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Environmental awareness in the British mountains; What is ‘Need to know; Nice to know’?


The Mountain Training Mountain Leader syllabus, now joined by the Hill and Moorland Leader and the Lowland Leader, demands a level of environmental knowledge and understanding of the environment to be demonstrated by the candidate when being assessed. Much of the knowledge required is pretty obvious, such as, how access and rights of way work and how they vary across the UK, legislation around the protection of the environment and application of the Countryside Code.


The Mountain Leader should also:

3a. aim to inspire and enthuse their groups in the mountains and continuously expand their knowledge and understanding of the environment.

And

3.c demonstrate knowledge of land management in upland areas and its multiple uses, e.g. hill farming, forestry, water collection, grouse shooting and deer stalking.


There is, of course, guidance from Mountain Training on these aspects of the Awards; it goes along the lines of: Develop your knowledge of mountain flora, fauna, geology, folklore etc. I am increasingly aware that I find myself further developing those who have some knowledge, have a genuine interest and want to seek out more information. There is another group of hillwalkers, mountaineers and Mountain Leaders who are not quite so enamoured with learning about flowers. I was once this person. As a youth the mountains were about adventure, a day of fewer than 15 miles was weak, a week without climbing hard was wasted, adventure and physical challenge trumped all else. This isn’t to say I didn’t care about the environment I did, I appreciated it, I just didn’t need to know the details, I just wanted to worship it through my physical activity. I’ve changed, the world has changed and Mountain Leaders have a responsibility these days to raise awareness of how precious our countryside is, of how interdependent upon it we are and of how delicate it is. We have to raise difficult issues of how land is managed, the conflicts which arise from that and introduce the fact that some land uses could be considered incompatible with others.

I know learning about the environment can be a bit daunting for those who feel limited in their knowledge to start with. I know it looks like an enormous challenge to learn all about it, so where do you start? This is something I have been thinking about for a while hence this new concept of ‘need to know; nice to know’. This isn’t a tight fixed concept but, it is designed to give you a start to help you to know where to begin. How many flowers do you need to be able to identify? What should you know about Geology? Who does own the land and how is it managed? It can seem overwhelming. ‘Nice to know, need to know’ is a new concept that I hope will help those with little or no knowledge of the environment and help them towards some achievable goals. So, what are those goals? Here’s my first stab at suggesting what you need to know.


To be able to ‘inspire and enthuse their groups in the mountains and continuously expand their knowledge and understanding of the environment

A Mountain Leader should:

1. Be able to explain why the geology of Snowdonia or the Lakes District is complex in comparison to Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons or the Pennines

2. Be able to describe and explain the processes of glacial erosion and transportation. Identify features of erosion and deposition.

3. Be able to describe the lives of around 12 key mammal, bird or other living species in your area of operation.

4. Be able to recognise and describe, including some uses medicinally, historical and current, around 12 plant species, including some upland specialists.

5. Be able to explain how land use has, over time, contributed to how the uplands look the way they do and how this may continue to change including some of the choices currently being discussed.


1. Be able to explain why the geology of Snowdonia or the Lakes District is complex in comparison to Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons or the Pennines.

It can be frustrating, as an assessor, when candidates show complete ignorance of geology. Geology underpins everything. It helps us to explain why these places are hills, the character of these hills, the fauna and flora of places and how the land has been used and is being used. It is fair however, to say that the geology of Snowdonia or the Lake District is complicated. It’s fair to say there is great variation across the highlands of Scotland. The approach I’ve begun to teach people is not to explain the geology but, to understand why it’s complex. For example, it can be old, at least 450 million years old in the Lakes and Snowdonia but, up to a couple of billion years old in some parts of Scotland. It may have featured volcanoes and volcanoes can produce different results depending on the type of lava, the areas in which they erupt and how they erupt. Rocks have then been folded to form mountains. These mountains have then been eroded to leave todays landscape with weathering exposed rock now being colonised and hidden by lichen and vegetation succession. Whereas, on the other hand, the Beacons and the Pennines have fewer rock types, folded in a similar structure and with clearer differences on the land surface.


2. Be able to describe and explain the processes of glacial erosion and transportation. Identify features of erosion and deposition.

Glaciation. Many people did a little learning about glaciation at school. But, there are frequent misconceptions. I’ve often heard that ‘glaciation formed these mountains’ oh no it didn’t! If the mountains are over 450 million years old in the Lake District and Snowdonia, with even the rocks of the Pennines and Brecon Beacons being 350 million years old, and the last ice age having only finished 10,000 years ago, having lasted 2 million years, that means that water did most of the work of eroding our hills and mountains. All glaciation has done is added a few finishing touches, created some arêtes, cwms, and left behind some moraine debris. A mountain leader should know how these features are formed, roughly when they were formed and something of what they add to the story of these places.


3. Be able to describe the lives of around 12 key mammal, bird or other living species in your area of operation.

There is always a danger of creating an approved list of things to know. We really don’t want to do this but, from your point of view you might just need to know what it is you do need to know. I’m thinking that if I give you an achievable target perhaps it’ll inspire you to work towards it. How about picking a dozen of these raven, meadow pipit, wheatear, stonechat, kestrel, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, grouse, snow bunting, stonechat, hen harrier, ptarmigan, curlew, common vole, field mouse, goat, fox, badger or deer. It doesn’t have to be from this list that’s just a few examples. But, a little knowledge of how to recognise them, where and when you might see them their life cycle, anything really would definitely increase your enjoyment of the hills.


4. Be able to recognise and describe, including some uses medicinally, historical and current, around 12 plant species including some upland specialists.

Should I give you a list or should I leave it to you? Is 12 the right number? How about some arctic-alpines, maybe purple saxifrage, maybe the Snowdon lily or rose root? How about some woodland species that you might see on the hill like wood sorrel, wood anemones or common cow wheat? It could be the heathers, gorse or maybe a tree or two. Are you interested in the mosses, lichens or fungi? There is so much information about these knocking around that you will need to think about what is achievable, give it a whirl, pick a number and make a list; expand your knowledge.




5. Be able to explain how land use over time has contributed to how the uplands look the way they do and how this may continue to change including some of the choices currently being discussed.

In many ways this is the real nub of the matter, this is the real need to know. We need to understand that however our hills look now, this is not how they have always looked. Many of them were wooded to a considerable height. In England and Wales this means deciduous woodland with oak then birch, alder and aspen rising up the hillsides. In Scotland a woodland dominated by Scots Pine would have crept further up the hills than it might today. There were openings, there were pastures, large herbivores were indigenous and would have maintained woodland clearings. The tops were often too exposed for vegetation to grow to any height but, by the same token this provided space for travel and places to live at times when the climate was a little more benign than it is today. We see a patch work of heather, neatly manicured with strips of ageing heather, strips of young heather, shoots all carefully managed to provide for grouse. This is not a natural landscape. We see stands of imported pine trees, artificially created reservoirs and we have to keep out of some areas due to military exercises. But the biggest impact is that of grazing sheep. Miles and miles of our uplands are denuded of any interesting botanical diversity by years of over grazing, encouraged by Government and European subsidies. This sterile upland is ‘sold’ to us as wild, natural beauty. It is not, and we are only just beginning to evaluate it and look at ways of improving it. On the news is the way we subsidise our farmers; is it to solely to produce food or is it to manage the environment for wildlife and nature, and if between, where between?

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mike@mikeraine.co.uk Nature of Snowdonia. Book with confidence.