Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Highland Regeneration

Very soon, UC Wildlife Care and Education professor Amy Darcangelo, her graduate student husband Joe (who before he was a graduate student was an expert zoo display and captive wildlife habitat designer, and has a UC BA in Environmental Writing), my wife Aimee Phillippi, a PhD marine biologist and Conservation Biology professor, and myself, your sustainability blogmeister and tame environmental policy wonk and economist, will visit the 24,000 acre Scottish Highland estate of British millionaire Paul Lister.

Alladale, as the estate is known, is a traditional Highland country seat dating back to the Victorian era, when famous British industrialists and aristocrats followed the lead of the Queen herself, by setting themselves up as Highland "Lairds." One Highland historian called this process "Balmoralization" and the ethics that drove it "Balmorality."

Mr. Lister has a very different proposition, which, since I'm teaching ethics this spring, deserves at least an analytical note or two here. He proposes "rewilding" the Highlands, regenerating the Caledonian forest, re-equipping the highland ecological community with the predators that would police that forest, keeping herbivores in check, and to boot, demonstrating that this scheme is actually a more profitable land use than others for the landowner and community.

This is quite a tall order. But not impossible or out of the question, given the various regulations on wildlife and land use in effect in the UK and the Highland region.

I have a little personal experience with the "re-wilding" proposition. It turns out to be a combination of older ideas, from various sources. In the Highlands, the proposition that regenerating the native forest would prove more economically sound than other forms of land use dates back to the 1980s. I was “there” when it first became popular, and knew some of the protagonists, interesting back-to-the-landers and activists such as Bernard and Emma Planterose, Andrew Wightman, Donald McPhillemmy, Jonathan Caddy and Alan Watson of the Findhorn community. In the US, this idea came out of the radical environmental movements, and out of academic ecological restoration movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and was taken up by protagonists like Michael Soule, David Foreman, Patagonia clothing entrepreneur Doug Tompkins, and so on.

Some of the Scots "rewilders" were forestry and other graduates associated with the radical Centre for Human Ecology, then at Edinburgh University (soon to be sacked from there by a Thatcherite administration) and now at Strathclyde University. One of the founders of CHE, the eminent Dr Ulrich Loening, had sponsored much student discussion and interest in forestry. I remember he also had a sawmill, and had some of his students work in small-scale forest product harvesting and milling, centered around Edinburgh town, using over-mature ornamental trees as feedstock. So I think the root idea of regenerating the Caledonian Forest on a large scale can be loosely traced back to Loening and his students and graduate students at the Centre. Caddy, one of Loening’s students, was the Findhorn connection.

Two lasting programs emerged from the endeavors of this loosely affiliated group, the NGO Reforesting Scotland, which with its magazine of the same name, continues to be interesting and influential, and the Findhorn-based charity Trees for Life, which, although closely associated with the New Age commune, has also been influential, particularly on the Glen Affric estate. I've always liked the Reforesting Scotland ethos because it emphasizes people and wildlife in a native forest, which seems to me to be more pragmatic and less romantic.

As a partial result of this activism, in the mid 1990s, the official government-run Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural heritage both became interested in native forest plantings, and the emphasis on regeneration began to spread. Because former plantings of non-native conifers were proving uneconomical, this was partly a response to public sentiment, but also partly pragmatic. In the face of competition from "liquidation harvesting" from other global fiber and pulp producers, what form of Highland forestry would have been economical? At least in the short term? My take is that Highland foresters, who for years had depended on economic arguments for employment, switched to native forestry as a way to keep forestry alive in the Highlands.

As a result, a good deal of forest regeneration work has been attempted since then, on private reserves and on government land of different types. An earlier, and quite successful regeneration effort on the Isle of Rum, begun in the 1950s and 60s, offered lessons in "how-to" but was never intended to be anything more than an adjunct of the nature preserve there. The new ideal of Highland native forest regeneration is intended by its advocates to cover a good deal of the landscape. Very often economic arguments are invoked, as when the Planterose's set up a demonstration working private forest economy near Ullapool. I would love to know if this experiment still exists.

The forestry work is not unlike some of the ideas we have for the few acres of the Great Farm Aimee and I own and lease. Cutting to waste of non-natives. Husbandry of native seed stock. Managed grazing.

The there's the wildlife aspects, which is why Amy and Joe are involved. Both are expert in captive wildlife care. The introduction of two previously extirpated animal species have taken place already in Scotland, the sea eagle, and the osprey. The European beaver has been released, although not to the wild. Mr. Lister has introduced moose and boar to large enclosures, although not to the wild, and intends to add lynx, brown bear, gray wolf, and other extirpated species.

This intent has led local antagonists to call his estate "Jurassic Park," which seems unfair, but, believe it or not, political discourse in the UK can be even more prone to hyperbole that in the US. (if you don't believe me, listen to the UK House of Parliament's Prime Minister's Question Time on C-Span! You'll get the idea quickly.) I was exposed to a good deal of this kind of vitriolic and scathing criticism when I did my Master's thesis research. Highlanders would scathingly abuse the government agency I was studying and it's operations.

Anyway, that’s all for now, but watch this space for more to come on our Alladale experiences.

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