What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21

A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.

Mountain Matters

Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineering?

Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.

Can we see past the myth of the Himalaya?

Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching the summit is a modern invention

An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?

Hard Knocks on Ben Nevis

The remarkable Gwen Moffat shares a valuable lesson on walking the fine line between difficult and deadly.

Killing in the Name of

The Deer Cull Dilemma

A longform essay from 2018 by Cal Flynn on the culling of deer in the Scottish Highlands, that dives deeply into the local and national politics of killing for conservation, slaughter tourism, the culture and tradition of sporting estates, and the long-standing inequalities of land ownership and community participation.

How the Shooting Industry is Exploiting the Legacy of the Clearances

Reducing the number of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is a necessary step in the ecological restoration of the landscape, but can be seen as an unpalatable activity. David Lintern reports on the thought-provoking film The Cull for TGO Magazine.

Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?

A masterful longform piece by Wells Tower, exploring the mindset of those participating in trophy hunting, and the ethics of commercial hunting for charismatic species as a tool for wildlife management in conservation. It includes a powerful description of the death of an elephant.

Staying with a Hunter Showed Me Greenland Beyond the Tourist Brochures

Nancy Campbell writes about living with subsistence hunters in western Greenland as a rapidly-changing world reshapes their traditional knowledge and experiences.

A Dark Miracle in the Forest of Dean

In most of the UK the likelihood of encountering large animals with the potential to cause us harm is very limited. Chantal Lyons explores where potential wildlife encounters are shaped by fear rather than wonder, and the rewilding of our senses.

Remembering Barry Lopez

Best known for the seminal Arctic Dreams, a natural history of northern lives and landscapes, and how these shaped and have been shaped by human experience. Lopez died from cancer in December 2020.

Why the World Needs Barry Lopez

A deeply thoughtful profile of the writer and his last book by Kate Harris. Horizon explores the almost unbearable beauty of our planet through moments gleaned from Lopez’s lifetime, and contemplates the point where true places meet myth and speculation, where earth, sky, sea, ice and sunlight merge.

My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland.

Barry Lopez

Love in a Time of Terror: On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, Warlpiri Identity

Powerful words from Barry Lopez about turning ecological grief into fierce passion, and passion into advocacy for the natural world on our besieged planet.

Why Mountains Matter on International Mountain Day

December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.

Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt).  It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.

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Heading for the unmistakeable outline of Buachaille Etive Mòr from Glencoe, Scotland.

Five Facts for International Mountain Day

So, what do you know about the mountains?

  • Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
  • Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
  • Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
  • Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
  • Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.

Mountains matter as mountain ecosystems provide us with essential food and water, are vital in regulating the climate of the planet, and are key to the global water cycle.  They provide a way of life for millions of people around the world.

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Ascending through the mist on Mount Karioi, near Raglan in New Zealand.

Mountains Matter for Biodiversity

IMD 2020 is a day to celebrate the biodiversity of mountains and to address the threats it faces. Biodiversity embraces the profusion of ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, and the unique topography, compressed climatic zones, and geographical isolation of mountain environments have created the conditions for a rich variety of life, including many endemic species.

Think of rare and increasingly threatened species like the snow leopards of Central Asia, the mountain gorillas of Africa’s Virunga Massif, or the vicuña of the high Andes.  And the incredible monarch butterfly, which relies on the mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat. And closer to home, the Cairngorms are the home of a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered spacies, including capercaillie, pine martens, and elusive Scottish wildcats.

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The mountain landscape on the fringes of the Cairngorms in Scotland

Mountains at Risk

There’s a range of factors that have led to the degradation of mountain habitats over time, from glacial retreat as a result of climate breakdown to changes in traditional land management practices. Wildlife and plant species are at risk of extinction, and loss of ecosystem services can have extraordinary consequences, for example, unsustainable forest extraction can increase the risk of flooding and landslides. This, in turn, reduces the capacity for water storage which sustains river flow to lowland ecosystems through dry seasons.

Why are the mountains important to me?

