Meeting the Botanists

I had an exciting meeting today with David Knott, curator of collections at the Botanics; my friend Dr Alan Elliott also at the Botanics; Henry Marsh, former head of English at the Edinburgh Academy and Glen Doll botanist of 40 years; and Tom Morton of Arc Architects who is going to build the new Blair House.
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We discussed how – without adding to budget or maintenance – we could design Blair House so as to grow some of the important shrubs, flowers, grasses, ferns, and mosses of Glen Doll on or around it.

My aim is to enable visitors to catch some of the excitement about Alpine catchfly, Woolly willow, Fragrant orchid, Silver ladies’ mantle or Blue sow-thistle which I catch when I talk to people like Henry, Alan or David.

Glen Doll is a nationally important habitat for species like these, but many of them can only be seen by scrambling up inaccessible cliffs, or hunting in remote corners of the plateau. Others are easy to walk to, but difficult to notice or identify without the help of an expert.

Blair House has the potential for providing an artificial cliff habitat, out of reach of grazing animals but within reach of people, to give a boost to the tiny populations of some of these plants, and to allow future generations of Glen Doll lovers to discover them.  
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I’m also talking to Tom about making sure we replace the essential accommodation for swallows, martens, and three species of bats which the old Blair House provided.

I’m hugely grateful to Alan, David and Henry for getting involved and I’m very much looking forward to working with them on what will be a far longer project than the building of the house. As David said, the most important requirement for a project of this sort is patience. The story of the Forfar Botanists which Alan has helped tell began over 200 years ago; the story of the Blair House Botanists starts here…

Eleanor

You can follow Blair House on Facebook and follow me on twitter.

Blair House Redux

There’s one article I failed to post here, which made it on to the Facebook page, which was this. I hope everybody who knows Blair House has heard this news already, but what was more astonishing than the news was the little figure at the end which shows the number of people who read the story:

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Over 11,000 people were interested in the news that Blair House had burned down! That’s some measure of what an important place it has been: and how important it is to restore.

I had hoped to enjoy a relatively peaceful summer, staying in the newly-restored Blair House and getting it ready to open. Instead, I have had a very busy few months arranging the demolition, securing the insurance, and appointing an architect. So here is the news, which gets better as it goes along:

Demolition

The structure of the house became apparent in the fire. Blair House was an old whinstone (dry stone wall) structure with an added upper floor of old hand-made bricks, all strengthened by the harling and the internal structures.

Although very solid while it stood, once all the roof and floors had burnt out, the standing walls and chimneys were a very unstable skeleton. This was proved when the Friday before the demolition there was an unseasonal August gale, and part of the gable over the lab collapsed.

Blair House and Acharn farmhouse were demolished in the week beginning Monday 8 August – rendering all the maps out of date.

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We have salvaged a few things to reappear in the new Blair House as reminders of its predecessor.

Insurance

Blair House was insured against fire for £400,000, but it was under-insured. I did take advice when setting the rebuild figure, but I guess not enough, as it was not a figure I ever expected to see again.

The insurance company agreed to give me the full amount in cash, to use how I saw fit, but this has to cover everything including demolition, architects’ fees, and the inflated cost of building a 20-bed field centre at the end of a long, narrow, winding road.

Architect

After interviewing four architects, and taking two of them to visit Blair House, I have appointed Tom Morton of Arc Architects in Cupar.  You can see examples of his work on his website.

Blair House is quite difficult to categorise or describe: a one-off piece of magic of people and place; and I was impressed by Tom’s ability to get the idea of it, and by the creativeness of our conversations about how it could be rebuilt.

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Tom Morton checking out what remained of the old staffroom

What next?

Over the next few months I will be working with Tom to produce designs for a new Blair House. I hope the accommodation will be similar to what (when refurbished) it would have been, but it will look completely different – and will lose all its old inconvenient features!

I am also having discussions with potential collaborators about some very interesting ideas for biodiversity features: I will write more about this when they are further developed.

Last time around, I was shy of accepting donations for what I felt was a private exercise. As the process has gone on, and I’ve realised just how many people really are excited about the prospect of Blair House being restored, I’ve got far less proud about this, so if you’d like to contribute to new Blair House, do drop me a line (eleanormharris@gmail.com).

Please follow the facebook page for more informal updates, or let me know if you’d like to be added to the email mailing list.

The Great Bug Hug

In a weak moment, I’ve made my first bet — and I need your help to win it.

