In the late noughties I acquired a rather neglected, 1,200 acre, mountain stock farm above the north east banks of the Clyde.
Then, in 2011, with the input of Scottish Woodlands, I began planting what, by the end of the following year, totalled something around a million trees. On the lower levels were hardwoods for amenity woodland and, on the upper reaches, something over 800,000 Sitka spruce. Encouraged by strong Scottish government incentives to grow timber as future chipping supplies for power stations or other industrial demands, we accept we will never see it reach harvest!
It has been an extremely interesting project. We were encouraged to jump through all the hoops demanded by the myriad expensive layers of environmental bureaucracy. Soil surveys, water surveys, plant surveys, bird and otter surveys. In so doing we learned a lot about the land and, most interestingly, the high level to which past owners in the last 200 years must have valued it.
In ploughing tree ridges and building the mile plus long timber extraction route (for removing timber at harvest) the workings exposed two inch clay drains every 25 yards or so across the often forbiddingly steep slopes. As I reported a year or so back, they were dug in between three and six feet deep, which must have been the life’s work of generations of locals.
Obviously laid by hand, when exposed most were still running well. It seemed astounding the former owners were prepared to spend all that money and time draining hilly grassland and rough tor. In the oldest records I’ve seen it was a dairy farm 80 years back, running Ayrshire cattle but more recently a low input sheep unit.
Now it is an increasingly wooded forest, with swathes of high peaty moorland, designed around wildlife, intermingling with big areas of fast growing Sitka. The north west of Scotland, despite its outstanding beauty, also has some pretty unsocial weather. It seems to rain almost every day, the rain clouds crowding in off the Gulf Stream warmed seas, encouraging phenomenal plant growth of up to three feet annually.
The hardwoods are clearly a sop to the conservationists, in as much as they appear to be planted without any obvious thought of end value. The scope of official imagination seems to be to let them grow until they die and leave birds and insects to devour the remains. My traditional farmer’s instincts say we should soon contract a full time forester (or two) for thinning, coppicing, logging and replanting. Rounding the circle but unfortunately this isn’t how officialdom thinks, so potentially all this hardwood becomes dead woodlands in 200 years time. Mostly horizontal! From our point of view we are expected to accept this state of neglect in exchange for the grants but it is not nearly as satisfying as it would be if we could adapt the rules and bring the land back to life – logs, charcoal, men back working in those wild surroundings, winter woodsmoke curling up above the mountainsides and burns.
To create local employment and additionally bring some existing old woodlands of around 60 acres within the new planted hardwoods back to life would be more attractive I think.
Some people think in strange ways when such ideas are suggested. It seems to flash up visions of exploitation, cheap labour, absentee landlords, and horror – profits! There do seem to be plenty of chips around already but many, unfortunately, on quite obstructive shoulders.
The main reason we were planning to go up was to meet some influential locals to try to persuade them this was a better way forward. Alas, unfortunately a good friend died in early September and his funeral, in Chichester Cathedral, was arranged for the day we had planned our meeting, so we had to cancel and still haven’t been up.
Freedom to roam is long established north of the border and people feel free to use, and even open, routes at will. As part of the plans/grant structure agreed for the forestry, we have supported the building of lengths of what is now called the Three Lochs Way, some 35 miles long, with timber walkways and tracks up, down and across the hillsides. From the top, at some 970 feet, we look northwards down on Loch Lomond and the views of the Clyde and Trossachs are stunning.
However some of the locals still find this inadequate and so cut new deer fences to claim their rights, going through fenced tree enclosures and even adjoining private property to save a few yards off their chosen journey. They then expect us to install stiles or gates, while they select yet another route! Maybe they are no more or less antagonistic to the owners of land than are their fellows down here in the south. They just seem more truculent! Guess they supported the Yes vote in the recent referendum!
The whole mountainside has been transformed over the past four seasons and, looking from across the Clyde near Dunoon, the trees are just starting to look like a real forest. One undoubted benefit of moving from block planting to this more landscaped approach is that bird life is given a wonderful free fly area with open spaces of grass, heather, bracken and gorse over which to hunt and live. Donald, who stewards the ground for us, reports healthy numbers of black grouse, hen harriers, barn 0wls, long and short eared owls, curlew and oystercatchers – and no otters.
Finally, it is interesting to see ex West Sussex dairyman, Gwyn Jones, is finally making excellent money out of dairying. He’s been appointed Dairy Co chairman and paid from our levies. Does it mean we farmers will soon be offered bargain courses in gentlemens hairdressing?