Not for the first time I find myself thinking that “disaster” as applied to weather and nature must be relative. In Britain, we’ve had some hard times recently, not least for farming and rural areas, where flooding and heavy snow has been extensive and made life difficult.
Apart from damage to buildings, there have been a few, horrifying, deaths and life-changing injuries to people and, as with the Till and Bowmont flooding three years ago and the end-March snowfall last year, thousands of dead animals. Yet five minutes watching television pictures from Japan or reading accounts of the earthquake and tsunami, shows what unleashed natural forces can really do to cause fantastic damage and loss of life.
As one of the best accounts I read – by Richard Lloyd Parry – noted: “The wave moved over the landscape as if it were alive, galloping across the winter paddy fields of Japan. At its head was a froth of splintered wood; plastic and cars bobbing along on its back… Then came, unbelievably, blue-tiled houses, still intact, spinning across the inundated fields with flames leaping from their roofs.”
Realisation of what can happen elsewhere in the world doesn’t make picking up carcases of your own drowned, frozen or suffocated sheep any less devastating. Indeed, as Colin Whittemore, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Edinburgh University and small-scale sheep farmer, describes it, in a poignant memoir of last year’s March disaster for ewes and lambs in the Border hills, it can wipe out much of a lifetime’s efforts and end farming careers. Copies of his book are available from him, price £6, via firstname.lastname@example.org
But at least we know, including those dealing now with this year’s lambing in some miserable weather, that whatever happens the worst is unlikely to be an earthquake or tsunami.
The conflict between sheep farming and tree growing is not new. The struggle between conflicting uses for land never is, nor the bitterness it causes. Two centuries and more after Highland crofters were run off homesteads in their thousands by landlords to make way for sheep, a newspaper headline such as “New Highland Clearances” needs no explanation – although it can be pointed out that Lowland landlords also got rid of thousands of small-scale tenant farmers and labourers to bring in sheep.
But as with appreciating the difference between a tsunami and a Borders snow-storm, looking at the big historical picture, that sheep were once used to squeeze out a human population and now sheep are being squeezed out by trees, is no consolation to those directly affected.
We have been here, or somewhere quite like it, before, in the 1970s and 1980s when apparently well-intentioned tax changes made tree planting an attractive option for city money.
I’ve lost track of tax changes since then, but seem to remember the planting idea went pear-shaped, mainly because in the rush to cash in, millions of trees were planted in unsuitable areas. However, by then, including large stretches of the Borders and north Northumberland, young trees had replaced sheep.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Scotland still has only 17 per cent tree cover compared with a European Union average – another surprise – of 40 per cent. The Scottish government’s aim, driven by an urge for conservation and getting to grips to some extent with climate change, is to get 25 per cent of tree cover.
Yet again we get the conflict between an admirable general aim and what it means to some individuals at what has become the sharp end. In the case of tree planting in Scotland, the fear being expressed by farmers and rural residents is that almost half of the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway could eventually be covered by trees, with what is happening in the Ettrick Valley as a focal point of deep concern.
Ian Hepburn, vice-chairman of the National Sheep Association, says that grazing for about 7,000 sheep has gone in the past year alone as land is sold for tree planting. Last week he, and other sheep farming representatives, met Richard Lochhead to tell him how worried they are. Mr Lochhead showed sympathy and concern, and murmured that all change, albeit in the good cause of replacing some carbon-emitting sheep by carbon-absorbing trees, must be carefully considered.
The immediate concern for sheep farmers and local residents who don’t want a landscape consisting only of trees is the apparent 30 per cent tipping point – once more than 30 per cent of an area is in trees, sales and planting can only increase. It seems that more than 30 per cent of the Ettrick Valley is now in trees, so the future for sheep farmers does not look good.
The counter-argument is that in many parts of Britain, and the world, trees and sheep farming co-exist successfully. But in Scotland the main factors are grants available for trees and the price landowners can get for land compared with sheep farming rents. At present it seems no contest.