Time to end the selfish greed of the Victorian era

Cameron McNeish wrote this tribute before the sad news of Dick Balharry’s death, aged 77.

viewpointI’M writing this article as both a tribute to a close friend who is suffering from terminal cancer and as a rallying call to Scotland’s conservationists, land managers and countryside users to force change in the way we manage Scotland’s wild land.

I first met naturalist Dick Balharry in the late seventies when he was the local officer of the Nature Conservancy Council in Aviemore and I was the warden of the local Youth Hostel and a volunteer warden at Craigellachie National Nature Reserve.

In the years to come I came to know Dick and his family well – he and his wife Adeline are neighbours in Newtonmore; we have made television and radio programmes together; I was his Vice Chairman when he chaired the local woodland community group and for a short time I served as a Trustee of the John Muir Trust when Dick was Chairman.

But more important than any of that was the fact that Dick has been for many years a good friend and confidente – I trusted his judgment and whenever I needed advice on an issue, for example when I was chairman of the Nevis Partnership, Dick was always my “phone-a-friend.”

Dick Balharry

Dick Balharry

Brought up in a small village on the outskirts of Dundee the young Dick Balharry was obsessed with natural history and he hand-reared several young wild animals. He was an avid collector, he hunted and his son David suggests he was also an expert poacher, even before he became a teenager!

And like many poachers it wasn’t long before Dick became a trainee gamekeeper. “My first job was on an estate near Tighnabruach,” he told me, “and involved controlling predators to protect wild pheasants, and patrolling a river against salmon poachers.

“In essence I was charged with sterilizing the environment of predators in order to maximize the number of birds and salmon available for guests.”

Some things never change.

Pinewoods at the Beinn Eighe NNR

Pinewoods at the Beinn Eighe NNR

Dick also worked for the Red Deer Commission before, at the age of 24, becoming warden of the UK’s very first National Nature Reserve at Beinn Eighe in Torridon. It was a role he relished…

“This started my career in conservation,” he said. “I was given responsibility for over 10,000 acres of mountain and Caledonian pinewood. This was the UK’s first NNR and the focus was primarily on research. At that time the public was regarded by the Nature Conservancy as more of an inconvenience than an asset.”

In addition to working with scientists the job at Beinn Eighe also introduced Dick to what he refers to as “the establishment.”

“The establishment can be defined in many ways and it is fascinating even today to see how networks based on wealth, social status, formal qualifications and public education influence decision-making and how they often over-ride logic and evidence to protect their own interests.

“Being ‘out-of-the-loop’ it was soon clear that my dream job came with a limited opportunity to influence decisions taken in Edinburgh and London. Tactful advocacy, persuasion, passion and promoting public support became the tools of my trade.”

This last sentence is crucial in understanding Dick’s success. His passion for the natural world is evident for all to see and he has spent his life enthusing others whether they are shepherds, stalkers, urban audiences, land owners, civil servants, politicians and even royalty.

Over the years I’ve watched Dick at work, in turn quietly enthusing and gently cajoling all kinds of people to his way of thinking. His two terms as chair of the John Muir Trust changed that organization into the professional, campaigning NGO it is today and his time as acting chair of the National Trust for Scotland saw big and important changes in the charity’s deer culling attitudes.

Sadly, just as the Trust’s Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms was beginning to see the initial benefits of Dick’s guidance and wisdom the new chair, Lord Calman, allegedly came under pressure from the ‘establishment’, in the form of the Prince of Wales, to dump the new deer management policy in favour of the traditional attitudes to deer shooting that Dick has described as “embodying the selfish greed of a Victorian era.”

While many sporting estates in Scotland are still maintaining “artificially high” numbers of deer in order to make more profit from shooting them, others are erecting miles upon miles of deer fencing to try and protect native woodland from browsing animals. According to Dick Balharry, neither high numbers of deer or deer fencing are acceptable in a modern Scotland.

“I see this as a major injustice,” he said. “If people wish to manage land exclusively for the benefit of the few without regard to the wider public interest then they will never have my support.

