The third cycle and rewilding the Scottish killing fields

Munros since diagnosis #178 and #179

12:30 – Beinn Udlamain (M119), 3314ft, 1010m

14:30 – Sgearnaich Mhor (155), 3251ft, 991m

It was always going to be difficult to find a cluster of three to continue the sequence: one summit at the end of the first cycle; two at the end of the second; etc. The only plausible triples on this side of the Great Glen are the three remaining near Arrochar, the three behind Glen Etive, or any three Mamores. On the other side of the Great Glen, straightforward unclimbed triples are hard to find: any three of the Fannichs, the three at the end of Loch Arkaig or the Kintail Ridge, none of which are particularly accessible or easy  – least of all for somebody half way through chemotherapy. So it was back to Drumochter to fill in the final gaps.

This cycle was the worst yet, but it was also the most optimistic. As I mentioned before, the chemotherapy medication kicked in hard and fast, incapacitating me from the very start. Not long into the cycle though, I discovered that my PSA value had dropped from a very large number to below baseline; a little later I discovered just how large the large number had been, a decline so spectacular that it has made it easier to bear the demons of the night and the effects of systemic poisoning. At the start of the final week, my wife and I had a very positive conversation with my oncologist, who was extremely upbeat, optimistic that this treatment will flush out some of the cancer cells and reduce the tumours, satisfied that my blood chemistry is looking healthy – apart from a drop in red blood cell count, which is most likely an effect of chemotherapy compromising my bone marrow, unlikely to be improved by eating more tomatoes and green leafy vegetables. He also reassured me that tightness in my chest is probably an effect of steroids, rather than of any resurgence of the disease, and gave me permission to carry on gradually weaning myself off the painkillers. Despite all this, despite knowing that the treatment is working and that however dreadful I feel right now, it will pass into something else, that in only a few months my life will open out into another unexpectedly extended future, I have been wracked by demons, overwhelmed by feelings of despair and futility, consumed by crippling doubts, past regrets and fears of financial insecurity.

Martyn, Coll the dog and I walked away from lay-by 79 on the A9 at about 9:45. Attached to the first gate, there was a neatly printed, laminated message from the landowner informing us that this was now the breeding season for “ground nesting birds” and asking that dogs be kept on a lead. Ground nesting birds is a common euphemism for grouse, not all ground nesting birds, just grouse. Martyn told me that his understanding of Scots Law is that dogs must at all times be kept under the close control of their humans, and if any dog is caught by a gamekeeper or landowner worrying animals or threatening stock, then that dog can be shot. It was Martyn’s decision; I know too that Coll does not go for grouse and is very good at coming when called. He chases hare, but he has not a snowball’s chance in hell of ever catching one, so we let him go and know that eventually he will return, panting and smiling from ear to ear with the fun of the chase. At the next gate, there was the same neatly printed and laminated notice. And again on posts along the estate track, which was populated entirely by expectant ewes, none of whom were going to let a little dog anywhere near them. We gave them a wide berth and kept the dog under close control.

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As we walked into the bowl of the glen, grouse feeding stations were neatly dispersed in rows up the hillside on both sides; upturned divots piled above the level of the heather, on top of which were attached by industrial staples, green plastic trays, filled with nutritious grit. We passed by a row of butts, designed carefully to ensure maximum slaughter of birds being driven towards them. Every time a grouse was disturbed by our presence and flew off with its characteristic gurgle, Coll either ignored it, or was brought swiftly back under close control by one of the humans. Before we left the track for the path up the mountain, we saw a large bird circling and wheeling above the glen, sweeping effortlessly over plateaux, crags and bogs, parsing the land for food. Scrutiny through the monocular confirmed it to be a young eagle, long slender wings, tipped with feathered fingers, extended neck, wedge-shaped tail. A splendid sight.

