Achmelvich is a firm family holiday location for team Pescod. Camping at Shore Campsite is bliss and renting a cottage in the October holidays provides peace and quiet like nowhere else. And just down the road is the Old Man of Stoer, a sea stack with a super classic climb. Many stacks offer a fantastic adventure, and this one is right up there; a sea channel that demands a swim and/or some tyrloean rope tricks, crashing waves, time pressure from the incoming tide, a committing abseil, sea gulls, remoteness.... But unlike many other stacks, this one has good rock and fantastic climbing. Of course, I was super keen to climb The Old Man of Stoer.
One time we were staying at Achmelvich in October. The weather was great and the sea was calm. Having not climbed it before I was slightly nervous, especially as I was to climb it with Owen, my son, who was just coming up to his 13th birthday at the time. After a few years of climbing indoors, I was sure he could manage the climbing, but the exposure, tyrolean traverse, sea gulls, real rock, traditional climbing moves, and the big abseil were all new to him. He was also much smaller than me still, so the impact of me falling off would have been huge. More importantly, solving simple problems might not go well due to his lack of climbing experience outdoors and the nature of the stack making communication, at times, nearly impossible. Of course, returning to my lovely wife Louise, Owen's mother, with tales of things going wrong was the biggest fear, far greater than the things going wrong in the first place!
So, I did a lot of research. We did a recce walk along the coast (recommended - it is one of the best low level walks in Scotland) which revealed a tyrolean rope already in place. I checked out the scramble descent down the the cliff to sea level. Tide tables showed a very low tide early in the morning and the sea was near flat calm. Also, I had learned that it is possible, at a very low tide, to walk around the back of the stack and avoid the nasty first pitch. This is a 5a traverse across a slimy green wall and well worth avoiding if at all possible. You can see it in the picture above - hands on flat holds in the horizontal crack just above the level of the rope anchor, going left to the big ledges capped by overhangs.
So, Owen and I got up nice and early, left quietly before anyone else was awake, and walked in to the stack. At every point during the climb I offered Owen the chance to decide not to carry on, to return, pride intact, very happy. At every point, Owen said it was all cool. We scrambled down and took a moment at sea level to soak up the sounds, the smells, and the unique atmosphere of a sea stack. We slid across the tyrolean ropes after checking they would (probably) be OK and waited a few minutes for the last of the tide to sink away so we could traverse round the back. Sure enough, we found a nice easy traverse to get us onto the normal route and a very comfortable belay. A slightly awkward diagonal crack and pull through a bulge got us to another superb belay on jammed blocks. Everything was cool still, so we carried on.
Next, the route traverses right and up slightly to find a groove leading to the top. There is a choice of traverse ledges and a choice of grooves to follow upwards, so I spent some time deciding which one was best. I was also very careful to arrange the protection very well. I placed enough to make it easy to follow the route, but not so much that it slowed down the whole process, it was all within reach of Owen but was well extended so there was no rope drag, and it all stayed in place but came out easily when Owen got to it. There is virtually no chance of communicating with your belayer once you get to the top of this pitch but Owen was very well briefed and he followed up the pitch easily. Everything was cool.
One last easy pitch got us into the sunshine and onto the top for a very satisfied moment before starting to think about the abseil back down. This was another key part of the whole enterprise since it would be tricky for me to sort out any problems Owen might have on the way down. The ropes were set perfectly, the stacked abseil was put in place and we both abseiled a short way to get used to the idea before I went down the overhanging section to the base of the stack. At the bottom, talking about the abseil, Owen said "Can we do that again?".
Now, the ropes needed to pull down nicely. I pulled, they moved, there was no snag, and when the ropes fell, they coiled perfectly into a pile at my feet on the narrow ledge without falling over the edge a few centimetres away and into the sea. We pulled ourselves back up the tyrolean ropes, scrambled back up the cliff and went back to the cottage for lunch. Sometimes, everything needs to go smoothly, and this time it went about as smoothly as possible. I'm sure Owen will remember his climb of Old Man of Stoer at the age of 12 forever; I certainly will.
