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In a couple of decades people will look back with revulsion at what is taking place in the uplands, and wonder at the irreparable damage it caused



A great deal is talked about biodiversity depletion, the species crisis, and the climate crisis.


The exact extent of these phenomena, and the best ways to contribute to their resolution, has been lost in the mad rush to exploit these problems for political, financial, and personal gain. It is likely that in a couple of decades people will look back with revulsion at what is taking place in the uplands and wonder at the mixture of naivety, stupidity and greed and the irreparable damage it all caused.

 

Whilst is is tempting to think that no one could make a bigger mess of rural policy than the Welsh government, it is Scotland that arguably gets the booby prize for upland policy.


It is easy to blame the majority party, and the SNP are obviously implicated, but it is the Greens and, indirectly the big players in the conservation industry who are the main causes of the ongoing disaster.

 

First, are the the Highlands of Scotland, as so often asserted, one of the most bio-depleted regions of one of the least biodiverse countries on the planet? Whilst this is now assumed to be the case – largely because the conservation industry has been saying it is remorselessly for years – it is not in fact true. It doesn't even approximate to reality.

 

Of course the UK is a long way down the biodiversity table from Brazil, but we are after all a tiny overcrowded island with a temperate maritime climate and have a tiny fraction of the biodiversity found in huge tropical nations.

 

When you make more sensible comparisons, a different story emerges. We have greater biodiversity in the UK than most comparable European countries. The UK is more biodiverse than Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Hungary, Netherlands, Slovak Republic, Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. So whilst everything is not perfect, the UK is far from being a bad performer when compared with countries in the same part of the world.

 

But perhaps the Highlands of Scotland are worse than the rest of Britain. That is, after all, the line peddled by the conservation industry. The Romans, or the Danes or the English or the Lairds, or the sheep or the deer, have cut down/burnt/eaten the Great Wood of Caledon, have they not?



The Scottish Highlands must be a the worst place in the UK for biodiversity because, not only does the conservation industry say that it is, they also need it to be. How can you make money out of a landscape, if that landscape is fine as it is?

 

Is there any independent measure of where the biodiversity of the Highlands sits in relation to other regions of the UK? Well, there is. The National Biodiversity Network Atlas reported in 2020 that the Scottish Highlands had the greatest biodiversity of any British region, with 16,273 types of plant, mammal, bird, fungi etc. It was over 2000 species ahead of its nearest rival: Gwynedd in Wales.

 

Just to recap. Despite what the Scottish government believes, because its Green Party partners and their fellow travellers in the conservation industry tell them, the UK as a whole has more biodiversity than many European countries and the Highlands are the best, not the worst, region in the UK for biodiversity.

 

In that rich biodiversity there are jewels in the crown and it is beyond question that heather dominated moorland growing on varying depths of upland peat, is one of them. This habitat is far rarer than tropical rainforest, and Scotland has a large proportion of the world's stock.

 

This rare landscape is critically important because it supports unique ecosystems and rare bird and invertebrate assemblages. It is also beautiful, much loved and of great historical and cultural significance. It is the Scottish landscape most likely to appear on tourist advertisements and material promoting the Scottish countryside: the purple heather of poem, and song.


More prosaically, but of huge importance to our future, it is also the largest store of carbon in the UK. The peat on which the heather grows stores hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon and here we cross over to the other problem: the climate crisis.

 


It is obvious to anyone who gives the issue of keeping stored carbon safe a moment's thought, that we should protect our peatlands from exploitation and degradation. Whilst much less significant in quantity, there are substantial amounts of carbon in Scotland's standing timber, and we should also protect existing woodland to keep this safe.

 

It is understandable that any responsible government will want to approach the fabled 'Net Zero' and it is therefore obvious that politicians will go for any soft or popular option, as most of the ones that might actually make a swift and permanent difference are both hard and unpopular. Scotland has followed the same path as the rest of the UK and gone into promoting tree planting using many millions of pounds of public money.

 

Unfortunately, the process is resulting in a series of environmental catastrophes. This is the result of a sequence of events which were predictable and predicted. Unfortunately the people doing the predicting were the people who lived on and in the countryside and so they have been ignored, as is to be expected. They always are.

 

To make matters worse, the conservation industry has remained silent. Either because they did not want to upset a government that was otherwise doing their bidding or because they saw some financial advantage. Whatever the cause they have made no protest, and the locals remain alone and unsupported, despite the obvious and compelling nature of their case.