I work in Buglife Scotland, the invertebrates conservation charity. I bet my boss I could find them 100 new members in a year – so I’m hoping you might fork out £2 a month and join them.

Yesterday was fairly typical day in the office:

Craig, the head, is speaking to Radio Scotland, defending the rare Fonseca Seed Fly which inhabits dunes near Dornoch, threatened by a golf course.

“If it were pandas or tigers, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he’s saying. “This species is found only in Scotland: we have an international moral responsibility for it — and we have to speak up for it, because it can’t speak up for itself”.

Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur's Seat
Suzie leading a bug hunt on Arthur’s Seat

Gabby is out getting people doing a wood ant survey, #NestQuest. Suzie is also out creating green roofs and wildflower meadows on an invertebrate highway across the central belt, the John Muir Pollinator Way.

Scott, who’d probably rather be out on the 9000 year-old peat bog he is restoring, breaks off his day of wrestling spreadsheets to take me and David, the interns, for a lunchtime bug-hunt.

Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David
Lunchtime bug hunt with Scott and David

Buglife hosts lots of interns, and we emerge soaked in entomological expertise and enthusiasm. Both of us are tasked with passing that enthusiasm on to others: me to MSP Species Champions, and David to seemingly thousands of children.

Who knew that there are hundreds of species of micro-moth, of a dazzling array of beauty and cuteness? I thought they were just dusty things that ate one’s jumpers. I find different ones whenever I walk through long grass.

Who knew that Mayflies, those dangly things over rivers, come in over 50 British varieties: a fascinating and photogenic dancing creature, older than dinosaurs. Craig writes papers about them in his spare time.

An elegant Mayfly
An elegant Mayfly

But there’s one thing Buglife forget to speak up for: themselves. Almost without exception, when I tell people I work for Buglife, I’m met with blank looks.

This is not just a matter of modesty. Buglife is a member organisation. Having members gives it political clout — and when we are losing the environmental protection of the EU, when US investors are golf-coursing our dunes, when biodiversity is seemingly at the bottom of everyone’s political agendas — then having the weight of membership behind it is crucial.

Some of my micromoths
Some of my micromoths

Anyone who has followed Scottish and British party politics in the last few years knows how important membership is. Wildlife organisations are, in a sense, the political parties of non-human life: by joining them you lend them a great weight of endorsement.

Membership also means financial freedom. Membership funds provide the crucial core funding to pursue the unglamorous work that so often constitutes biodiversity protection. It’s hard enough for peat bogs and glow worms to compete with woodland and wildcat for funding and public awareness, never mind open mosaic habitat or the Manx Shearwater flea.

And so this was the soapbox I got up on one day in the office, when I bet Craig I could find 100 new members for Buglife in Scotland in a year.

A dinner is hanging on it.

More importantly my honour is hanging on it.

And much more importantly, 24,000 species, far more than are covered by any other conservation charity, are hanging on it (other invertebrate charities, covering the glamorous species such as butterflies and bumblebees, only cover around 1000 species). We have to speak up for them, because they can’t speak up for themselves.

So begins: the year of the Great Bug Hug.

So please join Buglife here. It will set you back £2 a month, somewhere between a bus ticket and a cup of coffee. It’s not all altruistic: you do get an excellent membership pack with invertebrate goodies.

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And when you fill in the form, where it says, “Where did you hear about Buglife”, the answer is — Eleanor Harris.

And please tell your friends: on facebook, on twitter, in the pub, #BugHug — you know the stuff.

And thank you!

Follow me on twitter and facebook.

Bain Bagging

Being up north last week gave me the opportunity to test out Clifton Bain’s The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland: A Companion Guide, by visiting one of the most northerly of the pinewoods in Glen Alladale.

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You can read about this estate, which belongs to the enterprising and controversial Paul Lister in this article by Cameron MacNeish. My main aim was to test Clifton’s book, newly published in pocket format, and to enjoy exploring one of my favourite habitats, ancient pinewood.

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I’m increasingly of the view that one should explore Scottish habitats according to the weather:

If it’s a sunny, blustery day, go to see the peat bogs sparkle.

If it’s cool with high cloud, hike up the Munros to see the alpines.

If it’s hot and sultry, go to a white-sand beach for a swim.

And if it’s rainy, go to the forest, which will shelter you and also looks its best in the rain. Just one excellent reason Scotland’s forests should be restored to a much larger extent.

20160704_131554Caledonian pine forests feel biodiverse. They buzz and flutter with things, and there’s always the hope of Red squirrels and Crossbills: I had an unconfirmed glimpse of the latter, a departing flash of crimson.

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The book was all a companion guide should be: properly pocket-sized with a shower-proof cover doubling as a marker, with easily followed directions (designed so you can explore by public transport – but we didn’t), and a clear description. Ideally one would have the delicious coffee-table edition waiting back home, with the full text on the cultural heritage of these pine forests: the pocket version merely hints at a ‘sad tale of the Clearances’.

So begins the challenge of Bain Bagging: visiting all the ancient woods of Scotland. There are 38 pine forest to collect, and then there is the companion volume of the Atlantic Rainforests, which are all over Britain and Ireland.

I’m looking forward to collecting more, if I’m lucky enough to get wet days…

Back amongst the Celts

The combination of a showery bank holiday and an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland gave me a chance to revisit my first old artistic love, the art of the Celts.

There was knotwork of course, and the point was made that this is really characteristic of Anglo-Saxons rather than Celts, something I discovered in Jarrow and Hexham.

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Small Anglo-saxon knotwork cross medallion, c.750 AD. The top left and (badly-drawn) bottom right are different balanced, single-line designs: the top right is three lines. Different craftsman, same craftsman after a dram, or a deep meaningful point?

But what I really enjoyed was the oldest stuff. One thing I discovered was that those naif figures which populate the Book of Kells and the like are not intrinsic to celtic art, it’s just that the Irish monks were useless at portraiture. This penny-sized face, one of dozens circling around a horse harness, is a perfectly good portrait of a pretty Czech girl, hammered from bronze when Nehemiah was busy rebuilding Jerusalem.

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There were also better examples than I’ve seen before of designs which evoke animals without feeling the need to copy them literally. This ‘deep’ art was a big theme of the exhibition, and contrasted with the literal naturalism of the Mediterranean.

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The depth of the designs was full of fun with fractals: the London bird above had a similar tiny bird flying inside its wing; and there was a spectacular torque from Germany with two bulls’ heads, each head wearing a little torque. Did the little torques have little bulls’ heads each wearing tiny torques?  The large glass cases and low light levels didn’t let us find out.

But I think my favourite bit of design on this occasion was this French pot, clearly influenced by Greek pottery but overrun by a bonkers celtic herd of nested, rotated, spiralled, extended deer:

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The top of the design is at the bottom of the page: I ran out of paper. These illustrations altogether demonstrate that I haven’t done a sketch for years. 

One of the disappointing things about this Edinburgh exhibition, as so often, was the lack of content compared with a London one. I had taken my paintbox in the hope of getting out some colour, but there was hardly any enamelwork, and the two monastic manuscripts were unfortunately placed horizontally in vertical display cases so that it was impossible to see the designs in any detail. I did find this bronze bit, however, with what I thought was just the right pleasing celticy combination of trumpet, spiral, boss and enamel.

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I liked the final section on celtic revival, and I was very glad to see the great decipherer of knotwork George Bain mentioned: I have spent hours and hours amongst the pages of his book (although I’m horrified to see his Wikipedia page features an incorrect knot!). However, I’d forgotten, if I knew, that the man who invented Edinburgh Living Landscape 100 years before it was invented, Patrick Geddes, was also a great celtic revivalist. Goodoh.

Harling and moss

We took a new route to Blair House this week, coming round north of Kirriemuir, which gave us a star Macintosh-Patrickesque view straight up the glen.

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What I didn’t know taking this photo was that somewhere on top of that ridge of hills, Barry the builder was taking the opportunity to walk the 15 miles up Glen Clova from the Airlie Monument (on the far left) to Blair House, to be picked up by his man with the van and taken home for tea.

Meanwhile the man, with the van, wrestled all day repairing dodgy harling which has suffered from damp creeping in under the upstairs windows. This issue which should be resolved with some improvised slate windowsills.

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By the afternoon, he was building up layers of cement over the damaged brickwork. Plenty of work for the painting parties to do in May!

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Inside everything was progressing including doors, toilets, and the new kitchen. The units are white, not blue, but they have plastic covers on:

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Outside, Glen Doll has burst into flower.

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Of course I was getting more excited by the moss in the woods by Whitewater. The stuff on the right is ordinary Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, which takes over your lawn, but I think the stuff on the left is Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, similar in its bad-hair-day look, but much bigger:

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Here it is under the hand-lens, with its red stem and wild spikey leaves:

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I also pinned down two varieties of Polytrichum: this one is Polytrichum commune, the characteristic starry green mounds you see in the woods (apologies for the photo):

IMG_1836While this, which was growing all in amongst it, is Polytrichum strictum, like miniature bullrushes:

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There were also lots of particularly furry grey mosses, their long hairs designed to condense mist. I think this one might be Grimmia trichophylla:

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And this even wilder one might be Racomitrium heterostichum:

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There were also rocks curtained with this one, like miniature pale-green ferns, which I think is Hypnum jutlandicum:

IMG_1843I didn’t have time to identify this bright brindled one up a tree:

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Why is moss so interesting, particularly in Glen Doll? Because it is one of the richest forms of life in the area. There were scores or hundreds of varieties around us. They love the damp woodland and clean air of the glen and are an indicator of the healthy, undisturbed habitat. Also with my love for tiny, intricate, secret shapes and colours, I think their miniature, hidden worlds are particularly beautiful. And because I’m lazy, I like the fact that they’re very easy to spot and sit still for photographs.

But oh, all right, I’ll leave you with a flowering plant. There are Primroses innumerable.

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Memories and Anticipations

I have dragged myself away from my friend Lucy Lawrie’s new story, The Last Day I Saw Her, to write a much-needed update on Blair House. Lucy was my great Blair House childhood friend and we have been longing to get back there together for years. And The Last Day I Saw Her, I discover, has a starring role for one Glen Eddle, a place of forests, rivers, crags, friendship, peace, and idyllic childhood holidays. I think my picture dated November 1987 of charging through a conifer plantation on a treasure hunt fits Lucy’s descriptions better than the elegant girls actually on the cover…

Meanwhile, the refurbishment of Blair House is coming on excellently. I went up today with Dad and found the tops turning white:

The builders are going to finish the inside before doing various bits of work on the outside, which means we can get in and start painting and moving back in much earlier than I anticipated, in May! Opening in June?!

Showers are appearing: this one replacing the bath in the downstairs bathroom, and one in a new shower room upstairs. George Harris exploring in the background:

The basin has been refitted in the big bedroom – after my sister pointed out it was really handy for families with small children. And a new toilet and an old door are just hanging out there chatting:

New windows and cupboards everywhere: these are in the former scullery, now hopefully a more convenient entrance:

This platform is solving the health-and-safety hazard which was coming straight out of the porch door and down two concrete steps. It has already been christened the Knitting Platform:

Not everything is new. Most of the doors have been put back this week: I like the way this one has “keep” pencilled on it, and still has its number 10 on it. When we are painting I think these old numbers may just have to be preserved!

The old kitchen is the new drying room/ coats room. It has also gained a cupboard thanks to a kitchen unit muddle.

I’m sorry I haven’t got a picture of the kitchen going in: it was full of builders sitting around the fire. It looks good though: I will definitely take a picture next week.

I’m hugely grateful to the builders Barry Greenhill and his team from Forfar who are making it all happen so efficiently and cheerfully.

Lady’s Mantle and turf-moss in the snow in the garden.

And if you’ve ever stayed at Blair House – or lived in Edinburgh – or wish you had – I think you’re going to like Lucy’s book.

More Blair House photos and updates on the Facebook page.

Eleanor Harris

Green Gold

As the author of their recent report on Gender and Diversity in Scottish Forestry, I was invited by Confor (the forest industry body) to their Scotsman Conference in the National Gallery this morning. This brought together foresters, academics and politicians, chaired by the irrepressible Muriel Gray, like me a self-declared forest addict.

Plant More Trees

The conference was opened with what Muriel Gray described as a hand-grenade from Raymond Henderson of agribusiness consultant Bidwells, who pointed out that in 2013-15, only 3000ha of productive forestry was planted in Scotland. Scotland is 8 million ha, so to increase forest cover from 18% to 19% requires three areas the size of Edinburgh. The target for new forest by 2022 is 100,000ha, or four Edinburghs. Stuart Goodall, head of Confor, pointed out that there is no point planting new land unless you are also re-stocking felled areas (if you have travelled through the Scottish countryside recently you will know a huge amount of felling is going on), and statistics on this are sketchy. Keep an eye on this: it is important.

The City of Edinburgh area (marked here) is 26,000ha.

Jo O’Hara, head of the Forestry Commission in Scotland, said that woodland creation is the hardest part of her job: there is such a legacy of the mistakes of the ’70s and ’80s, and even then, planting rates didn’t reach 16,000ha per year.

Jo O’Hara’s slide showing forestry planting (conifer in blue, broadleaved in red) by decade since the 1970s. The line at the top is 16,000ha.

There was good news too: Andrew Vaughan, a regional manager with Tillhill forestry company, provided an inspiring case-study of their new planting scheme at Jerrah above Menstrie in the Ochils. Jerrah resulted in 1.3 million trees of 16 species over 583 hectares, and two PhDs.

Regulation

Raymond Henderson identified a major problem with the grant and regulatory system as the reason so little forest had been planted. Andrew Vaughan pointed out that to deliver planting targets will require many Jerrahs, and under current regulation this would require Environmental Impact Assessment documentation amounting to three Bibles. Tillhill is working on another scheme, Hawkhill: the new Forth Bridge will be built within the time it takes Hawkhill to go through the regulatory process.

Green Gold

This phrase was coined by Professor Sean Smith, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Construction at Napier. The representatives of the forestry industry in the room were delighted with it, so prepare to hear it more often. Andrew Heald, Technical Director of Confor, pointed out that Between 2008 (the start of the recession) and 2015, there was a 50% growth in Scottish forestry jobs.

Sean pointed out that a modern timber-frame house has energy bills one seventh of the Scottish average. Faced with the need to design for climate change, wood is capable of far more resilient constructions in the face of high winds than other materials. The fact that the new Edinburgh school wall which fell down in Storm Gertrude was brick was no coincidence.

Andrew Heald wanted to challenge the perception that Scottish timber is used to make toilet roll when it is mainly used in construction. Imagine growing a crop, he said, which needs no fertilizer or maintenance, grows on poor soil, for which demand’s set to double, which produces a construction material in a landscape which people want to go mountainbiking in – and does carbon capture and storage in the process. You wouldn’t go mountainbiking in a brickworks.

Public engagement

The panelists were in agreement that the forestry industry has learned from the regulatory mistakes of the past, and now must learn from the PR mistakes of the past. Jo O’Hara said that there are over 90 million visits a year to Scottish woodlands. Yet Andrew Heald pointed out that few of those 90 million come away with any idea that they have been in the midst of a £1bn industry, of green gold: many do not realise forests such as Glen Tress are productive at all.

Andrew Vaughan said that, according to the authorities, 100,000 people a year look over the Jerrah site from the top of Dumayat, but very few turn to look that way because they are all looking at the spectacular view of the Forth Valley. Yet the Jerrah scheme had to be redesigned so as not to be visible from Dumayat, or indeed to anyone looking at the Ochils by telescope from Edinburgh. He was making a point about the amount of design work required to satisfy regulations, but some of us environmentalists at the back muttered to each other that it was a shame the opportunity was not taken to re-educate people’s perceptions of the Scottish landscape, by allowing them a glimpse of a well-designed productive forest.

City trees: Princes Street Gardens on the way to the conference

The same point emerged from Sean Smith’s presentation: he showed new timber-frame houses replacing inefficient old ones on an estate in Fife, and celebrated the fact that despite their innovative building material they look like ‘traditional’ twentieth-century harled masonry. Is wood so ugly we really need to hide it away like this?

83% of Scots agree with the statement that a lot more trees should be planted. I was pleased Andrew Heald mentioned my project Wild Reekie, aimed at ordinary city types — those 83%, in fact — as an example of the kind of public engagement the forestry sector ought to be doing. It’s the kind of engagement I, as an environmentalist, also think we ought to be doing so I’m delighted to see a £1bn Scottish industry getting behind it.

Elizabeth Barron-Majerik, head of the Scottish School of Forestry, gave an important presentation on protecting the industry’s skills base, and reversing the declining knowledge of the sector amongst young people. She did exactly what I did when writing my Gender and Diversity report: google for ‘diversity in forestry’:

Google search for ‘diversity in Scottish forestry’

Whereas I had then tried another search term, Elizabeth used the recommendations she found for growing a diverse forest as analogies for growing a diverse forestry sector. For example, in a forest you plant closely and then thin it out: similarly, forestry education should aim to have a large intake, including many people who will never become foresters, who will take their knowledge and skills into other sectors. One of her recommendations I thought particularly interesting was to develop a forestry equivalent of STEM ambassadors going into schools.

This need for education was the theme of my Diversity and Gender report which people picked up in coffee-break conversations. One suggestion I liked was to revive the Guides forestry badges.

Sheep and Water

The conference gained a buzz from the fact that the importance of forestry in Scottish upland land-use has been high on the public agenda recently, both in terms of natural flood prevention, and of diversification for sheep farmers.

Jo O’Hara mentioned the support given a few weeks ago by the National Sheep Association to productive forestry in the Scottish uplands, which she sees as a huge breakthrough and accompanied by a significant change of mood.

Andrew Vaughan talked about the potential of Jerrah for reducing flooding in Menstrie. Historic farming practices had created 96km of drainage ditches linking into the Menstrie Burn: no wonder it floods. It is obvious to anyone who has walked through a wood after rain and seen a raindrop hanging on every needle, that once a forest grows up to ‘canopy closure’, runoff from a heavy rainstorm will be enormously slowed. But long before that, the modern skills in designing drainage ditches to drain ‘uphill’, and into wetland areas rather straight into the river, should be a huge improvement on the previous improved grassland.

A larch forest preventing rain reaching the ground.

Another great case-study, of the Eddleston Water Project, was presented by Hugh Chalmers of the Tweed Forum.

Who is my community?

There were presentations on community engagement from Rural Development Consultant Amanda Bryan and Fergus Tickell, chair of the Argyll Timber Transport Group which focused on the rural community. Yet to me, this is not addressing the 70% of us who live in the Central Belt — those of us who ‘want more forests’, ‘think Scottish timber is made into toilet paper’, and have a vague dislike of conifers. The divide between the populated, urban central belt and the rural north, west coast and south is so great in Scotland, and so important to forestry, that it needs to be identified and discussed.

With my ‘diversity’ hat on, I thought the rural-urban divide was particularly evident on the political panel. Andy Wightman (Green) is a candidate for the Lothians, but Claudia Beamish (Labour), Alex Fergusson (Conservative) and Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat) are all MSPs in the South Scotland region while Michael Russell (SNP) is MSP for nearby Argyll and Bute. They were also mostly members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.

It was striking, and cheering for those of us who like consensus, how far the political panel were in agreement with each other and with the foresters. Michael Russell said the two top priorities for the next parliament should be reducing the bureaucracy involved in new planting schemes, and improving deer control. The other parties were generally in agreement. I was surprised that the only spontaneous applause from this rural industry was for the Green, Andy Wightman, who said that instead of having a Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, who claims to ‘represent farmers’, with an Environment Minister underneath, there should be a Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, with Agriculture and Forestry Ministers underneath.

But I did wonder, how many of the urban colleagues of that well-informed and consensual cross-party panel would understand or care about the timber industry, natural flood management, or ensuring planting or re-stocking targets are met? Was this a ‘forestry interest’ just talking to itself? It’s the politicians who have the strong links into the rest of society, and so this is my challenge to them: over the election period and in the next parliament, to get their central belt colleagues out into the woods with some of those forward-thinking foresters — or their party risks getting left behind at the place where £1bn industry meets environmental crisis.

Before you go, spend two minutes watching the new Confor video — and make sure you go into a wood next weekend…

Eleanor Harris is a historian and environmentalist. She can be found @eleanormharris or on her rather out-of-date website at eleanormharris.co.uk

Refurbishment underway

It’s taken 18 months, at least 7 experts (the Bat and Freshwater Pearl Mussel ecologists were my favourites), at the serious illnesses of 2 of the team to get to this point, but Blair House is at last being refurbished. The contractor is Barry Greenhill of Forfar and he is due to finish in early summer, after which it will be over to me and my eager volunteers to get it painted and ready to reopen.

Please follow the Blair House page on Facebook for updates and photos over the coming weeks.
Discussing gutters with Barry
New car park in progress – and in use – it will have grass over it eventually
Everywhere has been insulated to within an inch of its life. This is the plumber and I discussing refurbishing and re-fitting the old washroom sinks (behind me) in new places.
Two varieties of interesting wallpaper which appeared in a bedroom!
Creating an upstairs bathroom: out with the old immersion heater; in with a new door.
Re-plumbing, re-wiring, insulation, door re-hanging: it was like DIY SOS!
New (unfinished) platform in the porch, dictated by the need to prevent the scenario of coming out of the door and falling down the steps. In my head it is called the “knitting platform” and where all that insulation is will have a comfy chair on it looking out of the window…
There were changes up the glen too: the great flood in December has changed the river in many places and created a more natural course after years or centuries of human intervention. Here it’s scoured out all the old branches and gubbins which used to disfigure this waterfall.
Red deer among the birks of Clova. Did you know the Scottish deer population is now over half a million, and was already considered too high in terms of ecology and crop damage when it was a mere 100,000 in 1959? *

Simon Pepper, A brief history of “the deer problem” in Scotland, 2015.

