David Lintern is woo’ed by the Beinn Eighe woodlands.
This visit to Coille na Glas Letire – ‘the wood of the grey slope’ – was something of a pilgrimage for me; it’s where British Conservation stopped being theoretical and became physical. In 1951, Beinn Eighe and its surrounds became the UK’s first National Nature Reserve. At the start, there was much disagreement and debate about how best to care for the rare and beautiful fragment of Alpine rainforest that sits between Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree – after all, there was no precedent. Over the decades since, a range of scientists, forestry workers and gamekeepers have begun to figure out the best way to allow the forest to recover, with minimal interference. This was harder than anyone involved expected – what should a healthy woodland look like, and how should it be achieved? It wasn’t enough to do nothing – the wood was dying. To hold space for nature meant intervening to restore natural processes where they had been interrupted.
At the head of the walk, we’re told via an information panel that these woods are the remnant of a much older wood stretching back 8,000 years. My hackles rise when I read that as little as 100 years ago, many of the last trees standing were logged for first world war ammo boxes. 300 years earlier, the same forest was apparently used for fuel in smelters, to make cannon. What a terrible shame that we forge the tools of our own destruction at the behest of our ‘betters’. It’s no wonder there was such a need to protect this place.
The half day walk we’re about to embark upon is one of Britain’s only waymarked mountain trails, and in that sense it’s reminiscent of other walks I’ve made – not in the UK, but in the States and Europe. The abundance of trees and pale rock, as well as signposted cairns and even sections of engineered path, help to cement that illusion as well. If you’ll pardon the pun, as a footnote it’s an interesting instruction on earlier models of conservation pathwork – I’m no expert but it’s evident that the best footpath methods have moved on in the UK, and are much less interventionist these days.
Otherwise, and more significantly, it’s a fascinating lesson in how latitude, altitude and geology affect habitat. We ascend through birch almost fluorescing despite the overcast skies, crowberry strewn banks just starting to bud, up past towering pines, and then more still, that grow increasingly twisted and knarled, as height, rock type, temperature and weather take its toll on growth rates. Above us the grey mountains, below us tall trees reaching up for the longer hours of spring daylight to compensate for dark, cold winters – we really are in a land of giants. This place has weight.
The pines slowly thin out, as does the soil. Vegetation, like the relatively rare dwarf juniper, grows closer to the ground to protect itself from the climate. Finally we emerge onto steep white rock. Our journey morphs into a slow and engaging ascent, especially with a 2 year old on my back, and I’m glad of the firm, plentiful handholds. We top out into frigid winds and finally reach the Conservation Cairn, the high point with views in all directions. The Beinn Eighe massif is Tolkeinesque, an intimidating presence. Cloud hangs heavy over vast spoils of exposed Cambrian quartzite scree – today, ‘File Mountain’ looks less like something to hone an edge and more like a grey wizard in the eye of its own shapeshifting, existential storm. It’s moody and moon-like up there, and fearful of freezing our small charge we hang around barely long enough to eat a few bites of a sandwich each before moving on.
The mood, but thankfully not the wind, continues as we pass the lochans on the plateau before lightening as we head down, past an almost vertically sided gorge stuffed with trees in full flourish. This is what happens where greedy grazers cannot reach. With the drab cloud-capped drama of Slioch ahead, it’s a joyful and verdant sight. For all my worry over past human error, nature is abundant, and has the ability to replenish itself when given enough time and space to do so. There’s a fence – not to keep out sheep and deer, but instead to stop us silly humans falling off. It seems incongruous here, in this place which is now so much unto itself, but it reminds me that it only has that sense of self willed purpose because the nation chose to ringfence it as a Reserve in the first place.
Fencing was a key concern for those early conservationists too, the various stakeholders disagreeing strongly over whether to… and if so, just how much and how soon. As Laughton Johnston and Balharry tell it in their book about the history of the woods (Beinn Eighe: The Mountain above the Wood, published by SNH, 2001) the Forestry Commission wanted to replant immediately, whilst ecologists were split between those who wanted to leave completely alone and survey, and those who feared that doing only that would lead to further loss of woodland in the meantime, through aggressive grazing pressure. Time was of the essence; the woods were not naturally regenerating.
As a result, some fencing was established to exclude deer – a compromise which continues in a much smaller way into the present day. Ploughing and selective planting were also tried with varying success, and crucially, deer numbers were brought into line with what the woods could support. Visionary warden Dick Balharry helped set up the first Deer Management Group, at Gairloch, to work with neighbouring estates to control the grazing problem. The Reserve was and still is a crucible for debate, scientific experiment and education about how best to return wild land to full health, in the face of many external pressures. Beinn Eighe is where British conservation learnt its art and craft.
Boundaries. Faced with the fence above the gorge, I’m reminded of a favourite film of mine as an impressionable teen. In the 1972 science fiction eco-parable, ‘Silent Running’, an even-more-haunted-than-usual Bruce Dern plays caretaker Freeman Lowell on a doomed spaceship carrying the last of Earth’s plant and animal life. It’s a flawed, niaive vision and very much of its time, but whenever I see fencing, I can’t help think of Lowell’s desperate task, obsessively caring for the best of our planet in a silo of diminished understanding.
The future is now – there’s a sense in which this Wood of the Grey Slope is Lowell’s eco-dome, a message in a bottle jettisoned into space. It’s a message of both hope and deep concern. We should mind very much, what we cordon off, because walls only admit defeat. Balharry and his team realised that fencing addressed the symptom and not the cause; control the deer numbers, and the need for fencing was greatly reduced. They also grew to understand that fences may protect, but they also imprison and exclude; the deer need the woods for the shelter and food it provides, as much as the woods need the deer for disturbance and seed germination.
It’s a fine balance, and one that the current Reserve Manager, Doug Bartholomew, is more than aware of when we speak on the phone. These days, straight line ploughing has long been replaced by ‘mounding’ and hand planting, and the last of the deer fence is due to be removed in coming years as numbers are more under control. Balharry’s legacy of minimal intervention lives on, but has developed interesting new legs of its own. The conversation has moved far past isolationism – now, the talk is of a wildlife corridor and continuous forest joining up with the nearby Coulin estate.
Back on our early summer walk, we three pass a cairn indicating the Kinlochewe thrust, a faultline where older sandstone was forced by plate techtonics over newer quartzite. It’s why Slioch and Beinn Eighe’s neighbours Meall a’ Ghiuthais and Ruadh-stac Beag are red, and Beinn Eighe is white. The burn has worked on that faultline over millennia to create a gorge sixteen storeys high. We humans could roll into that gorge like lemmings for weeks and still not fill it. But lets not do that! Instead, down we go on the path, over smooth, bare rocks scoured by millennia of glacial erosion, and into the bosom of the forest. We have returned from the moon and the past, to walk the warm green paths of the future. A walk in the Coille na Glas Letire is a concise and remarkable education.