Trees, Harriers and Growing Pressure

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Wintering birds do well in Galloway (for now…)

It’s been interesting to look back through some old photographs in Derek Ratcliffe’s brilliant book Galloway and the Borders from the New Naturalist series. Some of the NN books are overpowered with scientific data, but this one is a beautifully readable account of the Southern Uplands since the late 1950s. It has a heavy preponderance towards the west, and the book follows the author through a time of tremendous upheaval for Wigtownshire and the Stewartry of  Kirkcudbright. The new forests were being planted, and the wide moors were vanishing beneath sharp curtains of commercial spruce trees. Almost three quarters of our rough grazing and heather moors have been planted since 1945, and I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit some of the places which were photographed in the ’60s and ’70s to see them as they are now.

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The Clints of Dromore in 1960 (top) and on Sunday

A good example is the railway line at Dromore above Gatehouse of Fleet. This was the film location for part of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version of The 39 Steps, and it was photographed by Derek Ratcliffe in 1960. Fast forward half a century and the open lands are broken up with bands of dark trees. The few fragmented remains of open ground are rank and patchy, and it’s interesting to see how heather has been almost totally replaced by molinia grass at the foot of the Clints. There are a few possible causes for this, from climate change (wetter weather) to heather beetle and overgrazing, but it’s more likely to be a combination of multiple factors, made clearer by the fact that heather remains on the drier, less accessible cliff tops. (It also happens that this is a National Nature Reserve managed by SNH, and that makes the situation too complex to unpick in a quick blog article).

Either way, the view towards the Clints has been turned on its head and we can hardly expect wildlife to ignore that change. Curlews and golden plovers have now gone, and black grouse are so scarce as to be almost absent. The once abundant mountain hares are missing, lapwings are just a memory and even the talismanic peregrines are thin on the ground. The area beyond the Clints was protected from forestry to preserve the eagles which nested on the steep cliffs of Cairnsmore of Fleet. They’ve been gone for almost twenty years. It’s easy to look back on “the bad old days” of commercial forestry and complain about old injuries. Farmers have also played a part in this collapse, but we should be realistic about their significance given that farming has been a minority land use in the Galloway uplands for the last few decades.

I should be pragmatic and try and work with the landscape we have now, but the truth is that after a brief hiatus of forest activity, rough ground is again being planted with commercial spruce trees. It’s an ongoing injury, and as foresters home in on the final Galloway moorlands, it’s hard to see where this process will end. The last few fragments stand on the brink of extinction, and the value of rough land is steadily creeping up as foresters fight for the scraps. Hill farmers have always skimmed their profits from otherwise poor and unprofitable land, and there’s a certain irony in the fact that as I’m looking to build a hill farm and buy some rough ground, I suddenly can’t afford it.

There’s a lonely, beautiful streak of rough country above our farm. I go there because it’s one of the most reliable places to see hen harriers and short eared owls in this part of the county, but now I hear that it’s been sold and will be planted with trees this summer. I wonder what will become of the birds which hunt there during the winter, and already I hear the shrugged reply; “they’ll just go somewhere else”.

We’ve lost our entire breeding population of hen harriers in Galloway over the last forty years. These birds were resurging from historical persecution, and they drew birdwatchers like Derek Ratcliffe and Donald Watson to live here and make them famous. The new trees have seen our harriers off with more permanence and finality than any gamekeeper or grouse moor. Gamekeepers get the blame for destroying harriers, and some conservationists say that the birds are being persecuted into extinction. Persecution is clearly a factor in some areas, but we can’t ignore the fact that we’ve lost huge areas of potential harrier habitat to commercial woodland. We like having gamekeepers to blame, but the truth is a little closer to home. We’re all living on a small and very busy island, and as industries compete for the countryside, there’s an ever decreasing amount of space for specialised hill birds. Petitions are being circulated to ban grouse shooting and “save” the hen harrier, but these are disturbingly simplistic campaigns which totally overlook the subtleties of a very complex bird.

Having swept away our breeding harriers, we could easily lose our wintering birds too. In a good year for voles, hen harriers are the most common raptors I see on the hill and the farmland below it. They’ll plant that hill above the farm and the harriers will go elsewhere, but we’re now approaching a time when there’s nowhere else to go.

One thought on “Trees, Harriers and Growing Pressure

  1. This post should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares for our uplands whatever there outlook ,Its not just Galloway , its happening all over the UK and Ireland . While “celebrity” conservationists rail against driven grouse shooting the real battle is being lost as Patrick has pointed out here, whether it is commercial forestry , uplands that are just green sward of rye grass broken up by lines of fencing , or politicians, on going love affair with renewable energy, where the only game in town is on shore wind farms. Our uplands outside national parks are being caught in a pincer movement from those who care not a jot for wild or semi wild places and its incumbent wildlife, their is only beauty in a healthy financial report, and to hell with the hunting grounds of hen harrier or nesting site of Curlew, As pointed out here .

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