Of all the hills in Shropshire's Welsh Marches, the Stiperstones is surely the most enigmatic. This long windswept ridge, topped with strange shattered quartzite rock and craggy tors has an awesome wildness. Through centuries of myth and legend it has held a unique grip on local consciousness, inspiring both love and fear.
And at its heart stands the dark outcrop called the Devil's Chair, "a mass of quartzite, blackened and hardened by uncountable ages," wrote Mary Webb in her 1920s novel The Golden Arrow. "The scattered rocks, the ragged holly-brakes on the lower slopes were like small carved lions beside the black marble steps of a stupendous throne. Nothing ever altered its look. Dawn quickened over it in pearl and emerald; summer sent the armies of heather to its very foot; snow rested there as doves nest in cliffs. It remained inviolable, taciturn, evil. It glowered darkly on the dawn; it came through the snow like jagged bones through flesh; before its hardness even the venturesome cranberries were discouraged. For miles around, in the plains, the valleys, the mountain dwellings it was feared. It drew the thunder, people said. Storms broke round it suddenly out of a clear sky; it seemed almost as if it created storm. No one cared to cross the range near it after dark."
The rocks of the Stiperstones were laid down during the Ordovician period, some 480 million years ago. The special quartzite which forms the ridge was subject to severe frost shattering during the last ice age, which resulted in the boulder-strewn landscape, sorted into circles of stones on the flatter areas and stripes down the steep sides. The strangeness of these formations fuelled further myths that they were caused by demonic wickedness. More durable rock remained as a dozen jagged tor formations, of which the Devil's Chair is but one.
Apart from this dramatic scenery, interwoven as it is with folklore, literary connections and centuries of human intervention through mining and farming, the Stiperstones also holds a unique combination of geological, geomorphological and biological interest. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, as well as being a candidate Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive. But for all its claim as a sanctuary for wild nature, the ridge is also an industrial site, riddled with old mines, spoil heaps and derelict buildings. Small-scale lead mining has been practised here since Roman times and lead stamps of the Emperor Hadrian have been found. Because of the mines and ghostly spoil heaps of white quartzite one Stiperstones area was known as the Land of Dereliction. However, even this was "not so much an unsightly blot on nature, as subservient to her mood here, accentuating the desolate beauty of the same", observed 19th century historian Magdalene Weale. Life for the people who eked a living here was harsh and the mood can certainly be desolate, but its strange beauty is a result of centuries of the relationship between the labours of people and the wild spirit of the hill. It is this relationship which created the heathland.
Much of the Stiperstones is dominated by heather with the distribution of other heathland species dependent upon altitude and aspect. The western valleys are comparatively dry and sunny, south-facing slopes support bell heather and western gorse. North-facing slopes are dominated by ling heather and whinberry (called bilberry in other parts of the country). On higher ground, heather grows with cowberry and crowberry - its only site in the county. In wetter places, cross-leaved heath, bog mosses, cotton grass, bog asphodel and marsh violet grow. Pasture, which was originally carved out of the heather, supports heath speedwell and bedstraw and mountain pansy. There are hay meadows with yellow rattle and common spotted orchid, oak coppices, fragments of upland woods of birch and rowan and remnants of ancient holly groves. Perhaps of prime importance, and the reason why the Stiperstones is a candidate SAC, is the fact that it is a rare form of dry heath, one of only nine to be designated in the country. It supports red grouse, stonechat and nesting curlew and is visited by buzzards and ravens. Insects such as the emperor moth, green-hairstreak butterfly and upland wood ant are species of national conservation significance here.
Although the Devil's Chair still remains inviolable, the 'armies of heather' and the 'venturesome cranberries' have not fared so well since Mary Webb wrote about them 80 years ago. Although the upper part of the Stiperstones central ridge remains pretty much as it has for centuries, in the last fifty years much of the heather and whinberry has been lost. Forestry plantations, 'improved' pasture and ploughing have bitten off large chunks of ancient heath and grassland. Few remain of what Charles Sinker, one of Shropshire's most renowned botanists, called 'field after field washed pale with mountain pansies'.
A couple of years ago, on the western flank below the Devil's Chair and behind a new sign proclaiming the Heritage Lottery Fund, lay a battlefield - hectares of tree stumps, burnt branches and bare ground. Was this the devil's work? If it was, it was not a scene of wanton destruction but the result of removing a commercial conifer plantation to reinstate the Stiperstone's heathland. Scattered in the plantation's debris were tiny specks of purple flower on regenerating sprigs of heather. These struggling seedlings were the advance guard for the Shropshire Wildlife Trust's Back to Purple project. Purple is the colour of the bell heather and ling which flower here in summer. It is also the colour of the juice of whinberries, which people have picked for pies and preserves for centuries. In an attempt to reverse the tide of fifty years of attrition, the Trust, English Nature and Forest Enterprise aim to restore heathland in a broad and continuous run 10 kilometres along and surrounding the ridge of the Stiperstones.
Although the conifer stumps were cut low and the brash burnt, the mulch of remaining pine needles was so thick that natural heather regeneration was going to be very difficult. Horse-drawn harrows were used to break the mulch down but these got snagged on the stumps, so a hawthorn tree was cut and dragged behind the horses. This worked so well that a mechanical version of a hawthorn branch was devised to do the job. But for some jobs, like removing seedling trees from around the rocks, neither horses nor machinery are any use. This sort of work needs to be done manually, with dozens of forays by Wildlife Trust volunteers onto the Stiperstones to cut scrub and treat stumps. Local children have also been helping to pull seedling rowan, birch and pine, and taking them back to their tree nursery for planting out in school grounds.
Embarking on a high-profile campaign raises people's expectations and so leaving the process of natural regeneration to run its course is not enough. To speed up the heathland regeneration, and involve the local community, 10,000 heather cuttings have been taken from the hill and grown on in nurseries for later planting. These cuttings and heather seeds will cover the 100 hectares of cleared plantation, but it's really only just the beginning of the Back to Purple project. In the second phase of the five year restoration plan, the Wildlife Trust hopes to buy up and manage extensive parcels of land and restore them to heathland.
We may be more used to thinking about heathland as a lowland habitat, like the fictitious Egdon Heath of Thomas Hardy novels in Dorset, and those in Hampshire, Surrey, Devon, Suffolk and Norfolk. However, daft as it may seem - especially when you're struggling through a blizzard on the top of this hill - the Stiperstones has been recognised as the same sort of heathland found in lowland England, and not one of the deep peat moorland habitats usually associated with the uplands. Being classified as lowland heath has political clout which makes it nationally and internationally significant for conservation.
Heathland is a rare and declining habitat and a fifth of Europe's total remains in the UK - but only just, and, to our shame, heathland and the creatures which depend upon it have been decimated. Over 40 percent of British heathland has been lost since 1950, to forestry, agriculture and building development. The fragments that remain are threatened by scrub encroachment due to lack of management, as well as by housing, mineral extraction, uncontrolled fire, recreational pressure, military training and atmospheric pollution. Through its Biodiversity Action Plan, the UK is now committed to improving 58,000 hectares of its heathland and recreating a further 6,000 hectares. This ambition is being put into practice through a scheme called 'Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage', involving conservation partnerships like Back to Purple.
But there is a problem with adopting such a generic approach to lowland heath restoration, in that political obligations to bring back certain types of heather might divert attention away from other vulnerable heathland types such as grassland. There's a danger that importing the targets of the Biodiversity Action Plan to heaths like the Stiperstones will have a rounding down effect on the oddity and distinctiveness of the place. One question might be: given the variety of individual heathland plant communities, what shade of purple should we go back to? Another might be: what do we do about the abandonment of the cultural activities which produced the distinctiveness of each heathland? A bit of scrub bashing and the occasional burn will not compensate for the centuries of human interaction which has now been lost. All heathlands have evolved from human activity and are as much about what people do to the place - like grazing, burning and cutting - as the plants which grow there. Perhaps most important of all the factors affecting the future of these habitats are our feelings and attitudes towards them.
Back to Purple is a bold scheme which aims to peel back the landscape abuses of recent years and return the ancient heathland - the purple pelt of this most enigmatic of hills. As Bernard Martin, a Shropshire Wildlife Trust volunteer says, "It's a legacy for the people to come. As I've got older I've seen places I used to visit as a child disappear because of pressures from increased population and farming and I feel I have to do something about it. When I'm dead and gone, I want my family to remember the Back to Purple project and say, "My grandad did that". In 200-300 years I hope people will look back on this - like we appreciate the vision of people in the past who created some of these wonderful places - and say, "they saved it just in time."