Every mountain leader needs to learn some names of plants growing in the hills. Even if you are not a mountain leader it can add a lot of pleasure to your walk if you can name some of things you see growing. But it's not always easy to remember the names. One thing that can help is to learn some interesting things about the plant. Give it a back story and you are more likely to remember its name.
Thinking of really daft images also work. Let your creativty fly with ridiculous situations that include the plant, its name and perhaps an aspect of its back story. The more ridiculous it is, the more memorable it will be for you.
So, here is more information about some common plants as well as some things that might just help you remember them.
Freddy fungus and Annie alga were deeply in love. Freddy said "I'll provide the house" and Annie said "I'll provide the food", and together they lived in perfect harmony.
This is a lichen. Lichens are made up of two things, a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides the structure of the plant (the house) and the alga captures and provides minerals for the fungus as well as for itself. The lichen is a symbiotic relationship of the two things. One without the other is nothing. This particular one is sometimes Devil's Matchsticks and it's got a fancy latin name that I don't know!
Sundew is awesome! It is one of two plants in the UK that eats insects. The sticky beads of enzymes on the ends of the hairs on its leaves catch small flys and spiders and digest them, giving the plant an advantage over other plants. This allows it to grow in very poor ground, mostly boggy bits of peat. The one above is in flower, something I have not seen very often. You can also see spiders and flys in its leaves.
It is called sundew because, when the sun has dried off all the dew on other plants, the sundew looks like it still has drops of dew on its leaves. This used to scare people (a long time ago) so the plant was thought to have slightly sinister properties. Which is true - animal eating plants are scary! Don't stick your finger in one of these, it will have your arm off in seconds.
Butterwort is the other midgie eater. It has hairs and enzymes in the curls of its pale green leaves which catch spiders and flies where they get digested. It also lives in wet, boggy areas where other plants struggle to survive. Next time you are churning your milk, bung in a bit of butterwort. The enzymes will help your milk turn into butter.
Bog asphodel is one of my favourites. It's rich yellow flowers with spiky petals pointing up at the sky are like ladies hands with long slender fingers catching bright rays of sunshine. That's the daft image I used to help me remember the plant. The hands are ladies hands because bog asphodel was used by women to colour their hair and the plant can be used for dying other things as well.
Bog asphodel used to be called bone breaker. Crofters found that cattle eating the flowers were more likely to break bones in their legs. What they didn't know is that this flower grows in quite acidic conditions, where there is very little calcium. It was the lack of calcium in the cows' diet that led to brittle bones and more chance of broken legs, not eating the bog asphodel.
Lousewort is a very common pink flower that might occasionally be found with a white flower. There are white lousewort on Buachaille Etive Mor. The funny shaped flowers reminded me of some of the puppets in Sesame Street or The Muppets, and helped me remember the plant. It looks pretty and delicate, but it is quite mean. Under the ground, its roots eat into those of neighbouring plants to gain more minerals and to give it an advantage over them.
Imagine a small caveman, about 20cm tall, running around the highlands in his animal skin clothes. He'd have a club in his hands to donk things with, such as dinosaurs or other tiny cavemen. Club moss would be the ideal size and shape for a club for a tiny cave man, but quite ineffective since it is normally soft and light. Club moss sometimes has spores in the ends of its clubs that ping off when you brush past. The spores can go for 30cm or more, and you can trigger them to fly off with your finger. Try it next time. The club moss trailing down the rock in the picture is antler club moss, a variety that creeps along the ground and can be many metres long. Fir club moss grows in little clumps and alpine club moss is much more compact and low growing,
Orchids are beautiful flowers that are quite common. There are a few varieties in our hills, and they all grow in stiff stems with a head of lovely flowers. This one is a heath spotted orchid, the one you are most likely to see in the hills. I used to think that orchids were reserved to rainforests where David Attenborough went to make TV nature programmes. Now I know they are common across the UK and quite easy to find. This does not detract from them though, they are fantastic flowers.
Next time we'll have a look at bog cotton, eyebright, the fabulous sphagnum moss and some others.
After a lifetime of keeping well away from guns and despising the notion of hunting, I find myself in the novel position of wanting to encourage stalking clubs. It has taken many years of listening and learning about upland management to reach this conclusion and I’m very far from being an expert. But, it seems to me that we need to find a way to include communities in the management of the land and, in particular, of the deer.
