Conspiracy Cloaked as Conservation

By Clarke, Peter | New Statesman (1996), January 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Conspiracy Cloaked as Conservation


Clarke, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


A new book argues the Hebrides' fate is bleaker than ever. And it is all in the name of a good cause.

It is delicious when those we all assumed to be goodies turn out to be baddies. This is the thrill of Ian Mitchell's surprising essay The Isles of the West. The book is an account of a voyage around the Hebrides and records the depredations and follies of the new owners of much of the islands - quangos and charities committed to conservation. Mitchell has surprised himself.

You and I thought the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was harmlessly virtuous, harvesting subscriptions from the Home Counties to save endangered species in remote glens. The National Trust for Scotland may be slightly too snooty, but who can doubt its credentials as a custodian of buildings long past their use and also some scrumptious beauty spots?

The Nature Conservancy Council and now its successor body, Scottish Natural Heritage, control all conservation decisions made by the Scottish executive. It might have been possible to predict some Civil Service inertia and a few decisions made in Edinburgh rendered daft 200 miles away, but all that could be forgiven if it saved a rare butterfly or nurtured the corncrake.

I had assumed a "Site of Special Scientific Interest" was a designation that really merited its grand title. But these SSSIs are a kind of nationalisation of the land. There are 1,441 in Scotland, covering 12 per cent of the entire country. Splendid if they saved the great crested newt or even some obscure midge, but they do not. They are a new version of mortmain.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust is supported by thousands of well-intentioned countryside lovers. It seems to be civic virtue personified. But in reality all these organisations are in cahoots to degrade and depopulate the islands of Scotland. Better a few sea eagles than 30 smallholders.

The two monster landowners in the Western Highlands are the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence. They, too, score low marks from Mitchell. Parliament never intended its agencies to depopulate the Hebrides, but nobody speaks for the human population of the islands.

What makes these discoveries more vivid than they might otherwise have been is they went against the grain of his own prejudices. He had assumed that kindly spirited public bodies and popularly sustained charities could have only a happier effect than the lairds - absentee landowners or those who still live on the magical isles.

Rona, just north of Raasay and east of Skye, is owned by a Danish conservation group. It has been cleared of people and left to "go back to nature", which seems to be "native" hardwoods that were never local and Highland cattle left to roam freely - something they never did in the past. …

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