Ted Brocklebank knows if one man had to decide the future management of the wild places, Adam Watson would be a natural choice
THERE'S a two-inch covering of snow when I arrive at the bungalow home of Professor Adam Watson deep in a copse of birch and pine near the village of Crathes in Aberdeenshire. To the west, dark snowclouds gather over the foothills of the Cairngorms.
``What weather!'' I greet him. He replies without irony: ``Aye - great, isn't it!'' And you remember that this man's life work has been snow and the creatures who make their lives in it. The fact is Adam Watson actually likes snow. Reminiscing in his study over a friendship stretching back over 20 years we recall the event that first brought us together.
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Adam Watson was the Crown expert witness at the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the deaths of six children from Edinburgh who perished on a school outing in the Cairngorms. As a young TV reporter I'd covered the tragedy and its aftermath. We realise as we talk that it's 25 years to the day since the children were lost in a late November blizzard.
There have been over 500 fatalities on Scottish mountains in the intervening quarter of a century, mostly because people misjudged the conditions. Only days after our meeting, in a virtual reprise of the Cairngorms tragedy, six 12-year-olds are fortunate to be rescued from Snowdonia. Watson believes the lessons of the Cairngorms disaster have still not sunk in.
``There are still do-gooders in local authorities and elsewhere who think they know what's best for other folks' children and get taxpayers' money for putting them in dangerous situations,'' he declares.
``They don't realise we're just visitors in these wild places. How many of us are equipped to survive on the Cairngorm plateau in winter? The ptarmigan and mountain hare and people like the Innuit Indians have adapted to live in snow. An Innuit can build an igloo in about 45 minutes, a ptarmigan can build a snow hole in 20 seconds. They use the snow to help them survive.''
Watson has been fascinated by snow since childhood, by the complexity of individual snowdrops and by the many different types of snow. Much of his research has been on snow patches in the Cairngorms. It was his first reading of Seton Gordon's The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland as a boy of nine that lured him to the hills and prompted a passion for wild places, especially in winter, that endures nearly six decades on.
Adam Watson would be the last to discourage others sharing his love of remote places, but he insists that going to the hills, and especially owing large tracts of these hills brings special responsibilities. There can be few who've fought more tenaciously to protect and preserve the Cairngorms, ``Britain's last area of natural land just as Mother Nature left it''. There can be equally few among the land-owning fraternity who don't wish this internationally-recognised academic had spent more time in the lecture room and less interfering with their pursuits on the high tops.
Recently Watson publicly criticised the London-based Will Woodlands Trust for failing to fulfil their earlier promises to help restore the original woodland and drastically curtail deer numbers on the 42,000 acre Glenfeshie estate - ``the jewel in the Cairngorm crown''. Will Woodlands, with no conservation track record, acquired Glenfeshie for #5m. Most environmentalists, including Watson, believed the RSPB and John Muir Trust would have been more suitable owners, but Scottish Natural Heritage, set up in 1992 with a budget of #40m to oversee wilderness management, refused that partnership financial support. Now, with the publication of Will Woodlands' 10-year plan for Glenfeshie, Watson is scathing about the role of SNH in failing to influence the management plan for the estate.
``It has been nothing short of a national scandal,'' he declares. ``After all the promises given, SNH has totally failed in its management role, and what we see are all the old practices of private landownership being re-enacted by a charitable trust.''
While Will Woodlands' declared strategy is to reduce deer numbers and set up fenced areas for new planting and re-generation. Watson believes this is just window dressing aimed at concealing a traditional sporting estate.
``They talk about erecting 17km of temporary fencing to protect the enclosures from the door, but what we need is deer reduction without fencing. Deer fencing is the principal reason for the Capercaillie being on the edge of extinction. The old Caledonian pine forest will renew itself without any need of fencing if deer numbers are sensibly reduced by culling.''
The Trust's strategy also includes the dismantling of 35km of old fencing. But Watson doesn't see why they should be entitled to public grants for this. ``If I dump a car I should pay to have it removed. If their old fences have to be torn down why should the taxpayer pick up the tab?''
Watson is also opposed to the winter feeding of deer by estates, including Glenfeshie, which he believes has contributed to Scotland's current 300,000-strong red deer population - twice as high as in the 1950s. Patrick Gordon Duff Pennington, chairman of the Red Deer Commission, resigned from the advisory board set up to guide Will Woodlands. Watson believes that even Pennington, a landowner in his own right, doubted the Trust's willingness seriously to reduce deer numbers on Glenfeshie.
Watson sees Glenfeshie as just the latest in a chapter of disastrous decisions since the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission were originally lumped into SNH.
From an environmental standpoint the 74,000 acre Mar Lodge estate, bought from an American millionaire by the National Trust for Scotland, again with the involvement of the SNH, was an earlier and equally controversial transaction.
``I was scientific adviser to a consortium involving the RSPB, the John Muir Trust, and the Worldlife Trust,'' he recalls. ``I genuinely believe this grouping would have acted in the best public interest for Mar Lodge. But it became obvious that SNH were dragging their heels in the negotiations. In my view they'd been got at by the big landowning interests.
``Eventually we were forced to withdraw and the National Trust for Scotland, supported by something called the Easter Trust, bought it for #10m. Time will tell whether this is in the best interest of Mar, but the same landowning hunting mentality exists on the board of the National Trust, so I'm not optimistic.''
As we talked, and unknown to us, a few miles away from the chairman of SNH, Magnus Magnusson, was making the headlines in a speech at Aberdeen's MacAulay Institute, suggesting a novel solution to some of Scotland's other land-use problems. Presumably tongue in cheek, Magnusson suggested efforts to prevent coastal erosion threatening such as the famous 18th fairway at St Andrews' Old Course were largely a waste of effort.
Tamper with Nature at your peril was his message, which served to highlight Adam Watson's frankest criticism of SNH.
``There is a definite lack of backbone,'' he declares, ``and a glaring lack of knowledge about the environment, and the SNH is in the Scottish Office's pocket. In case after case it has followed the Government line - that means the line of the vested landowning interests - even when the advice of good people in the local SNH offices has been to the contrary.''
Watson himself is a committed nationalist, his wife, Jenny, an active SNP councillor. He is convinced the long-term solution to land-use in the Highlands is community ownership, as in Switzerland and Norway, but long before that, ideally in the next parliament, he believes the invidious link between landowners and taxpayers' money should be severed.
``As long as hereditary peers sit in the House of Lords voting to protect their own self-interest we will never sort out land use in Scotland,'' he says bluntly. ``The Lords in its present form must go.''
Adam Watson's battle centres on plans to build a funicular railway to replace the Cairngorm chairlift. The local representative of SNH came down against the proposal on the grounds that it would cause still further damage to the delicate ecostructure of the Cairngorm plateau, but the organisation's main board has now indicated that it is considering investing #10m of public money to the proposed project. What price Magnusson's admonitions on tampering with Nature! Professor Watson believes that enough is enough.
``What's required is a Public Inquiry under oath while there's still something worth saving in the Cairngorms,'' he asserts. ``Clearly the voluntary principle has failed and there has to be strategic, non-sectoral examination of what's to be done done about our single most important environmental area.
``The future of the Cairngorms is far too important to be left to a quango which has lost the confidence of everybody involved other than the landowners themselves.''