Out in the wilds: a welcome road to nowhere

Another Life

 Nephin’s nature: wilderness in a modified landscape. Illustration: Michael Viney

Nephin’s nature: wilderness in a modified landscape. Illustration: Michael Viney


There’s a stretch of road in north Mayo, through Bangor Erris to Mulrany, where the sky opens up to twice its normal size and is lighted, at times, by several suns. They whirl around a bowl of bog and forest, rimmed with sharp mountains and watered by salty storms. No one should live here, on Ireland’s tundra, but wild-goose wardens and salmon anglers, flailing a river rattling with cold, glacial stones and watching out for bears.

Such delirium can overtake me in the one piece of Ireland that catches the spirit of wilderness – space for the soul and no firm destination. I am lucky to have tasted wilderness for real, on the jagged edge of northeast Greenland, where trackless summer tundra fringes an awesome maze of rawly etched hills, beyond them the glimmer of the icecap.

This stretch of the High Arctic is patrolled year round by naval volunteers of the Sirius dogsled patrol, who must visit every empty valley of thousands of kilometres of coast at least once every five years to wave the flag of Danish sovereignty – god-like young men, as I remember them at a weather-station booze-up, burned dark brown, and boisterously fit and joyful. After three months in the wild, stalking barnacle geese with the scientists David Cabot and Roger Goodwillie, I also emerged sunburnt and skinny, and not a little exalted.

As polar warming advances, hinting at wealth underground, much of the High Arctic now swarms with helicopters. But there remain a few other kinds of wilderness on offer. “When I would re-create myself,” wrote Henry Thoreau, “I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp . . . There is the strength, the marrow of Nature. In short, all good things are wild and free.”

With similar perversity, I once burrowed downhill into Coillte’s forest on the far side of the mountain, discovering the lacerating prickliness of close-planted Sitka spruce. The reward was to find the trees, so wind-dwarfed at the margin, hung with decorative lichens like a Christmas bazaar.

Something like this, but gentler on the skin and properly furnished with red squirrels, pine martens and deer, is in prospect within a raven’s flight of the road invoked above. This borders Ballycroy National Park, which, in turn, butts up against the wilder lappings of Coillte’s lodgepole-pine forest at the foot of Nephin Beg. Four thousand hectares of Pinus contorta , madly self-seeding and tangled with rhododendron, will meld with the nobly bare mountain slopes in the Wild Nephin Wilderness Area project – 11,000 hectares in all.

The project has matured over several years as the vision of Bill Murphy, Coillte’s head of recreation, environment and public goods (a resounding and admirable title). Next month, he will lead delegates from an international conference in Westport to inspect his long-considered prototype of “wilderness in a modified European landscape”, the conference theme.

“Rewilding”, the new buzzword of European conservation, can mean many things, from bringing back the wolves and beavers to letting chosen livestock graze the woods. Given how little remains of Europe’s untramelled landscape, the focus is now on the chance to offer “the experience of wilderness” within the confines of national forestry. Campers, orienteers, fishermen, birdwatchers are to be offered fairly trackless landscape on a scale that promises no sight of a building, or sound of a car, and that gives nature time to evolve a postforestry web of life.

For some passionate advocacy, go to Dr Mark Fisher, of the Wildland Research Institute at Leeds University, a lead speaker at the Westport conference. His blog, at www.self-willed-land.org.uk, defines true wilderness as “self-willed” because plants and animals can thrive there free of any human control. The degree to which this can be balanced with human management will be a central theme at Westport.

Figuring large will be the story of Wild Ennerdale, a remote valley on the western fringes of the UK’s Lake District National Park, with “a history of sheep-battered fells and conifer slums”. In 2002, its landowners, which included the Forestry Commission and a big private company, agreed to let the valley run wild “for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its ecology and landscape”.

With mountains at its head, a long lake and only three buildings in almost 10km, the valley was opened to free-grazing native black Galloway cattle. A violent storm in 2005, wrecking huge swathes of conifers, hastened the clearance of Sitka spruce, the planting of native broadleaves and the restoration of bogs. The cattle’s grazing is helping the return of devil’s bit scabious, food plant for the 3,000 marsh fritillary butterflies released since their local extinction in 1970.

As Ennerdale’s manager, Gareth Browning, may well repeat to next month’s conference: “We’re not producing timber here now; we’re producing wildness.”