I have come back to the hills around Glaslyn that I wrote about last time (Rebellious Nature, April 2019). I was soured by the foul weather that day and taken aback by my conclusion that these hills might be better under trees. So I thought I had better take another look and I have picked a fine day this time.
Strolling along the track in the spring sunshine there is little sound except my boots on the gravel. An occasional outpouring of song from an ascending skylark gladdens my heart. Scattered across the hills some of last years lambs totter under heavy fleeces and there are a few ewes with new lambs at foot, but not many as yet. Two green hairstreak butterflies suddenly appear in front of me, flashing emerald and bronze as they whirled around each other like frenzied sword fighters. Later I see some more: it must be a good year for this diminutive butterfly. A wheatear flips across the track but little else stirs, other than a red kite drifting overhead.
After about a mile I settle back against my rucksack on a grassy hillside to take a good look. I half expected to be writing ‘what a difference a day makes’ – but not really. On these bald hillsides there is no more than an inch or so of soil above the underlying shale, although some gullies and basins have a depth of peat. Amongst the dominant mat grass I can find vestigial bilberry and heather plants, reduced to almost nothing by years of sheep grazing. On a steeper slope the dark stain of some stunted heather shows faintly, like an x-ray image of an earlier moorland masterpiece; or more likely red wine on the carpet and about as welcome. Farmers would rather have grass because it supports more sheep. In the peaty areas hummocks of bleached sphagnum moss are pale imitations of the vibrant sponges found on healthy blanket bog. The mat grass is as faded as an old dog, colour bleached out by the weather – it will green up in a month or two. This is somebody’s living but it is poor stuff agriculturally; you need an awful lot of it to sustain not many sheep.
The area near the lake is a nature reserve and has extensive heather. Unlike the contour hugging grassland it is more three-dimensional hosting Cladonia lichens, flowering sedges and some bright yellow stars of tormentil. Day flying eggar moths dash about with blind intensity. From here it is easy to understand why conservationists value heather more highly than grass moorland. The nearby escarpment edge is fenced out and dozens of rowan saplings have seeded themselves amongst the heather: an expression of the supressed potential in this land. A thrush sized bird slips quietly out of a gulley and over the edge: a ring ouzel perhaps, it is just the place for one.
Over the years there has been a long and sometimes difficult dialogue between conservation and agriculture; yet it is always potentially fruitful as they are often mutually dependant. Traditionally British conservation values long established habitats shaped by human activity and the species that have adapted to them. From that perspective some level of grazing in the hills is considered essential, usually depending on the ‘condition’ of the vegetation. So farming and conservation can accommodate each other in places like this, if sometimes with difficulty.
Rewilding is something altogether different. It favours ‘self-willed nature’ with humans withdrawing to the margins, passive onlookers as natural processes take over. Those who promote this vision often consider the uplands to be ‘marginal land’ which is ripe for rewilding. And I am sitting in just such a scheme right here: Summit to Sea is a flagship project for the organisation Rewilding Britain and its partners, which covers thousands of acres of land (their own and other people’s) running from the top of the Cambrian Mountains right down to the sea. In many ways this is an exciting and forward-looking vision, which has much to commend it but it is really a landscape scale conservation scheme, which has unfortunately been rebranded as rewilding. I say unfortunately because ‘rewilding’ is a toxic word amongst the farming community here. George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’ took this area as a ‘case study’ and it has left a bitter legacy – “people don’t live in case studies”.
Agricultural communities are the backbone of the Welsh language and culture and when you take into account the dependent vets, contractors, feed merchants and so on, they are the glue for a rich and indigenous linguistic culture, which demands every bit as much of our care and attention as green hairstreaks and the like. Rewilding sets out to change the relationship between people and the land, so unsurprisingly it is seen as a direct threat to the Welsh speaking way of life. To be effective it needs large areas of land that are currently farmed.
If farmers gave up much of their hill land for rewilding what would they do then? A recent report by Rewilding Britian suggests rather vaguely they could be rewarded financially “for delivering carbon reductions as part of a mosaic of land uses that sustains thriving rural communities.” George Monbiot seemed to envision (ex) farmers in a sort of park ranger role. The trouble is, as a neighbour of mind is fond of saying, “every farmer wants to farm”. Listening to the arguments between these two positions often sounds like a dialogue between a life lived and one imagined.
We could go on having a slow evolving dialogue about all of this: it is a civilised, if often frustrating, way to proceed. But things have changed. A recent UN report (undoubtedly conservative) estimates we have 12 years remaining in which to prevent 1.5 degrees of warming. If we don’t achieve this, melting polar ice and methane from warming permafrost will likely trigger unstoppable climate change that could threaten our very existence. It is clear that we have an emergency and we need to treat it like one. As Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist said recently “I want you to panic”. In such a situation the long slow dialogue is no longer an option; rather we need to be on a ‘war footing’ at every level, from personal to global. There is no other sane option – not any more. We need to move very quickly; yet to abandon thoughtful decision-making would surely repeat the same old pattern that got us into this mess. ‘Discerning panic’ on the other hand, is a demanding requirement.
Apparently, cutting down on emissions will not be enough to save us; we must also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. And trees are very good at doing that. So should we divert the public money that underpins agriculture, as Rewilding Britain suggests, compensate farmers and afforest the uplands? The upland farming community and its indigenous language and culture would then be at risk of going the way of coal mining; another culturally rich, subsidised industry who’s product we no longer deemed essential.
Trudging back to my (fossil fuel driven) car in the afternoon sunshine my head is spinning with the tensions and contradictions inherent in all of this. Right at this moment the only thing I am sure of is my gratitude for everyday miracles: amongst them an ancient tongue spoken and the skylark in its tower of song.