Although I grew up on the coast, studied marine biology, and work in sailing, the mountains are where I’ve always spent a large part of my free time. I’ve been heading up into the hills almost all of my life, from walks as a child up Clachnaben and Mount Battock, onto the eastern Munros of Mount Keen, Mayar, Driesh, and Lochnagar as a young teenager.

Hiking in the mountains, either alone, or enjoying the company of friends, makes me feel alive. It gives me a sense of achievement and quite literally, a new perspective on life. Having struggled with my mental health at times, the mountains are where I’m drawn when I need to de-stress and breathe fresh air again; to fade out my troubles with the focus on physical exertion, navigation and route finding, or just revelling in the awesome surroundings.

I’m most familiar with the mountains of Scotland, but have also spent time in the mountains in other parts of the UK, and elsewhere around the world. I’ve hiked in the mountains of New Zealand, Norway, and the Alps, I’ve skied and scrambled in the mountains, and there are so many more places I long to go.

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On the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

How can you support our mountains?

I’ve compiled a few suggestions for ways to lend your support, and make sure your time in the mountains is sustainable. If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments below.

  • Leave no trace: I can’t believe that this actually needs to be said, but I’ve seen the evidence on the hills for myself. Don’t leave any of your waste behind on the mountains. Everything you take in, be sure to take it back out again. Anything left behind can fundamentally alter the ecosystem and cause harm to the wildlife it supports.
  • Follow the trails: On popular mountains trails (think Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend), routes can get extremely busy and you might be tempted to head off the beaten track. This has the potential to exacerbate damage to the trail, increase erosion on the mountainside, and lead to the trampling of fragile vegetation.  Contribute to the environmental management of the area by donating to mountain charities, paying tolls or parking fees, or lending your time to conservation initiatives.
  • Support mountain communities: When you visit the mountains, give thought to the local community and supporting their livelihoods. Use local businesses and buy from local shops, but be aware of the additional challenge of bringing resources into remote areas. Make a donation to the local Mountain Rescue service; you’d hope to never need their help, but if you do, you’ll want them well-trained and fully equipped.

As someone with a deep love for the mountains, and who regularly spends time in mountain settings, I feel the responsibility to share these messages and encourage others to do so too.  Mountains are beautiful, inspiring, and, as International Mountain Day aims to show, vital.

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Are you doing something to mark International Mountains Day?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
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Photo Journal: Whalebone and Old Stones at Jougla Point, Antarctica

At first glance, Jougla Point is low rocky peninsula indented with small coves on the southern edge of the natural harbour at Port Lockroy, on the edge of Weinke Island. A colony of gentoo penguins occupy the peninsula during the breeding season, sharing space with blue-eyed shags and their prehistoric looking offspring, and on the ridge behind, rising steeply to the blue ice of Harbour Glacier, nest Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls.

The buildings on Goudier Island, including historic Base A and the accommodation hut used by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust staff during the summer season.
Jabet Peak and the Harbour Glacier viewed from Jougla Point.

Most visitors spend some time at Jougla Point in conjunction with their visit to Goudier Island, site of historic Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, and home to the world-famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. And just like it’s near neighbour, a visit to Jougla Point reveals an insight into the history of human activity in Antarctica, though a glimpse of a darker, more industrial past.

The rocky ridge of Jougla Point, with the tips of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters range peeping over the rise.
Moulting penguins and fledging chicks milling around in the remains of several broken barrels.

As the tourist season progresses, snowmelt reveals a jumbled collection of weathered old whale bones among the granite stones. Rusted chains and shackles that once moored a large ship. A vast skeleton, a composite mainly constructed from the bones of fin whales is laid out in a cove. Further from the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with the scattered staves of old wooden barrels, and crumbling concrete footings show where buildings once stood.

Fragments of brashy ice washed up in a cove on Jougla Point.
A moulting penguin stands guard over the composite skeleton of a fin whale. During the moult penguins lose their waterproofing and remain ashore until their new feathers grow through.

The Antarctic Whaling Industry

From the early 1900s, the majority of ships operating in Antarctic waters were part of the whaling fleet, or scientific survey vessels associated with the industry. Most had sailed from western Norway and eastern Scotland, signing crews from Dundee, Bergen, Leith, Sandefjord,  Tórshavn, Larvik, and Lerwick.

