Re-imagining Lochaber’s uplands

Dr Jon Mercer, who says improving local biodiversity and our bio-economy is a 'no-brainer'. NO F31 Jon Mercer
Dr Jon Mercer, who says improving local biodiversity and our bio-economy is a 'no-brainer'. NO F31 Jon Mercer

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By Dr Jon Mercer of Glenloy Wildlife

Step outside your door and gaze about you. What do you see? Wherever you look in Lochaber, we are surrounded by magnificent upland scenery.

Here is the dilemma. What we take for granted as the normal state of things is an artificial construct, a managed environment created by man.

The lower slopes of the mountains, together with smaller hillsides, should have been scattered with trees, forming a leafy mosaic of habitats including woodlands, grassy, herb-rich meadows and flourishing wetlands.

The Highlands look like they do today because the trees were felled, mostly after the Jacobite rebellion only 250 years ago, and replaced by sheep and deer, whilst the land was simultaneously cleared of the people who lived and worked there.

It cannot escape anyone’s attention we are facing unprecedented global threats in terms of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, both of which are closely entwined. Prime habitats in terms of soil, grasslands, peat bogs and woodlands all store atmospheric carbon and contribute to the reduction in global warming. All of these habitats support a wealth of animal and plant life.

In Lochaber, where perhaps 80 per cent of the land can be classed as upland, this comprises an area of around 4,000 km sq. At present our bare hills actually release carbon as peat erodes or is still inappropriately planted with conifers.

This loss accounts for 113Kt CO 2 e – kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – emissions per year, making a significant contribution to global warming.

If we were to restore only a quarter of our uplands to woodland and active peat bog – a gain of 50,000ha of each habitat – this would be estimated to store as much as 202Kt CO 2 e per year.

On a per person basis, this would more than compensate for the whole of the annual CO2 emissions of the population of Lochaber, of around 145Kt CO 2 e per year. It would also provide wonderful opportunities for biodiversity and our upland economy.

There are many views of how the Lochaber uplands might look in the future; the following is only one possible scenario:

In 50 years, we will live in an area where upland habitats will have been restored. This will have taken place at a sufficient landscape scale to provide the benefits in carbon capture already detailed.

The lower slopes of our hills will be covered by a mixture of native woodlands, mixed
species forestry plantations, upland grasslands, active peat bogs and restored riparian habitats.

A transition zone with mountain willows and dwarf trees will buffer the more productive woodland from the higher slopes, with the latter covered in a healthy layer of dwarf shrub heaths such as heather and blaeberry.

To achieve this, there will be fewer deer, but the stags that remain will be larger and have better antlers. Cattle will have been restored to the hills, in carefully
controlled numbers, and those sheep that remain will be traditionally managed to prevent over-grazing, providing quality meat to be sold at a premium. Neither deer nor livestock will be at a density that prevents regeneration of vegetation.

Wildlife will be flourishing with a greater number and diversity of birds and mammals, whilst the fortunes of pollinating insects and the flowers on which they depend will have dramatically improved.

In a more wooded and biodiverse landscape there will be plenty scope for new jobs and room for more people. There will still be a place for traditional agriculture, forestry and stalking, albeit with slight modifications.

There will be greater opportunities for agri-forestry, the establishment of woodland crofts and a proliferation of jobs relating to the harvesting and use of
timber and other products, such as wild berries and fungi, from mixed and broadleaf woodlands. Green energy will be important, as will supply of water and carbon storage and offset schemes.

Tourism, particularly eco-tourism, will have increased significantly, along with the services needed to support them. New communities will have become established, housed in carbon neutral buildings alongside new factories and businesses manufacturing environmentally friendly products, set in wooded surroundings.

Much is already happening in the hills. New community and estate hydro-electric schemes are being built, significant work is being carried out to restore peatlands, ancient woodlands are being revitalised and new woodlands planted.

There are several projects currently on the go including the Saving Morvern’s Rainforest project, the Nevis Landscape Partnership and a co-ordinated approach to restore and increase some of last remaining pinewoods in Lochaber, including Arkaig Forest, currently managed by the Woodland Trust and Arkaig Community Forest.

Looking towards Glen Dessary Estate from the head of Loch Arkaig.
Looking towards Glen Dessary Estate from the head of Loch Arkaig.
F31 Loch Arkaig view towards Glen Dessary Estate 2ME

There is room for a step change, however, to increase the scale of these developments. This is possible given the size and ambition of many of the large estates that dominate the Lochaber landscape.

Certainly, this will take political will as well a change in thinking. Changes of this magnitude will also only take place if there is support from the community.

Different people will have their own opinions on how our uplands should look but improving local biodiversity and our bio-economy is a no-brainer.

Please feel free to let your local councillors, MSP and MP how you feel on these issues
and do your own little bit to save the planet.

CAPTION:

Dr Jon Mercer, who says improving local biodiversity and the bio-economy is a ‘no-brainer’. NO F31 Jon Mercer

 

Extra pic:

Looking towards Glen Dessary Estate from the head of Loch Arkaig.

F31 Loch Arkaig view towards Glen Dessary Estate 2ME