Given the vulnerability of special habitats like heathland and the expectations of those involved in their restoration, together with the rise in importance of quasi-scientific notions of biodiversity and sustainability, it may seem perverse to want to scrutinise all this a lot harder than we have. I maintain we should.
Ecological restoration may appear to be an adaptation of a very old form of technology, like traditional farming which it parallels in some ways. It seems to be poietic - a poetical truth revealed through the relationship with place and the living beings of that place. But I believe this to be, at least in some important respects, false. The technology of the heathland restoration is removing damaging agricultural and silvicultural incursions into a valued landscape and its wildlife habitats, but it is also preventing the dynamics of natural processes of regeneration - the development of heathland into woodland - now that the cultural activities which formed and maintained the heathland have gone. Moreover, this kind of work tempts an uncritical acceptance of the principles of restoration, and of the sort of 'environmental engineering' which is used as mitigation for environmentally damaging schemes. New ponds are dug to replace ones destroyed by building an airport runway. New trees are planted to replace woods destroyed by a new road. Gardens and historic landscapes are restored as a way of increasing property value.
For Australian environmental philosopher Robert Elliot, such projects produce a fake nature: "One reason that the faked forest is not just as good as a naturally evolved forest is that there is always the possibility that the trained eye will tell the difference... The reasons why the 'faked' forest counts for less, more often than not, than the real thing are similar to the reasons why faked works of art count for less than the real thing. Origin is important as an integral part of the evaluation process. It is important because our beliefs about it determine the valuation we make. It is also important in that the discovery that something has an origin quite different to the origin we initially believe it has, can literally alter the way we perceive the thing... there is, I suggest, no compelling reasons for accepting the restoration thesis."
Conservation enterprises like the Back to Purple project can manipulate our beliefs about what nature is and thus lead to an acceptance of a fake or unauthentic experience of nature, according to the sophistication of the technology employed by the project. This is not to say that the heather planted on the Stiperstones is any less wild or any less natural than it would be if the restoration project had not taken place. But I am saying that our attitudes to nature are being shaped by a technology that is producing an inauthentic, falsified nature. It might be argued that as such conservation is not revealing poetic truth. But an examination of the falseness of what conservation produces reveals a truth about our relationship with nature. Why do we accept the fake, rather than nature as it really is? Is the lie, the fake, the false thing made in fact a truth? What conservation produces is based on the fears and anxieties concealed within technology, and its poiesis, its poetic truth, is a fear of nature itself - ecophobia.
If conservation is concerned with bringing about a particular kind of heritage which turns out to be a fake, the principles and attitudes of ecological restoration are open to the same criticisms that can be levelled at modern technology.
The usual understanding of technology is that it has developed because of scientific advance and that it follows, and is subordinate to, science. Fluid reality becomes bound by a conceptual system in which it must be fixed before it can be seen at all, and it is demanded that everything be seized and requisitioned for human use.
Of particular interest here is the essence of technology revealed through the objectification of nature and the way science calculates, catalogues and disposes of things, a process at the heart of modern notions like natural capital, biodiversity and ecological restoration. When we humans claim dominion over everything outside ourselves, and take control through objectifying, then things cease even to be regarded as objects and are only important for the uses we can put them to.
Allowing nature to be free of any human intervention is rarely, if ever, an objective of conservation. Natural environments and their living beings which have been protected, enhanced or created by conservation are open to management, study, examination, recreation and other forms of challenging.
And yet nature continues to challenge us. A year after the clearing of stumps and seeding of heather, I went back to the Stiperstones to see what had happened. The purple had returned alright but not the purple that was planned. Having lain dormant in the soil for a century or more, the area where the conifer plantation had been cleared was full of the purple flowers of thousands of foxgloves. This was a significant lesson. It was a woodland that was restoring itself, not the heathland that so much effort had gone into. It struck me as a cause for celebration. This was nature calling the shots, answering our interventions with a powerful and beautiful indifference..