Tuesday 28 April 2015

Britain is a country and Scotland a nation which say "Farewell" to an old conservationist called Dick Balharry

Dick, who has died at the age of seventy-seven was, throughout his life, an indefatigable champion of Scotland's mountain and woodland nature.

What you possibly didn't know about Dick, that He :

* was born in the village of Muirhead Of Liff, near Dundee, before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1938, the son of a  builder father and recalled he "was given total freedom to explore the woods, marshes and fields and these became my natural habitat. Little escorted walks soon became lonesome adventures" and "school for me was a bit of an impediment, because it took up time I wanted to other things with " which involved his menagerie of three jackdaws, kestrels he'd trained to bring back mice, a pair of jays and brown rats : "I'd tamed them and petted them, so I could take them to school and put them in a desk and, of course, the teachers weren't very happy with that."

* recalled his extra-curricula activities :  "As a wee boy I snared rabbits and caught them for the table for eating. Very quickly I was breeding them to find out how a black rabbit becomes a brown rabbit or a brown becomes a black. So within no time at all I was 'studying' although I was unaware I was studying the vagaries of nature and what happens and the wonders of it" and "I soon realized that the natural world presented more questions than answers, not to mention that my activities also provided me with a healthy diet and a fast pair of legs."

* left school in 1953 and "at sixteen years old, on completion of a year at Dundee Engineering Trades College, I turned up for work at an engineering plant. Whatever my destiny I knew then that working in a factory was off the agenda." "It was unbelievable because the noise the smell, the oil, smoke and I thought, 'Oh no, this is not for me'. So I ran out the door 20 minutes later."

* faced a dilemma : "I couldn't go home and I thought : 'what am I going to do now ?' So I went to the local newsagent and found the 'Oban Times' and there was a job as a gamekeeper at a place called Tighnabruach. Phoned for an interview. Took a bus Dundee to Glasgow. Arrived 11 o'clock at night, dark moon, january. I knocked on this big oak door. Knocked and knocked. Nobody came. Thought : 'I'll try one last go'. So I bent down an picked up a granite curran stone and beat the hell out of this door, maybe about 10 minutes. And a light came on and a voice came from the back of the door : "what d'you want ?" and I said :" I'm here for and interview", she said : "Oh well, you'd better come in, there's a bed over there and I'll see you in the morning."

* on that January morning in 1953, met and was given the job of a kennel boy and keeper's assistant by the head gamekeeper, John Bird who "was a very traditional game keeper : traps, snares, bullets, so it was a 'killing exercise' rather than anything else, but he was a master at his  own art in terms of catching and killing 'vermin' as he would call it. "

* took to taming young animals he was meant to be killing, including a raven called 'Rory' which "a friend for me, it went everywhere with me and in no time at all it was talking" and when invited to a meal with Mr and Mrs Bird, followed him and who together shouted  : "Get that dirty black b...... bird out of here", a sentence he practised with the bird and which it repeated when it joined him at sunday lunch with the local church minister, which "did not go down very well and I'm afraid the raven and I were asked to leave."

*  was forced to say "Goodbye" to the estate on the Kyles of Bute, where he loved to watch the paddle steamer, 'Waverley' come and go, when he found that his pet fox and Rory the raven were not compatible with the landlord’s view of a gamekeeper and an ultimatum was given to the head keeper ""either the pets go, or he goes" – so I left with my furry and feathered friends."

* became a deerstalker in Glen Lyon in 1957, at the age of 20 "under the watchful eye of Archie MacDonald the Head Stalker"  "He was the one who really trained me in what I would call 'the soft arts of the hills', by that I mean when you go to the hill you see things, but 'understanding' what you see and 'interpreting' that in a way that has meaning not in terms of that bit of the hill, but all of the hill and not just all of the hill but all of the estate."

* in 1959 at the applied for and with Archie's support, got the job of one of the first deer stalkers with the newly formed 'Deer Commission' and found the "opportunity to work across the whole of Scotland pulled me into a new phase of my life, albeit still focused firmly on red deer. While travelling the length and breadth of Scotland culling marauding deer and marking deer calves, I often found my attention diverted to the signs, tracks, dens and eyries of other animals – wildcats peregrines, eagles and even martens."

Pinewoods at the Beinn Eighe NNR* three years later, in 1962, was appointed warden of 'Beinn Eighe' in Wester Ross, Britain's first National Nature Reserve and for the interview in London : "Went down there. Grabbed a suit on the way in Thurso, a hairy tweedy suit and marched into twelve Belgrave's Office wearing this itchy, hairy suit and wearing upturned trousers in over my boots, like someone with hair growing out of their ears" and at the age of 24, was given responsibility for more than 10,000 acres of mountain and Caledonian pinewood.