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We had decided that the best plan under today’s weather conditions would be to make an anti-clockwise traverse of these two, least boring Drumochter Munros; with the wind still galloping along from the north, this would mean it would be at our backs for significant periods of the traverse. After following the estate track for about 3km, we found a walker’s path along the crest of a ridge on the west side of a gully coming off the plateau of A’ Mharconaich at the bealach to Beinn Udlamain. As we climbed, Martyn suggested, entirely ironically I am sure, that we bag A’ Mharconaich again first so I could claim three for the day after all. I only took the idea seriously for a second or two. For even after only an hour walking, I was tired. My quads were burning and my chest beginning to tighten. And so I was slow. For elevenses, we sat at about 650m, gazing down over the vast killing fields below, and saw at the beginning of the path, a figure yomping up the hill. I looked through the monocular to see a heavily camouflaged man without rucksack. I could not see any vehicle. Martyn wondered if it might be a gamekeeper. Coll sat obediently waiting for fragments of chicken sandwich, snug in a little nest in the heather, utterly uninterested in any species of ground nesting birds.

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As he approached, it became obvious that this was indeed a gamekeeper. He was polite, personable and professional – although a bit puffed out, having yomped half way up a mountain to remonstrate with the owner(s) of an unleashed dog. Martyn had already put Coll on the lead and explained, when challenged, that he does not chase grouse and is always under close control. I confirmed this casually as if to signify that the young man had nothing to worry about. There was no bad feeling and ordinary conversation ensued. He was keen to tell us he had been watching a pair of young eagles, we said we had seen one from further down the glen, parsing the ground for prey.

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It would be unfair of me further to paraphrase the precise details of these exchanges, for here was a young man conscientious in his work, proud of keeping a good beat, responsible to his employer for a maximum yield, intimately familiar with every inch of the ground in front of us, passionate about the creatures living here, and yet torn by some of the duties the protection of the grouse from predation requires him to perform, clearly repulsed by some of the atrocities he must carry out in the name of protecting so called ground nesting birds. To this extent his opinions on matters of land management are not entirely his own, but paid for by his employer. Suffice it to say that when it came to rewilding, he was not impressed, believing the estates to the east that are pursuing this policy to be in a complete mess, whereupon I cajoled him about being scared of trees. We watched him yomp back down the path to his pickup, which he may or may not have parked deliberately just out of our sight behind a moraine. The rest of the day’s conversation was dominated by the issues this encounter brought up.

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Coll pulled on the lead, giving his master a helping hand until we were beyond the steepest slopes and onto the plateau, out of sight. Here there are no grouse, although plenty other ground nesting birds – ptarmigan, dottrel, golden plover, eagle, raven and peregrine. Above 800m, snow lay still thick in the lee of screes, rocks and tussocks, although the wind had scraped off bald patches on the most featureless and exposed areas. We reached the first summit at about 12:30. It was bitterly cold, even when taking shelter in the lee of the meagre cairn. I put on all of my clothes and gobbled up a flask of hot vegetable soup, which set me up nicely for the rest of the day. The views all around were fantastic, snow garnishing the summits of every peak above 800m – although in the west there was obviously a lot less cover, the Cairngorm plateaux were thick. During the course of the day, the freezing level and snow-line palpably rose.

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As we approached the lowest point between the two summits, we looked down on a high pass furnished in part by a rough track, from the A9 corridor to Rannochside, over a wet south west facing watershed. Here we had a conversation that clarified exactly how I feel about so called land management, about the alleged custodianship over the natural ecology that is used always to justify practices that differ from lowland agricultural techniques only by their obvious similarity to feudal economic relations. We agreed that for many reasons, the way things are done now are anachronistic, unsustainable and in vital need of replacement. Martyn suggested that there needs to be a demonstration that something else will work, maybe the Scottish government would fund a feasibility project he suggested, to which I responded that the status quo always has a monopoly over what is possible. I added that if I were given a budget appropriate to the task, access to a team of project managers, landscape architects and infrastructural engineers, I could create an exemplary corridor here with spaces for communities of millennials, hipsters, free lancers, creatives and adventurers or whoever felt inclined to participate in a new social experiment, which would inevitably attract professions and service facilities in support. This would take rewilding to a new level of sustainability; including human beings it becomes more like repopulation. The climate would not be conducive, Martyn reminded me, but, I said, trees growing back on the hags of the watershed and along the glens would not only alter water cycles, they would probably change the climate. Many other radical interventions would also be necessary as well as a complete change of national perspective, away from dependency towards compassionate self confidence. In any case, people and trees have lived here at such altitudes before now – as evidenced by many sites of ruined sheilings and buried bogwood – and live in much harsher, more challenging environments the world over. Anything must be better than what exists now on these sad, denatured hills, these killing fields denuded of trees, by grazing red deer preventing regenerating forests and ensuring that the maximum number of grouse can be bred amongst the heather, thereby providing moving targets for the bloodlust of the wealthy and income for the estates. Martyn suspected that if nobody were watching, the gamekeeper would shoot the eagle we had seen. I had my doubts, but conceded his point, that the purpose of this estate is to ensure a maximum yield of grouse, which perforce requires destruction of predators and removal of any other factors likely to reduce this – like trees that give cover for predators and discourage the proliferation of the heather upon which grouse are dependent, like stoat who eat their eggs, and like hare who allegedly (very allegedly!) spread a disease to which grouse are susceptible.

