Any climbing trip that involves a boat is going to be good. Cathy and I went for the Corran Ferry and timed it perfectly to drive straight on. It's then a short drive on the other side to the walk in to Garbh Bheinn, a wonderfully rough and wild Corbet in Ardgour. The rock here is gneiss which is clean, grippy and brilliant to climb on. Right below the summit lies the south face which gets sunshine all day with an outlook over Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. Today we could see down as far as Arran and out to Rum and the outer Hebrides. A gentle breeze and great company topped it off to make a wonderful day of climbing.
The classic of the crag is Butterknife, a four pitch VS. The first groove was a little wet and this, along with getting used to the features of the rock, made it feel a little awkward. The second pitch is stunning! It climbs a steep corner with wild moves around bulges and undercut flakes. Long limbs do help to bridge out and find a few extra rests but there is very good protection. Two more pitches got us to the top and the cairn at the top of the mountain. This is proper big mountain rock climbing with everything that goes with it - a few seeps and wet bits, some loose holds, immense exposure and vast situation.
A sandwich stop and a moment to soak up the view got us ready for another climb, Sgian Dubh. The fine jamming crack on the first pitch was actually a slimy thrutch, again made easier with some long limbs. It's well worth sticking with it though because the second pitch is amazing. Fantastic rock and crazy exposure following ramps first leftwards then back rightwards got us to the top of the climb and a short sprachle to the top of the mountain again. As always with Cathy, it was a school day for me and I learned a bunch of stuff about hares, deer, heather moorland and many more things. I'm a grateful sponge when it comes to this stuff and it is always more complicated than it seems. Thank you Cathy; brilliant climbing and a lovely day.
The Blackpool of the rock climbing world on the west coast of Scptland is Poldubh in Glen Nevis. The translation is something like black pool and it is a popular place with with attractions to keep you entertained. Today it was perfect. After the first few midges at the start of the first climb we had a gentle breeze keeping them away and the rock was dry. It was a lovely temperature and, even thhough it is a popular place, there were just a few other climbing teams and plenty of space to keep separate.
If you are climbing at Severe to VS try this circuit.
Altogether we climbed eleven pitches but you can throw in a few more or link a couple more together. Six climbs, all on amazing rock and in a wonderful situation looking across Glen Nevis to The Mamores, watching the baby trees come up in their exclosures and admiring the open patchy woodland of native trees elsewhere in the glen. I saw a golden eagle and a lizard today too. And we had a fantastic time in nature climbing some brilliant routes and sharing adventures alongside a few like minded people. Wonderful!
We had a very wet weekend and morning yesterday. The rain came in and stayed in, running down the hill sides and filling the streams and rivers. Running down from Meall an t'Suidhe yesterday afternoon was a case of going with the flow, slipping and sliding down the grass with the water, everything going with the flow of gravity. Today was dry though and the rock was drying out. At least, the rock with no sponge of peat above, newly filled with water, dripping fat drops down the rocks. Weeping Wall on the East Face of Aonach Dubh in Glen Coe does live up to its name. Wide streaks of wet weeps were all along the crag. So, it's good to know which climbs dry out a bit better, where you can find grippy, positive holds in between the wet slimy holds.
Nigel and I started out with Eve's Arete, a fabulous V.Diff with amazing exposure but big positive holds right where you want them. This is the section where the route traverse right over an overhang with steep blank rock above. Once you get to the arete with a lot of space beneath your feet the way up is more obvious. Up above the terrace is Archer Ridge which also dries out pretty quickly. Another excellent climb on great rock, this route is a little more devious than it first looks. You can follow the ridge directly at the same grade but the original route went right and back left on the second and third pitches, a route that neatly avoids the worst of the wet bits.
