Speaking of Moorland

A view across Grobdale – a classic Galloway moorscape

In writing about the conflict between moorland and forestry in Galloway, it was interesting to see how people reacted to the idea of woodland expansion.

Moorland is often described as “wasted land”; places which have been ruined by agriculture or fieldsports. As controversy around grouse shooting has swelled into a tempest, many have begun to view moorland as something broken, synthetic and brutalized. When I wrote to explain that I was devastated by the coming loss of moorland in Galloway, several readers reckoned that this could only be a good thing. “Bring on the trees”, they seemed to say.

The reality is that the word “moorland” covers too much variety to be useful. Crucially, it’s not all about grouse shooting or sheep farming but a whole host of industries and interests which span the gap from Land’s End to Shetland. Depending on where you go, moorland looks and feels completely different. I daresay hill farmers in Derbyshire would hate the landscape I love in Galloway – but to be frank, you couldn’t pay me to work in the Peak District. And while I’ve enjoyed several trips to Bodmin, I refuse to believe it’s a moor at all.

I’ve been on every fair-sized area of moorland in the UK over the last decade, and I’ve found few unifying threads which bind them together. Powys is grand, but it’s too soft for my liking; you can do worse than Coverdale, but get over to the Isle of Man for a different take. Before long, you’ll be standing at Rannoch, thinking about Okehampton and feeling like you’ve hardly begun to understand what moorland really is. It’s become fashionable to deride moorland for the spectre of raptor persecution and “sheep-wrecked” desertification – but as soon as you look under the surface, it becomes clear that these landscapes are complex, varied and often extremely valuable.

Since there are different moors in different places, my fears for the future take me back to Galloway and the kind of landscape which we call moorland in southwest Scotland. There’s no real grouse shooting here. It’s too wet to grow good heather, and dull drains have meant that classic moorland vegetation is usually on the back foot. A friend once came to visit and summarized what he saw by saying “it’s just grass and nothing for miles”. That’s a fair précis from a city boy, but it overlooks the fact that the devil’s in the detail.

It’s true that we turn out thousands of acres of white grass, but part the tussocks and find a wealth of value and intrigue at ankle-height. For a start, there’s more precious peat in Galloway than almost anywhere else in the UK mainland. Properly grazed, our moors are soft and soggy and filled with blaeberry and cranberry and crowberry – we’ve got sundews and bogbeans; myrtle in the ditches and moss in quivering mats where even waders fear to tread. And there’s hawthorn scrub and downy birches up the dykebacks; alders in the cleughs and a million orchids in the burn springs.

Realising that Galloway turns out a terrific amount of grass, our ancestors invented the ultimate cow and kickstarted an extraordinarily productive virtuous cycle of cattle, conservation and agriculture. In living their lives on the moors, folk in Galloway built themselves a world of their own legend and tradition. Perhaps you’ve never heard of us, but our moorlands have been home to giants and cannibals, martyrs and smugglers for a thousand years. This is our world; a human landscape which goes to the root of who we are as a tough, doughty web of communities in a damn fine place.

Galloway is far removed from that sneeringly distorted vision of moorland expressed in the popular press – this is not a scorched “industrial” moonscape of range rovers and raptors slain for the hell of it – this is a place of extraordinary cultural and natural value. We’ve taken a battering over the last half century thanks to the Common Agricultual Policy and the first generation of forest expansion, but Galloway can still break your heart with beauty. If I play my cards right, I’ll be proud to go under the sod here and be part of it someday.

It’s hard to pick an emblem for Galloway moorlands. A blackcock is a fair bet, but you’d be hard pressed to choose him above a hen harrier or a bog owl. Maybe you’d pick a curlew to capture the mood in the wide blue hills, or the glimpse of an old billy goat traipsing down his lonely line. But perhaps you wouldn’t choose any of these things, because most have gone in the last few decades and none of them will prosper in the next phase of commercial forestry planting in Galloway.

I’m deeply stricken by the way this landscape has been treated. And how devastating to realize that the very word “moorland” now seems to imply something wrong which must be corrected. It’s easy for politicians to delete a place that most people never knew or loved, but the die appears to be cast; vast areas of Galloway will soon be ploughed for softwood trees in order to produce commodities like chip and pulp. Perhaps in a sprint to reinvent our moorland places, we should remember that some of them have a great deal to offer as they are.

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