Where the waxing breeds
A review by Mark Cocker
The boreal coniferous forest which wraps around the northern crown of our planet
from Fennoscandia to the Pacific (and then across the whole of North America)
comprises the largest single habitat on earth, and covers 13 million square kilometres.
The European fraction of this huge taiga belt, along with a range of more open
landscapes of peat bog, lake, fen, marsh and montane tundra, all fall within the
geographical region that is known as Lapland, named after its indigenous inhabitants
the Saami or Lapps. In winter it is a harsh, inhospitable and largely frozen blank,
but in summer the weeks of perpetual sunlight give rise to an extraordinary efflorescence
of natural life. While few people visit the region, here in Britain we can gain
a tiny inkling of Lapland's character -- and also of its fathomless silences and
the exhilarating purity of its atmosphere -- among our own blanket bogs in Sutherland
and Caithness, whose popular name, "the Flow Country", was originally
coined by the author of this book.
Before he died last spring, Derek Ratcliffe was one of the pioneer students
of Britain's upland habitats. But in the 1980s, during his final years as Chief
Scientist for the Nature Conservancy Council, he was forced to endure the worst
environmental excesses of the Thatcher Government. These included the financially
worthless and ecologically criminal scheme to afforest the Flow Country with
blanket stands of exotic conifer, arguably the worst act of government vandalism
in the last half-century. On his retirement, partly out of disillusionment at
this mistreatment of our own northern landscapes, Ratcliffe assumed an annual
pilgrimage to the larger, wilder spaces of Lapland. Together with his wife Jeannette,
he maintained the routine for fourteen summers, the result of which is this
beautiful and inspiring book.
As Ratcliffe makes clear in an opening chapter on early exploration, Lapland
has long exercised fascination for European naturalists. As early as 1732, Carl
Linnaeus spent four months travelling through the region and, after risking
treacherous snowfields, rock fall, musket-toting Lapps and constant privation,
he returned with the first significant botanical information. His journey inspired
a succession of other enthusiasts but the place was very slow to yield its secrets.
A bird like the waxwing, for instance, one of its most charismatic inhabitants,
did not have its nest, eggs and breeding regime described until the 1850s. Even
now the nesting behaviour of another regional specialist, the bar-tailed godwit,
is largely unknown.
Ratcliffe's own studies in Lapland are full of comparable lacunae. Since all
of his trips were in summer, he had little insight into the extraordinary survival
strategies employed by its tiny selection of resident birds during the long
months of deep snow. The scope of the book also reflects the personal bias in
his interests. There is, for instance, very little on the forty-one mammal species
occurring in the region and almost nothing on other phyla such as insects, fish
and Lapland's handful of amphibians and reptiles.
Ratcliffe devoted most of his time to the study of birds and plants, and his
observations of their distribution or behaviour form the core of the book, arranged
in five central chapters, each on one of Lapland's primary habitats - forest,
forest peatland, lake and river, coast and tundra. Even within this narrower
field it is abundantly evident that what aroused his deepest passions was the
quest for breeding waders. The region holds twenty-eight species and is of global
importance for the birds, which crowd in their millions onto European shorelines
after their brief and hectic season in the Arctic.
No doubt Ratcliffe's wader forays were inspired as much by the legendary challenge
in tracking such secretive birds to their broods, as the sense of scientific
mystery that surrounds their nest behaviour. One of the most elusive of all
is the spotted redshank, which Ratcliffe singles out as the "spirit of
the Lapland taiga". As one reads of the unshakeable faith and patience
necessary to locate these nests in an infinity of featureless terrain, one cannot
help sensing the wider symbolism inherent in the search. And at the heart of
the quest is the gemlike rarity and beauty of the eggs. It is no coincidence
that 10 per cent of the book's 230 beautiful photographs document the nests
of these globe trotting species.
For all of its apparent scale and intimidating character, Ratcliffe suggests
that Lapland is not invulnerable to human activity. In the Russian sector there
are two gargantuan metal-smelting plants that are the fourth and fifth largest
sources of sulphur pollutants in Europe, and which between them yield 700,000
tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 50,000 tonnes of heavy metals. Less likely-sounding
but possibly more pervasive in its impact is the potential damage inflicted
by Lapland's oldest form of trans-humance -- the herding of reindeer. Ratcliffe
records the apparent declines among the region's grouse and the recent failure
of its most famous natural phenomenon -- its cyclical plagues of lemmings. Both
of these populations, as well as many other aspects of Lapland ecology, may
be suffering disruption from the recent rise in numbers of reindeer, which have
increased in Norwegian Lapland alone from 50,000 (in 1950) to 180,000 (1999).
Ratcliffe suggests that these over-sized herds may now be doing serious harm
to the rich lichen flora that carpets much of the landscape and is a mainstay
of the whole ecosystem.
Despite these potential threats, Ratcliffe still thought of Lapland as one
of the best candidates to be Europe's last great wilderness. It is deeply revealing
of the area's magical allure that, despite a recent medical diagnosis of his
severe angina, Derek and Jeannette Ratcliffe were on their way "home"
to Lapland when he suffered his fatal heart attack.
Mark Cocker is the co-author of Birds Britannica, published earlier this