The Angry Corrie 11: Feb-Mar 1993
A day with the bleating goat (or We ain't gonna walk from Meagaidh's Farm no more...)
Of all the corries of Scotland, none is angrier than Coire Ardair of Creag Meagaidh on a wild winter's day. Fortunately this experience is available to all throughout the year as the area is a National Nature Reserve formerly under the care of the NCC but now part of Scottish National Heritage. As part of this new body's policy of greater communication with the public it serves, an open day was held on the reserve in September. A mixed bag of folk therefore gathered at Aberarder on a bright blustery morning to see what was on offer.
First off was a talk on the history of the area and the reserve. In common with much of the Highlands, the current appearance of desolate emptiness is a relatively recent phenomenon, as witnessed by the number of remains of long abandoned communities visible to the careful eye. Small self-sufficient townships clustered at the burnside sheltered by woodlands. Strips of land were drained and cultivated and fishing, hunting and grazing on the open hillside were available to all. With the crushing of the Jacobite rebellions, all of this changed rapidly as 'Chiefs' gave way to 'Owners' who flooded the area with 'profitable' sheep displacing people and trees. (Surely 'bastard' sheep? - Ed) In Victorian times, sheep gave way to deer and grouse and many native species of animal and bird were persecuted to near extinction. By the early years of this century, the area was as devoid of people, trees and wildlife as it had been since the last Ice Age. Finally the threat of extensive commercial monoculture forestry in the early 1980s prompted the NCC to purchase the area as the only surviving example in the locality of a hillside where it was still possible to go from loch to summit on what was left of the natural soil and vegetation.
So what are SNH aiming to achieve now? Basically, we were told, they wish to try and reverse some of these trends by enriching the flora and fauna and opening up the area to people again. The main method of achieving the former is to reduce the number of deer, which they have done by a combination of stalking and humane trapping which avoids the need for expensive and unsightly fences. This has already, in the six years of the reserve's history, led to considerable early regeneration of native tree species. In the fullness of time, this could lead to a return of other species living in the shelter of the trees. The reserve staff were keen to point out that this would include the deer themselves, which would be larger and healthier in what is, after all, their natural habitat. Deer and trees co-exist very well if the trees are just given an initial chance to get going.
As far as opening up the area to people again, SNH aim to encourage sensitive appreciation. They want people to come and enjoy all that the reserve has to offer without damaging it unduly. Interestingly they, unlike most private estates, find it perfectly possible to cull deer without having to restrict public access. Discrete interpretation boards have been provided at the start of the Coire Ardair track and much needed erosion-proof path repairs have been carried out.
By this time the sun had emerged from behind the latest shower cloud, so it was time to go walkabout. We were taken a couple of miles up the main Coire Ardair path and back via the burn itself. With perfect timing, a golden eagle appeared closely followed by a peregrine falcon. Down among the trees a roe deer streaked off to a safe distance before stopping to have a look at us. There was an abundance of sapling trees testifying to the success of the policy so far, although sadly there was still evidence of significant grazing damage, mostly from sheep straying in from neighbouring estates. The path improvements (a mixture of railway sleepers laid across bog sections and more traditional repair techniques on steeper sections) certainly made the going easier whilst protecting the land from further degradation by the patter of booted feet. Although one may regret the artificiality of such measures, they are certainly less intrusive than widely eroded hill tracks and are probably the only long-term solution for the more popular hill access routes.
Back at Aberarder, the day wound up with a question-and-answer discussion session. Whilst very useful, it was obvious that they were largely preaching to the already converted. However, one venerable local stalker, whilst sympathetic to the general aims of the place, was obviously horrified at any suggestion of a reduction in deer numbers throughout Scotland. SNH answered by pointing out that thirty years ago, when deer numbers nationally were half that of today, the total taken by stalking was the same. Even assuming that the long-term future lies with commercial stalking, this would not necessarily be adversely affected by drastic cuts in the deer population.
I left feeling much heartened by what I'd seen and heard, but also with a lurking sense of unease. There is a steadily growing body of opinion across the spectrum in Scotland that the Highlands could and should be a very different place. A place where the injustices and exploitations of old could start to be reversed. A place where people and trees start to return to the land and make it once more productive in a sustainable way. Creag Meagaidh NNR is already beginning to demonstrate in a small way the practical possibility of this vision. Given time, it could become much bigger. On a wider scale a regenerated Highlands of this type could act as a demonstration to Western Man of the new ways he must adapt before he extinguishes himself by raping his environment.
My lurking unease came from a sense of the powerful forces not far in the background that will challenge this progress. SNH's political masters are the Tories. Their neighbours at Creag Meagaidh are private landowners and large business corporations. The SNH officials at the open day were careful to avoid expressing any ideas too radical, and kept stressing the importance of good relations with their neighbours. Yet it is these same neighbours' sheep that are causing some of the biggest problems. When various of the day's visitors opined that they should be prepared to get tougher over the sheep question, they appeared grateful to be getting public support for such a confrontational approach if found necessary. Although unspoken, one got the impression of a bunch of dedicated people with many worthy radical ideas having to tread very warily in a very hostile world. SNH deserve our strong and vocal support if they are to withstand the establishment forces which will seek to water down and emasculate their message in order to preserve the status quo. The bleating of that goat (Creag Meagaidh is a corruption of the Gaelic for 'crag of the bleating goat') needs to be vigorously echoed by all of us in the years ahead.