Tag Archive: ecology

What are National Parks for?

Every 5 years the Cairngorms National Park reviews its priorities and the 18,000 folk who live and work within its boundaries, alongside anyone with an interest in the Park, are invited to contribute their thoughts. As with all democratic processes, the result of this review will please some and disappoint others and for those who don’t get what they want, the National Park becomes a “waste of time.” Such perceptions are predictable but are they justified? Is the Cairngorms National Park a waste of time and more fundamentally, what are Britain’s National Parks for?

In Scotland there is a legislative obligation on the part of National Park Authorities (the people employed to run the Parks) to coordinate the delivery of four core objectives. In short, they are charged with protecting nature whilst also promoting economic growth.

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Me Now.

During the run up to last years Scottish Independence referendum I grabbed a rare half hour with my 19-year old son to quiz him on which way he was voting. He was a resolute No. I naturally assumed he’d considered the wider implications of a No vote to public services; the consequences to social and cultural cohesion; the likely impact on the economy and perhaps even, what Independence would mean to Scotland’s environmental policy. I was wrong. It turned out that as a representative of Team GB in alpine sports, he liked the tracksuit. He was voting on the future of his own country solely on the basis of an item of leisurewear.

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Yellowstone(ism).

Now don’t get me wrong, most Americans I’ve met are generally very nice people. The trouble with America is that it’s full of Americanisms. That’s ‘isms’. Yes I know the bit about ‘when in Rome’ but some things just drive me nuts. Billboards! How much information can you actually absorb at 50mph? Cars that consider you incapable of making even the most basic decisions (like closing the boot without intervention from a too-clever-for-its-own-good automated system); carbohydrate-laden meals that could feed a country for a week; a gratuity system that defies all logic and that’s before we get stuck into the right to bear arms, and as was demonstrated recently, the propensity to discharge them. I could go on (and on) but my soapbox is giving way (primarily as a result of afore-mentioned carbohydrate overload). Suffice it to say that despite a common language, America and some of its ‘isms’ are hard for me to fathom (to be fair it could be as much to do with middle age as anything – mine not America’s).

Bison in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Moose in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Bison silhouette, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Despite all of the ‘isms’ there is no doubt that America is a land of superlatives. It’s unique, as are its inhabitants – human and non-human alike. Moreover, despite the usual cultural and political divides that preside over any public asset, the US National Park system is one of America’s better ideas and none more so than Yellowstone. The thing with Yellowstone is its story. It’s one of historical foresight, pioneering thinking, a few ill-informed predator management decisions along the way and more recently, ecological restoration; that’s not to mention the geological processes that continue to drive and change the Yellowstone narrative. This place has it all. Outside of winter it also has lots of visitors and so it was we set off in January.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA‘We’ in this case was two groups of hardy (and not so hardy – you know who you are!) tour guests.  As ever the Northshots formula of serious photography and not-so serious downtime prevailed and seemingly, a good time was had by all (no doubt our feedback forms will reveal if I’ve read this incorrectly).

The northern part of Yellowstone is driveable in winter and is usually a safe bet for wolf sightings. Alas, this year it was not to be and both groups returned home wolfless. Photographic opportunities of this top predator are rare indeed but just a glimpse is enough to set the pulse racing.  Wolves aside, we were treated to some wonderful photo opportunities. Bison, red fox, elk and moose all paid dividends, as did the surreal landscape cloaked in a mantel of white.

Bison in snowy Yellowstone National Park, USAYellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

Lugging one’s carbohydrate-laden body around this mountain landscape is hard work – the air at 7,000ft. deprives you of oxygen – so its fortunate that most photo-opportunities are close to the road making Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks almost perfect photographic locations.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USAMoose in Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

The story of Yellowstone in many ways mirrors the story of America itself and its many ‘isms’ are as apparent here as they are in the heart of New York. Much of what is great about America manifests in the northern Rockies, as do many of the country’s challenges.  Differing ecological, cultural and economic perspectives drive debate over land use priorities in this area as they do elsewhere – in this respect Yellowstone is no different to the Scottish Highlands. The uniqueness of Yellowstone however, is that in recent decades, it has become a living laboratory. Ecologists and scientists from all over the world peer in on what many describe as the last remaining fully intact temperate ecosystem in the northern hemisphere. To that end what happens in Yellowstone is important to all of us interested in nature elsewhere. Already, ecological thinking about predator-prey relationships, founded in the Rockies, is emerging in Europe. We’re all part of a story in the making and it was a privilege for me, after an absence of several years, to spend some time with the story’s author despite the ‘isms’.

