Environmental vandalism

Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Sunart and the Rough Bounds are some of the most remote and least populated parts of this country.

The hills of Sunart and Ardgour

A combination of distance, limited access and the absence of Munro’s or well-known hills keeps many visitors away. Nevertheless, the area has a lot to offer and – at least during the summer – is busy with tourists sharing the environment with locals.

What the hills lack in stature they more than make up for in wildlife and wonderful views.

Parts of this land were shaped by fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers. If you look carefully you can still see the telltale signs in the shapes of the hills, the striations in the rock, the erratics and the protruding rocky dykes.

There is something vaguely reassuring that, despite the rush and bustle of the modern world, these panoramas have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years 1.

Loch Sheil, Beinn Resipol and a pile of rocks

So why do some people feel the need to build small piles of rocks everywhere?


A cairn is a man-made pile of rocks or stones. The word is derived from the Scottish Gaelic càrn.

Historically – even prehistorically – cairns were used for a variety of purposes; to mark burial sites, for ceremonial purposes or to indicate caches of food or objects..

In addition, and most obviously 2, cairns have been used to indicate a route, particularly across featureless terrain.

I’ve done a lot of walking on the high rocky mountains in Mallorca. This is a barren featureless area where, if the cloud descends, route finding is tricky. A subtle cairn indicating the correct gully to descend to the coast – and a welcome beer or ice cream – can be a real help.

Under these circumstances a cairn can, literally, be a life-saver.

Cairns are also regularly used to mark significant summits or headlands. I doubt there’s a hill or mountain in the UK which doesn’t have a cairn at the highest point.

Norman’s Law, North Fife Hills

And many also have a trig point 3 so they already have obvious signs of human presence.

High points

But compare the summit of a hill with the first picture in this post.

That picture was taken in the relatively remote hinterland between Acharacle and Laga on Ardnamurchan. There’s an old hill track joining these two places, used by stalkers going up on the hill, by fishermen visiting Loch Laga and by walkers enjoying the largely unspoilt views.

There are no pylons marching across the hill, no mobile phone masts on the summits, no wind turbines decorating the ridges.

But wait. What’s that?

Half a mile or more from the track … surely that pile of rocks doesn’t mark a significant peak? It’s on the skyline and very prominent, but the curve of the hill behind it – and a quick look at the map confirms this – suggests there are higher points nearby.

It’s off the track across tussocky bog and cotton grass. Other than sheep and deer tracks there are no routes that way.

I make my way up across the moor, skirting the boggiest bits.

Not only are there higher points within a few hundred metres of the cairn, there is also higher land within 20 metres. From these the Acharacle to Laga track is invisible due to a lessening of the slope.

I was here …

The photo was taken from one of these nearby higher points looking slightly down on the cairn.

From that angle the only thing that distinguished the rock on which the cairn was built was the cairn.

A sort of self-referential “look at me”.

Take nothing but pictures …

The motto of the Baltimore Grotto chapter of the National Speleological Society, founded in 1952 4, is …

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.

… which is both succinct and good advice for anyone visiting the countryside (or disappearing down a cave). There’s evidence that some or all of the motto originated much earlier (though ‘pictures’ perhaps started as ‘memories’) and there are similar sentiments identifiable in our Countryside Code.

You’ll note that the Baltimore Grotto didn’t choose a motto which included the words …

Leave nothing but footprints and ugly piles of rocks in otherwise unspoilt places.

I wonder why not?


A pile of rocks that does nothing but draw attention to itself isn’t a cairn, it’s an eyesore.

There has been an increase in this sort of desecration of the countryside over the last couple of decades.

These rock piles don’t indicate a significant summit or viewpoint.

They don’t mark a route across barren terrain 5.

In fact, they do nothing except leave an obvious sign that someone who doesn’t really care for the wild and remote places once built a pile of rocks there.

If it was a pile of beer cans, or if the underlying boulder had been painted fluorescent yellow, there might be some sort of outcry.

But rocks and stones are ‘natural’, so it’s OK.



A rocky Kilroy was here

The geology of Ardnamurchan is rightly famous. There are signs of geological and glacial activity all around. The igneous rocks at the end of the peninsula are ~60 million years old and result from about 2 million years of volcanic activity.

Periodically a glacier will visit and grind them down. In between the glaciers the wind and the rain very slowly contribute to the weathering and erosion.

However, there are lot of both wind and rain and the rocks are still here.

And that little pile of rocks and stones on an unassuming and insignificant exposed outcrop provides indelible evidence that someone else has been there and enjoyed the view.