Regenerating birchwoods on the Creag Meagaidh NNR

Regenerating birchwoods on the Creag Meagaidh NNR

“High deer densities help maximise sporting opportunities for a few but they also increase the numbers of deer that die in winter from lack of food and shelter. Land owners tend to distance themselves from this responsibility claiming that deer are wild animals for which they cannot be held entirely responsible.

“As it stands that is indeed the law, however, the decision to have high numbers of red deer on the hill and the decision not to provide native woodland for shelter remain unequivocally the management choice made by owners.”

“To those who argue that fences are required to make sport shooting economically viable I would simply say that you are inviting society to question the legitimacy of your ownership model – one that places trophy stags higher than the long term interest of the public and the planet.”

“Traditional sporting estates can no longer take the moral high ground of estate ownership as they have tried to claim for over the last 200 years,” he said.

And Dick proved that his vision of land management works. At Creag Meagaidh he was responsible for the success of the regeneration of the wonderful birch woods in Coire Ardair.

This was achieved by capturing and removing hundreds of deer and taking out the traditional sheep grazing. By severely reducing the number of browsing animals the young trees had the chance to grow without being eaten as soon as they popped above the earth.

He was told the woods would never survive unless he surrounded them with fencing but he refused to erect any fences at all.

Today it’s difficult to believe these woods were ever under threat of extinction. Creag Meagaidh is a remarkable success story.

Dick was also crucial in convincing Danish landowner Anders Holch Povlson and his factor Thomas MacDonnell that Glen Feshie estate could be managed in such a way that it could be successful as a sporting estate, while still delivering a public interest in the form of a natural, living, Caledonian Forest “with all its associated life dating back to the Ice Age, approximately 30 tree generations.”

Today Glen Feshie estate has been described as a ‘jewel in the crown of the Cairngorms’, and after only a few years of woodland regeneration management, the changes to the face of the landscape are marked and positive. Young pines are growing on the roadside slopes, young birch trees are abundant and there is a freshness and a vibrancy in the glen that suggests nothing less than complete renewal.

Glen Feshie

Glen Feshie

The gnarled and knotted old trees are rock hard and anchored deep. Their orange-red trunks contrast vividly with their bottle-green foliage and you can feel their antiquity in the rough bark. And nature has woven an immaculate carpet of lichens and mosses on the woodland floor – juniper and heather live alongside bilberry and cowberry, and wintergreen chickweed and orchids open in the sunlight of summer. It’s a beautiful environment, but it has, until recently, been shrouded in the hush of an old folks’ home. There has been no progeny, no youngsters coming through, because the deer were eating them.

Go there now on a bright spring morning and you’ll find the place glistening with new growth and alive with birds – crested tit, tree pipit, dipper, common sandpiper, skylark, wryneck, jay and crossbill in or near the woodlands and golden eagle, peregrine, dotterel, ptarmigan, red and black grouse, dunlin, greenshank and ring ouzel on the hills and moorlands.

In addition to red and roe deer the mammals include mountain hare, brown hare, otter, badger, fox, wildcat, pine marten, weasel, stoat, water vole, red squirrel and moles. Pine martens are resident and wildcat has been seen in the lower glen.

Glen Feshie has, in a few short years, been re-born. Today it’s rich in its biodiversity, largely due to the vision of Dick Balharry.

Dick was recently honoured by being awarded the Patrick Geddes Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his outstanding services to countryside conservation. Fittingly, the award was made in Glen Feshie.

It was a very emotional ceremony. Dick, frail and confined to a wheelchair, wasn’t strong enough to make his acceptance speech. His son David, a fine conservationist in his own right, made it on his fathers’ behalf, and there was no denying the vision and passion behind the words.

Dick enjoys support within the Scottish Government and his vision couldn’t have come at a more crucial time as ministers consider how to strengthen land reform in Scotland. Dick’s thoughts, and in particular his ideas about deer management and woodland regeneration, could be one of the final nails in the coffin of Victorian attitudes to land management in Scotland.

I suspect Dick would be proud to have that as an epitaph.

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