Caledonian Contemplations and an encounter with the Weasel of the Trees

An Ermine has been touring Scotland for the last couple of weeks, seeking out wild places and fellow mustelids. It’s been a time of reflection and inqusitiveness – up in the wilds of the north it has been good to get away from the virtual and into the real. I did have a computer to transfer pictures and sounds but connectivity was ratty and very low speed – even the weather forecast was iffy at times. But I got to stay by the side of lovely lakes and see hawks circling over mountainsides.

Loch Garten, Abernethy forest
Loch Garten, Abernethy forest

It surprised me how remote some parts of Scotland still are – I had somehow expected the tentacles of the mobile phone networks and suchlike to have penetrated far more than they did. Because of its open spaces Scotland shares an enlightened approach to wild camping with places like Scandinavia. Most of the interesting places and creatures are in the remoter unenclosed regions, though I am a slack bastard and use a camper van. Campsites often don’t work for me, because they cost more than I typically use in fuel in a day, they cluster around ‘attractions’ and they also often discourage movement between 7pm and 7am – some of the best light and interesting sounds are to be heard in that period.

Shin falls
Shin falls


There seems to be an election going on and everyone is talking tactical details and nobody is talking strategy…

It’s odd hearing the odd snippets after the weather forecast on the radio – with time to reflect it seems increasingly bizarre. The airwaves are full of micromanagement and pork-barrel politics. A lot of energy is being wasted on the micro and not enough focused on the macro. So here’s some of the big picture things an Ermine would like to see getting attention. Most of them seem to theme around a rapid loss of diversity in may ways of organising human affairs:

Improved communications and lower cost of transportation is decreasing homogeneity and leading to concentrations of people and job opportunities. It’s not what we expected to happen – the idea of the freelancer able to access the world from a laptop in one of those wild places (or even a market town in the north of the country) was part of the early promise. Didn’t work out that way, so we have London with shitloads of jobs and sky-high prices of housing and other cost of living bits, and a lot of the rest of the country bombed out. Is this a problem, and if so is there anything that can be done to alleviate the human suffering?

Along with the geographic inhomogeneity the improved communications are creating winner-takes-all effects in big parts of life. Internet services – for many people Facebook/twitter ≡ the Internet, and we are losing diversity in many network services not through standardisation but through de-facto sole suppliers and network effects.

The distribution of money/resources is also becoming more unequal – capital is winning the fight against labour, a little because of globalisation but more largely automation seems to be developing apace. There’s nothing wrong with humans doing less work – it’s a trend that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution. But if fewer and fewer people are getting to keep the spoils of war then it seems a tough deal – what makes them so special apart from being in the right place at the right time.

Why do we have this Calvinist fetishisation of work as being noble? It’s being used to spoil a lot of little people’s days, because They Must Work It is Good For Their Soul. I can see the problems of money for nothing, but benefit scroungers pale into insignificance compared to welfare for well-funded lobby groups. That seems to be an odd perversion of free market principles in industries like farming and banking. George Monbiot took the battle to the enemy in terms of farming subsidies of £3bn p.a.

Why do we permit lobbyists at all? Why do we not debar any minister in an department connected with an industry from working in or having worked in that industry for two years either side of their term of office. I get the argument that it’s good to have domain knowledge, but I am reminded of Adam Smith’s observation

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary.

Never mind the assemblies, let’s keep these dudes out of assembling within the flippin’ government where they get to make the rules to featherbed their conspiracies… Caroline Spelman, she of ex GM lobbyists Cormack Spelman and associates was Environment Minister for a couple of years, obviously there was no conflict of interests.

The game of tag ‘twixt Greeks and Germans is still going on

I guess if you’ve been doing something for two years now then why change a winning formula, strange how little seems to have changed over a few weeks, still the same people calling each other names. Oh well. Despite this

the markets are in serious nose-bleed territory

UTMT observed this a while back and it’s still going on – indeed having come back I need to get in and sell my CGT limit of The Firm. But what to buy in it’s place. In general WTF is going on, everybody seems to be having a touch of the vapours, even the Russkies aren’t as much down shit street as they used to be. This ain’t real, guys. Has that ugly sucker Putin stopped being nasty to people? Surely not – the twisted wreckage of his psyche would take more than the collected shrinks of New York and California to iron out into something approaching normally convoluted grey matter. This really can’t carry on like this.