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After a gentle rise from the bealach onto the south shoulder where we encountered a pair of golden plovers playing around in the air above, and thereafter quite a lot of traipsing through deep banks of soft snow, we reached the second summit about two hours after reaching the first. A raven was foraging just at the edge of the plateau and flew off with its mate as we arrived. Again the views were fantastic and again it was bitterly cold, so we tarried only long enough to eat and admire the views. It was so clear we thought we could see one of the Lomond Hills far, far away on the horizon to the south east, but no camera was able to capture it.

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It was an uneventful descent. After we were out of the snow and back into the heather, we picked up a boggy ATV track, scarred into the hillside, and slithered down to the estate track. We were back at the car just after four thirty, taking the total time for the outing to less than seven hours, which is not bad considering. I was extremely tired and a little stiff, but exhilarated, invigorated, my capacities recharged and my mind set somewhat at ease, knowing that these mountains will always be here and that their ecology is changing. For the greater the number of estates that adopt a policy of rewilding, the greater the pressure put on those estates still dependent for financial survival on denatured ground and breeding game. It is noteworthy perhaps that estates with the former commitment are predominately in the hands of new Scandinavian or Germanic capitalists, who have a completely different understanding of the concept of custodianship from that which permeates the consciousness of Scotland’s aristocratic capitalists, who have been deluded by assorted versions of the trickle down theory of wealth, in which the rest of us become rich by allowing landowners to exploit the labour of the landless and to squeeze as much as technically possible from this difficult land and the creatures who live here.

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There is no doubt in my mind that the deepest, most ingrained, motivation of those who own land purely in order to kill the creatures who live there derives from a kind of toxic masculinity; that this is what they enjoy doing, that they either like killing things or are prepared to suspend any revulsion in order to make a profit. The usual justifications for this blood lust make reference to managing the land for the collective good, to the duties of custodianship and the importance of providing employment in economically challenging locations during difficult times. The land has to be managed, they keep telling us, in order both to protect native species and ecosystems and to support the tradition of field sports. The law moreover exists to bury this glaring contradiction, to facilitate the destruction of non protected predators and to prevent others from standing in the way of this. In practice, it is also very likely that when protected predatory species of animal or bird are destroyed, no evidence at all will ever be found connecting any particular individual to a particular crime. There is a natural order here, with the master in the big house taking important decisions and the rest of us out of sight, unimportant and powerless, offered only the right to roam a land once able to support a culture that cared for its ecology without denaturing it with intensive cultivation of non native trees and over breeding of sheep, grouse and deer. We are only left to wander the land, wondering what plethora of life would emerge if there were trees again and scrubland instead of empty barren heather.

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Thanks as always to Martyn and Coll for good company, photographs and a lift. Apologies too for snoring and dribbling on the drive home. We are definitely not aiming for four summits the end of the fourth cycle …. well, unless of course by some miracle, this cycle turns out to be less challenging for both body and mind, and I feel up to it.

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Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

One thought on “The third cycle and rewilding the Scottish killing fields”

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