It is high summer and the heather moors are coming into bloom, turning into that glorious purple which was at one time the symbol of the Scottish Highlands.
Not so long ago the open heather moors were seen as one of the country’s main tourist attractions. In my youth it was common to see visitors returning to England with a sprig of heather attached to the bonnet of their car, but this is a rare sight now, if seen at all.
The moors are still celebrated by some, particularly now that the Glorious Twelfth is upon us, the date when the grouse shooting season opens and there is a race to get the first bird to London restaurants. For red grouse are intimately linked to heather; it is their home, and their fate and the fate of the heather are inextricably entwined.
Beyond the sporting fraternity, however, heather moorland is no longer the potent symbol of the Highlands it once was. On the VisitScotland website, you will be hard put to find any pictures of heather moor or, in the Nature & Geography section, any mention of “moorland” or “heather” in the text. The absence of any reference to moorland is mirrored in the Cairngorms National Park section. It is as if moorland were slowly being made invisible. And in truth, this most iconic of Scottish terrain is being steadily eroded to make way for forestry, wind farms, hydro-electric schemes and mile upon mile of access tracks. Why is there no widespread outcry at this loss? Why is there no NGO dedicated to preserving moorland, as there is for every other habitat or species?
Perhaps one reason for the lack of concern is precisely because the land concerned is often grouse moor or deer estate, symbolic of the exclusive use of the land for the aristocracy. Open moorland has become associated politically with the landowning lobby: it is derided because of its association. And the association is strong. Since the decline of the clan system, landowners have been widely accused of clearing people off the land to make way at first for sheep and later for deer.
And it is true that they preferred to have exclusive use of the land, “their land” as they saw it, for their own recreational ends: there are many stories of walkers being ordered off estates. This exclusiveness has always rankled, so that on the return of the Scottish Parliament after its 300-year absence one of its first acts was to bring in the Land Reform Act of 2003, giving legal access to everyone. However, people still see the moors as the preserve of the elite where deer stalking or grouse shooting is something you do once you have become rich and joined “the establishment”. The “Glorious Twelfth” is not glorious in everyone’s eyes.
Another possible reason for our apparent indifference is that killing wild animals for sport is frowned on by many people, so that the moors are associated with the recreational killing of deer and the slaughter of grouse. But if, from the conservationist’s perspective, there are too many deer, does it really matter whether the deer are killed by someone who is paid a salary to kill them or by someone who pays a fee to kill them? Although I do not shoot myself, I do eat meat, including venison and grouse, and I would prefer that my food had come from a clean kill on the open hill than from a wild animal farmed for eventual slaughter.
Whatever one thinks about field sports, we should value the terrain on which they are conducted – and celebrate the fact that while the landscape abides as a habitat for the red grouse, so a part of our indigenous open moorland – which has an unbroken ecological link back to the last ice age, and whose vegetation retains one of the most natural patterns in Europe – is preserved. “Naturalness” is a key determinant of global nature conservation value and, just as we all want to keep as much of the Brazilian rainforest as possible, we should be protective of our own rainforest equivalent – Scotland’s indigenous moorland. Owing to the high organic content of its soils and peat, this treeless expanse stores at least as much carbon as a forest, and often a lot more – and hence is important in consideration of climate change.
By moorland I mean any area of unwooded ground dominated by indigenous heaths, bogs and grassland. Because Scotland’s rocks are hard and acidic, our soils waterlogged and infertile, and our climate cool and damp, trees are discouraged and our native heathers, sedges and grasses take over. These moors are the tracts of open ground that we see when we drive south over the hills to Moffat or through the Dalveen Pass to Thornhill, when we drive north to Glencoe over Rannoch Moor and onwards through Glen Shiel to Skye, or to Inverness via the wilds of Drumochter Pass. They are the vast boggy lands of Caithness and the Western Isles, the rugged landscapes of Sutherland and Wester Ross and also, far to the south, of the Galloway Hills; they are the gentler heather moors of the Cairngorms and the Angus Glens, and the grassy moors of Argyll and the Southern Uplands.
Scotland is a world centre for such temperate moorland, and for plants such as heather, cross-leaved heath and bog asphodel that grow there. Many birds – such as golden eagles, hen harriers, dunlin, curlew and redshank, as well as the red grouse, also depend on these open, tundra-like landscapes.
In the past, moorland landscapes were so common that Scots probably took them for granted. Recent research has shown, for example, that at the time of the battle of Bannockburn, whose 700th anniversary was marked earlier this year, the landscape around Stirling was virtually treeless and therefore, presumably, dominated by moorland. But nowadays it can be hard to envisage what the Scottish landscape was like before the great estates started planting trees in the 18th century, before the Forestry Commission was formed in the 20th, and before agricultural improvement removed the last of the moorland from the lowlands.
