In 2014, I was invited to an open meeting of the Galloway Fisheries Trust to find out more about their work. As it happened, I ended up getting my dates in muddle and arrived for the meeting precisely a week after it had taken place. The hotel staff were very polite, but I can’t help thinking they had a word or two to say about me as I wandered back out of the door. With commendable patience on the GFT’s part, I was invited to the meeting again this year and made a point of marking down the precise details and double checking them several times.
The meeting was fascinating, with a series of presentations made to explain what the Trust has been doing over the past year. The topics of discussion covered everything from the control of invasive non-native species like crayfish, himalayan balsam and giant hogweed to peatland management and its effect on water quality, and it was fascinating to hear these well-known national issues being tied in to familiar local places. The meeting opened up all kinds of new lines of enquiry, and I was keen to follow up the day by providing some hands-on volunteer support on the Trust’s many and varied projects.
Sure enough, Friday morning found me driving up above the Gatehouse viaduct and into the deep forestry below Loch Fleet, where extensive commercial planting has changed the landscape beyond all recognition over the past half century. Readers of this blog will remember my wholesale antipathy to commercial afforestation, particularly when it comes at the expense of heather moorland and hill country.
As it happens, spruce trees have had a similarly devastating effect on fish ecosystems as on blackgame and wader habitats, and when the trees aren’t trickling acidic litter into the water to kill invertebrates, the associated drainage systems help to oxidise the peat and create dark water discolouration to the widespread detriment of fish and insects alike. The problems associated with plantations are complex and far-reaching, but it hardly takes a rocket scientist to see that when you totally industrialise an entire semi-natural landscape within the space of a few years, there will be massive and extremely abrupt consequences.
We spent the day planting broadleaf trees in the beautiful sunshine along the banks of the Little Water of Fleet, not only to shade the water and keep it cool, but also to provide habitat for insects and create a buffer between the commercial woodland and the running water. The Fleet was once known as a prime spot for sea trout, and while waterfalls prevent migratory fish from coming this far up the river, the Little Water is an important habitat for brown trout and eels. It was startling to see just how close to the banks spruce trees were planted during the “bad old days” of commercial forestry, and sometimes there were stumps within six feet of the tumbling burn. Before the spruces were clear-felled, the boughs reached right across the river and shaded it out altogether, and there was no way that any life was going to thrive in the gloomy monoculture of half-darkness and acidity.
While these plantations will be re-stocked with new trees, modern (and more enlightened) planting techniques will mean that there will be a wide buffer-zone between the main plantations and the river, and this margin is important for river life. It was an excellent chance to spend time in parts of Galloway that I would never otherwise have seen, and my eye kept wandering to the snow-flecked horizon of Cairnsmore of Fleet on the offchance of seeing some hawk or falcon passing overhead. While the chaffinches kept up a constant torrent of noise and the wrens bawled below them, there were only a few kestrels to be seen in this far-flung corner of the hills. Back in the days when this was all open moorland, there would certainly have been the cheering bubble of blackgame on such a bright March day, but the nearest birds are probably now a mile or two away.
It was an excellent day to be out and about, and I certainly look forward to lending a hand on another day. There is little altruism involved with volunteering of this kind – I certainly concede that helping to conserve and protect the river was a driving incentive of the day, but there was little in the way of hardship and the beautiful weather was its own repayment.