Author Interview: John D. Burns, Wild Winter
- Thursday 1 April 2021
John D. Burns is a bestselling and award-winning writer who has spent forty years exploring Britain’s mountains. He began writing over fifteen years ago and is a vibrant storyteller as exhibited in the bestselling titles of The Last Hillwalker and Bothy Tales. His latest book, Wild Winter, explores Scotland’s natural landscape and the wildlife which can be found in it during the darkest and coldest months. During this interview, John gives us an insight into the changes that this landscape and its habitats experience throughout the seasons and the years.
Winter is a seemingly hostile season for outdoor activity, what inspired you to look at changes in landscape and the environment during this time?
I’ve always been fascinated by winter. For me, it’s the time when our mountains come alive, they are transformed by snow and ice and become a wilderness once again. There’s something about the harshness that attracts me to them. One of my greatest loves is to walk through the snow and find a bothy and sit beside a fire in the candlelight. Over the years I’ve become pretty impervious to cold, and I also know the right equipment to take to keep myself warm and safe.
Winter is a time when our hills become a different world. When you can escape into a wilderness that just doesn’t exist in the summer, it is understandable that winter would be the time in which I would choose to explore the hills.
Winter is also a time when the animals that reside in our hills are themselves struggling to survive and that sometimes shows us them in their true colours. For me there is no finer season than the winter in our hills.
Have you observed many changes in the Scottish landscape since you began exploring it?
I have noticed some changes in the Scottish landscape since I began exploring it over forty years ago. Some of those changes are good and some of them are not so good. I suppose one of the major changes has been that there has actually been an increase in forestry over the years. I’m not sure what the statistics are, but there are certainly more trees and forests in Scotland now than there were forty years ago. There has also been an encouraging trend away from planting serried ranks of Sitka Spruce that lead to fairly sterile forestry environments. There’s much more emphasis on producing a more natural mixed woodland than there was years ago.
On the negative side, the number of bulldozed tracks across our hills has increased dramatically in recent years. Many of these tracks are there to provide access to small hydro-electric schemes. Although green energy is a good thing, the tracks that scar our landscape are certainly not. It’s also the case that some of these hydro-electric schemes are so small that the impact they make on our carbon footprint is in fact very small. I would really like to see some of these tracks bulldozed over and returned to the way they used to be.
Another really positive change though, has been the beginning of the re-introduction of certain species. I think the most significant change in recent years has been the reintroduction of the beaver. Beaver now colonise two distinct areas in the Highlands. One of these areas is a reserve that was specifically designed for beaver not far from Lochgilphead, and the other is the river system of that which covers hundreds of miles.
Beaver essentially escaped into the river system and have now established it as their home. It’s certainly the case that beaver are now here to stay in the Scottish landscape and I’m really pleased to see that. Beaver will bring about a major change by damming our river systems, producing wetlands which will be habitat for a wide variety of animals. There will be challenges along the way as beaver attempt to reside on farmland and we will have to manage the way they impact our environment.
There have been some other changes that I think are very positive. One of the things that the Scottish Government has introduced is the registration requirement for driven grouse moors. This is the beginning of the imposition of control onto grouse moors which, before this, proliferated across Scotland with virtually no limits. I hope, to be honest, that this is the beginning of the end for driven grouse shooting.
It’s also the case that mountain hares are now a protected species. In the past, thousands of hares were shot in the grouse moors of Scotland to preserve that sporting activity. Some 18% of Scotland's land is given over to driven grouse shooting. That’s a huge area that could be put to far greater environmental use.
Wild Winter reveals some of the most beautiful creatures that you have encountered while walking among the mountains. Tell us about a time when you spotted an animal in its habitat and it left you mesmerised.
There is one moment in my travels amongst Scotland's hills when I encountered a wild animal that really stands out in my memory. I was in a bothy one May when I saw a white flash far off in the heather. At first, I thought that my eyes were playing tricks and perhaps I hadn’t really seen anything at all. Then it came: an unmistakable glimpse of a white wing, close to the ground and darting in and out of the clumps of heather. I realised that this was a hen harrier, an incredible bird that is persecuted here in Scotland.
