Norwegian Wood: Planned and Unplanned ‘Re-wilding’ in Norway and Scotland

I have just returned from my summer holiday, cycling along the coast of Norway from Kristiansand to Bergen; a beautiful part of the world, which strongly reminded me of many holidays spent in the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland. At least, I say that “it reminded me of Scotland”, less because of its similarity and more due to the fact that I kept on asking myself “Why is Norway so different from Scotland?!”

Of course, there are many similarities – of topography, geology, climate and traditional economies – which one might expect of two regions that are not too far apart, in the wet and temperate, Gulf Stream affected coastal highlands of the north Atlantic. But what struck me as more surprising was just how different the two regions were, particularly since the seemingly more luxuriant in flora and fauna (as well as perhaps the more populous) was the region lying further to the north: Norway. One might expect that the more northern region – more climatically inhospitable, wetter, more mountainous and more isolated – would be the tougher place to live, both for humans and for flora/fauna, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

This isn’t the place to get into the politics of concerted massive regional State spending in a comparatively equal society (just yet!), but it struck me that there was something more going on in Norway, in terms of landscape and ‘natural’ heritage management, than it just being the product of the oil money bonanza. Put simply, while much of the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland are fairly bare of forest, Norway seemed to be almost entirely forested – and without the densely-packed plantations that seemed to be favoured by the old Forestry Commission in the UK.

These questions reminded me of a blogpost I write back in May 2017, about issues of afforestation and ‘rewilding’ in Scotland and on Dartmoor. But, while many ‘rewilding’ debates in the UK tend to revolve around the twin issues of sheep farming and deer stalking, cast as a sort of zero-sum game, coastal areas of Norway seem to have plenty of sheep (mostly with bells around their necks) as well as plenty of forest.

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Typical forested coastline in Norway

While on our cycle tour, we stayed at a mix of ‘cheap’ (by Norwegian standards) hotels, hostels and campsite cabins, many of which had old photos on their walls; showing what their location looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century, before the Second World War, and before the oil bonanza. And the thing that immediately struck me was just how bare the landscapes were – these black and white photographs really did look just like Scotland. In Mandal, we stayed in a hostel that was once the town’s gaol. In their historical notes, I found a reference to how the gaol was planned to be built out of wood, but had to be built in brick due to the scarcity of timber in the region. Really?! … Norway ‘scarce of timber’?!

This was certainly a very different-looking landscape to what we were cycling through today. So, how did the paths of Norway and Scotland diverge so sharply in the later 20th century when it comes to forest cover?

On the face of it – following a few discussions with a professional forester, and some critical reflection on what I know, the following observations seem pertinent:

First: While both regions saw a general depopulation and experienced wholesale emigration in the early 20th century, the nature of this experience, together with the implications for landscape management were different. While it seems that land abandonment in Norway led to afforestation, the emptying of tenanted crofts in Scotland did not lead to a similar expansion of forests. This might be connected to differences of land ownership and tenure – with Scotland (in)famously divided up into huge estates owned by just a few hundred people, and Norway known for its small holding traditions. And/or I might be connected to the power and continued prominence of deer stalking in Scotland, which requires the wide open ‘empty’ spaces that you find in the Scottish Highlands.

Secondly, and connected: while walking and mountaineering pursuits seem to be popular in both regions, it struck us that forests were at the heart of expectations for walkers and backpackers in Norway – while the Scottish Mountaineering Council have (controversially) made a few strong statements about how the ‘empty spaces’ of the Scottish Highlands are what is expected.

Third: while George Monbiot and other rewilding enthusiasts seem to see sheep farming as a root of all evil, we saw a lot of ‘forest sheep’ in Norway. We presumed that the stocking levels and management systems of Norway must be different (?), but it suggests that sheep farming livelihoods and ‘Caledonian forestry’ can go hand-in-hand.

Lastly: we assumed that a wealthy State and strong regional policies were behind the apparent fertility and abundance of the Norwegian experience, but this has some interesting heritage paradoxes – that the experiences of so many marginalised and impoverished people in Norway can be largely forgotten and elided, partly due to the ‘success’ of contemporary landscape management. While we should cherish all that rich biodiversity, we should not forget that this resulted from abandonment and emigration – something that it is difficult to ignore in Scotland.

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Remains of old settlement, Glen Carnoch, Knoydart. Difficult to ignore the human story behind this ’empty’ landscape

 

 

 

Ancient woodlands and woodland memories: dreams of re-wilding, from Dartmoor to Caledonia

While on a field trip to Dartmoor last term, on a cold and windy day, we were all very relieved to be able to shelter in Wistman’s Wood. This is one of my favourite spots on the Moor. People talk about the place being enchanted and mysterious, but I think I like it most because it is always so full of life. … there is always the sound of bird song, even in the middle of Winter; the trees are draped with various mosses and lichens, and even a non-botanist can plainly see how numerous and diverse the plant life is.

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Wiseman’s Wood in Winter

Wistman’s Wood is normally referred to as an ‘ancient woodland’ – a glimpse of what much of Dartmoor might have looked like thousands of years ago; a magical piece our ‘natural heritage’, to be treasured and protected.

The biodiversity of the Woods was brought home to me during one visit I made with a colleague from the University of Minnesota, Professor Jim Perry. Jim is an ecologist, and as we sat down on a patch of nearby empty moorland, he implored me to “Listen!”… We sat and listened… Silence! …

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Dartmoor!

