Looking out for swifts

Swifts are quintessential birds of high summer here in central Scotland, arriving to breed during May, departing again in August leaving only echoes of their screaming, acrobatic flight along with our memories of warm days. At this time of the year, I begin to anticipate their return and look out for them.

Thanks to the development of miniature tracking devices, we now know that they spend the rest of their year on the wing, more than 99% of their time, 24/7, reaching south as far as central Africa before returning to their exact point of departure (allowing the trackers to be recovered)1.  It is hard to begin to grasp how our world looks from a swift’s point of view, “…intelligent in ways that are different from ours…”2. They clearly know where they are and where, and when, to go.  They can find their food, for example swifts have been observed patrolling advancing storm fronts, scooping up insects caught in the updrafts. The trackers confirm that they habitually fly high at dawn and dusk, taking over an hour of sustained effort climbing to 8,000ft and beyond before gliding down.  Nobody is (yet) quite sure why, perhaps simply an opportunity to sleep on the wing?

Swift numbers have gradually declined over at least the last 20 years, perhaps by about half3. Even when nesting, swifts range many miles in search of food so, as a result, reliable annual counts are difficult. So how can we best ‘look out’ for them (in a different sense)?

Long-term, swifts have benefited from expanding human habitation, our buildings, bridges and other structures providing nesting opportunities additional to natural crags and crevices4. But other changes are less positive. Recent studies provide evidence of massive and widespread losses of the flying insects which provide their food5, and the fuel for their long journeys.  Climate change, air pollution, light pollution (affecting navigation) and other threats affect their migration routes.

Swifts benefit from co-ordinated international action. In 2014, the UN Convention on Migratory Species adopted an African–Eurasian Migratory Landbirds Action Plan6with the aim of improving the conservation status of swifts along with other long-distance landbird migrants, especially those that overwinter south of the Sahara. Wordy (and worthy) perhaps, but a framework for cooperation is in place and active7.

Here in Scotland we enjoy, and cherish, an iconic wide-ranging bird, the status of which is not obviously linked to land management. But the decline in insect populations is a consequence of more intensive land management, which squeezes out non-crop species. We must make space for nature – land management measures are needed to sustain the insect populations across our farmland so as to benefit our swifts, among others, and allow us to look forward to their return for many summers to come.

Constructive Tension?

This deceptively comforting phrase has been lodged in my head throughout my career.  I first came across it when reading the 1972 report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs ‘Land Resource Use in Scotland’.  It’s used several times in the report but especially at Para 426: “…In respect of land uses in rural areas we believe that the four “heavyweight” official institutions each representing a major aspect of countryside land use—the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission, the Nature Conservancy and the Countryside Commission-should continue to flourish, and we hope that a situation of ‘constructive tension’ would exist between them…”.

Wild plants and animals range throughout Scotland, not just in special areas. The largest land uses are farming and forestry, so it is no surprise that the way land is managed has major implications for the health and wellbeing of these species. Getting general recognition of these implications, with concerted, collective action to address them has been, and remains, a huge task.  A lot of progress has been made over the years, but much still remains to be done.  In the meantime, grievous losses of species and their habitats have continued – evidenced, for example, by the Scottish Government indicators 1.

I set out with a belief that joined-up land management, responsive to all the diverse pressures on people and wildlife, is the right approach. Through many twists and turns, I still hold that this is so. Successful conservation of nature is a team effort, not a solo event.

The need for care, to halt and repair the damage inflicted on the planet by human beings, is well-understood and backed up with plenty of evidence. But our collective capacity successfully to deliver care is much more in question. Making the case for the conservation of our natural assets is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. We also need to understand how this can best be achieved, how to make best use of our collective experience and resources, and to act accordingly. So there’s a focus on people, on institutions and how joint effort works in practice.

Over the last century, perhaps the standard response to biodiversity loss has been to designate land for habitats and species deserving protection. There have, as a result, been some successes but also many failures. All designations face a continuing challenge to define appropriate management. Over the same period a huge increase in the human population and living standards has created growing pressure, and now we can see systemic impacts on atmospheric chemistry and especially climate. Wild places have been in retreat, while cities have grown in terms of area and reach, leaving some scope (and enthusiasm) for ‘rewilding’. The idea attracts diverse interpretations, enthusing some while riling others.

