Sunday, 31 August 2008

The End of the Road

A flat wilderness stretches away to the horizon, scoured and weather-worn. A handful of sorry looking trees hold out under the endless skies, and a cluster of squat buildings huddle around the tiny station house, blasted by the uninhibited wind. Besides the painfully slow rail journey to get here, there’s one tiny road in, one tiny road out, and even they lead from no-where, to no-where. Few come here, and at the ends of the earth, who can blame them.

Continuing with this narrative you’d be forgiven for expecting the entrance of tumble-weed, a cattle ranch, Stetsons and six-shooters, but this isn’t a vision of the American West in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it’s my home for the next month. The tiny hamlet of Forsinard, in the middle of the bogs and mires of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands, is at the centre of a huge RSPB reserve. The Flow Country, as it is appropriately known, is an extensive area of wetlands, lochans, streams, heaths and swamps that stretch for miles and miles, creating a unique patchwork of shifting, seeping, oozing plant-life.

My noble steed, with the flatlands of Forsinard beyond
I’m here to repeat a study that was carried out ten years ago, looking at the difference that a deer fence has made to the vegetation of part of the reserve. A patch of land was initially fenced off, ready for planting for forestry, but was bought by the RSPB before the arrival of any trees. The fence, however, remained for a further ten years, and the lack of attention by deer led to the vegetation growing taller, denser and ranker. Many of the bird species that rely on these extensive bog habitats (golden plover, dunlin, greenshank, hen harrier) prefer open vegetation for breeding and perusing for food in, so the fence came down. With no fence, the resident deer population can get in and graze and trample to their hearts content, getting the vegetation back to its original, open state. With the fence gone for almost ten years, I’m up here to compare the vegetation inside the old fence with vegetation outside the old fence. Interesting, non?

The only problems with my new home are that it’s about a million miles from anywhere, and that, for the most part; it’s as flat as a pancake. It is the Flow Country, so I guess it’s a good chance to perfect my bog-trotting in time for the OMM, but since deer stalking is one of the few sources of income up here, it’s not really advised to go ploughing through the mires willy-nilly. Harrumph. Maybe I’ll just have to run up and down the only road…..

Prior to my buggering off up here I managed to keep up a spot of climbing. Jones and I climbed the uber-classic Agags Groove (VDiff****) on Rannoch Wall, Buachaille Etive Mor. It was my first route on this impressive bit of rock, and I’m keen to get back up there. When you look at it, you can’t help but wonder how routes of VDiff and Severe get up it.

Jones with a lot of air below, finishing Agags Groove

A few days later, Chris and I had a day’s tentative exploration in Perthshire. We started at Polney Crag, Dunkeld and climbed The End (VS 4c, 5a***), which was great, but after that seepage lead to me backing off Twilight (E1 5b**) only a few metres up, and made Beech Wall (HS 4c**) pretty hard because all the good holds were soaked. Despondant, we went for a look at Newtyle Quarry, to see what all the fuss was about. Naturally, everything there was wet and crozzly there, so we drove to Weem, to see what all that fuss was about. Again, we were rather disappointed to find a dank, dirty and dark crag in the woods, so when the rain arrived after a route apiece we weren’t bothered about heading back to Edinburgh.

C’est la vie.

Chris on pitch 1 of The End (VS 4c, 5a), the best route of a frustrating day.

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