Coun­try di­ary

Wolfhopelee, Scot­tish Bor­ders

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

I’ve walked the for­est track a thou­sand times, but in the flat grey of this Jan­uary morn­ing the view is un­recog­nis­able. The first Sitka spruces were notched into the grassy Bor­ders hill just over 40 years ago, mak­ing them al­most a decade older than me. For all my life, Wolfhopelee hill – which shares its ab­struse name with, and is vis­i­ble from, the house I grew up in – has been cov­ered in rows of trees. When they were smaller, adders basked along the crushed stone track, and the grassy rides re­mained as frag­ments of the old sheep-grazed land­scape. As the trees grew, the rides shrank and wood­land species ar­rived: gold­crests, siskins and the oc­ca­sional red squir­rel.

Now the spruces’ time is up. This whole sec­tion of for­est is be­ing felled and will be re­planted. Clear-felling is banned in Switzer­land and has largely been aban­doned in Ger­many, but is still favoured by British for­est man­agers: it is faster and more prof­itable than se­lec­tive felling.

I watch a con­trac­tor load logs on to his eight-wheeled for­warder, pick­ing up gi­ant scoops with the claw-like grab arm. Us­ing the grab as a coun­ter­weight, he bumps over an un­du­lat­ing mat of twigs and bro­ken branches to the log stack.

It’s skilled work. The best lengths will be milled for con­struc­tion or fenc­ing, while thin­ner sec­tions go for biomass pel­lets or chip­board.

The Cum­brian nat­u­ral­ist Derek Ratcliffe likened a clear-felled plan­ta­tion to a bat­tle­field, and this is what awaits me round the cor­ner. I pass a forester’s car­a­van with a satel­lite dish and a sign warn­ing me that I am on CCTV, and reach the sum­mit. What I re­mem­ber as a patch of open tus­socks fringed with spruce (a favourite view­point) is now a quarry, the hill gouged out to re­move the shale that sur­faces the tracks. Oth­er­wise there is noth­ing but a flat­tened mess of brash, with the oc­ca­sional dead tree left stand­ing, like the sur­vivor of a wild­fire.

Then I hear a fa­mil­iar sound. Through the still morn­ing air comes the ris­ing and fall­ing chink­ing and clink­ing of a flock of cross­bills in flight. They land in the bare branches of a dead tree and be­gin preen­ing, their bod­ies sil­hou­et­ted like minia­ture par­rots against the grey sky.

Tom Al­lan

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