And then spoiled it.

Perhaps I’m wrong to assume they enjoyed the view in the first place?

It is environmental graffiti.

I was here!

A sort of geological version of tagging trains.

Indelible evidence

However, it turns out these little piles of rocks aren’t really indelible evidence that others have visited the spot before 6.

Now you see it …

With a little bit of effort it is possible to remove the evidence and scatter it around in the tussocky bog where it will rapidly disappear from sight.

Now you don’t …

Leaving the hillside just as nature intended 7.

The Lochaber hills from somewhere I’ll struggle to find again.

I think the sun disappearing at the same time the pile of rocks did is entirely coincidental …

Coastal vandalism

I went to Fascadale at the weekend. A cluster of three or four houses on the North coast of Ardnamurchan. A bustling metropolis in comparison to the nearby hamlet of Ockle which Heritage Ardnamurchan reports has a population of 1.

Fascadale has a small beach with a stream running across it making fantastic abstract patterns in the sand.

Above the beach, on a low promontory, is the inevitable cairn jumbled pile of rocks.

Fascadale … with a (spoiled) view of Muck, Rhum and Eigg, and Skye in the far distance.

Unlike some of the ‘natural’ stone arrangements by Andy Goldsworthy these haphazard piles of rocks have no artistic merit. They are man-made but detract from the scene rather than adding to it.

This is compounded by their permanence.

If you’re going to build stone sculptures or cairns on the coast do so below the high water mark.

Stone cairn, Rubha Cadail, Rhue near Ullapool, September 2017 (but gone now)

You’ll have several hours to construct and appreciate them … and then the tide will wash them away so that the spot can be appreciated by others the following day.

Or used to build another one.

You can put as much effort into your cairn as you want but don’t be upset it’s so ephemeral.

And remember … I don’t cair(n) 😉


Wordless Wednesday #6

Wordless Wednesday posts are images from Ardnamurchan and the surrounding regions – Sunart, Morvern, Ardgour, Moidart and the Rough Bounds. No description is necessary but further details may be provided with the linked full-size image. I will try and ensure they were photographed in the same month, though not necessarily the same year, that they appear online.

I hope you enjoy them.

Deer and reforestation

The moist and mild climate of Ardnamurchan provides almost ideal conditions for the germination of plants and trees. Wherever you walk, if you look carefully, you can find miniature birch, diminutive rowans or little oak trees.

Birch seedling

Parts of the peninsula have extensive broadleaved woodland and the area is famous for its oakwoods around Salen and Ariundle. We have hazel copses, a large amount of willow and alder carr, some grand old oaks and lots of birch.

Or lots of rhododendron, depending where you look, though it is gradually being cut back.

Mixed established deciduous woodland has excellent biodiversity and oak trees are famed for having more associated species of wildlife – including bacteria and fungi, lichens, free algae, mosses, vascular plants, invertebrate animals, birds and mammals – than any other tree in the UK.

Oak, late November

However, unfortunately, it’s true to say that on Ardnamurchan – and in lots of other places in the Highlands – mighty oaks from little acorns do not grow 1.

The missing generation

It’s easy to find seedlings a few inches high and the mature trees are obvious. What’s missing, or at least significantly under-represented, are saplings and small bushes.

For example, we have two or three rowans (mountain ash) close by the house. All are mature trees (~15+ feet tall) laden with berries from late summer onwards. All spring and summer I’ve been finding 3-5″ tall (short?) rowan seedlings, perfect in everything but stature.

But there are no rowans on the plot that are waist or head height.

It’s all, or almost nothing.

Well, not quite. You can find these missing generation(s) of spindly saplings growing from cracks in steep rock faces or other inaccessible spots.

You can also find a few shin-high, multiply-branched, twiggy, de-leaved, stunted specimens. These often have fat little trunks and extensive root systems, out of proportion to the tree height, like a poor quality bonsai.

Browsed rowan

The grim reaper

The inaccessible saplings and the thick-limbed but dwarfed individuals give an obvious clue as to the fate of the missing generation.

They are being, or have been, browsed to extinction.

There’s no regeneration of native woodland because as soon as a tree is tall enough to be noticed it’s a midnight snack for deer.

On very steep slopes the deer cannot graze so the saplings escape. However, there’s often little soil present, or the ground is unstable, or it dries out too much, so the tree never reaches maturity.

Accessible saplings get grazed and grazed again. The new juicy growing tips are nibbled away, leaving ever-thickening twiggy branches. Year after year this results in a stunted, distorted little bush, with lots of woody growth but few leaves.