Of legacy, and an odd glimpse of the bizarre inequity of children inheriting wealth…


Loch an Eilein with its castle
Loch an Eilein with its castle

Forty years ago I came here as a teenager and took a similar picture of this lovely lake with its enigmatic island topped by a castle, though the teenage Ermine took that picture in the light of the noonday sun because that’s when we were there. It’s in the relict part of the ancient Caledonian forest, and part of the Rothiemurchus Estate. It so happens that the current head honcho, Johnnie Grant, happens to be a decent sort of egg, but I kinda took a double-take with this part of the guidemap.

Shouldn't that be owned by us for generations, paid for my you?
Shouldn’t that be owned for generations, paid for by you?

There’s a teeny bit of sense of entitlement here, Johnnie. Now Britain does have an extensive history of aristocratic ownership of land, and indeed the aristocracy did do a lot to advance knowledge, particularly from the Enlightenment onwards. Charles Darwin was an aristocrat – like an Ermine after 30 years of work, Darwin could afford to pursue his own interests, but he didn’t need the 30 years of work. The British aristocracy were the main body of people who had the time to pursue non-pecuniary interests in those times.

The conjunction of a lot of this with Britain holding a large empire did throw up some valuable additions to the body of knowledge – the Victorian expeditions around the Empire bringing back specimens are one of the reasons the Natural History Museum is one of the key plant archives of the world and there is such a vibrant gardening and plant-breeding tradition in the UK. Britain also has more veteran trees than typical for this part of Europe, partly because of that tradition. Just as well all this plant collecting came back to an established and fairly robust natural environment and not too many of the alien species caused trouble here, eh 😉 We could have done without Japanese knotweed and grey squirrels, but it didn’t turn out too terribly.


the enigmatci catle on the lake
the enigmatic castle on the lake

However, in a different universe, Johnnie could be a hedonistic twat keen on yachts and fine living, in which case the stewardship of the estate could be a very different matter. One of the things that an Ermine occasionally gives thought to is that perhaps I may not run down all my capital – it depends on the kindness with which Fate graces the older Ermine, and to that effect I reflect on where I would want to aim the residue of my estate. One of the things that did concern me in some of the obvious diretcions is that I am not sure that having large tracts of Britain in the hands to the likes of the RSPB and the National Trust would necessarily be kind to future generations of Britons. These would not be my children because I am child-free but despite a common stereotype I do have compassion for the future population of this country, and concentration of ownership is one thing that seems universally bad in human affairs. Until I read Johnnie Grant’s little missive – which brought home to me that I’ve grown up in a Britain where huge parts of the land have been in the ownership of individual families for years – and to be honest I’d rather than conservation charities in charge of these now, because any one of Johnnie’s three kids could be a spendthrift wastrel. There is a lot wrong with charities – in particular how much of the money seems to walk out of the door in executive ‘cos we’re worth it‘ salaries, but there’s even more wrong with ancestral wealth.

Even Johnnie agreed, when he sold a lot of forest to the Forestry Commission, although that’s not exactly a safe home either. Not only did that incompetent nincompoop Caroline Spelman try and flog this off to the highest bidder until it was halted by the outrage of half a million of the UK’s good men and true.

a forestry comission landscape
a forestry commission landscape

As well as being sell-offable by newbies the Forestry Commission also gives us harsh and blasted moonscapes like this, with their homogeneous monocultures suitable for 25-year clear-felling, compared with the antiquity of some of that ancient Caledonian forest

Abernethy forest
Abernethy forest

So all in all I feel better about the RSPB owning big chunks of the land than the laird. Mind you, the long arm of the aristocracy did make sure that embedded into the Constitution of the RSPB was the following, hamstringing the nascent society from taking a general view of the welfare of birds:

The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects.

Obviously game birds aren’t birds, ‘cos the toffs wanted to carry on blowing the suckers out of the sky when this was enacted in 1957[ref]I have never, ever, seen grouse on sale to eat, which would at least be less wasteful of life. I don’t even know if you can eat grouse. The market value of pheasant is low, basically because too much is shot as sport for the demand as food, so a lot of this is wantonly buried[/ref]. It was okay for the little ladies to set things up to prevent egrets being killed for their white feathers used in the millinery trade, when when it comes to the man’s business of massively breeding game birds and getting your serfs to beat the suckers in the air and shoot one of the many young birds driven into the sky to show what a hard man you are and how skilled a shot you are by aiming somewhere into the air then that’s a different matter and Must Not Be Touched. Thus the RSPB is officially neutral on shooting game birds.

The aristocracy did historically do some good stuff, but they did also have it in them to treat people like shit. They came to the conclusion it was cheaper to raise sheep in the Highlands. There was one small problem – there were too many people on the land to make this work. One Sheep farmer, Patrick Sellar, delivered himself thusly

“Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing.

A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation.”

He hard a charming habit of roasting people alive in their houses if they wouldn’t move first. Which is why you see so many abandoned cottages in Sutherland. The time of ancestral wealth and using agricultural land a a store of dynastic capital  is for the chop in the modern world IMO. Indeed, the whole inheritance thang and the way people get het up about it is bizarre. For starters, if you truly love your children and have raised them right then you can give your entire estate to them free of tax – just do it while you are alive and survive seven years – stand by your principles. If you don’t trust the blighters not to turn you out of your ancestral pile when you go ga-ga then a) you should have dragged them up properly and b) why should future generations of Britons be subject the the boot of these ne’er-do-wells just because they were related to you. If you can’t trust them with power why should the rest of us have to deal with them empowered by capital they didn’t earn?

The current threshold of IHT is also unreasonably and recent-historically high. The aristocracy held a stranglehold on land capital until the wars, when the reforming governments saw that the little people who had been slaughtered in their millions for King and Country did deserve a little bit more of this green and pleasant land than they used to have – for instance the plot of land their small hovels stood on. It still took time – in 1969 my parents bought a house in London. A house, mind you, a suburban semi, not a caravan on wheels, but they didn’t get to buy the land it stood on (freehold possession, in modern parlance). They had to buy it leasehold, because if there’s one thing that old money doesn’t do – it doesn’t sell off the capital, and so many of the houses built in the post war era were sold on long leases of 99 years. Ten years later they took up the opportunity to buy the freehold for about 5k in today’s money, presumably the estate that wanted to hold onto the land was skint due to paying IHT. Inheritance tax was an equitable way of breaking up these historical accumulations of wealth – in the end we all inherit the earth from previous generations and yield it to future ones. Of course what you accumulate through a working life should be inalienably yours[ref]subject to the usual rules of the land and taxation[/ref], but if you believe that you have a problem with Taxes after you’ve succumbed to Death then you’ve not used your time on earth well to familiarise yourself with its ways… The dead really do pay no taxes. It’s your grasping children who will pay the taxes. Since it’s a windfall for them anyway, easy come easy go…

If you own your house freehold you have IHT to thank for it prising the land rights out of the cold dead hands of the aristocracy gifted it by William the Conqueror[ref]history buffs will gripe over running roughshod over the details[/ref]. What goes around comes around  – what makes your progeny so damned entitled to free money so they can stamp all over their peer group who aren’t so fortunately endowed? If you want to give them your money, show ’em the love – do it when you’re alive and trust to the upstanding personal character you have instilled in them to look after you. You should at least share some of the risk with the rest of us if you want to disadvantage others and featherbed the fruit of your loins beyond the grave.

 An encounter with the Weasel of the Trees and other mustelids

Not only did I see a fine male Stoat crossing the road on my travels, but thanks to Johnnie Grant’s tree-hugging tendencies I got to say hello to the Tree-Weasel of old – the noble pine marten, once persecuted by gamekeepers (a lot to answer for, these grouse estates!). I can’t claim talented fieldcraft and stalking skills here, I took the easy way out and paid Speyside Wildlife £25 to sit in their pine marten lodge and look for one taking the peanuts laid out for them

Pine Marten
Pine Marten

The trouble with mammals is that many of them are nocturnal, and they have way better senses that we do. I could actually still see in colour to take this picture because they have low floodlighting. It was a tough picture, throwing everything I had – f5.6, ISO 1600 this was still a 1 sec exposure, which is why the picture is so bad. The marten could probably still see the hairs in her fur clearly. So you need edge to see nocturnal mammals, £25 in this case. With badgers thrown in too.