With the threat of a shower coming up Glen Coe we decided to finish with Quiver Rib. This is the steepest Diff in the country but with very positive holds. It follows the rib imediately next to the dark, dank chimney of The Bow but is never affected by the drips coming down it. Instead, Quiver Rib follows the rib and a groove above up this improbably steep cliff for the grade. Walking off towards Far Eastern Buttress we saw several deer leisurely munching the greenery and a kestrel patrolling the crags and keeping an eye on us. It didn't seem to be disturbed by us so its nest must be far away somewhere else. Altogether we had a wild day of climbing and nature with hardly anyone else in the glen and very little traffic on the road far below. Bliss.
Almiost exactly three months since lockdown and my last day of work, I have gone back to work and it was amazing. My last day of work was a wonderful day of ice climbing on Rubicon Wall, Ben Nevis in excellent weather and amazing ice climbing conditions. Today Nigel and I went for a fantastic climb of Observatory Ridge, looking across at Rubicon Wall, in superb weather and (nearly all) dry rock. It was a long three months and it feels very good to be back guiding.
Nigel lives very locally and we have climbed a good few times together in the past. Observatory Ridge was well within our level of ability but that wasn't really the point of the climb today. We wanted a long mountain climb and they don't get much longer or more mountainous than Observatory Ridge. It is 500m long with several pitches of V.Diff and sometimes you have to pitch the whole thing in something like 14 or 15 pitches.
We were also thinking very carefully about keeping 2m separate all the time, not sharing equipment and good hand and face hygiene. This all seemed to work out very well, made easier by the big ledges on the climb. In this respect it felt safer than going to the supermarket!
There was a big cloud behind us as we walked up the Allt a'Mhuilinn and it gave some areas out west some very heavy rain and flash flodding. Thankfully it did not cross the Great Glen and we stayed dry. There was quite a breeze on top which kept us slightly cooler as well, very welcome in the intense heat. There were a few people on the summit enjoying the good weather and views. Dave and Al went up NE Buttress and another team enjoyed Tower Ridge. On such a good day it is rare to see so few people out climbing and on the summit. This is going to change as Scotland relaxes the travel restrictions at the start of July and tourism can start again on 15th July.
If you are not used to walking up mountains, it is quite hard to know what to wear and what to carry with you on your climb up Ben Nevis. Watch the video to hear chief guide Mike Pescod telling us what the key bits of kit and clothing are.
The main point to remember is that is is a lot colder, windier and wetter on the summit than it is in the glen at the start of the walk. You might start out in a light shirt but on top it is often 10C colder, wet and windy so you will need to wear a lot more clothing, a hat and gloves. As you come down again, you will probably need to take off all your layers again!
What to wear on Ben Nevis.
Walking boots with ankle support give you some essential protection from twists and sprains if you are not used to walking on rough ground. If you are very used to walking or you play sports such as footbnall, rugby, squash and tennis that strengthen your ankles, then rugged walking shoes might be OK for you. What ever you wear make sure they are rugged and have a solid sole. The path is dry and rocky (it's not muddy at all) and small, sharp edged stones push through soft soles easily making it uncomfortable.
All your clothing needs to be made of polyester or wool, and not cotton. This is because cotton soaks up any water from rain or sweat and becomes cold, heavy and uncomfortable to wear. It also takes a very long time to dry out. Polyester or wool shirts and trousers don't soak up as much water and they are designed to transport any water to the surface where it can evaporate off quickly, keeping you drier and more comfortable. It is also warm enough when it is wet.
So, wear a polyester or wool shirt, take a warm fleece or two to put on as you get higher up the mountain. Wear walking trousers – no jeans - that are loose and comfortable, or leggings that fit neatly and are not made of cotton.
You should have a spare fleece top or synthetic insulating layer, in case anything goes wrong and we need to stop for a long time. Keep this dry in a plastic, waterproof bag. Bin liners are a bit too thin so get some rubble sacks from a supermarket, tough plastic bags that are the perfect size.
A waterproof jacket and trousers are essential. The jacket needs to have a big hood that covers your head and your face, protecting you from rain being blown in sideways! Sometimes it rains all day and you will be soaked through and need to turn back if your jacket and trousers are not up to it.
