of around 1.5 acres of open water. The largest pond (1 acre), which we now manage for nature, was excavated by Tweed Forum in 2017 as part of a natural flood management scheme, and is designed to accommodate two-thirds of a metre depth of extra water when the burn is in spate, reducing the risk of flooding of houses in Peebles, a couple of miles downstream.  We have now built three floating islands in the pond, generating much interest in the local waterbird community. Greylag geese nested on the first island last year, and this spring attention has also come from coots, moorhens, dabchicks, mallard, moorhens and oystercatchers, as well as herons and both common and lesser black-backed gulls.

Eddleston Water (right) barely overflowing into Kidston Flood Pond area, showing spillway (at far end) and floating islands. In a major flood the burn will overwhelm the bank in the foreground and raise the pond by two thirds of a metre.
Photo: Philip Ashmole

The second largest pond has had a fully occupied ‘do-it-yourself’ sand martin colony for nine years, but that is now awaiting reconstruction after a long-anticipated catastrophic collapse just before the sand martins arrived this spring. A new two-apartment kingfisher wall attracted only sand martins in 2018, and seems not to be favoured by kingfishers again this year, although one was a spectator both while we were building it and during this winter’s renovation. That pond also has a large (solid) island used last year by a pair of greylags, while another greylag nest on the adjacent shore was predated, perhaps by our frequently-visiting otters or the resident badgers. Several goosander nest-boxes have so far remained unoccupied (which will please the Tweed River salmon fishing fraternity) but a dipper nest-box under our bridge is often used, like the numerous smaller bird and bat boxes in diverse shapes and sizes and various state of disrepair.

Looking back over the past two decades, which have seen endless discussions about the meaning of conservation and of ‘rewilding’, we realise that our primary interest lies not in this discussion but in simply doing something for nature with our own hands and those of all our friends and colleagues. There are many people better qualified to carry forward the banners of conservation and of ecological restoration in the public arena; our contribution is to provide some evidence of what these approaches can achieve, in the hands of NGOs and private individuals.

References

  1. Newton, A. C. & Ashmole, P. (Eds.) (1998).  Native woodland restoration in southern Scotland: principles and practice.  Occasional paper no. 2, Borders Forest Trust, Ancrum, Jedburgh, Scotland, UK.
  2. Monbiot, G. (2013). Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Fronters of Rewilding. Allen Lane, London.
  3. Ratcliffe, D. (1959). The mountain plants of the Moffat Hills. Trans. Bot. Soc. Edinburgh 37, 257-271.
  4. Ashmole, M. & Ashmole, P. (2009).  The Carrifran Wildwood Story.  Borders Forest Trust, Jedburgh, UK.
  5. Savory, J.S. (2016). Colonisation by woodland birds at Carrifran Wildwood: the story so far. Scottish Birds 36(2), 135-149.
  6. Rodwell, J. S. & Patterson, G. S. (1994). Creating New Native Woodlands. Forestry Commission Bulletin 112. HMSO, London.
  7. Adair, S.A. (2016). Carrifran: Ecological Restoration in the Southern Uplands. Scottish Forestry 70(1), 30-40.

Cite:

Ashmole, Philip “ECOS 40(2): The meaning of nature conservation – a personal journey” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-402-the-meaning-of-nature-conservation-a-personal-journey/.

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