Devil's advocates

IT WOULD take a mighty herd of beef on the hoof to fill the Devil's Beef Tub, one can't help thinking, standing by the A701, a few miles north of Moffat, on the brink of the cavernous scoop out of the landscape known by that name.

I'm with Willie McGhee, executive director of the Borders Forest Trust, and beside us is the memorial to a Covenanter, John Hunter, who was shot dead on the slopes of the crater-like cauldron yawning at our feet. Celebrated by Sir Walter Scott, this brooding Border landmark cn boast a tumultuous history, from Border reivers who used it to conceal stolen cattle to a Jacobite prisoner who escaped by rollling down its precipitous slopes.

Now, however, the Devil's Beef Tub is about to embark on a new phase in its history, as the Trust prepares to buy the site and transform much of it into a rich "mosaic" of the kind of broadleaved native woodland, which once covered much of the area, along with natural scrub, lush, low-lying meadows and low-intensity farming. But, they stress, the great bowl of the Beef Tub itself will remain unplanted, as a memorial to its lawless history.

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The Trust's vision of establishing a new, wooded landscape on slopes that have been grazed bare for centuries, but remaining in harmony with low-impact human land use, is set to be realised since it announced last week that it had successfully raised the 700,000 required to purchase the 1,580 acres of land from its owners.

The Borders Forest Trust is a charity which over the past five years has been working to re-establish significant tracts of the large area once known as the Ettrick Forest, once a hunting ground of the Scottish kings, which has long been largely denuded of woodland by livestock grazing and other agricultural usage. Towards the end of 2007 the trust got wind that the Williams family, who own the land as part of their Corehead Farm, were planning to sell it off. The Trust had a valuation carried out, with the family agreeing to sell the land at valuation price. With grant entitlement and purchase of the sheep on the site, explains McGhee, the trust had to raise 700,000, and it has been public enthusiasm, rather than grant-giving institutions, which has clinched the deal.

"I believed at that time," he says, "when we were still riding the rollercoaster of economic wellbeing, that we could raise a lot of the money from large trusts and foundations, as well as running a public campaign." As the economic climate chilled during 2008, however, he realised that the charitable trusts were tightening their belts. "What happened in the interim was that we had an overwhelming public response.

"By December 2008 we'd only raised 180,000, so we were looking at six months to raise the better part of half a million pounds. But half a million pounds came rolling through our doors, and for that we have to thank large numbers of the public, and especially Borders Forest Trust membership."

The idea of restoring landscape to former forested glory appears to capture the public imagination, agrees McGhee. A decade ago, another venture under the BFT's umbrella, the Carrifran Wildwood Project, similarly tapped into public interest to raise 350,000 to purchase the Carrifran Valley, several miles east of the Beef Tub, with a view to returning it to the woodland which would have flourished there some 6,000 years ago.

However, McGhee, a forest ecologist who divides his time between Borders woodland projects and working with tropical forest communities in Cameroon and elsewhere, stresses that the plans for the Beef Tub don't involve turning the clock back to any specific time and habitat. "The Carrifran project was about a relatively purist ecological restoration, using a paradigm of woodland which had been gone for many thousands of years. What we're going to do at Corehead is more complicated. The Trust believes passionately in the role that people play in the landscape. What we want to do here is demonstrate how you can integrate low-intensity agriculture, with cows and sheep, using traditional land management practices – especially on the low ground, where we want to recreate hay meadows and wet meadows. So we're not bringing the site out of agriculture altogether, but we're also going to plant about a third of it, about 200 hectares, with native woodland."

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As he speaks, we're being pelted by squalls, the folds of the surrounding hills receding into mist, and low cloud lending a suitably gloomy cast to the gulf below, famously evoked by Sir Walter Scott: "It looks as if four hills were laying their heads together, to shut out daylight from the dark hollow space between them. A dammed deep, black, blackguard-looking abyss of a hole it is."

The place was used by reivers to hide stolen cattle – earning its nickname of the Marquis of Annandale's Beefstand -- while William Wallace, whose sister married the laird of the long-ruined Corehead Tower, rallied his men here before embarking on his first foray south of the Border. While Hunter, the Covenanting martyr, died here during the '45 rebellion, one Jacobite prisoner was more fortunate, escaping from his captors by rolling down these steep slopes amid a hail of musket balls, the incident finding its way into Scott's novel Redgauntlet. Roman Legions passed here as they marched into Scotland, and even in relatively recent history these inhospitable slopes have known tragedy. In the winter of 1831, the mail coach heading north from Moffat was halted by a fierce blizzard and its driver and guard released the horses, which found their way to a local farm, and tried to reach shelter on foot. It was five days before searchers found their frozen bodies, still with the mail sacks, half a mile from the Beef Tub.

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On this inclement June day, fitful sunlight emerges, the breeze driving cloud shadows across the steep, bracken and scree-clad slopes of the Tub. The surrounding hills are bare, except for a few monolithic blocks of sitka spruce, which will be removed as the trust implements its plan. Return to this viewpoint in 50 or even just 25 years' time, says McGhee, "and hopefully you'll see something like the woods of Perthshire, or if it's autumn, like the fall in the north-eastern United States. We'll be planting native broadleaved woodland – ash, oak, hazel, birch, rowan, aspen… You'll see heather and montane scrub on the higher areas of ground, and cattle grazing on the shoulders of the hills and on the valley bottoms, which in summer time will be a patchwork of hay meadows, wet meadows, hedges – and an orchard, because a group in Moffat has already approached us about establishing a community orchard."

The trust emphasises the importance of community involvement and educational spin-off from the project, and McGhee takes the opportunity to state that the trust's reforestation work is not in opposition to farming practices. "When we talk about recovering or restoring, all too often people think that you're having a pop at the people who have farmed these landscapes for hundreds of years, but their objectives are generally about producing sheep or cattle and very rarely about maximising biodiversity and putting habitats and species back into the landscape, whereas that's what we do. So we work with farmers day to day and appreciate that in the same way that sheep farmers raise sheep or sitka spruce farmers raise sitka spruce, we're going to farm for biodiversity."

The present owners are already in a contract farming arrangement with neighbours, and the trust hopes to continue with that arrangement, certainly in the foreseeable future. "We'll become owners of stock, but we do trees, not sheep or cattle, so we'll either contract, or employ a shepherd or work through the people who have been farming at Corehead for the past few years."

He points out that organisations such as the RSPB have used traditional breeds of cattle elsewhere in Scotland as a conservation tool, "because large grazing animals are good for the land. Also a lot of the plants, animals and birds we'd like to come back here are linked to traditional farming environments."

So when the trust fences off third of the site, a new ecosystem will started to develop almost right away: "We think there will be heather, heathland will recover, we hope; there will be willow scrub regeneration, plants that were unable to flourish because of grazing and burning, which is a common practice in the Southern Uplands."

If the trust manages, as hoped, to plant "a goodly portion" of the proposed woodlands over the next three to five years, the visitor will start to see marked changes in as little as ten years' time, he believes. "Things will have changed, and quite dramatically."

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But not the Beef Tub itself, he repeats: "All we might do is plant a modest scattering of trees along the valley bottom. It has a great resonance, and not only for local people. It's almost a national icon, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott." Or as broadcaster, author and Borders historian Alistair Moffat has said: "The Beef Tub is part of the weave of Scotland's story."

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