Take a warm hat and waterproof gloves (spare gloves are also recommended) even on the dry sunny days. Remember the air is much colder on top and it feels even colder if it is wet and windy.
Sometimes the sun shines though so take a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream. There is more UV higher up and you will be out for about 8 hours so it's a good idea to put sun cream on before you start the walk.
What to carry on a walk up Ben Nevis.
You need a rucksack big enough to carry all your clothing and kit. This is roughly 25 litres to 40 litres.
Bring a really good packed lunch and spare food. Don't rely on sweets and chocolate. You need some good quality carbohydrates which you will get from sandwiches, oat flapjacks, dried fruit, bananas and oatcakes. Take lots of tasty snacks that you know you will enjoy as well.
A 1 litre flask or water bottle is fine. There is a stream at the half way point called the Red Burn where we can fill up the bottles. So, if you start with 1 litre, fill up again on the way up and on the way down you will get through 3 litres which is plenty.
Carry a whistle so you can attract attention if you get separated from your group and you have an emergency.
Walking poles are recommended but not essential. Many people find they really benefit from the support of walking poles on the way back down. It normally feels much harder going down that it does going up, and walking poles can help a lot. If you would like to borrow a set of poles from us please do ask, we have a few spare sets.
Mobile phone in a waterproof case and a camera to record the adventure.
Also remember to take any medication that you normally require or that you might require. If you have asthma, take your blue puffer, even if you very rarely use it.
Let's give a big round of applause for sphagnum moss. It's brilliant stuff. Sphagnum moss is very abundant in our boggy moorland. In fact, it plays a key role in the creation of our upland bogs in the first place. It loves water, holds on to it, slows down it's progress from the hillside to the river and holds it in place in the ground. Sphagnum moss can hold a vast amount of water compared to its own weight and you'll always be able to squeeze out a few drops of clean fresh water.
By slowing down the rate of water drainage, sphagnum moss creates wet, boggy areas which then become habitats for a range of other species of life. Upland bogs are incredibly useful at sequestering CO2, trapping it in the ground and helping offset the effects of global climate change caused by human production of greenhouse gases.
Over many decades, sphagnum moss grows, dies away and decays slowly in an anoxic environment, turning slowly to peat. Those deep banks of peat you see in the hills are made of well rotted sphagnum moss. It takes thousands of years to form and traps vast amounts of CO2 as it does so. 1mm of peat takes a year to form, so a bank of peat one metre deep took about 1000 years to form.
Peat can so easily be damaged and washed away though. If flowing water is allowed in to peat, it changes consistency to a soft flowing mud that is easily washed away. We can cause enough damage by walking over peat and wearing away the top vegetation to allow water to get in and wash away this precious resource. Try to tread lightly and leave no trace.
Peatland restoration is a big part of land management at the moment, mostly due to the benefits of CO2 capture. To restore peatland, you need to slow down the flow of water through it and hold it in place. Small streams can be blocked and sphagnum moss can be imported and planted to help this process.
Due to it's property of holding on to lots of water, sphagnum moss has a myriad of uses. Some of these are enhanced by the water it holds on to being slightly anticeptic. If you ever want an absorbant, anticeptic wound dressing, use a bit of sphagnum moss. It was used during the first world war and many other times for exactly this.
Perhaps more commonly, if you want something to line your hanging baskets, try a bit of sphagnum moss. It will keep your flowers moist and it's a natural material that's perfect for the job. Make sure you only take what you need though and remember it is doing vital work for us in the ground.
When you are out camping, you should use sphagnum moss as an alternative to toilet paper. Think of it is a natural, biodegradeable wet wipe that also disinfects. Perfect!
I've been told there are over 50 different types of sphagnum moss, which acounts for the broad range of colours you see. It all grows in really wet ground so you are advised not to walk over it. However, the red stuff is a bit drier than the green stuff generally. So, if I have a choice, I will step on the red stuff and avoid the green stuff.