Today, moorland has retreated almost completely from the lowlands, with places such as Fenwick Moor above Glasgow, Auchencorth Moss south of Edinburgh and Flanders Moss near Stirling being but relicts of their former selves. Often the memory of this moorland lingers only in place names, particularly those containing the words “moss” or “muir”. And in the uplands, particularly during the second half of the 20th century, great tracts have been lost, either converted to forestry plantations or reclaimed for agriculture. Still, the erosion continues. The Scottish Forestry Strategy has a government commitment to plant 10,000 hectares of trees a year. Then there is the industrial development of windfarms, hydro-electric schemes and access tracks. In the lowlands, often the last bits of remaining moorland are the rough hilltop grazings, which are too exposed for conversion to farmland. But these areas are also the windiest locations and the places with least economic constraints – hence the obvious place to build windfarms (and also telecommunication masts). The sad thing is that for most people, this means that the only remaining places where they can experience a bit of wild nature in their locality are under threat.
But of course windfarms are being built on moors everywhere in Scotland, particularly in the Southern Uplands and in areas of the Highlands where the national grid is nearby. I sometimes think it would be better to have two new nuclear power stations producing enough electricity full-time for the whole of Scotland than to industrialise all our moors in order to squeeze out every last kilowatt of power from the wind or water. There is a danger of us losing our wildness completely from the cumulative impact of windfarm after windfarm. Would we want to live in a country without wild places?
Nowadays, land is expected to earn its keep, to be useful. In these mercenary times, it appears we cannot afford the land just “to be”. And as a consequence, we are losing the “old Scotland”. Those moorland landscapes contributed to the Scots being the people that they are, and helped shape our culture and mindset. That culture is being replaced by what I see as an alien, imported one from the south (and Scandinavia), a culture of trees and woodland. And in the process, we are losing our last remaining areas of untamed wildness, which were once so much a characteristic of Scotland. If the trend of moorland loss continues, we will nowhere be able to remember what nature was like in the raw. We are also losing the habitats, plants and animals that are among Scotland’s main contributions to global biodiversity.
One reason for this indifference towards moorland can be traced back to ecologists such as Frank Fraser Darling, who described the Highlands as a landscape degraded by centuries of deforestation. Construing moorland as a consequence of human destruction creates a kind of moral imperative to “put trees back” into the landscape. One famous Scottish conservationist has even referred to heather as a “weed”.
Even organisations devoted to conserving Scotland’s wild places, such as the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group, are keen to keep covering the moors with trees. This tendency has also been taken up by some landowners such as the Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen who, in addition to Glen Feshie, has bought two moorland estates in Sutherland to fulfil his vision of “restoring” the ecology of the area by creating large areas of new native woodland.
I think we are being brainwashed through a potent mix of ecology and politics, that there is a subliminal message of woodland “good”, moorland “bad”. Looking after moorland is seen as a top-down activity preserving a degraded landscape for an elite, whereas woodland creation is a bottom-up, community activity restoring a degraded landscape for the many. For, unlike grouse shooting, woodland creation is widely promoted as a community activity by the likes of Reforesting Scotland, Trees For Life and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
We are making a mistake. Moorland is not merely degraded woodland but an important natural habitat, one that distinguishes Scotland from the uplands of mainland Europe. Nor should it be damned by its association with field sports and the landed gentry. We need to put politics aside, and separate the activities that take place on the land from the land itself.
No one should underestimate how much we stand to lose. Have you ever walked the moors with a wet west wind blowing cold against your cheeks? Or run downhill through deep, sunlit heather? Or surprised red grouse and watched the covey fly away downwind, crekking, while, in turn, mountain hares are watching you, trying to calculate your every move? Have you ever admired the bog cotton, brighter even than snow?
Anyone who has spent time in these places could not contemplate the loss of those bleak, windy, windswept, midge-ridden, rough, boggy, and yet glorious moors. Who would want to replace the call of the whaup, the crek of the grouse, the pip-pip of the pipit, the beauty of parnassus, the orange glow of the asphodel, the blue of the milkwort, the smell of the myrtle and of heather in bloom, the black of the peat hag, the white of the bog wood?
Moorland is at the heart of Scotland, and it needs to be preserved for future generations. In this respect, Scottish Natural Heritage’s new map of wild land is a good start because most of the areas identified consist mainly of moorland: we should use this map to prevent further encroachment of windfarms, hydro schemes, new woods and tracks in these locations. However, there is a lot of moorland outwith these areas, and we also need a comprehensive moorland strategy for Scotland – on a par with the forestry strategy that already exists – in order to identify the key moors we want to retain, and the steps needed to protect them.
Dr James HC Fenton is an ecologist and conservationist who formerly worked for the National Trust for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage