Tuesday, 5 August 2008

We need more Scrubbers

Scrub is a funny word. It is a word, like “overgrown” which says a lot about the British relationship with nature. Scrub immediately conjures up images of unwanted, ugly, straggly bushes in wasteland. Moreover it means neglect, lack of human superiority over the wild and a move in the wrong direction, from order to chaos. It can take many years to create the ordered, regular landscape of agriculture, so the encroachment of scrub is seen as a turn for the worse and bad land management.
If you look at old photos of Arran you will see that the fields are beautifully ordered, not a sign of scrub there, but in those days there were many people working the land (getting paid a pittance by their overseers), working the hedges, ditches, dykes and scrub. With big numbers of people working the fields, it was easy enough to remove the odd unwanted plant that sprang up, be that ragwort, gorse,or hawthorn. Now working without the use a machine is long gone, and so what was a relatively easy problem to keep on top of becomes more widespread.
I say problem, because it depends what you want. From nature’s point of view, Scrub is a valuable habitat. Scrub is merely the land taking its natural process from open grassland to woodland. Prickly plants like Hawthorn and Gorse protect young trees from grazing animals and over many years the trees become dominant and shade out those pioneer species. These colonisers help change the soil through nitrogen enhancement and leaf litter adds to the soils nutrient levels. The richer soils then can support the more stately trees such as Oak or Ash. In wetter areas, willows come in and their tangled mass can act as a nurse to other species as well.
This is not to advocate that all our pastures and meadows should be allowed to revert to scrub and eventually woodland, but if farming is uneconomic then we probably don’t have a lot of choice since why clear land if it is not to be grazed. As we have so few wildflower meadows left, it is also important that they are not lost to woodland in the long run, but we need to recognise that this is purely “gardening” for nature and against natural processes.
The main area where there should be more scrub is on the hills of Scotland. It is often quoted that we once had woodland up to at least 1500ft in altitude and then scrub above that. If you go to other temperate countries that haven’t utilised the hills as we have, you will see this transition still in tact. This is all to do with how the woodlands have been taken away, burnt, used and then grazed to leave the present open landscape. Things are changing now, there are less sheep on the hills and bits of scrub are appearing higher up in the hills. There are patches of Rowan forming mini groves below the Witches step and below the String, Eared Willow is starting to march across the hills. The process is going to take a long time, but the landscape we see now will look very different in 100 years time.
The addition of scrub helps to change upland soils. Lack of tree cover has led to leaching of nutrients and the acidification of the soil in some places. It has also made these environments much harsher. Living in scrub or woodland at 1500ft is a lot easier than on an open moor. Lower grazing means more plants and more niches for plants to grow in. Lowland animals would be found higher up also. Upland Oaks need upland squirrels and other transporters. This is not to say that we will ever have wall to wall woodland in the hills (unless planted) and it is the mosaic of scrub, trees, grassland, heath and bog that is so rich for wildlife.
There are also species of trees that have been sent to the brink of extinction in this country by grazing. The upland willows like Woolly, Downy and Mountain willow are all very restricted now and it is only through conservation efforts like those at Ben Lawers that they are being saved. On Arran we don’t have these species but we have Juniper hiding, dwarf birch and of course our indigenous Whitebeams waiting to colonise the hills. There are few people, even in the beardy world of conservation, that are interested in promoting Scrub, but there is a pioneering group “The Montane Scrub Action Group” which may sound like a dry affair, but they refer to themselves as “Scrubbers” - we need more of them.

No comments: