Is Eco-tourism good for the environment?

This piece was prompted by a brief debate on the Facebook Group of “Terra Incognita” an organisation promoting eco-tourism.

This is from Meike Becker.

. . . . I really found it hard to justify the passion for traveling at all while explaining how it is important to lower your impact on the environment.

I thought about how I could make my travels a greater good for environmental protection and so the idea is now, to collect examples of people and projects I meet on the road who are already doing great work in sustainability. I started to write articles about people who make an example and publish them on the blog to inspire people back home or elsewhere who are maybe still finding it hard to just start making a difference. This can be very small stuff, for example one story I am currently writing down is about a couple who built a fully (tiny) home just doing upcycling, means using things they found somewhere which got thrown away.

I still think about how to fully deal with this difficult topic of “sustainable travel” . . .

It could be the cynicism of old age, but I no longer believe that there are positive choices we can make in how we live which will have any noticeable effect on the climate/ecological crisis. I do scrupulously recycle everything I can and live in an almost carbon-neutral house but I don’t really think these choices will disturb the ever rising curve of fossil fuel emissions which is pushing us remorselessly towards an almost uninhabitable earth within the lifetime of my grandchildren.

If you are one of the rapidly growing minority able and willing to look clearly at what is happening to our world, and if you live in the so-called developed or Western world you will find yourself living parallel and incompatible lives. One side of your brain lives and works in the “normal” world of conventional economics where we measure our wellbeing by how much we consume and judge our future by how much economic growth we can achieve. The other side sees a world on the brink of collapse in which some form of severe hardship looks inevitable.

Those of us with a life expectancy of less than 20 years have a get out clause – “not in my lifetime”. We can be forgiven for continuing to live and think as we have done for most of our adult lives. This doesn’t work for me though. As the natural world retreats from the human onslaught, I seek ways of getting closer to it. If I can deepen my understanding of the living world, perhaps I may find a way to reconcile these parallel worlds in my head.

To that end I have spent the last 5 years trying to find places where I can get close enough to the remnants of Britain’s wildlife to photograph and record them. For various reasons I am not comfortable in groups – especially groups of people like me – and prefer to travel alone, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find places where I am not jostled and disturbed by the ever-rising numbers of people seeking the same thing. We are all inspired by the astounding images of wild creatures shown on our screens and we all want to get out there and be with them. In the “normal” world we are part of a large and growing business.

An astonishing 75% of British households are reported to feed birds in our gardens, spending an estimated £200 million to do so! Not quite in the same league as the £1.2 billion we spend on crisps, but you get the picture.

The RSPB claims that the re-introduction of the White Tailed Sea Eagle is worth £5 million in tourist spending per annum to the Isle of Mull alone, and generates 110 local jobs there.

Nature Reserves are hugely popular. The reserves managed by English Nature for example are estimated to generate £22 million in economic activity. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 2018 had 200,000 members, attracted just over a million visitors and generated an income of £21.8 million.

We are generally encouraged to see figures like this as a good thing. They show that there is real concern for the future of the non-human life that shares our living space.

I’m not so sure.

It can also be seen as an abusive cycle: we use the fabulous incomes that economic growth has given us to buy more and more stuff and travel ever further and more often. Then we spend more of this fossil fuel-driven income on things that make us feel better about it – Nature Conservation for example. We drive our high emitting cars or fly in even higher emitting planes to special places where we pay a whole army of professional conservationists to repair some of the damage we have done.

It could even be argued that all this activity serves no better function than to ease our consciences and allow us to continue with our comfortable and exciting lives.

I think most of us who care about the natural world would agree that a much better approach would have been not to have done so much damage in the first place. We all want to find ways to reverse the damage, and there is an appealing logic in bringing tourist income to places where, to feed their families humans are driven to destroy the environment. The flaw with this argument is that it involves even more economic activity, namely travel, by the wealthy countries; more of that very consumer spending which has caused most of the damage.

There is an alternative, and it’s one which may be forced on us anyway: pull back, do less. This is at the heart of the now fashionable concept of “Rewilding” – the restoration of pre-farming landscapes by, in particular, the re-introduction of ancestral grazing animals and their predators.