* found the primary focus at the Reserve was on research and working with scientists, in 1964 investigated the poisoning of golden eagles by DDT, helped get pesticides banned in the wilds of Wester Ross and made a significant ornithological discovery when he found a greenshank nest housing five eggs.

* returning to Beinn Eighe in 2009, almost fifty years later, explained that he got a "great kick" from seeing again, the then tiny native trees and "now I go to them and I can hug them and my hands cannot touch at the other side and that to have happened in my lifetime I think is quite remarkable." http://ow.ly/MdIID

* got his first introduction "to what I might loosely call 'The Establishment'" and saw how "networks based on wealth, social status, formal qualifications and public education, influence decision making and how they often over-ride logic and evidence to protect their own interests. Being “out of the loop” as one might say, it was soon clear that my dream job came with limited ability to influence decisions taken in Edinburgh and London. Tactful advocacy, persuasion, passion and promoting public support became the tools of my trade."

in 1964 visited Glen Feshie, both at a time when "there were no young trees that were being grown from the native seed and that had gone on for about a hundred and sixty years" and was beginning to formulate his opposition to tree planting as unnatural and, as he later said : "We don't need it. No matter where you go in Scotland you will see birch thriving. Pines will thrive from the seed of 9000 years ago, that generation. So the idea that you need to plant and cost the tax payer a lot of money by planting. Why ? All we need to do is to encourage this natural process that will follow, if we give it the thrust."

*  the age of 32 in 1969, was rebuffed when he found that "educative foreign travel was the province of the 'Officers', in essence those with degrees rather than 'Wardens' with field skills" but with "with determination and family support", broke the culture and attended a course on the 'Administration of National Parks' visiting "most of the Mid-West National Parks in the USA and Canada along with 40 other delegates chosen from around the World for their experience rather than academic prowess. This was a turning point in my life and fueled my desire to drive change and promote the benefits and joys of Scotland’s natural heritage to a wider audience, by whatever means I could."

* later recalled, 'the intensity of the occasion', when, in the same year and in his physical prime, climbed to the top of Stac Lee in the St. Kilda Islands, with fellow conservationist, John Morton Boyd, who addressed the scene of 'Hirta and Soay and the nearer cathedral like spires of Boreay and Stac an Armin with passion, experience and deep knowledge of those oceanic islands.'

* in the late seventies, was working as the local officer of the Nature Conservancy Council in Aviemore and then played a pivotal role in the management of Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve when the Council bought it in 1985 and was responsible for the successful regeneration of birch woods in Coire Ardair, achieved by the capture and removal of  hundreds of deer and taking out the traditional sheep grazing, which allowed saplings to prosper and, in addition, without detriment, refused to fence the regenerated woodland.

* in 1992 witnessed his friend Magnus Magnusson become founder Chairman on the Scottish Natural Heritage, who teased him that if he had appeared on 'Mastermind' he would have triumphed in one of his specialist subjects :  'pine martens', 'golden eagles' or 'Scots pines'.

* used his reputation to reach out to a wider audience and engaged with shepherds, top civil servants, hill walkers and royalty, used the media to get his message across, appearing on radio and television programmes, and through his papers, publications and books which included 'Beinn Eighe, The Mountain above the Wood, the first 50 years of Britain’s first National Nature Reserve,' which he co-authored and a dozen official trips abroad which included Azerbijhan, Cyprus, USA, Canada and New Zealand.

* in the 1990's was a contributor to Grampian Television series, 'Country Matters' dealing with wild mink : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgrSKZeq3Bo&t=4m56s and the regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKsFjHx-ASM&t=5m30s and red grouse : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX0RSw07W0s&t=13m16s and the rise of the River Dee in the Cairngorms : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX0RSw07W0s&t=1m38s and the problems of forest regeneration : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0dqhmQ4F6I&t=4m01s and on the 'The Art Sutter Show' talking about an 'Animals Charter' : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC501mgnKZM&t=3m57s

* at the age of 59, was made an MBE in 1996 for 'Services to Conservation' and the following year retired from Scottish Natural Heritage as the Area Manager for Badenoch and Strathspey.

