On trawling through the news headlines this morning one in particular struck me. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has penned a letter to the Scottish environment minister expressing concerns that “Scotland’s dramatic open views and vistas could be threatened by plans to increase woodland cover”. I’m a hillwalker but also an advocate of native woodland expansion. I believe that far from threatening the Highland landscape, restoring our native woodlands enhances it. To those of us who enjoy a good walk in the hills the view from the top is the reward for the hard slog, but to believe the hills offer us nothing but a vista betrays an ignorance of the bigger picture. I’ve written this blog post by way of demonstrating the wonder that is a Highland landscape of mountain…and forest.
When you arrive in a beautiful place in the dark, waking up the next morning is a bit like Christmas morning as a child. I’d been to the forests of Glen Affric many times before and although the surprise was somewhat dampened by previous experience, I still went to sleep that night excited to see what the morning would bring. The ingredients for a spectacular start were all there: autumn colours and a forecast of freezing fog and frost.
I was not disappointed. When I woke it was minus four celsius and an eerie fog was slowly swirling around the birch trees; the serrated edges of their frozen yellow leaves delicately lined with sparkling frost. Stooped over the heather and juniper were ancient granny pines with great grooves in their trunks. The sweet scent of pine resin drifted through the fog.
My plan was to climb the hills of Tom a’ Choinich and Toll Creagach but my progress was delayed by the forest. It held me in a magical trance and I resisted any sense of urgency. Instead I wandered. From the many open glades I looked at the great vistas down the glen to the hills. But I also looked at the details. There were spiders’ webs laced with rime ice, strung across dead bracken stalks, and beard lichen hanging from birch branches.
Glen Affric has some of the finest native woodland in Scotland. Anyone who believes the empty glens, that are typical of 21st century Scotland, are the norm should visit Glen Affric. The forest has survived here thanks to the foresight of the Forestry Commission who bought the estate in 1951 and recognised the importance of the native woodland fragments. They fenced them to prevent deer browsing, and the forest spread.
When I first came to Glen Affric in the mid-nineties I was a voracious hillwalker, out almost every weekend with the university mountaineering club. The eagerness to get high, in a mountaineering sense, was strong. So strong that we were blind to what was around us on the approach to the peaks. Even here in Glen Affric, I can remember walking as if intent on busting a lung, through this great forest, head down, marching to get to the tops and to the view. Hillwalking can do that if you don’t take the blinkers off.
Today, I take it more slowly. It was two hours before I even reached the open hill. I wandered over a rocky landscape where dwarf birch hugged the ground and then climbed a defined ridge where earlier I had watched a golden eagle drift nonchalantly across the mountainside. On the ridge above the glen I sat by a rock covered in blood red bearberry. Its name is a nod to the bears that would once have foraged on these slopes each autumn. Today this native beast was here in my imagination only.
From the summit of Tom a’ Choinich I was treated to the view I had come for but it was a view not of the forests of Glen Affric but of a treeless glen. My enjoyment of the panorama was tainted. There is truth in the maxim ‘ignorance is bliss’; as a twenty year-old this same view would have represented wilderness to me. Now its beauty was blighted by the knowledge that this was an unhealthy landscape: the forest had gone and with it, not just beauty but the species that depended upon it, all the way up to the brown bear whose autumn food supply still grows on the mountain slopes.
But the forests of Glen Affric and the continuing expansion of native woodland is a reason for optimism. Across the Highlands the land is in a sorry state. Conservationists should celebrate every success in restoring it and hillwalkers, particularly, should celebrate it too.
This is the original news item that prompted this blog post
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