1504_badge_IMG_3061_lznThe pine marten has an interesting  service to offer us, too. They have a penchant for eating squirrels, but in a curious twist of fate they are a friend of the smaller red squirrel. Pine martens chase squirrels into the trees and follow them along the branches, but the red squirrel can go further out on the branches that can support its lighter weight but not that of the marten. Not so the grey squirrel. As Monbiot describes, once the Irish stopped killing pine martens, the martens have been driving grey squirrels out of the west of Ireland – and now they have hemmed them in east of the Shannon river, and presumably as the martens build their ranks they will eventually drive the greys into the Irish Sea.

The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind of Owen Paterson

Owen Paterson, a Tory gent with a penchant for the politics of Enoch Powell, believes shooting greys will be effective. Even allowing for the fact that Owen seems to be a bit on the dim side with an antipathy for science unless it suits his ends (Climate change bad, well, simply non-existent in that spotless mind, culling and shooting good even if it doesn’t work and blame the bloody badgers for moving the goalposts) he’s clearly not been familiarised with r/K selection.

1504_badger_owenYou have a decent chance of killing off a species that reproduces slowly but occupies its ecological niche at carrying capacity by culling. Pine martens, humans, African big game, yup, you could clear an area of these species that way. Grey squirrels breed twice a year so fall into a r-selection pattern- you need to carpet-bomb the place and then secure the perimeter to be sure of killing off enough of them that they don’t simply renew their ranks. Or set the pine martens on them 😉 The difference between the pine martens and the shooters is that the pine martens keep on coming, whereas the shooting stops when the Government sponsorship runs out, whereupon the skwerls repopulate the joint. Quickly – and you’re back to square one.

Paterson is a odd fellow, aristocrat by marriage, a chap who when faced with the right answer to something and the wrong answer to it, unflinchingly chooses the wrong answer particularly if it benefits his rich countryside buddies.  For example, this Soviet-style special interest pleading:

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): It is, of course, right that public money should be spent on public goods. At a time of severe austerity, what public good is there in spending hundreds of thousands of pounds—indeed, £1 million cheques—on large landowners who do not need the money?

Mr Paterson: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The fact is that we are going from 7 billion to 9 billion people. There has been complacency in this country over recent years, because there was unlimited, safe and easily accessible food to be bought abroad. We want to make sure that we have an extremely efficient, high-tech agricultural sector producing food. I take food security extremely seriously and welcome large, efficient farmers.

Dear Owen, you are so full of shit. Food security may be an issue one day, but the security bit comes to play when the global system is stressed, and in that case we want a resilient and lower-tech system that isn’t all interlinked with just-in-time connections. High-tech food production has massive sprawling inter-country supply chains as evidenced in the horse for beef scandal.

Alternatively, if we want cheap food then here’s a radical idea. You know that thing called the free market? Howsabout it – get your damned Government pork out of our food system, stop picking bloody winners  like your aristocratic buddies in their huge estates leased out to contract farmers to whom you piss in huge amounts of the proletariat’s VAT taxpayer money as subsides. While proles claiming benefits are of course labelled lowlife scum, the rich storing their ancestral wealth while sucking loudly at the Government teat of ag subsidies is noble policy and an essential bulwark against Britain being starved out of the future, because of course the history of central planning in food production has such an illustrious history, eh?

Let’s take a look and what this highly complex subsidised high-tech system has brought us in recent years. There’s the whole GM thing which seems to be forced upon us despite European customers being rich enough to say we don’t like the idea of that – a free market without Monsanto and Syngenta etc pulling the strings  would give us the choice in the same way as if you want something without nuts or organic you can go get that, clearly labelled.

We have horse in our beef, we are all becoming fat bastards and now the WHO tells us that the magic Roundup which is what this whole GM stuff is designed to promote isn’t good for us either. Maybe the place for Government in this area is regulation and monitoring (like when it sez beef it is beef) rather than spraying taxpayer’s cash around to rich people and their buddies to maximise profits, minimise resilience and charge every UK household about £250 p.a. to keep them in the style they’re accustomed to.

If GM really is more profitable without subsidy, then drop the objections to labelling the stuff as such, FFS, and let the market decide. In the battle between cheap and good, the evidence is overwhelmingly that the punters will go for the cheap.