* saw the problems of Scotland's hills as overgrazing and over burning and "a landscape which is not giving good public benefit for the people who live and work in the countryside", but was heartened by developments like those at Glen Feshie, which he had visited half a century before and found "no young trees that were being grown from the native seed" and after his persuasion of its Danish owner, Anders Holch Povlson, that it could be managed in such a way, that it could be successful as a 'sporting estate', was able to say : "Here's an estate that's being invested in. There are trails, tracks for people to walk on. Access is at a hundred percent. You can go when you like, where ever you like and the return to the public in seeing a Caledonian forest rooted again, revived again."

*  became an opponent of fencing because "if you build a fence, you build a plantation and when you build a plantation then that is a sort of artificial reality, because there are no deer in it, so the trees are not 'moulded' by the deer or the creatures that live in there and they should be part of that and that's the important thing I plead with people :"Do not put fences up, because fences are unnatural and what's more they are a means of controlling deer, rather than the opposite way round", whereby we should be controlling deer, but in its entity, not just here and there in wee bits."

* remained passionate for an "empowerment of those who owned the land. Because at the end of the day, Scotland is privately owned and what we've got to do is transfer that empowerment to them and say : "You've got a choice. You can either do what we're asking you to do, or you can go your own way. And if you want to go your own way, you build a fence and you put your deer in it. But but if you want to be empowered by what were talking about here, then the thing to do is to really stop and think : "What would happen if I did this ?""

* became Chairman of the 'John Muir Trust' from 2003-10 and helped change it into a professional, campaigning NGO and in 2010, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Abertay University and served as Chairman, President and latterly, Honorary Vice President of 'Ramblers Scotland'.

* was a long-standing Council Member of the National Trust for Scotland and as 'Interim Chairman' in 2009-10, instituted changes to the Charity’s stance on deer culling and was beginning to see benefits on the Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms, only to see the new Chair, Sir Kenneth Calman, 'allegedly' under pressure from the ‘Establishment’, in the shape of the Prince of Wales, drop the new deer management policy in favour of traditional deer shooting which he described as “embodying the selfish greed of a Victorian era.”

* in 2013 as President of 'Ramblers Scotland' successfully used his rhetoric to lead the public campaign to force the Ministry of Defence to withdraw its bid to extend its biggest British bombing range at Cape Wrath with the public statement that : 'No other European nation would ever consider that such a fantastic part of their coastline should be used as a NATO firing range. The MoD would never consider, for one second, that Land's End or the White Cliffs of Dover should be subject to such abuse. Cape Wrath is an outstanding part of our nation's heritage, an end-point for famous walking trails and a vital ingredient in supporting the local economy. It is time for the MoD to be sent home, to think again.'

* remained critical of aspects of public policy and asked : How is it fair that a land manager who chooses to reduce deer numbers to enhance the habitat and forest cover, has to pay to ‘fence out’ deer from neighbouring estates who continue to artificially prop up high densities of deer, instead of those neighbouring estates being forced to 'fence in' their deer ? and also stressed the apparent absence of any integrated vision as to what constitutes the 'Public Interest' in Scotland.

* shortly before he died, received the 'Patrick Geddes Medal' by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his 'Outstanding Services to Countryside Conservation', appropriately at Glen Feshie and surrounded by family and friends, asked to share the award with his wife Adeline and used the event to highlight his hopes for the future of environmental land management in Scotland expressed in his paper : 'DELIVERING CHANGE THROUGH VISION, EMPOWERMENT AND RECOGNITION'. http://www.andywightman.com/archives/4239 in which he argued 'for land management that delivers on an agreed long term vision.'

* stated, with perfect self-effacement in his paper : 'On reflection my career has been a vocation, privileged and fortunate. I am always pleased to hear that my interest in the natural world has helped inspire others and if, through my talks and media presentations, I have contributed to developing the interests of a wider public, then that is a worthwhile legacy.'

* said on April 15th, when interviewed by Mark Stephen for 'Out of Doors' on BBC Radio Scotland, in bed and just seven days before his death : "Now at the end of my life, I am content.. rather than thinking : 'well you should have another twenty years life'. I am content, because of what I've done and what I've seen. Rather than saying : "I'm sad to leave". Of course I'm sad to leave, but at the same time you realise that the contentment and the joy you've had is absolutely incredible. So why shouldn't I be content ? And it's that sort of enjoyment of being able to say : "Well I've had a wonderful innings. I've had a wonderful life." http://ow.ly/MboUB

and, in what might be a suitable epitaph :

"If I go outside. Even now. In this state.
The wonders of nature are absolutely incredible and the more that we learn, the more we need to know."

Who also died this year :

Friday, 6 March 2015

Britain is no longer a for and says "Farewell" to a scarce 'old' permaculturalist called Patrick Whitefield


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old historical ecologist called Oliver Rackham

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