The jumbled collection of bones at the top of the cove, just a fraction of the numbers that were processed in the natural harbour by floating factory vessel moored in the bay.

The unknown qualities of Antarctica and the notoriously challenging conditions of the Southern Ocean were considered worth exploring, as traditional whaling grounds in the northern hemisphere had been exhausted. Bases were established on South Georgia and in the Falkland Islands to take advantage of the untapped resources of the South, though the human costs were high.

Guides on some of the first tourist vessels in the area created the skeleton from bones left on the shore as a tangible artifact of the impact of the whaling industry to show to visitors.

Floating factory ships soon ousted the need to transport whales to shore for processing, working alongside a small fleet of fast, agile whale catcher boats, which would chase down whales and harpoon them for factory ships to collect. The harpoons were explosive, lodging in the whale’s body before detonating a few seconds later, guaranteeing a kill.

The whalers charted large sections of the Antarctic Peninsula and the coast of Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), making their contribution to the knowledge of the continent, and often provided a safety net for expedition vessels on voyages of exploration early in the Heroic Age of Antarctica. But the intensity of their activity left an indelible impact on the ecosystem they exploited.

Giant vertebra arranged to show the sheer size of the whales once out of the water.

The Antarctic summer of 1930-31 was unprecedented, with the greatest number of whaling vessels operating in the Southern Ocean concurrently; 232 whale catcher ships taking their catches to 32 pelagic factory ships, nine floating factories moored in harbours like Port Lockroy, and six shore-based whaling stations. These were serviced by a fleet of supply ships, regularly bringing in food and fuel for the crews, and taking away processed whale oil for the global market.

In that season alone, records show that 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic, setting an all-time record for the exploitation of the species. Just over 30 years later, in the 1964-65 season, only 20 blue whales were killed, all that the hunters had observed.

Textures of old weathered bone.

The End of the Whaling Industry in Antarctica

More than 1.5 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctic waters before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling was enforced in 1986.

The skull and long jawbones of a rorqual whale.

By this time the industry was already in terminal decline, the result of over-exploitation of the whale stocks and increased regulation by the IWC reducing profitability. Companies faced the paradox that further hunting at existing levels would hasten the end of their industry, but there was no reward for showing restraint, and many of the key players diverted their interests into shipping freight or pelagic fishing.

The end of the whaling industry did not come from a position of nature conservation or animal welfare, but rather the loss of economic profitability from the sector.

The Return of the Whales

The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994. Covering an area of 50 million km2, including waters below latitude 60° South governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, it protects waters that provide summer feeding for an estimated 85% of all the world’s whales. The aim of the sanctuary is to enable the recovery of whale populations, not just in terms of absolute numbers, but also in the balance of sexes, age structures, and genetic diversity.

Yacht Ocean Tramp moored off Goudier Island, and offered the opportunity for UKAHT staff to take a trip across to Jougla Point after their visit to Port Lockroy.

In early 2020, the British Antarctic Survey reported on the results of several years of expedition studies in the waters around South Georgia, suggesting that the long, slow road to recovery was now starting to show results. The observers recorded 55 different blue whales over 36 sightings in 2020, up from just one confirmed sighting in 2018.

Ocean Tramp sails from Ushuaia in Argentina and Stanley in the Falkland Islands to explore the Antarctic Peninsula.

Visitors to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands can contribute photographs and details of any whale sightings they have on their voyage to the citizen science project Happy Whale and help be part of the efforts to monitor the return of the whales to Antarctic waters.

Slate-grey water hiding sleek leopard seasl, and silvery granite archipelagos under leaden skies in Port Lockroy.
Have you visited Port Lockroy and Jougla Point?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

I’ve put together a selection of my favourite books with an ocean theme, including nature writing, biography, and childhood favourites. 

I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

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In Search of Martians on Horsell Common in Surrey, England

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

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The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books set in wilder, remote locations or featuring wildlife as the main theme, including nature writing, biographies, travelogues, and fictional tales. 

For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

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