Somewhere in the heated debate this movement has generated is a way forward which might offer a better solution than the half-century old “Conservation”. I have just ordered EO Wilson’s “Half-Earth” to learn more about an idea which, when I first came across it seemed ridiculously unattainable. What these three concepts share is the idea of setting aside land where non-human species can flourish. The big difference between Conservation and the others is the point I am trying to get to with this piece:

Conservation involves intensive human management from engineering through to captive feeding. The others promote the opposite – a retreat, a deliberate neglect. There is of course an element of overlap. For any tract of land which has been under human management for many years, a rapid return to bio-diversity can be greatly assisted by, for example, controlled tree planting, or managed introduction of grazing animals.

Even if we agree about what we should be doing, we are still faced with the impossibly enormous question, the super-sized elephant in the room, possibly the greatest challenge humans have ever faced;


More specifically, how can we make space for nature and the climate to recover without condemning at least half our population to a nasty, brutish and above all, short life.

In the worst case scenario that will happen anyway.





Posted in Opinion, Travel | 3 Comments

The Clash of Antlers

It’s a fine frosty morning, misty, and the cooler weather tips the trees from dull khaki towards those red and gold tints which shine in the low morning light. This has to be the day – probably my last chance – to get a better understanding of what is happening in the deer park at what should be the peak of the rutting season.

We know what the big Fallow bucks are supposed to do at this time: set out their stalls – their rutting stands. He who aspires to be the alpha male and therefore the one who gets to mate with most of the tail twitching eager does, choses a place to show how big and powerful he is, thrashing the trees, trampling the ground, pissing and bellowing. If one of his mates decides it should be him getting the does, he must fight for it, head to head, antler to antler.

That’s the theory, but here they just seem too relaxed and friendly to be bothered to fight. Last year I watched the two main men amicably share the spoils, giving rise to the theory that there are so many does in this enclosed cervid universe that they have no need to fight.

Today I have no volunteer duties and enough time to watch the three or four areas where I have seen rutting behaviour recently. I start at the northern end of the long wooded ridge. There is usually a group of does here; I see them; they see me; I freeze and they amble off. Good, now I can move towards a dark area of dense young trees much frequented by the group who hang out at this end of the park during the winter. I see movement: a stately procession of three of the biggest mature bucks is moving down towards the open ground to the west. Never much given to nerves, these magnificent beasts show their distain for us humans by walking slowly past. I carefully follow them down to where they have joined a group of around 30 does and a few immature bucks. The big boys move off southwards and the does follow except for a small group who hang around two immature bucks. They remind me of overgrown children trying out sexual behaviour. It’s all rather nice and peaceful. I return to the ridge.

There is a little grassy knoll which marks the highest point in the park, and was the scene of much rutting activity last year. Creeping carefully up the slope and slowly raising my head I see a gang of teenage bucks and a few does sitting peacefully enjoying the sunshine. It’s quiet – no sign of that grunting echoing bellow of the rutting buck. I’m beginning to wonder if some vagary of the weather and the temperature has reduced the number of does in oestrus. Where is all the excitement?

It’s lunch time and I retreat to the Kingfisher hide to watch my favourite patch of water – well rewarded with the rare sight of an otter, and even rarer, an otter out of the water.

The rut I observed last week was near the old boundary wall at the edge of some open grassland below and to the west of the ridge. The nearest cover is too far to get good pictures  so I decide to try to get to a patch of trees nearer to the wall. It’s a difficult and tiring climb-cum-scramble and the cover is not good. There is however a large group of deer in front of me. Crouching I throw a piece of camouflage net over my head, clumsily get the camera lined up and slowly stand. I can’t see properly and move about too much. I’ve been seen. The deer aren’t too concerned but steadily move away to the other side of the field – towards the ridge. My strategy has failed. There are several mature and immature bucks with them, but it’s too far away for really crisp pictures. Still, I’m here now so I’ll stay and see what happens.One of the big bucks is limping; wounded in battle? He’s very pale in colour – a Menil – and he’s restless. In the same group is another big buck, but this one is very dark (on the left in the picture above this one). The contrast is striking. They wander up and down along the edge of the steep woodland.

Suddenly, there is violent movement under the trees at the edge of the wood. A pale shape catches my eye and I swing the camera round. It’s a fight! The menil buck is pushing furiously at a dark shape. Both heads are hidden by bracken; click click click; the fight goes one way, then the other and now I can see the locked antlers.

