THE small matter of climate change has been on the back burner for the last few months, and understandably so. I doubt many of us could have coped with the double threat of pandemic and planetary disaster heading our way. But as the virus seems slowly to be coming under control, the issue that was top of the agenda in the months before Covid 19 is sure to return to the limelight. You can tell the message about global warming has been taken onboard when the French talk of abolishing outside heaters in cafes and restaurants, and banning shops from keeping their doors open while the heating or air-conditioning is running.

The guilt many of us feel for the part we’ve played in environmental calamity can be paralysing. There’s a general acceptance that, rather than sharing culpability with previous generations, we are the ones at whose door it can be laid. Obviously there is a lot of truth in that, as we continue to consume oceans of gas and oil, and despoil the seas with plastic. Yet the culprits for harming nature and tipping it out of kilter can be found in centuries past as well as in the international departure lounges of our airports. We should not shoulder all the blame.

I’m thinking, as one example in my own backyard, of James V. For all his qualities as a leader he was never as impressive as his father James IV, or even his daughter Mary Queen of Scots. Quite apart from his military deficiencies at the Battle of Solway Moss, James V is the man who introduced 10,000 sheep into the Ettrick Valley, to raise money for his ambitious plans. In so doing, he destroyed the ancient Ettrick Forest, in which he and other royals had hunted and killed stags by the barrowload. The king’s flocks arrived a some point after 1528, and it did not take them long to strip the valley of its trees. By our own times, all that was left of this magnificent haven for wildlife was a handful of thorn trees and birches. The rest is empty scrubland.

I learned about this vandalous act in a newly published collection of essays called A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond, edited by the biologists Philip and Myrtle Ashmole. Unlike most of the books I read this is not about the past, but about the future. There are almost as many photos as words, but the ones that most vividly illustrate the tale are those taken of the Carrifran Valley, in the hills near Moffat.

At the end of last century, this was a bleak expanse of severely depleted upland, grazed almost to extinction. A winter photo from 1998 shows it as a dreary unrelieved desert: think of a chocolate brownie and you’d be close, though dusted with snow rather than icing sugar. Now, after 20 years of dedicated work by volunteers, it is growing lush once more. Swathes of native woodland clothe the hillsides, and its increasingly rich undergrowth is attracting an abundance of birds, insects, flowers, fungi and amphibians. The range of moths alone is heart-warming. As before and after images go, the difference could hardly be more striking.

Previously you would have been lucky to hear much more than a grouse cackling, or watch a buzzard circling overhead; now it is like the RSNO, as a sorts of birdlife, from meadow pippits to willow warblers, wrens and winchats, strike up from the branches of native trees: birch, aspen, ash, oak, willow, rowan, hazel, Scots pine and juniper.

In a series of pithy pieces, 40 of those who helped bring about this transformation describe how they went about it. Philip Ashmole originally had the idea to recreate an area of woodland in the Borders that replicated how it would have been before humans arrived. Out of this notion the Wildwood Group was established, which later formed itself into the Borders Forest Trust. On Millennium Day, the trust took ownership of the Carrifran Valley, and set to work on creating a wildwood.

In subsequent years, other ecological restoration schemes were also begun, at Corehead and Devil’s Beef Tub, and Talla and Gameshope. Together these groundbreaking ventures began to restore an area they have named The Wild Heart of Southern Scotland. Inspired by their example, others are now following their lead across the country.

Living as I do in one of the great medieval sheep rearing districts of the Borders, in the vicinity of Melrose Abbey, it’s not hard to see the effect 800 and more years of grazing have had on the landscape. As one of the contributors to this book writes, sheep are engrained in our economy and culture, and they are the main reason, along with other herbivores such as voles, deer, goats and rabbits, why native woodland planting is rare: “It’s no mystery: sheep eat trees.” As flocks expanded, their predators – wolves and lynx – were killed, so that today other grazers, and especially deer, roam and breed without any natural check.

The Borders Forest Trust’s vision was aided by bodies like the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage, but its core remained a motivated army of volunteers. Many of these came with scientific credentials – geographers, botanists, ornithologists, ecologists and such like. Others were simply determined to help re-establish wilderness in barren terrain. One weekend last autumn, 70 members of the Glasgow branch of Extinction Rebellion arrived at Gameshope, and in two days helped plant 5,500 trees. In the words of Anna Craigen, the trust’s work would been impossible without volunteers: “They are our muscles, brains, eyes, dirty hands and the true heart of the Wild Heart.”

What is so uplifting about this story is not just the determination and imagination of those who have made all this happen, but the tangible evidence of the regeneration they have promoted. Page after page of A Journey in Landscape Restoration is filled with photos of wildlife now thriving in Carrifran.

Amid the bad news headlines about climate change, and images of bush fires, floods and landslides, it is good to be reminded of the things being done to turn the tide. Work such as that in Carrifran Wildwood not only restores nature to its rightful state, but gives a terrific boost to our own depleted sense of hope.

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