 

The sequence of events begins with government setting massive targets for tree planting and providing huge grants to encourage people to plant trees. The forestry industry scents a bonanza and the civil servants start to fret that targets won't be met.

 

There is no doubt that the land which was initially covered by forest is in the fertile Lowlands, but land there is valuable, so the forestry people don't want it and the farmers complain. So attention turns to the uplands, where land is cheaper and there are less annoying locals to make a fuss.

 

That vast swathes of the uplands are naturally treeless and have been for thousands of years is well known and easily demonstrated, but extremely inconvenient. The largely mythical 'Great Wood of Caledon/Caledonian Forest' is wheeled out to show that thousands of years of peat overlying trees that fell over 6,000-8,000 years ago are of less significance than a passing remark by a Roman writer who had never been to Scotland.

 

Why let an obvious reality stand in the way of an arbitrary government target? After all we are fighting climate change, aren't we? We certainly are and what we are doing has elicited not a squeak out of the conservation industry, and even better venture capitalists and polluting multinational companies are queuing up to help, so it must be good.

 

Obviously the vast sums of money that the forestry interests and the green washers are making out of planting these trees, on land where trees haven't grown for millennia, has no effect on their views. When they are shovelling tax payers money into carpet bags they are motivated entirely by what is best for the environment. The money is a side issue.

 

Not only that, the cult of rewilding provides perfect cover. If anyone complains just say you are rewilding. That you have no idea how the landscape evolved into its present beautiful state, or the fact that the trees you are planting originated in Norway or Alaska are not problems. Just say the magic word: 'rewilding', and no journalist in the land will doubt you. You can do what you like and the locals can b*ggar off.

 

Does it matter? Yes, it does. It matters a lot. The peat stored in the moorlands of Scotland, has some slight protection. You can't plant trees if the peat is deeper than 50cm. This gives the game away entirely. This rule would not exist if planting trees didn't damage peat. Everybody knows that it does. That is why deep peat is protected.

 

The damage is caused in several ways. Sometimes deep ploughing is used to break up the impervious subsoil pan that underlies the peat and which caused the conditions that allowed it to form in the first place. Even if that doesn't happen, the peat has to be exposed, and is often mounded, when the tree is planted. This ensures that the exposed peat oxidises, releasing CO2.

 

Whatever the planting and preparation method when the tree starts to grow, it sucks moisture out of the peat, allowing more oxidation and creating more CO2. When the trees have been growing for a few years the canopy closes and lack of sunlight is added to the increased aridity and the peat forming mosses die.

 

Even if the canopy does not close it will take at least 40 years for the tree to store as much carbon as is lost when the ground is disturbed by planting and by subsequent oxidation.

 

The good news is that if the peat is deeper than 50cm none of this is supposed to happen. The bad news is that anything shallower is fair game. Exactly the same things happen. The peat is oxidised. The CO2 is emitted. The peat forming mosses die. From a climate change angle it is a catastrophe: but you can get a grant for it.

 

Why is this madness, when much of the stored carbon is in so-called shallow peat 49cm or less, allowed to continue? Well if you stopped it where would you plant the trees?

 

So to recap. To fight the climate emergency, peat which has been a stable carbon sink for thousands of years is being dug up and destroyed so that trees can be planted which will take forty years to merely compensate for the carbon released as a result of planting them. 


It's supposed to be an emergency. That's like phoning the fire brigade and being told they will be there in 2060. Long before that the trees will have produced a closed canopy and the moss will be dead. If the subsoil pan has been disturbed, the entire peat forming process will be permanently destroyed.

 

It is actually worse than that. Because the whole ecosystem goes. All the open country species, many of which are nationally and internationally rare, go. Hen harriers, short-eared owls and merlins don't live in woods. Curlew, redshank, and lapwing won't even nest by them. If the woodland has a commercial element and much of it has, there may be drainage ditches which speed up the oxidation and there will certainly be stone roads to allow harvesting.


 

But is all fine. It's labelled as rewilding. It's labelled as Green investment. It's saving the planet. It is returning denuded uplands to their natural forested state. It is encouraging ecotourism. It is increasing biodiversity.


No: it's not. It is doing none of these things. It is environmental vandalism funded by the state. It is increasing carbon emmissions. It is trashing ecosystems that arose naturally and have been stable for millennia. It is making the beautiful uplands ugly. It is driving tourists away. It is replacing the rare and precious with something that can be found in degraded landscapes all over the world.

 

It is shameful, and the silence of the conservation industry speaks louder than words.

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