Wow! The power and speed and violence of these animals is amazing!  Now Menil is literally pushing the dark one up the hill. Suddenly it is over. Menil has won and is chasing the other off, watched by several  younger bucks.  They are both rushing along just above the bracken, and burst out into the field. I’ve never seen bucks run like this before – they’re like racehorses.Phew! I have my pictures but the light was poor and the distance great. (Around 140 metres I discover later.) Will they be any good? I take a break and look at some of them – hm, not too bad. Then, suddenly there is movement again. The battle is being fought again in the same place, but with two different contenders. These two are both dull brown and astonishingly they are second or third year bucks with no chance of supplanting their elders in the winner-takes-all sex game.  The same chase ensues down the same path as the big boys. This must be a practise bout in exact imitation of the real thing. Were they the watchers? 

Now I really have learnt something new.

Posted in Dinefwr Park | Comments Off on The Clash of Antlers

Rewilding – cultural imperialism?

Thanks to Chris Robertson for sending me this link:

As a lifelong greenie I am torn between a love of nature and a passionate desire to see a more natural landscape in Wales before I die, and anger at the insensitivity of so many radicals in the environmental movement. This is especially important at a time when Britain is riven by such a divisive, and in the long run, irrelevant issue as Brexit. How can we hope to persuade the majority that restoring bio-diversity is our best hope for the future if we antagonise the very people who are best placed to do something about it – local farmers. 

We’ve seen the same problem with Extinction Rebellion in London. The people who make the headlines are not the thousands of normal sensible people driven to demonstrate by their fear for our future, but the outlandish costumes and silly behaviour of the loonie left fringe. Result – the entire movement takes a step backwards. 

What I would love to see is an informed discussion amongst the farming community in Wales about sustainable farming. Any takers?

Posted in Opinion | Comments Off on Rewilding – cultural imperialism?

Trees for Life – some thoughts

I don’t blame you, the leaders of Trees for Life, for my problems on the tree planting week. I brought my demons with me. I certainly don’t regret doing it, and there were many positives. There were also some things which I think you got wrong. Here then are my thoughts:

As a way to appreciate the beauty and complexity of this part of Britain a working week like this is hard to beat. I greatly appreciated the chance to get to know and photograph this extraordinary place.

Our two leaders were also extraordinary – not only competent and knowledgeable, but unflaggingly cheerful and supportive. Well done both of you.

I experienced great kindness and friendship and very much hope some of you will keep in touch. I certainly have no intention of doing another tree planting week, but would like to get to know Dundreggan and Corrimony, so may well be back. 

The Bothy – what ever were you thinking of when it was upgraded? What on earth is the logic of top-quality insulation, heating, toilet, decoration, solar power and lighting but no hot and cold running water, and no shower? From my experience with van conversion and building our own eco house, it would have been easy and not expensive to install at least constant running water. A small well-insulated gas-fired hot water system would almost certainly use less gas than cooking up kettles on the stove. It will cost a lot more to retro-fit such a system, as the architect would have known. So why? Perhaps because the volunteers come here for the experience of living in a remote spot, off grid, no phone signal, all mucking in together and making the best of it – life enhancing? If so, why bother with insulation? Why not huddle round an open fire? Why the sophisticated electrics, the modern LED spotlights? Why not paraffin lamps or candles?

The all-male group. I was seriously worried about being in such a large group anyway, but to find that there were no women volunteers was very dispiriting. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding single-sex groups difficult. Since the volunteers have made such a large commitment in time, energy and money to work for you is it asking too much to ensure that the groups are mixed in both ages (which this one was) and gender?

The “spiritual moments“. There is a big argument about how political campaigners should present themselves, but this does not feel like the right place to dip my toes into that turbulent stream. Though an atheist I do believe that there is an essential spiritual side to our nature which we need to nurture. However, I do strongly object to being told to do so! 

That’s it. I will publish a gallery of photographs. Full high-resolution versions will be available by request at no charge. All I would like is an acknowledgement. If I can work out how to present videos online then those will be available too.

Have a good winter everyone.



Posted in This Wild Life, Travel | 2 Comments

The Last Day – Escape!