Lots of people know about sphagnum moss but few know about woolly fringe moss. This is a shame because woolly fringe moss it pretty cool stuff as well. OK, it does not have all the cool properties of sphagnum moss, and it only comes in one colour, but it is just as plentiful as sphagnum moss and some hills are covered in a thick blanket of woolly fringe moss, making the walking very agreeable indeed. In fact, you should learn to recognise woolly fringe moss because it will make you a more efficient walker.
Woolly fringe moss always grows on dry ground. It can cover rocks with a thick pillow with no water underneath at all. Lots of boggy areas have a combination of sphagnum moss and woolly fringe moss - the sphagnum moss on the wet bits and the woolly fringe moss on the dry bits. Step on the woolly fringe moss and you will stay dry, avoid the wet boggy bits and cover the ground much more easily.
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.
You know those white rocks you see every now and then when you're walking in our mountains? They are made of quartz, one of the coolest things ever! They can form beautiful crystals, they resonate when you put an electric charge across them, they create an electric charge when you squash them and it is possible to melt them in a very, very hot fire to weld other rocks together (although we can't work out how!).
Quartz is the most abundant and widely distributed mineral found on the Earth's surface. It is found everywhere and is plentiful in igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. It is very durable, resisting mechanical and chemical weathering. As a result, it is very often found on mountain tops and is the primary constituent of beach, river, and desert sand.
These are some quartz crystals I found in the Alps. Quartz is one component of granite, along with mica and feldspar. When granite cools down incredibly slowly, the minerals have time to come together to form big crystals. The slower it cools, the bigger the crystals. Some quartz crystals are 50cm long and crystal hunters still work in the mountains of the Alps. Quartz is a chemical compound made up of silicon and oxygen (SiO2 - silicon dioxide or silicate) and the molecules are perfectly lined up in a crystal, in the same way that carbon atoms are lined up in diamonds.
So, why is the quartz we see in our hills white, and not crystaline? Well, imagine the crystaline quartz is a car windscreen. When you hit it, what happens? It fractures along lots of lines that criss-cross and make it look white. It's the same with our quartz. It has so many imperfections in it, so many fractures and layers, that the light going through it is refracted and reflected inside, making it look white.
Watches used to advertise the fact that they rely on quartz. Quartz resonates (vibrates) at a specific frequency when you pass an electric charge across it. It is possible to use this resonance at a known frequency to set the speed of a watch. The frequency does not change, even when the electric charge changes so it is a very reliable method to use for measuring time.
Quartz is a pietzoelectric material. This means it creates an internal electric charge when you apply mechanical stress. Squash quartz and you can make an electric charge sufficient to cause it to spark. You have probably done this when you light a gas stove. Jetboil stoves have them; the little button you press squashes a pietzoelectric material to make the spark.
Sitting high above Glen Nevis, Dun Deardail is one of Scotland's 70 ancient vitrified forts. There are very many hill forts, but the vitrified forts are different in that they have been burned at a very high temperature for enough time for the rocks to melt and stick together.
The process of vitrification occurs when a timber-framed drystone rampart is destroyed by fire. With temperatures reaching over 1000° C, the heat from the blaze begins to melt the rubble core of the rampart. As the burning rampart collapses, the rocks first fracture and then become liquid. Gas bubbles form inside the rocks as the extreme temperatures change their mineral composition. When the fire burns out and the rampart finally cools, the burnt and molten rocks form large blocks of conglomerated stone. These can still be seen within the rampart.
Vitrification is not a deliberate construction method as the original timber-framed drystone rampart would have been more stable; it is much more likely to have been the result of accidental fire or deliberate destruction. In recent excavations coordinated by Nevis Landscape Partnership, rocks of different types were found stuck together with quartz.
So, next time you see some white rock, stop and look to see if it is quartz. Wonder at its amazing properties. Look to see if it is slightly transparent and crystaline. Imagine finding a crystal cave in which the walls, ceiling and floor are covered in quartz crystals, hundreds of millions of years old, that took millions of years to form. Be amazed by its electrical powers. Quartz is cool.
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.