Baselines

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 15/3/20

In dyking and repair, I have time to reflect on this new place and how it might figure for the future. I’m told that it used to be a fine place for wading birds like golden plover and redshank, and grouse came down from the hill to dine on the corn stooks. That vision tickles me for all manner of reasons, but it’s hard to tell how much I should be guided by the past.

Like so many other areas of Galloway, this place is now surrounded on all sides by deep banks of commercial forestry. It is designated a SSSI and will never be planted itself, but many of the changes which have come here in the last half century seem to prove the certain fact that land cannot be considered in isolation. Habitat fragmentation has led to the collapse and loss of many species which used to thrive here, and the dramatic expansion of scrub broadleaf woodland across the land has probably put paid to curlews and redshank in this place – they cannot tolerate a closed horizon, and it’s likely that they will never return.

It’s clear that in conservation terms, Low Airie is underperforming. We have forty years without any management to thank for that, but perhaps it’s unhelpful to measure the current situation against past glories – days of shimmering distance and the cry of curlews. We will never see those days again here, but this place something rather different to offer in its new guise. This is potentially an excellent place for blackgame, and it is extraordinarily popular with raptors. I see hen harriers every time I visit, and short eared owls, merlins and goshawks had added to an ever-growing list of predators doing the rounds. Good grazing and careful management will help an entire range of species here, but it would be misleading to judge success on my ability to turn back the clock to a lost idyll of waders and grouse.

Other parts of this SSSI are much better suited to wading birds, and I do not mean to “turn my back” on a cause I hold very dearly. But the reality is that extensive areas of pristine, untapped moorland no longer exist in Galloway. We have something a little different now, and it makes sense to work with that rather than against it. Rest assured that in areas of Galloway where there is still scope for curlew work, I continue to run towards it – but if I can park historical baselines, Low Airie offers a whole new conservation challenge.

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