40 years on: the Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
I was lucky enough to see the excellent production of ‘The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil’ for the second time in my life at Dundee Rep this summer and I’ve been mulling it over lately as I contemplate the Post Deluvian Landscape of Perthshire.
The first time was in 1970s when it first came out, at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. It was written and originally performed by the Agit Prop Theatre Company 7.84, whose name famously referred to the fact that 7% of the population owned 84% of the UK’s wealth.
I hugely enjoyed it on both occasions and it was good to be reminded of the themes again considering what a lot of water has gone under quite a few bridges since the first time round.
It dawned on me, that while all three of these themes in Scottish history had massive social justice implications for Scottish people, we now know that all three of them have also important implications for the environment as well.
The Cheviot, and subsequently, the Blackface sheep, have been grazing much of our hill country to the knuckle for centuries, and we are now left with vast tracts of hill land that are largely tree-less and sometimes badly eroded as a consequence. George Monbiot uses the term sheep-wrecked, and not without good reason. Most hill farms exist by subsidy alone. If they received no subsidy there is no way they would be able to keep on farming even if they wanted to. But the sheep, though few in number, especially on the poorest land, windblown and often rock-strewn, produce precious little meat (although very delicious) and usually no wool of any value. They eke out a poor existence and sometimes die on the hill in places too remote to be found by the farmer or shepherd. Any hill walker knows how common it is to find sheep skeletons lying on the hills.
Sheep, originally a Mediterranean species, are a struggle to farm in highland Scotland. Even the tougher breeds, bred over centuries for our climate, such as Blackface, are susceptible to all kinds of problems. It’s a common shepherd’s joke to say that a sheep’s most deeply held ambition is to drop dead, or that the best medicine for a sick sheep is a spade. They need to be dosed and dipped, shorn and clipped. They may need treatment for their eyes and footbaths to prevent or cure foot-rot. At lambing time the ewes may need help to give birth, the lambs may succumb to hypothermia, watery mouth or a range of other diseases.
Although the stocking rate on hills is low, they can still have an impressive impact, preventing the growth of trees such as bird sewn rowan or wind sewn birch, by nibbling any seedlings off before they get a chance. Some trees survive as tiny bonsais for decades, never getting above the height of the heather.
The small hooves of sheep compact the soil. Hills with no native forest are a liability from the point of view of flooding as sheep grazed land is extremely poor at absorbing rainwater – the compacted layer being virtually waterproof, and the surface being very smooth compared to the patchy, but relatively deep-rooted and rich soil producing native forest that would grow in most places in the absence of heavy grazing. This situation is exacerbating the potential for flooding of low-ground, as we saw in the Alyth flood of July 2015 and here in Perthshire and Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire with storms Desmond and Frank in December an January 2016.
The stag – or more exactly the sport of deer stalking, is another cause of environmental disaster in Scotland.
Many people imagine that deer stalking is a beneficial activity that reduces the number of deer in the highlands, the stalker replacing the wolf. This may be the case in some instances but over the last century it has generally worked the other way. It is in the interests of stalking estates to have enough stags for owners and clients to have the excitement of shooting one when they get the chance. While its not everyone’s bag, deer stalking is a popular sport amongst some of the well-to-do, and not surprisingly, because this is a sport which comes close to meeting the natural instinct of humans to hunt for their food and can be a great source of relaxation and renewal for city dwellers. Some people with daily lives far removed from nature (commuting underground to centrally heating offices) love to get into the countryside and roam the hills in search of live quarry, and the red deer is a satisfying animal to hunt: large, impressive and delicious to eat. It can also provide a trophy head with magnificent antlers to decorate your house.
But the stalker, employed by the stalking estate needs to be sure that the city banker, paying handsomely for his brief visit to the hill, is not disappointed. He needs plenty of stags to be sure he can provide an exciting stalk, though not too strenuous, with a satisfying kill at the end. On many estates stags are fed through the bottle-neck of the winter to keep them on the particular estate – a practice which must surely increase their total number, and preferential shooting of stags over hinds can skew the sex ratio (stags are the preferred quarry of the paying client and hind stalking is usually a duty for the paid stalker, carried out in the less appealing winter weather).
Both these factors are liable to lead to an increasing population and indeed the red deer population of Scotland has risen steadily for decades. A population with more females than males is a highly productive population. This is because only a few males are needed to procreate the next generation, and a surplus of males reduces food supply for the females and their young. That is why stock farmers have far more females than males on the farm.
While there may be exceptions, the sport in general is utterly failing to keep numbers under control and is almost certainly having the opposite effect. A Scottish Parliament document shows a rise from approximately 150,000 in 1969 to 400,000 in 2011. In 1969 Frank Fraser Darling’s Reith Lecture described the Scottish Highlands as a wet desert, and pointing to far too many red deer as one of the causes. Milder winters brought by climate change may also contribute to the increase in numbers.
If high deer numbers along with sheep farming, have led to accelerated deforestation and erosion, hill tracks established to get stalkers up and carcases down have not helped either and many are washed out in wet weather causing great scars on the hills where the land has slipped. Add in the burning of moorland for grouse shooting and the picture is complete.
When it comes to the environment, I hardly need to explain the implications of the black, black oil, especially following the Paris climate talks when even the oil industry themselves seemed dispirited by their environmental reputation.
Unbeknownst to most of us until perhaps 20 years ago, some years after the original production of the play, the burning of oil and other fossil fuels turn out to have been warming and destabilising our planet’s climate by putting CO2 into the atmosphere, with massive implications world wide, including a contribution to the current waves of immigration to Europe, devastating droughts in California and Africa, bush fires in Australia, and flooding in the UK and heat-waves that melt tarmac and kill people. Human civilisation is under threat along with much else. In spite of this tragic realisation, many are still arguing about who is to get the money from the extraction rest of it. But until we have invented and established carbon capture and storage, if such a thing actually proves possible, we all know the only safe and morally decent thing to do with North Sea Oil (and all the other oil in the world) is to leave it in the ground.
I find it interesting that the famous 70s play about social justice picked up on three themes which are all equally important for environmental justice. It is not inevitable that this is the case, but it’s amazing how often it turns out to be true. Perhaps it is simply the case that what serves the interests of big money rarely serves the people or the environment. And damage to the environment often means damage to people or their property.
The recent flooding has highlighted all this in an unusually clear-cut way. The cheviot and other sheep (subsidised by the taxpayer) make the hill land enormously more liable to flood the town in the valley bottom, the management for stag (and grouse) add to the problem, and the black, black oil causes the destructive rainstorms by changing our climate. You might call it prophetic.