I spent the week before last in the flow country of Caithness and North Sutherland chasing trout in the lochs and lochans that pepper that unique landscape. It is a land of huge skies and vast views fringed by mountains like Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, the Ben Ghriams and Morvern which surround the largest blanket bog system in the world. This huge area of bog is marred only by massive plantations of non-native conifers mostly planted in the 80s and 90s, which in maturity have developed into a sterile and largely lifeless habitat home only to corvids, foxes and deer. The decision to plant spruce and pine across this landscape was encouraged by government policy and tax breaks of the time. It was, as nearly everyone now admits, an ecological disaster and the classic example of ‘the wrong tree, in the wrong place’.
Thankfully someone, namely the RSPB, has taken on the responsibility of righting that wrong and it is more and more common to drive down a forestry track not surrounded by the dark walls of conifers marked on the map, but in open country with views across the flows. Depending on the location the trees have either been removed and the brash and stumps shredded and rolled back into the bog, or where the damage from removing mature timber would have been too great, whole plantations have been felled and smashed back into the bog. The first impact is largely aesthetic as the blot of commercial plantations are removed from the landscape, but in time the very special array of flow country fauna and flora is also returning to these sites.
I was fishing some RSPB lochs in one of these areas on the day Chris Packham and Mark Avery’s petition in support of banning grouse shooting was being debated in Westminster Hall. I knew that our brilliant parliamentary team had briefed MPs and that the debate would be dominated by voices promoting all the many benefits of moorland management for grouse. What really hit me was that as I was surrounded by the remains of a real environmental crime, one or two MPs would be promoting a fictional one by arguing that management for grouse shooting is an ecological disaster. Yet neither they, nor the animal rights groups which briefed them, would ever lift a finger or write a word in opposition to an activity that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of upland habitats. There are, of course, plenty of well designed, well sited commercial forests, but there are also still some being planted on land which has an ecological value far greater than the economic value of the timber they will produce. Where are the petitions and campaigns against such destruction? Where is the celebrity outrage and social media pile ons? They are absent because the campaign against grouse shooting is, of course, about the people who shoot grouse, not the impact of grouse moor management and those who promote that campaign are hypocrites.
A redundant forestry stile in the flow country.