Why? What has changed?
We have now acknowledged that we are in a global climate crisis.
So, how can community stalking clubs help solve global climate change?
One thing we can do to mitigate the effects of the global climate crisis is to plant more trees and encourage biodiversity to create more areas of robust natural habitat. This is a key strategy of the Scottish Government. In Scotland alone, around 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year are removed from the atmosphere by our forests. Scotland’s forests cover 18.7% of the total land area and the ambition contained in Scottish Government’s forestry strategy is to increase this to 21% by 2032 by meeting planting targets rising to 15,000 ha a year from 2024/25.
This is good news but there are problems. The target does not differentiate between native trees and plantations of non-native species. Although conifer plantations are fast growing and can store carbon quickly, in the long run they are inefficient in comparison to native woodland, partly because we cut them down and turn them into wood chips or pellets to burn, but mostly because they do not support the wider woodland ecosystem. Native woodlands promote better soil quality, full of good bacteria, making a woodland more efficient at soaking up carbon, bio-secure and ultimately more climate resilient.
Reducing grazing pressures, predominantly from deer, would help accelerate the spread of woodland – especially native and deciduous species – thus producing a cleaner, greener, healthier environment. As well as stopping reforestation, trampling and grazing by deer dry out the soil, thus diminishing the ability of peat to absorb carbon and store greenhouse gases. Upland peat bogs are also incredibly important for absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon.
The number of deer in Scotland has risen from 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 in 2010. We only see them every now and then but their impact on the landscape is very widespread. They nibble the tops off the vegetation, keeping it all down to a very modest size. Trees do not get the chance to grow to sufficient height to be left alone by the deer. Even then, mature trees sometimes get their bark chewed by very hungry deer. We mostly see native forest in our mountains only in steep, inaccessible places where the deer can’t reach, or odd patches of old trees with no young trees growing up underneath.
It’s very easy to see the impact of deer grazing. Go to Glen Coe and walk into the Lost Valley. After you cross the footbridge over The Coe you are in a thick birch woodland with blaeberries up to your thighs and heather just as deep. It’s a small area and the fence on the far side is soon reached, after which we see just short vegetation with very little variety. You can see the difference in vegetation from the road. Inside the fence, where the deer can’t reach, the ground is dark with thick vegetation cover and trees. Outside, it is apparently bare grass.
If you keep going as far as Glen Shiel, there are large areas of fenced off Scots Pine trees on the south side of the road. These were planted many years ago and fences put up around them to keep the deer out. The difference between inside and outside the fences is stark. Fencing off areas and planting trees can be useful but it is very expensive and not a long term solution. Fencing is a way around the problem but does not tackle the main issue; it should not be the first management technique considered, deer management should always be the priority.
Without the grazing pressure of deer, trees and other vegetation would come back by themselves. Silver Birch and Rowan trees are great space invaders, finding their way into any open space and settling there quickly. Scots Pine are a bit slower off the mark and need some encouragement but they are native and very successful in Scotland. Trees would return to very large areas of currently empty landscape with patchy, open woodland in fifty years if they were left alone by the deer, soaking up and storing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. Native trees do not naturally form dense forests like the conifer plantations, and in fact this is not the most effective type of forest for biodiversity. The patchy, open woodland that would develop naturally has lots of edges, and this forest edge habitat is the best for biodiversity. It would only extend up to about 600m above sea level, above which trees can’t survive the weather.
Deer have been shot for a very long time, we call it stalking. If we didn’t shoot deer at all, their number would increase so much that they would become unhealthy. Without sufficient food or shelter they would starve and we would see carcasses far more often. Even with the current level of stalking, our deer are 30kg or so lighter than the same deer in Norway due to the lack of good food. The government works with deer management groups made up of neighbouring landowners to set numbers of deer to shoot each year. Stalking provides financial income for landowners and the heritage of stalking reaches back for 150 years, about as long as we have been climbing.
Asking landowners to change what they have done for so long is a big deal. If you told climbers and hill walkers they were no longer allowed to walk freely in the mountains due to the global climate situation, we would not take it very well. There are generations of stalkers who feel totally embedded in the culture and work of the estate. They have a deep sense of connection with the deer and their land, and also have a phenomenal knowledge and understanding of how it works.