Meanwhile, I’ve developed a craze for moss, something Glen Doll has in abundance and deer don’t eat.
Some pretty cool lichens too…
The obligatory Corrie Fee with frozen waterfall photo.

Business-as-Unusual

The aim of Natural Capital is to engage business, which accounts for the majority of human exploitation of the environment, as a force for valuing and restoring it. It draws on many other ideas such as environmental footprinting and social enterprise. It is based in a recognition that many decades of “traditional environmentalism” — traditionally somewhat antagonistic to business — have demonstrably and spectacularly failed to change anything.

The World Forum on Natural Capital 2015, organised by Scottish Wildlife Trust, took place ten minutes from my house. I was there as a volunteer but managed to participate in almost the whole event, although some frantic last-minute registration meant I missed the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, according to all the reports I heard, skilfully name-checked such an incredible number of initiatives that everyone came out feeling special. There were plenty of Scottish participants including SNH; good news of new initiatives especially the launch of the Peatland Code which could have important impacts on the Scottish landscape; and a specific Scottish Natural Capital ‘stream’ of breakout meetings which I hope to hear a report from. I think, however, that the question someone asked about how North Sea Oil fits into Scottish Natural Capital accounting, which wasn’t answered, needs to keep being asked.

I hope that the sceptical environmentalists, of whom there were many present, were won over by the possibilities even if they remained healthily critical of the claims of specific businesses and governments. “In the sustainability sector we love reinventing the wheel and preaching to the converted”, said one speaker welcoming the hundreds of business participants. “Today we have a chance not to do that”. “I’m from a financial background,” said Michael Meehan, “and I’ve been working for this convergence with environmentalism all my life — as I know many people in the business community have”.

We learned about a proliferation of initiatives to turn the theory of Natural Capital into practice. The Inclusive Wealth Index, which combines produced capital, human capital and natural capital and demonstrates that most countries are experiencing serious economic decline; Natural Captains, a Dutch-based coalition of businesses committed to leadership in Natural Capital processes; and Cradle to Cradle, one of the tools they use to improve product design, are just three.

The fact that this multiplication of experiments makes the whole area impossibly confusing especially for smaller businesses was discussed, illustrated by the clip of Robin Williams playing a Soviet immigrant to the US having a melt-down trying to choose from a whole aisle of types of coffee. The launch of the consultation on the first draft of the Natural Capital Protocol was a key event of the Forum which aims to address this issue.

We heard inspiring case studies of state-scale approaches to Natural Capital policy making. A telling graph from Botswana (below) showed how water use in different sectors had been compared to GDP and employment: either agriculture (far left) is using far too much water, or its contribution to Botswana’s society is drastically undervalued, or perhaps both.

Pakistan, a country which is one of the smallest contributors to and one of the biggest victims of climate injustice to date, has used natural capital accounting to implement state-scale strategies for climate change resilience (below), including a project to (I could have cheered at this) plant a billion trees in five years. “Resilience” was one of the key words of the project: it is why biodiversity per se is the most valuable asset we have.

An example from Canada demonstrated how collaboration is required in public-sector policymaking as much as in business: from the mountain behind our town to the sea, said one speaker, a cubic metre of water passes through six different policy regions.

What struck me as the conference went on was how radical the thinking was within the business paradigm, that is, amongst CEOs, accountants, insurance underwriters, who had no intention of closing their operations down, getting out of the way, and waiting for some kind of experiment in social organisation to emerge. “Our challenge is not to monetarise nature but to naturalise the economy” was one phrase I noted down, which was my most-shared on twitter although someone pointed out it needed a good deal of unpacking to mean anything. “We must standardise our Natural Capital accounting in a few years, not the 150 years it took global financial reporting” was another. “It’s my firm belief”, said another, “we are building a better system, which takes genuine account of environmental and social as well as financial value”. “Our current economic models are as unscientific as the flat-earth movement”, said a fourth. “We can and must change our whole concept of money and value”. The urgent need for rapid, profound, fundamental change was everywhere, and the one concept which was completely absent was any possibility of “business as usual”.