Too much of a good thing

There are six species of deer in the UK – red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer. Of these, the first two are native to the UK with the rest being imported. However, fallow deer were here before the last ice age and were re-introduced after the Norman Conquest (11th Century).

Red and (particularly) roe deer are widespread and, in places, common.

Deer … they’re everywhere

Too common.

In Scotland, red deer densities (PDF) can be greater than 30 per km2 in places, with very high levels in the Grampians and north and west of the Great Glen.

It is estimated that the current red deer population in Scotland is in excess of 450,000 head. This number has increased at least three-fold since 1959 when The Deer (Scotland) Act was introduced in response to a growing awareness of the damage to agricultural crops and native woodland.

In 1959 the recommendation was that an optimum number of red deer in Scotland was ~60,000. ‘Optimum’ in terms of reducing crop damage and allowing natural reforestation without ugly and expensive fencing.

Presumably not ‘optimum’ in terms of animals available for stalking. Which is a significant part of the problem …

Simon Pepper (ex-WWF Director for Scotland and Deer Commission) has written a brief account of “the deer problem” in Scotland and Reforesting Scotland nicely describe the impact and management of deer. I won’t rehash the case they make here but I think it’s compelling.

The camera never lies

Our plot is not fenced and deer regularly come down off the hill or out of the surrounding woodland. I occasionally spook them when I’m wandering about clearing rhododendron or birdwatching. At night their visits become more frequent … we might not see or hear them but the dog detects them with her ultra-sensitive radar and growls quietly.

They trample regular ‘game trails’ across parts of the plot, moving from one block of woodland to another during the night, or going down to the shore.

I’ve positioned a trail cam in likely looking spots and regularly ‘see’ red deer and, about 10-fold less frequently, roe deer. Whether this reflects the population density of the two species or is a consequence of the locations used for the camera is unclear.

It’s very common to ‘see’ a red deer hind with a calf in tow. Stags are a lot less frequent.

At times they descend from the hill mob-handed, late in the evening, intent on the destruction of almost everything except rhododendron (which unfortunately they don’t eat due to the grayanotoxins in the leaves).

Reforestation and stalking

It’s ironic that deer are woodland animals, yet their presence in large numbers prevents the regeneration of the forests in which they should flourish. Red deer from open moorland are smaller, less well conditioned and have higher winter mortality than woodland deer.

Inevitably, large scale culls have been unpopular with the general public and the landowners who provide stalking.

Importantly though they have been effective. They have reduced the numbers of deer on the land and have allowed the natural regeneration of forest without the need for fencing (which brings its own problems).

Richard Baynes has written about the consequences of the deer cull in Glen Feshie, both in terms of the uproar in the shooting community and in the resulting improvement in reforestation. The income from stalking is the same now as before the cull; clients are “prepared to pay more to hunt a scarcer, wilder animal”.

For a more extensive discussion of reforestation and biodiversity, accompanied by outstanding photographs, I recommend you have a look at Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog.


I love deer.

Particularly braised slowly with a good quality, full-bodied red and winter vegetables 😉

However, I don’t like venison so much I could make a serious dent in the local population of deer.

Therefore, other measures are needed to deter deer and to encourage the regeneration of trees. In turn this will decrease the triffid-like invasion by rhododendron and increase the native wildflowers and understory vegetation.

Deer fencing remains an option but is unsightly, expensive and – because of access issues  – would require gates and/or cattle grids. Properly maintained it is the only certain way to exclude deer.

Lion dung has proved tricky to source, but may not be effective anyway.

I’ve planted a few tree seedlings ‘rescued’ from inaccessible areas, together with a dozen or so willow ‘sticks’ to provide early season pollen for bees. Several of these have already been decimated by the deer.

Transplanted rowan seedling

I’ve therefore protected some with mesh tree guards to help them get well-established.

I’m intending to plant another hundred or so bareroot native trees this autumn. Rather than littering the plot with dozens of unsightly corrugated tubes I’m hoping to exploit the topography to barricade access points, only putting tree guards around the saplings on the periphery. Additional temporary fencing will be added where needed if the barricades alone prove to be ineffective.

Willow cutting with tree guard

Or when … 🙁


Laga Farm on Ardnamurchan has a large fenced area of hillside overlooking Laga Bay in which native trees have been planted. The sparse woodland is only six years old but is already developing really well and is wildlife-rich … and will undoubtedly get better. In addition to the planted trees there is also a large amount of natural tree regeneration now that the deer are excluded.

Laga Farm Native Woodland