But, it’s clear that we can’t carry on as we have been doing with the reasoning that it’s what we have always done. We will all need to change our ways of life to have less impact on the planet. As a mountain guide I need to cut the number of flights I take each year, travel less, work from home more. We need to find a way to reduce the number of deer which maintains an income stream to the landowner so that stalkers and the infrastructure of deer management can be paid for. And we absolutely can’t lose the deep connection that stalkers have with their deer and the land they look after.
What needs to change is trophy hunting and shooting for social status. Shooting anything to express your dominance over nature is wrong and futile. Shooting animals to associate with people you want to connect with or to impress is also wrong (such as grouse shooting). We should be clear that we shoot deer for the benefit of the health of the herd, for biodiversity and because of a deep connection with the landscape.
We also need a system that pays for itself. It’s not possible to stop commercial stalking and force landowners to cull deer to much lower levels. The cost of doing this is not sustainable. Instead, perhaps we can think about importing a system that works very well in other countries. Sweden and Norway have successful systems of deer management which involve community groups and small groups of individuals taking responsibility for the management of the deer in certain areas. It is very carefully controlled by the government with gun licences, shooting permits and monitoring of the health of the deer. And it has had very impressive results in some areas.
Cull targets in Norway are based on carcass weight. So if a population of deer is averaging lighter weights during a set period, the assumption is that there is competition for food, so the cull is increased. This doesn’t factor in the natural ebbs and flows of a wild population, but it does result in healthier deer. Locally, Corrour estate is a great example of somewhere that is seeing larger deer as a result of increased deer management. Between 2006 and 2017 they found a 36% increase in deer carcass weight. There are fewer deer but they are much more healthy.
In Scotland, a shift to this sort of system would take a long time, several years at least, and would rely heavily on the current stalkers and landowners, their knowledge and passion for their estates. But, community stalking groups could pay for themselves and be a part of the solution.
It’s a difficult change to manage. There’s a long heritage of stalking in its current form and no culture of hunting in Scotland. Culture shift is possible though, when there is a will and a good reason to do so. Using car seat belts was not the norm before legislation came in; now it would feel very strange not to use a car seat belt. Legislation can bring about a culture shift. Wearing a helmet when skiing was a very odd thing to do only fifteen years ago. Now, everyone wears a helmet, and this change did not require legislation. Stalking and hunting culture is a much bigger thing to change but it is still possible if the benefits are clear. We already have a stalking club on Harris and there are some estates already thinking about community stalking programmes.
If this all sounds like handing out guns to people and giving them free reign to go and shoot deer, think again. Deer stalking will always be thoroughly regulated, however it is done. In a stalking club, as well as working within the normal system of gun licencing, each member is required to pass their Deer Stalking Certificate level 1 before becoming a member.
Clearly there is not one system that will work for every estate. And many estate owners might see no benefit to them. The biggest benefit is to slow down global climate change, with no immediate, tangible benefit to landowners. There is another benefit, one of connecting communities with their landscapes. Some communities in Norway talk with pride about how they have changed their landscapes over the last fifty years, how healthy their deer are now and how much they value their landscape now. Creating this deeper connection with the landscape, connecting individuals with nature over a long time scale, is good for our health. Many clinical studies have demonstrated this and GPs prescribe time in nature as a treatment for some conditions. Our reaction to the current Covid-19 outbreak has confirmed our need to spend time in nature. This connection would be strengthened greatly if we are given the opportunity to help manage the landscape.
This is a very emotive subject for many people, one with a very wide range of opinions, and one with the potential for people to further separate themselves and dig deeper into their ingrained positions. To start off with, it would be good to accept that change would be beneficial and that it is possible. Then perhaps we can come together to explore some ways of enabling the change we need, in a sustainable and sensitive way.
Red deer are beautiful, outstanding wild animals that we must treasure and look after. But, in their current numbers, red deer are endangering pine martens, red squirrels, capercaillie, wild cats, and any number of other smaller animals that are just as important, as well as the potential for beautiful forests full of colour, bird song and life.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.