Life in the High Hills

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Beautiful but doomed in Galloway

It’s worth recording that I found a good number of golden plover on the summit plateau of the Merrick when I climbed that mighty hill last week. The little black-bellied birds rose up and rushed away to the West, leaving nothing more than a mournful “peep” in their wake.

This ground is very similar to many of the best sites I know for breeding golden plover in Pertshire and Aberdeenshire, and I was disappointed to see that none of these birds had any nests, chicks or youngsters in tow. To be honest, I didn’t expect them to – despite its high altitude, this is sheep farming country par-excellence, and the hill bears some obvious scars of over-grazing. Despite the grazing pressure, I was still impressed with the diversity of plant species I came across (including dwarf willow and mountain thyme), but there is no question that the hill is a little threadbare and tatty around the edges. A shortage of secure nesting sites may tip the balance when it comes to breeding golden plover, but the sheep bring an additional challenge for ground-nesting birds.

I saw some large gatherings of ravens on the high ground – some numbering into their twenties and thirties. These birds are clearly buoyed by the quantity of carrion available to them, and from one vantage point above the Fang of the Merrick, I could the remains of five dead sheep, three of which were being actively stripped by the great black birds. Plover eggs and chicks are extremely vulnerable to ravens, so it is no surprise that they should no longer breed in this high and lonely place. On one Perthshire estate I visited, the mass arrival of ravens had totally cleaned out first the ptarmigan and then the golden plover. Ravens themselves were not specifically to blame, but they were the mechanism by which over-grazed and degraded habitat manifested itself.

This walk begged several questions and ideas, and despite turning them over in my head for hours and days afterwards, I still don’t know where I stand. Most land management decisions require a trade-off or a balance, and I wondered if we are getting the best value for our money by grazing sensitive alpine habitats with sheep. It’s hard to say what impact the livestock are having without in-depth surveys, but the amount of dead sheep (and sick sheep I’ve seen before, suffering from yellowses) prove that this is not natural farming country and doesn’t make for an easy ride for the shepherd.

As you approach the summit of Benyellary on the approach to the Merrick, a large fenced-off enclosure is home to an interesting native woodland project by the Cree Valley Community Woodlands Trust. Rare and locally endangered alpine plants have been restored to the hill, and this provides a wonderful antidote to all the wrong-headed, ignorant planting schemes I’ve seen in Galloway over the past ten years. I was fascinated to see sprigs of downy willow showing through the resurgent undergrowth, and the progress since my last visit in the autumn was obvious.

High altitude places require a delicate touch and a unique approach. It’s hard to justify paying farmers to keep sheep in places where they struggle to survive – it may have been a viable model a Century ago when the man-power was available to provide pro-active care, but it simply feels wasteful and stubborn now. It would be fascinating to see the hill-tops restored to their ancient glory, complete with a natural tree line and a full spread of alpine species.

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Downy willow on Benyellary

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