Back in the Wild: the Strathvaitch and Alladale estates

Naysayers at their polite best chided the rewilders for romanticizing the past; at their sniping worst, for tempting a ‘Jurassic Park’ disaster. To these the rewilders quietly voiced a sad and stinging reply. The most dangerous experiment is already underway. The future most to be feared is the one now dictated by the status quo. In vanquishing our most fearsome beasts from the modern world, we have released worse monsters from the compound. They come in disarmingly meek and insidious forms, in chewing plagues of hoofed beasts and sweeping hordes of rats and cats and second-order predators. – William Stolzenburg, Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators

On a glorious sunny Saturday Dan took us into Ullapool to pick up food supplies for the next couple of days. It was a lovely leisurely start to the day, since we figured that it was going to be so light until so late that we could afford to start well after we usually do. The water down by the pier was calm, the clouds high. We had two days of fair weekend weather to enjoy, and 60km to walk in it.

Once we had rebooted our food stocks Dan drove us back out into the hills, with his mountain bike on the roof of the car. He dropped us off at the Black Bridge, a carpark in the middle of nowhere, and cycled away up the glen in front of us for an up-and-back ride to blow away the cobwebs of the working week; this was the first fine day they had had here since the end of the unseasonably warm March and April.

Before us lay Strathvaitch, a wide glen which fairly tempted us in, the shallow river meandering gently down the middle, oystercatchers noisily selecting the best sections of banks to look for food.

Further in, the riverbed narrowed, water flowing faster and deeper.

A weir controlled the flow and created a wide pool of mirror-still water upriver, reflecting the sky. The sense of expansive space could not have contrasted more with the narrowness of the Great Glen, and we felt our pace increasing with the eagerness to get amongst it all.

The suggested path crossed the river at a bridge which when we got to it seemed rickety and unsafe – but nonetheless a better prospect than the two rotten tree-trunks balanced precariously over that river last week. We crossed one at a time and it held our weight, even though it listed alarmingly. Not a Thomas Telford design.

Beyond it the track climbed and curved round the mouth of the upper part of the valley above a dam to reveal the loch beneath ancient glacial scoops of connected hills at the head of the glen, and our path winding invitingly into the view.

The bare heather flanks of the hills had been replanted with whips a while back which had now grown into small saplings.

As we were admiring the diversity of the fledgling native woodland, I noticed that the infant Scots pines, unlike the rowan and birch, were not thriving. Older needles had been stripped from the tiny branches. Closer examination revealed that the saplings were absolutely infested with voraciously feeding caterpillars.

They were acting in concert, one minute clumping together immobile to look like needles themselves, and then the next jerkily moving together as a wave of motion propagated through the colony. Was this the tree-destroying pine lappet moth? The caterpillars didn’t look the same.

 

The infestation made us feel slightly queasy. How to control the invaders? Once we might have introduced a predator, or a disease to control pest populations, but our understanding of the balance of ecosystems has developed so much over the last fifty years that we now understand more clearly the dangers of wiping out local populations of any species and of introducing new ones.

Stephen’s attention was caught by a hissing sound and he turned to see an adder on a rock at the side of the track, right by his feet, warning him off in no uncertain terms before flowing away into the heather.

Dan appeared over a rise, on his way back down from his ride to the head of the glen, helping to dispel our gloomy, fatalistic train of thought. He would pick us from Lairg at the end of tomorrow’s walk.

And by then it was pretty much time to find somewhere to stop for lunch. The boulders creating a culvert for a burn to run into the loch made a comfortable place to park ourselves (keeping a weather eye out for adders), with a view down to an old croft on the loch shore.

And then on we went up the valley, the views changing as we passed the mouths of smaller glens opening into the head of Strathvaitch, their scree-covered glacial bowls the modern remnant of what would have been towering mountains in the last ice age, from the immense grinding weight of which this part of Scotland is still rebounding. These glens gave us a small taste of what we would have walked through in Glens Affrick and Carron, but on a reliable and fast path.

At the head of the valley the path curved round to the right, rose around the shoulder of Rowan Hill, the Meall a’ Chaorainn, and then descended into the Allerdale estate. In the far distance was a solitary hunting lodge, recently restored and now used by Bear Grylls as the base for his wilderness survival courses. It was a stunning location, and we could hardly take our eyes off it as we followed the track down.

Interpretation boards at the bottom set the Alladale estate in its geological and ecological context, and outlined the project of their charitable trust to rewild a large, controlled expanse of the estate by reintroducing the native top-level predators such as wolves.

The OS 1:50,000 map indicated that just beyond the lodge there was a bridge, but at the 1:25,000 scale we were slightly perturbed to read ‘aerial rope bridge’. Was this some kind of Bear Grylls challenge?

We turned the corner at the head of Glen Mor with some trepidation to see…

…the biggest, solidest, toughest and least ropey bridge one could ever pray for.

And with a sigh of relief we turned to follow the river through its glacial portal

and down into its sunny afternoon, aiming to get as far as we could before we needed to make camp for the night.

We had been told there was a sort of a secret bothy to look out for, dug into the side of the hill. We kept detouring around various lumps and bumps of landscape off the track, as we weren’t sure just how well camouflaged it was, but when we did find it, we couldn’t have missed it.

An immaculate interior, a super view, and a great place for a brief teatime snack.

And then it was on down the glen to spot an actual aerial bridge, which we thought was probably used for the adventure courses.

The open glen now changed character, with a replanted section behind a deer fence giving way to more mature native woodland, and a metalled track as we entered the part of the estate which is actively peopled, with various lodges, rentable accommodation, public car parks and forest walks.

Where to camp? The river was now passing through very rocky landscape, with almost permanent waterfalls and white water. Between the track and the river was thick heather and bilberry, or bare rock.

At about 5.30 the wind was dying down, which in the Highlands, is the alarm signal. It now became critical that we grab the first likely-looking pitch, even if not perfect. Edge of carpark. Tiny scrap of flat grassy ground. Quick.

Whilst factions at national level debate the pros and cons of rewilding and reintroducing top-level predators like packs of wolves, we had more urgent priorities: self-protection against the existing packs of predators, hungry for our blood. Off with the rucksacks and on with the one item we have carried but which we have not yet had occasion to use but which now became an essential piece of survival kit: the midge jackets got their first outing.

Fly-through with photos and elevation

Black Bridge to Glencalvie Lodge

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