What I found most interesting, because I hear the environmental viewpoints all the time, were the contributions from the business side. The ones I noted included these. Natural Capital assets are great assets to have because if maintained properly they maintain their value, never depreciating or having to be replaced. The average life of a business is less than ten years, so the biggest sector to be engaged to create change in 20 or 40 years are businesses not yet started. (I heard a practical way to address this capacity-building issue in another session: get sustainability tools into MBAs.) “I bet he’s a pretty hard-nosed businessman though”, said my forester friend Simon as we discussed Peter Bakker of the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “That thing he said: ‘you can come and talk to me about anything, but you have to tell me which of the Sustainable Development Goals it relates to first'”.

Also inspiring were the large-scale examples of rapid ecosystem restoration. An experiment in creating “no-take” marine zones (initially to the chagrin of local fishermen) showed that it only took three years for fishermen to start increasing their income as the regeneration of fish in the no-take zone spilled out into neighbouring areas. The National Geographic Pristine Seas project is preserving the last remaining unexploited marine ecosystems as priceless examples of how the seas should be, yielding surprising scientific discoveries for example that the biomass of top predators (like sharks) is greater than everything else — as if the African plains had two lions for every wildebeest. “One of the most important stories I’ve ever covered”, said film-maker John Liu (below), describing such transformations in China and Mali, “is that it is possible to restore degraded ecosystems”.

One of the points made in the closing plenary was that these extraordinary stories of nature’s restoration, which inspire people to participate in ‘doing their bit’ are far too rarely told compared to disaster stories which cause people to give up.

I am most personally grateful to the Forum for its coffee breaks where I met all sorts of wonderful people for the first time: Angelika Końko from the Forestry Commission, Maggie Keegan of Scottish Wildlife Trust, James Nikitine of Green TV, Matthew Roy of Greener Leith, Nicky Chambers of the Future Centre and Alex Kinninmonth of Scottish Wildlife Trust amongst others.

What do I hope the Forum will achieve? One small hope of mine is it might provoke the venue, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, to consider its natural capital management – especially if the Forum takes place there for the third time in 2017. I walk through its environs almost every day and always imagine what it could be like if the piazzas were ‘de-paved’, with more trees, wild-flower beds and flowering shrubs humming with pollinators and birds and soaking up the perpetual puddles which block my path.

I also noticed the EICC lights were halogen, tangibly warming the rooms beneath: when we calculated the energy savings of switching from halogen to LED’s at St John’s Church just around the corner, we found the payback time was so short that the replacement was made instantly. I did, however, love the EICC’s classy tap-water dispensers which I hope appear at all conferences not just sustainability ones — although as someone pointed out, you could make havoc with a bottle of vodka…

I had one reflection as a historian. Most references to “the current system”, our capitalist economy, seemed to assume that it was the problem, an unprecedented new curse creating an unprecedented new crisis. This was the implication of the speaker from the Netherlands, when he put up an image (below) of the charter of the first (Dutch) commercial company in 1606, commenting that this model of business which separates money and ideals was no longer sufficient.

But one speaker gave a different narrative. Every civilisation in human history has met with the fate we face: they over-reached their natural resources and collapsed. The only unprecedented thing about our predicament is that our civilisation is planetary. People nodded sagely at both these narratives, but they conflict. Moreover, the second narrative (which I find much more historically satisfactory) challenges the oft-repeated idea that “traditional cultures” can provide alternative models of human existence we can use. They are not civilisations; and whether we like it or not, we are. Our challenge is to be the first civilisation in history not to destroy itself.

I put this to Nicky Chambers in the final coffee break, and she said, “As a biologist, I’d go further: the challenge is, can we do better than yeast?” The environmental crisis is not just a crisis of civilisation: it is a crisis of humanity. We are at the point where we prove whether we are, or aren’t, in any way more intelligent or moral than yeast, eating up its food source until it runs out and dies. At the World Forum on Natural Capital, every mind was focused on demonstrating that we are.

I hope to hear more reflections, plans, and outcomes of the World Forum on Natural Capital. “I insist you go out of these doors as a leader”, said Jonny Hughes in the final plenary. If the 500+ delegates (not to mention us volunteers) took that insistence to heart, armed with the information and connections we made in the last two days — well, I always said I believed in miracles.