Yellowstone National Park in Winter, USAYellowstone National Park in Winter, USA

My thanks as ever to co-guide, top photographer (although I’d never say this to his face)  and best buddie Mark Hamblin and to our 20 intrepid guests, most of who will now be on a diet (or at least should be!)

Regular blog readers might remember two postings from Svalbard guest John Cumberland. Well John is blogging again so keep an eye out for his Yellowstone musings in the next week or so.

Our tour for 2014 is already full but if you’d like to be infected by Yellowstoneism in 2015, do drop us a line to register your interest.

Yellowstone and Grand Tetons in winter, USRed fox in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

Trumpeter swan in snow, Yellowstone National Park, USA

An engine without oil?

I’ve recently read two very interesting pieces – the first specifically about wolves; the second, a book about the impact of predators on global ecosystems.

A friend of mine sent me a very well pitched report he’d written following a visit to Norway to follow a hugely controversial wolf hunt. In it he describes both extreme hatred and fear for this most symbolic of animals, amidst a rural community that whilst in the minority in terms of national feelings towards wolves, are nevertheless vocal and committed. My friend is himself an experienced game manager so knows about Scottish wildlife politics, but even he says: “I have never experienced such an atmosphere. For many there, an evil had been cleansed from the valley.” This following the shooting of a large male wolf.

Another friend sent me a book (which I would heartily recommend) called Where the wild things were by William Stolzenburg. In it Stolzenburg documents scientific research not into the impact of large carnivores as such, but the ecological chaos found in their absence. Stolzenburg, an American wildlife journalist, offers a convincing science-based argument that alpha predators are the primary regulators of the world’s ecosystems and that their removal, far from being a good thing for unburdened prey, provides the building blocks for long-term ecological decline. Space doesn’t allow for examples – buy the book and listen to the penny dropping. It’s compelling stuff.

I’m often asked about my feelings towards wolves and whether I think they should be returned to Scotland. It’s far from a black and white issue, but it really comes down to whether you answer the question as a rural economist, or as an ecologist. The wolf hunt in Norway underlines a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between prioritising traditional rural practice, and a new and increasingly popular paradigm based on ecosystem health. Like my friend who followed the Norwegian hunt, it’s tough when you can see both sides, and I can. The only caveat to me having the fence well and truly wedged in my nether regions with one foot either side of it, is that if I look 100 years hence, I sometimes wonder whether we will ultimately pay the price of an ecological engine running without oil.

Change in the water?

We don’t do change very well: as a species I mean. Our manicured, orderly landscape bears witness to that, with any hint of ‘wilding’ touching a raw rural nerve and challenging our control of a landscape that was historically perceived to be for the exclusive use of one species only: us.

And so the beaver, an ostensibly innocuous water rat, has found its way into the news; not necessarily as an agent of ecological change but as a carrier of cultural change. The beavers of Knapdale in Argyll, although not universally welcomed, have at least arrived through ‘official channels’, those prescribed by European legislation. The beavers presently running amok in the Tay catchment however, are seemingly escapees of unknown origin and questionable genetics. They are not official beavers welcomed by an official policy by well…officials. Predictably therefore a divisive dispute is raging over whether the unofficial beavers should be left alone or rounded up and popped into captivity.

I have to say I’ve read numerous reports and find it difficult to disagree with either view. Scottish Natural Heritage, although often accused of a lack of flexibility, have their hands tied both by legislation and by strategic obligations. They have ruled that the beavers must be captured. Equally, the growing fan base for the itinerant beavers also offer valid arguments in terms of animal welfare and opportunities for ecological research. It’s a tricky one for sure.

What is perhaps predictable is that this won’t be the last dilemma of its kind. As the potential for the spread of non-native species increases (not that I’m suggesting the Tay beavers come under this category), against a backdrop of growing concern for the functionality of our ecosystems, and perhaps, the tendency towards societal extremes at the expense of pragmatism, deciding which species live where and to whose benefit, will become more and more difficult.

Managing change – brought about by beavers or otherwise – has never been easy and therein lies the social science of conflict resolution. There are people who study this stuff, they’ve become experts in it. They’re not conservationists, foresters, farmers or ecologists and that’s their strength. They know little of beavers but change isn’t about beavers, it’s about people. And resolving conflict relies on knowing about people and the ability to effectively communicate with them. I can’t help thinking that somewhere amongst all the talk of beaver legislation, ecology and welfare, there’s a role for a professional communicator, a manager of change, a resolver of conflict, a mediator – call it what you will.

It happens to be beavers in the Tay just now, but red deer, seals and pine martens, they’re all symbols of our changing relationship with nature. Perhaps that change needs some innovative management?

Is it a good time to bring up wolves?