I spent a few days at the bothy and over those days I saw the harrier more and more frequently. This was a male. The male is smaller than the female and his plumage is lighter with dark tips to his wings. This particular male spent every opportunity hunting for voles up and down the riverbank that flowed past the bothy. At that time of year, he was clearly hard-pressed trying to feed his brood of fledglings. Male hen harriers can have multiple broods at the same time with different females on different nests. This male had so many chicks to feed, they clearly kept him very active. I did wonder if he had come to regret chasing so many females earlier in the air.
When you see any hen harrier you are watching a survivor: a bird that is persecuted on grouse moors and, in England, has almost been shot to extinction. There are at least a reasonable number of breeding birds in Scotland but even they struggle to survive as many are illegally shot. The memory of seeing that bird and watching him on those few days in may has remained with me forever and has been the highlight of my search for Scotland’s wildlife.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will have, or has had, an impact on natural wildlife? Have you noticed any changes on small scale habitat observations?
I am sure that COVID-19 will have an impact on Scottish wildlife. Over the months of lockdown, the hills of Scotland have been far more deserted than they would normally be. It may well be that many species of birds and other creatures will have enjoyed far less disturbance over the last few months than they have ever experienced. It’s quite likely that some areas that had never seen various species have now been colonised. I suppose it’s likely that overall, COVID-19 will have been of benefit to the wildlife population.
I certainly remember that when we last came out of lockdown many of the paths and byways that I was used to walking had almost become completely overgrown. It’s interesting to see how quickly nature will regain some of these areas. I certainly think that if we had remained in lockdown for much longer, some of the paths that I was used to walking would have vanished completely. When we came out of lockdown, I found bothy doors overgrown, car parks neglected, and places where there had been very little plant life had become re-established.
Many rewilding projects are emerging as countries aim to tackle the climate crisis. Can you tell us more about any that you have recently discovered while exploring the Highlands?
For me, one of the most striking rewilding projects that I’ve encountered has been the regrowth that has occurred within Glen Feshie. All my life, I have wandered through empty glens with bare hillsides and only old-established trees growing. It was incredible to walk through that glen and find that it was thriving with new growth. If you walk through most woodlands, you will find only old well-established trees growing. These look fine and perfectly healthy, but what you’re actually looking at is a dying forest. What happens, largely because of the excessive numbers of deer, is that any new growth is eaten and killed off. That means that when the old trees eventually die there are no younger trees coming up behind them to replace them.
In Glen Feshie it is very different. The numbers of red deer in that area have been drastically reduce, meaning new growth can thrive. I walked through that valley with a sense of wonder, and it was incredible to see what our hills could be like. I will be so keen to go there in ten years’ time to see how the new growth has come up and matured. Often the glens I walk through are silent and bereft of life; I am in fact walking through a green desert. But that valley showed me how different things can be and I really hope that the example of what has been done there will be developed right across the Highlands.
Out of all the mountains across the world that you have climbed, which one offered the most picturesque views?
That is an almost impossible question to answer. In all the places I’ve walked and climbed the views of all had the different but very special appeal. It’s almost impossible to select one view. I suppose if I were to be asked to pick one of the views that I find most impressive it would probably be in the Cairngorm mountains. You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m thinking of a winter vista. If you climb Cairngorm from the North and head over its summit, down towards Loch Avon, you can look South right into the heart of the Cairngorm mountains. On a winter’s day with the mountains sheathed in snow and ice, that is one of the most spectacular views for sheer mountain savagery that I know in the British Isles.
It feels as though you are looking at an empty landscape untouched by human hands. The scale of the place is enormous and that view never ceases to inspire me.
Thinking back years ago I think one of the views that also made a great impact on me was the view from the summit of Mont Blanc. If you stand on that summit, you look down across a vast empire of ice and snow down and sometimes through the clouds to the valley below. The village below you is almost a mile in vertical height. It looks so small that you feel almost impossibly high while all around you the towering mountains of the Alps rear up from sheer sided valleys. That is certainly worth seeing.
To buy a copy of Wild Winter, click here.