I live in the Highlands of Scotland, one of the most beautiful places on earth. We have mountains, lochs, iconic animals like red squirrels, pine martens, white tailed eagles and osprays. A hunded yards from my house there are seals which a year or do ago were picked off by a pod of killer whales. It is a lovely place to live, but it is not wild.
We tend to think it is. We forget that the atlantic rain forest that covered these hills is all gone, and that the bare hills have been rendered green deserts by sheep, and that the forest we have is mostly spruce plantation, otherwise known as brown desert. Where there are any ancient remnant trees, they are likely to be choked by invasive rhododendrons and any new seedlings hoovered up by deer.
Meanwhile, we have an opportunity here in Cowal, because of the Dunoon Project, a which involved bringing large amounts of the hillside into public ownership in order to create outdoor tourism- a cable car, a hillside cafe, zip-wires and mountain bike trails. The project also seems to rely on income from subletting the spruce plantations to companies that will exploit them for profit.
We need economic renewal in this area badly, but faced with ecological disaster, the question is how badly?
I have been thinking for some time about how we start to tackle this issue, and decided to start with a very traditional approach- a letter to the local paper. Here it is in full.
Dunoon people, we need to talk about the forest!
David Attenborough’s magnificent ‘Wild Isles’ documentary captivated many of us, but the skill of the film makers and the beauty they recorded was wrapped around a shrill alarm call because everything we saw was under pressure. Across all of the UK (and certainly here in Cowal) there is almost nothing left that can be called ‘wild’. Whether we like it or not, or whether we seek to ignore it or not, we are a pivotal generation, measured in terms of climate change or biodiversity. There is a chance that we can finally tip the scales back towards restoration rather than destruction, but in order to do this we have to talk about the Cowal forest.
In order to do this, we have to first understand that we have a massive problem. Most of what once thrived here in Cowal has gone. All of the most precious ‘semi-natural native forest’ has gone, and there are only small patches of the next category of ‘ancient forest’ left, all of which are under massive threat from over-grazing (deer) and invasive species (mainly rhododendron, sitka and buddleia.) Replacing this ancient rain forest ecosystem, we have vast tracts of land covered in spruce plantations, which are harvested on a 35-40 year cycle using the most destructive forestry practices on the planet. The end result is entirely predictable- plummeting biodiversity, soil degradation, unstable hillsides, polluted/acidic streams. The only winners in this kind of forestry are those who own land (the value of which is going up) and those who sell timber. Environmental benefits of plantations (which are better understood as battery farms for non-native trees) in terms of carbon sequestration are increasingly being revealed to be highly questionable. We know, for example, that trees only absorb enough carbon and release enough oxygen to justify the huge destruction of clear felling and replanting if left for around one hundred years plus, not a few decades.
The good news is that here in Cowal, there is loads that we can do to start to reverse this destructive trend. Firstly, we have to start a conversation about how the land we live on is being used, and become more familiar with the beauty that we have left and the damage that has already been done. Secondly, we have to demand of our politician and leaders that we invest in better, that we seek to prioritise not just the protection of remnants, but widespread landscape restoration here.
There is good work already being started, and we need to know about it. We have new rainforest alliance funded forestry posts and work is being done to restore land that once held ancient woodlands, for example on the shores of Loch Eck.
Perhaps, alongside all the good community beach cleans what we need are Rhododendron bashing parties!
Finally, we need to continue to have this conversation with our friends who are working hard on our behalf to move forward to Dunoon Project. I have written to them on several occasions on this topic but had no reply. I hope that this is because landscape restoration and working in partnership with the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest is already in hand, because anything less must be challenged.
Finally, we must consider the economics of our forestry practices. Most of us will be concerned about jobs and how a loss of commercial forestry might impact workers in this area. We do not have to look far to see how investment in our ecology and in different harvesting practices (such as selective felling) creates a different kind of work and builds community in ways that have resounding benefits to the local population. Change is not easy but what choice to we have? The alternative is not for things to stay the same but rather for things to continue to get worse.
As will be revealed later, this letter did get a response, and not the one I was expecting…