OK; we could hear the occasional skylark, but not much else. As an ecologist, Jim spent about 10 seconds rooting around on the ground before announcing that we were sitting in a desert – very few species; hardly anything able to live here. About 20 minutes later, we were sitting within Wistman’s Wood, and once again, Jim implored me to “Listen!”…

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Wiseman’s Wood in the Summer

A myriad of different vibrant bird song, and a humming buzz of insect life. Jim spent 20 minutes rooting around, counting up the pieces of plant, lichens, moss, beetles, insects and other inhabitants, just within a 5 yard circle from where he was sitting. We couldn’t actually stay there for very long though, since the insects started to bite, and we had to move on.

This is a familiar type of narrative, often repeated by those people who are enthusiasts for ‘re-wilding’ – the supporters of policies that seek to overturn many of the present agricultural practices of management in our upland spaces. Rather than (artificially) maintaining open spaces of moorland expanse, people like George Monbiot would curtail upland grazing by sheep and cattle, so as to encourage the progression of a ‘natural’ process of plant and animal succession towards that of a state of ‘ancient woodland’; rich in biodiversity – to be more like Wistman’s Wood, than an open ‘desert’ moorland landscape.

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Cattle grazing on the open moorland, just west of Princetown

I can see the point that the ‘re-wilding brigade’ are making – particularly when I am sitting in Wistman’s Wood! The re-wilding sentiment seems to have caught the public’s imagination, perhaps in connection to the recent popularity of New Nature Writers. So, I was a little surprised when I read an article in the Guardian, entitled “Scottish climbers and gamekeepers unite to oppose woodland plan” (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/15/scottish-governments-forestry-strategy-called-into-question)

As the article noted, Mountaineers and Gamekeepers rarely see eye to eye. The former are usually diligently interested in issues of open access and the ‘freedom to roam’, while the latter are generally keen to restrict access for the sake of deer stalking and grouse shooting activities. Apparently, though, the Government is keen to increase the amount of forest in Scotland as a climate change measure – but of course, more forests might mean a reduction in open moorland; a distinctive character of Scotland’s upland landscapes. In a joint letter, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland say that they are worried about the threat of forestry to Scotland’s “dramatic open views and vistas”.

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Knoydart, Scotland – ‘characteristic’ open expanse of landscape

As a keen walker and occasional Munro-bagger myself, I can see the point. Indeed, looking back through my hill walking photos, I see that I have numerous examples of “dramatic open vistas’, in Scotland and elsewhere, including Dartmoor.

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A student on my Dartmoor field trip, however, put me on to a Blog, which followed this point up (https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2017/02/16). Entitled “A Curious Row about Trees in Scotland”, the article picked out and developed some further points of clarification from Mountaineering Scotland. Despite the tone of the Guardian article, the Mountaineers and the Gamekeepers were mostly keen to get some clarification on a coherent policy from the Government, and were worried about the potential for the treasured wide-open vistas to be destroyed by commercial coniferous plantations.

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I can certainly see this point, being no fan of dense conifers myself. Whatever one might say about open moorland being a ‘desert’, replacing one green desert with another (slightly darker green) doesn’t make sense. But what intrigued me the most, however, was that in their clarification, Mountaineering Scotland called for the growth of native woodland, and conservation of Scotland’s “iconic Caledonian pine forests”. So, from a discussion of iconic open spaces, to one of iconic Caledonian pine forests. But what is a Caledonian pine forest?

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It always strikes me that the phrase ‘Caledonian pine’ is often misunderstood, and greatly misused; as Christopher Smout of the Scottish Forestry Trust has recently noted “It is often assumed … that Caledonian Forest was composed of Caledonian pinewoods, which is not true at all” (http://www.scottishforestrytrust.org.uk/userfiles/file/projects/p13-243%20inaugural%20rsfs%20annual%20lecture/scots%20pine.pdf)

It turns out that there is no such thing as a “Caledonian pine”, most people – seemingly – confusing and conflating what they think is a ‘Caledonian pine’ with a ‘Scots Pine’, which is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world today. Indeed, as Smout goes on to say, much of the diverse mix of trees, flora and fauna that might be found in a ‘Caledonian forest’ has had a very long history of co-evolution with humans: “to assume, as many environmentalists do, that you can get ‘back to nature’ (i.e. to a time before human influence) by seeking to recreate the world before farming is wrong” – and it might even be that blanket bog and the open moorland country might actually be the natural climax vegetation for much of northern and western Highlands of Scotland.

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So, where does this leave us? A debate about ‘re-wilding’ in several forms – certainly a general conclusion that the ‘wild’ part of ‘re-wilding’ is always an imaginative pretense. There is a strong notion that it is never a good idea to apply a blanket policy in our uplands – either to ‘re-wild’ or not. But also, implicit within these debates is an often-glossed over recognition of human-non-human co-evolution and co-existence.

Somehow, I feel that the re-imposition of a vast ‘Caledonian pine forest’ (comprised of scots pines, and running with wolves, lynxes, beavers and bears) would be an injustice to the memory of numerous generations of human inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland; their lives, experiences and activities. Taking just one (almost?) entirely unpopulated Glen in Knoydart as an example, a cursory examination of a map of Glen Carnoch reveals a multitude of Gaelic place names:

Coire na Gaoithe n’Ear: Corrie of the East Wind

Beinn an Aodainn: Mountain of the Face

Allt Achaddh a’Ghlinne: River of the field of the glen

Bealch na h-Eangair: Pass of the mill

Who once lived in this valley, and who named these features? The Glen is ‘empty’ today, but the names suggest that there was once a mill (probably a simple ‘clach’ mill), and that the side valley once contained a ‘field’. If we carry out a policy of ‘re-wilding’, the memory of the field will be erased. In striving for a ‘Highland Wilderness’ that never existed, the exploits and experiences of real people who once lived in these glens, the descendants of whom are now spread around the world, might be lost forever.

On a more prosaic scale, as much as I always enjoy visiting Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, I would hate for the whole of Dratmoor to be covered by such dense forest, ‘ancient’ or otherwise.