We’re back tree planting again but at a new location higher up in the mountains. It’s no more than half an hour’s walk to get to the small exclosure, but it’s wet and rough as usual.  I’m in a team with Simon and Alan and we get on quickly – 100 trees by lunch time. I can now claim to  have planted more trees than anyone else, but of course I have my team mates to thank for that – they are doing all the really hard work.

“We must share the credit” I tell them. “One hundred trees. That’s 33.33 recurring each.” The ninety-nine were easy but splitting the last one in three was really tricky!

We are the last back to the lunch area  way down the mountain where there are some rocks to sit on. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea taking pictures of people eating – sorry, but these are the only ones I have for the last day!

I eat my lunch too quickly and bellyache sets in. Hah! Serves you right you might say.

There’s not much more to do though and soon we are back in the mini bus bumping off down the track. The ache is worse. It’s not indigestion but IBS, my old enemy: pain triggered by some kind of psychological stress. Pills don’t work. All I can do is get back to the van and rest.

At last we are back to the car park where the track begins but Dom pulls up the van and gets out.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re going for a walk.”

“WHAT? Oh, no!”

“Don’t you want to come to the viewpoint?”

“No I do not! I’ll stay here and wait. How long will you be.”

“Only 20 minutes.”

Of course it’s longer than that and my stress levels are not improving. Nigel, Graham and Alan return, but there’s no sign of the others.

“What are they doing?” I ask

Graham looks sheepish.

“Oh, you know” he makes a circular gesture, “the spiritual moment.”

“Ah, the hippie bollocks!” I groan.

Eventually we get back. I rest, but am not much better. It’s our last night as a group so I take what remains of my small stock of whiskey, but once again I get it wrong. Only a few of them join me and the harsh spirit (it’s a blended cheapo) does nothing to sooth my belly. The food is excellent, but we have to wait a long time for it, so I do my slide show from the laptop (MS Surface Pro 6) The response is very good and I begin to feel better. Since I plan to leave very early in the morning, I get up to say my goodbyes.

“Can you stay for another 20 minutes?” Dom asks.

He gathers us into a “Closing Circle” and tells us about the highlights of his week, not much of which I hear. We are then asked to share our thoughts and I go first with praise for him and Rachel.

“She’s propped me up more than once I don’t mind admitting. Yes, I’d like to share that.”

The others have much more to say and Bob even sings a song with what sounds like 10 verses, so I imagine it is about each of us – amazing talent. All I get from watching their faces is the expressions, and every one of them seems very positive. Clearly I’ve missed something, but I doubt it was ever in my grasp.

With a hug for Rachel and handshakes all round my send off is a very friendly one.

At this point I should be feeling a great sense of relief, but no. I’m still uptight and sleep badly. A quick cup of tea at 4:30 and by 5:00 I am off rumbling up the track. Two hours later I have my breakfast in the car park at Drumnadrochit and at 9 I am in Fort William.Isn’t that a lovely view! Oh the sheer happiness of wandering round an M&S food store: all that lovely food carefully packaged and presented.  Fort William is a sort of Frontier Post. It serves Mull and the Small Isles and the hinterland of Loch Ness. At the Loch Ness end there is a new “Retail Park” with M&S, Home Bargains and Aldi. More than one of the garages have LPG so I topped up the gas tank – 14 litres in 3 weeks.

Only now do I realise how stressed I have been in Glen Affric. Now at last I am totally relaxed. Bliss! *

It’s three hundred and fifty miles from Athnamulloch to Silverdale on Morecambe Bay. I arrive at RSPB Leighton Moss in late afternoon. It’s a place both Thelma and I visit regularly. We both love the whole area: Lancaster, Silverdale and Arnside. Unfortunately there had been heavy flooding and there was not much to see, but I did get this nice picture of a Little Egret. 

Well before dark I booked in at Gibraltar Farm campsite, just a mile away.  I finish half a bottle of Merlot before 7 and greatly enjoy a 3-large-egg omelette with crispy bacon and salad, plus a pudding in a throw-away plastic pot with a sticky plastic label holding it together. It’s a Raspberry Eton Mess Dessert by M&S.

The next day I waste hours trying to get to one of the hides on the reserve before 9:30 when the visitor centre opens. It’s hopeless – at least 6 inches of water in parts of the tracks. I give up and set off south, arriving home tired but happy in mid afternoon.

* (In case you are wondering: I usually hate places like this!)

Posted in This Wild Life, Travel | 2 Comments