A storm cloud gathers

A philosophical clash of class, nationalism and tradition in Scotland might well shake up Europe’s last surviving feudal nation.

A seven-year ecological survey commissioned by Forestry Commission Scotland, the most detailed report ever on British woodland, has revealed a worrying picture of overgrazing, deer population explosion, tree disease, invasive non-natives and ongoing destruction of ancient woodland.

Meanwhile other groups insist grazing has decreased over generations with estates diligently managing their land, biodiversity and rights to roam.

Big ol’ barney

The consensus among campaigning ecological groups is overgrazing has become a problem in Scotland and commercial pressure on landowners to monetise estates through intense livestock farming and stalking is putting excessive pressure on flora and fauna. Some say deer populations are out of control.

Stairheid rammy*

A storm cloud is gathering for a clash between the Scottish ‘people’ and the 500 landowners owning more than half of the nation’s land – it’ll be a big ol’ barney or, as the Scotts will say, there’ll be a rammy at the stairheid.

Out of control

Recent population estimates by Scottish Parliament researchers suggest there are as many as 400,000 red deer, an increase of up to 80% since the 1960s. This increase dramatically and visually affects ecology and the landscape.

Dr Maggie Keegan, head of policy and planning at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, says —

“If you drive up and down Scotland looking for a natural tree line, looking for montane scrub, you just don’t see it pretty much anywhere apart from two kilometres close to the Cairngorms

Too much control

However, Jamie Williamson, of Scottish Land and Estates, says grazing has decreased over generations —

“200 years ago we had far more cattle, sheep, feral goats and horses on our hills”

“These have transformed to mainly sheep. In the last 10 years alone we’ve had 1.4 million sheep coming off our hills. The impact of that is we’ve gone from a situation in 1800 that you could regard as overgrazing to a situation now where you’re getting rank vegetation and wildfire problems”

The country is in danger of losing biodiversity, he admits —

“Though the sheep have come off by one and a quarter million in the last 10 years, that has been in no way replaced by deer. The deer numbers have been relatively static”

Two compelling, arguments at the stairheid.

Ecological desert

Looking at it in the round 77% of Scottish woodland is now made up of conifer plantations, virtual ecological deserts.

Native oak trees on the other hand, trees once a plenty in now rare Caledonian Foredtry, support an amazing 400+ different types of invertebrate species whereas the same cannot be said for conifers or spruce, which might support 10% of that diversity.

Money, money, money

However, the latter grow up to six times faster and are a superior cash crop for landowners who say they will otherwise find it hard to monetise their land.

Furthermore, a tree’s value for animal life does not end with the death of the tree. Rotting wood, a natural phenomena in natural woodland, hosts about 1,700 different kinds of invertebrates but is of no use to those managing plantations for timber.

Perfect storm

When contentious issues of class division, land, access, sports hunting, foreign land ownership and the legacy of highland clearances stir the pot this rammy is the perfect storm.

On the one stairwell, the ‘toff’ landed gentry, sporting estates and issues of class, land and access who consider recently introduced laws of land reform to be a Mugabe style land grab.

On the other, the burgeoning eco groups who have learned the game of political influence and long held the former group in low esteem.

They regard the estates as unnatural, interlopers in the management of national asset land resources and their objective is the wilding of the highlands in the name of biodiversity.

The philosophical clash means the issue may get very dirty, very quickly.

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*For those unfamiliar with the Scottish lingo click here an insight to Glasgow tenement carry-ons and the dynamics of a stairheid rammy

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