A growth in international collaboration has taken place under the broad umbrella of globalisation. But now, in the 21st Century, we are seeing a backlash, an urge to ‘take back control’. This fantasy of control has highlighted the poor performance, sometimes outright failure, of many management interventions. There are underlying questions of power relationships and political economy. Our experience tells us that framing these in win-lose, zero sum terms is wrong. But the terms of a collaborative partnership approach struggle to gain a hearing.

There’s a need, and opportunity, for spaces to explore these challenges, tease out what works and to establish some underlying principles.

A starter for 10 – the puzzle of Fraser Darling

On my bookshelf lies my parents’ Readers Union copy of Frank Fraser Darling’s ‘Island Years’, this edition from 1952, although I think it was first published in 1940.  Reading this as a child, my imagination transported me to Hebridean islands I didn’t visit in person until many years later.  In 1969, I heard some of FFD’s BBC Reith Lectures ‘Wilderness and Plenty’ and was inspired to a life in environmental conservation. By that time he was long gone from Scotland, established as a conservation figure of international renown.  In 1970 he was knighted, retiring to Scotland where he died in 1979, aged 76.

As a young researcher in the 1970s I discovered the ‘West Highland Survey – an essay in human ecology’, commissioned in 1943 by wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, conducted between 1944 and 1949 but not published until 1955. Its main conclusion, that: ‘…the Highlands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation….’ 1, remains controversial to this day. I heard vague rumours of disputes which were said to have led to FFD’s departure, first for the USA and later to Africa and other parts of the world.  What really happened, and why were the findings of the WHS set aside for so many years?

Some clues may be found in the work of several authors but nowhere have I found a completely satisfying account. I have been told that FFD was done down by civil servants who found his perspectives were not to their liking.  After a working life dealing with their successors I find this too simplistic to be convincing. There must surely be a deeper, and more compelling, narrative allowing for more constructive interpretations. What might this be?

I turned first to the work of John Morton Boyd, my first senior boss at NCC and a close collaborator with FFD.  His 1986 book ‘Fraser Darling’s Islands’ includes a whole chapter on the West Highland Survey: “…there is little doubt that the ideology employed by Frank in the Survey resulted in the work being non-conformist in the agricultural lobby and disregarded as a serious basis for policy and planning in the Highlands and Islands…”2. There are hints of other disputes, around the establishment of the Nature Conservancy and the management of red deer.

The historian Chris Smout (2011) bluntly describes: “…a man of charisma and little tact…”3, which chimes with some of the evidence.  But FFD’s later achievements outwith Scotland rather contradict any implication that he was simply a maverick.  Another historian, Jim Hunter, makes a more sympathetic pitch (1995, 2014), suggesting that the Survey’s conclusion is difficult from ‘both sides’4 . This frames the dispute as a bilateral argument between ‘highlanders’ and ‘environmentalists’ (excluding, for example, public officials). The former, Hunter argues, feel slighted while the latter seem unwilling to accept a vision of rehabilitation which includes human beings.

Puzzled by these varied points of view, I consulted the public record, official files held by the National Records of Scotland.  These are voluminous, for example detailing routine correspondence between the Survey and its sponsors in Government. Here I came across a letter from FFD to the Department of Agriculture dated June 1950 which includes: “…the government has so carefully sealed off the WHS….because no Government wants to start a 100 year job; the Highlander won’t like it because he takes it as a personal slight…..and your Department won’t like it because you can’t do very much about it….”5. Quest over?  Not really, because the files reveal so much else of what was going on at the time.  For example, coincident with the WHS was an interdepartmental group charged: “…to prepare a statement of what had been and what remains to be done for Highland development…”6– the Anderson Committee, which reported in 1945 and led to a White Paper on Highland Development in 1950. Nowhere in these papers could I find a single reference to the WHS despite its original sponsor and public funding. So perhaps the issue was that the WHS, for all its long-term significance, was ploughing a lonely furrow, so to speak, making no effort to engage with other work addressing similar challenges?

Much was made at the time of the delay between completion of WHS fieldwork in 1949 and eventual publication in 1955; there are some implied official reservations about giving the Survey’s findings the ‘oxygen’ of publicity.  But equally, there’s plenty of evidence of delay in simply completing a write-up. The correspondence shows FFD was clearly distracted – by his involvement in setting up the Nature Conservancy and especially by his lengthy absences in the USA from late 1950 onwards – but equally these experiences fed back into his adoption of terminology such as ‘human ecology’ in the subtitle and informed his final verdict of a ‘devastated terrain’.

So my puzzle remains incomplete. Constructive tension?  More of the latter than the former, I fear.