Wild Swans and COP 26

Here in Moray, the overnight rain had gone and the clear blue skies and northwest winds were perfect for swan migration from Iceland. This morning I was down at Findhorn Bay, my local birding patch, and when I looked out across the mudflats I could see that the whooper swans had arrived. Beautiful musical whooping calls made me look up to see a family party gliding in from a great height after the overnight migration from Iceland. They spiraled earthwards, spreading their wings to slow their descent, at the last moment their big webbed feet pushing forward to skid onto the water, like tiny seaplanes. It was a family party: a pair of adults with four young. 

For these young swans it was their first big flight after being reared in the wetlands of Iceland. Their parents decided yesterday that it was time, mid-October, to migrate to their winter quarters in the UK. They had led their young high into the skies and then flown, with a tail wind, purposefully to the southeast for the youngsters’ first ever visit to Scotland. Their very first landfall on the Moray Coast. Maybe later today or tomorrow they will fly on south or east to their parents’ favourite wintering place.

 As I stood watching them, I thought how long could one of those young ones live? How old were their parents? Wild swans can live for thirty years or more, although most will die before then. To live that long, one would need to be a winner in life, become very experienced in finding food, judging migrations and avoiding problems as well as having some luck. Thirty years would take us to 2051 – it’s quite a thought! What changes will it see during its lifetime and, more importantly to me, what will my younger daughter have witnessed by the time she reaches 42 years of age.

Much of it will depend on the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow at the end of the month. Every day I hear on radio and television and on social media what may happen, what must be decided and which countries will do what, how many people are coming, how many police are needed to protect and control them. It sounds like a massive jamboree but it has to be much more important than that. They have to actually deal with the problems of our fractured world.

Hopefully, there will be clear messages and even firmer decisions made, otherwise our planet will continue to be in serious trouble. What worries me is that too many people in authority claim that they are already doing plenty. But that’s not what’s on the ground. In Scotland we have an extremely degraded landscape, the result of long-term destruction of woodland by our ancestors which has continued, or even accelerated, through woodland exploitation and poor land husbandry – too many sheep, too many deer and too many land uses that fail to recognise the importance of ecology. 

When I look at the Cairngorms National Park, where you would hope that things would be at their very best, more than half of its area is what many of us regard as degraded land – bare hillsides, rivers running from the mountains without woodland cover. Despite knowing, for decades, that much of upland Scotland is a ‘wet desert’: its ecological wholeness is mostly unrestored. We know its possible – there are good examples throughout our land – enhancing biodiversity, securing carbon, giving out oxygen, holding water in times of flood and drought, changing local climate – it’s all win win.

Scotland has made great progress with renewable energy, waste reduction and other necessary changes, but the big work on ecological restoration of degraded lands is not taking place to any great extent or urgency. It reminds me that after the First World War Britain was short of timber and the government established the Forestry Commission with a clear goal – to plant more trees and create more timber. During the Second World War the Ministry of Agriculture was charged with growing more food in our own country for our own people. With clear goals they got it done. Now we’ve reached a third age when it is essential to restore the ecological health of our land and seas. 

To do that we need a powerful new Government Department for natural resources and ecological restoration. It must level peg all key government departments, have a dedicated Minister of Cabinet rank, be headed by a person with international credentials in restoration ecology, and have a budget necessary for a massive task. Government then requires to urgently identify clear goals to redress biodiversity collapse, while it also continues to address and reverse climate breakdown.

Ecological restoration and natural resource management must be far higher in all governments’ thinking and funding. The days of the UK spending £45 billion annually on military defence and so little on defending our planet have to be numbered. To save the earth will require many changes in society including prestige and worth. Why should a graduate in ecological restoration earn so much less than a lawyer, a doctor or a dentist? 

Some measures may seem draconian but they will be necessary. There are so many long held activities that no longer sit easily with restoring our planet. The days of bottom trawling must be numbered, non-native conifer plantations need higher inputs of native broadleaved trees for soil health, barley grown for whisky production should all be organic, all farming should include land for flowers to restore and maintain pollinators, rivers need restoring, inshore waters must be protected from chemical run off. The list is long but it will be job creation on a massive scale, and essential work at that.    

COP 26 has got to solve some serious problems but the most important thing is that we stop hearing claims that we’re already doing enough: we certainly aren’t. The young have rumbled that and the young want change and we have to do it for them and our descendants.  I wonder what sort of Scotland that wild swan, and my children and grandchildren, will find in 2051. 

I’ve watched whooper swans in Hokkaido in the icy winter wastes of northern Japan, because there is no warm northerly ocean current in the Pacific. To me it’s a reminder that if rising temperatures cause even greater melting of the Greenland icecap, the warming North Atlantic current could flip. Then the Moray coast would be ice bound and icebreakers would be needed to get to Inverness and Invergordon harbours.  How planet Earth looks in 2051, and how we and nature will be managing then, does depend on what is decided in Glasgow. It is that epic.