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Be careful what you read...

I’ve been reading a lot of nature books over the last few years. Searching for information and stories that I can relay to mountain leaders and mountaineering instructors as we all attempt to become more knowledgeable about the countryside and, in particular, the uplands. Clearly then, learning about sheep is a vital part of this journey. But when researching about sheep you do have to be mindful of varied points of view. As walkers and climbers we can see the difference on our hills where land is grazed, sometimes overgrazed, and land which is not grazed. It’s pretty clear when left to its own devices land will undergo a process of succession through scrub to woodland. Don’t assume that this is uniform woodland, it has edges, scrubby areas, wet areas, clearings and a range of different tree species will settle on different soil types and depths, at different heights and on different aspects. This is all pretty clear to us as we spend a lot of time in the hills and we are observant, we see what there is to see. So, it comes as a bit of a shock when I read in a, supposedly authoritative, book about the pastoral heritage of Britain ‘Counting Sheep’ by Philip Walling the following. He describes an area of land from which sheep have been removed, by a Natural England subsidized Environmentally Sensitive Area project, in the Peak District as thus...

“The fenced off and abandoned moorland stood out from the rest, like a brown patch stitched on to the green background. Natural England say it is being ‘re-wilded’. But nobody could tell me why land that has produced meat and wool for many centuries is being left to revert to a state it has not been in for thousands of years…”

He goes on to be extremely critical of the Moors for the Future project. Hills, for Philip Walling, should be productive and the best ‘crop’ to grow are sheep. Sheep for wool that is not valued, sheep for meat that is not desired, sheep that reduce the quality of the land till it becomes less and less productive. No mono-culture is good for farmer, consumer or nature.

Philip Walling dismisses re-wilders as those who would wish the following...

“Out would go farmers, tourists, ramblers: in would come a brave new world of wolves, bears, beavers, otters, reptiles and all that goes to make up a ‘thriving ecosystem’ with the European straight-tusked elephant, which apparently browsed this flora of Western Europe 115,000 years ago, at the top.”

This emotive, sensationalised way of presenting opposition views is very unhelpful, it leads to division, it leads to mistruths and it leads to the ignorance of comments uttered in a parliamentary debate on the future of driven grouse shooting in Westminster this week.

Philip Wilding suggests that “Letting the land run wild does not produce anything of tangible value that can be eaten, worn, traded or otherwise put to good use”. No place then for nature, despite our reliance on it, is to be found in Philip Walling’s upland visions.

Use your eyes, look the hills, look the crags. Listen to the birds, scan for scat and remain open minded. To be successful for all of us farming has to be nature friendly, mono-cultures are no future and we’re too far gone, and he knows it, for the image of rewilding he portrays. If you do chose to read his book you’ll find a justification for the Scottish clearances, that the Welsh Mountain Sheep is of no value, that the Herdwick is the hardiest of all hill sheep and that modern lambs are tasteless. Read with care, or simply ignore.

As for those comments in Parliament this week the debate on the future of driven grouse shooting predictably went with the power base, which is of course a strong supporter. We should rejoice that this debate has reached parliament. We now need to educate our MP’s that ‘scrub’ is not a bad thing, the economy comes in all shapes and sizes and that there are no such things as wildfires in the UK. Most people can see for themselves the enviro disaster that driven grouse shooting is. From denuded hills that have reduced water and carbon storage, from damaged bogs, to a treeless, landscape that is home to no birds of prey and few predatory mammals. A land that is awash with grouse, rabbits and, in places, the wonderful curlew, lapwing and golden plover, that too benefit from the 'management' of predators.

We need to lead discussion around these topics when leading our groups, we need to read different points of view. We need to be aware of Wild Justice, Inglorious, Cairngorms Connect and other ideas about upland management in the UK and Ireland. We need to see the words from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in the context from which they emanate, that is the driven grouse shooting industry.

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