The World’s most magical forest – and what we can learn from it

 Inspirations  Comments Off on The World’s most magical forest – and what we can learn from it
Jun 222018

I’ve loved forests all my life, and have been in many fine ones on five continents.  My vote for most magical is the forests of Bale Mountains National Park, in south-east Ethiopia.  Why so special? Beautiful, vibrant, atmospheric, with life of all kinds, and very rare: many unique species, and there are few other habitats like this worldwide.

If the idea of flying to Africa to support an eco-tourism project worries, you, I share the concern. I limit myself to one return air trip per year, and there are reasons why Ethiopia especially needs our support. This big country has many unique species and rare habitats – it also has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world, a terrifying deforestation rate, and a government with limited resources and many priorities.

The conservation needs in Ethiopia are acute, but they’ll only get support if there’s foreign money to support them. So eco-tourism, and support for European charities working here is crucial. That’s especially true because localised tribal conflicts have scared many tourists off visiting Ethiopia, although the popular areas like the Simien Highlands and Bale Mountains are hundreds of miles from any trouble.

Here’s a short walk in the Harenna Forest region of Bale, on a chilly, sunny January morning.  Fording a small clear stream, we cross a soft, grassy meadow and see colobus monkeys leaping around high up in the massive hagenia trees, with their strange-shaped trunks and bunches of red flowers.






Figure 1: Mount Gushurale in the morning 

As we climb, the sheer diversity and profusion of vegetation is exhilarating.  There are lobelias five metres tall, a variety of small flowers underfoot, giant creepers, purple flowers on the spiney acanthus.  Many hagenia trees have thick multiple trunks from ground level, which rise, merge, and flow into strange curved shapes.  It feels like the setting for a fairy tale or a Tolkien saga, such is the magic.

Deeper in, when we pause, we see small groups of Bale monkeys, unique to this region, prancing through the bush as they raid the bamboo groves for breakfast.  The melodic call of the Abyssinian catbird is a thrilling sound amid the many birdsongs.  There are over 320 bird species in the National Park.  Above us, the forest covers the steep slopes of a huge escarpment, with the Sanetti Plateau at 4,000 metres above it.

By now, you may be waiting for a bad news story and a plea for help – and so there is – but this also a tale of foresight and some progress.  A British naturalist, Leslie Brown, was the catalyst in National Park designation in 1969.  Even then, he predicted that population growth would drive more people and their livestock into these forests.  Climate change has aggravated this further, and by the early 2000’s the deforestation rate was a terrifying 6%.

The importance of the Bale Mountains is not only about the rarity of tropical-alpine rainforest, and the unique plant and wildlife species: the rivers rising here provide the water supply for 12 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.  Local and national government recognise the importance of this situation, and are working with several NGO’s on it.

The quaintly named Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) is one of the largest German conservation charities.  They are leading the work of supporting the National Park Rangers, and helping to provide equipment for them.  The 78 Rangers have a massive job on hand: including preventing illegal forest clearance, new settlers, and poaching – in an area of 2,400 square kilometres.

I spent some time with Neville Slade, the FZS Manager for their work in Bale. He is deeply concerned: “we know there is significant illegal clearance going on still, and the drought south of here means there is serious pressure from people and livestock trying to move in.”  Along with deforestation, another big issue is degradation of the forest: there is now overgrazing by cattle in sizeable areas: as a result, there is very little regeneration, and the age profile of the trees is unbalanced.

I wholly share Neville’s sense of urgency, and I asked what help I and others in Europe could give.  He said: “we urgently need more funds to enable the Rangers to protect the Park”.  A big step forward in 2014 was that the Park was gazetted, i.e. given legal status.  This means that the Rangers can now get local police involved, who can prosecute: but this all takes time and resources.  If you want to support FZS’ work, see

There is a major project to protect the watersheds through Natural Resource Management in the large and sensitive areas of the Bale Mountains outside the National Park boundary.  This EU-funded work involves FZS, a local charity SOS, and Farm Africa: an innovative UK charity for whom I have been doing voluntary training and consulting since 2011.








Figure 2 Bale Monkey 







Figure 3 Treehouse at Bale Mountain Lodge 

An inspiring feature of the work in Bale is that it is constructive as well as defensive.  For example, eco-tourism was recognised some years ago by Government and the NGO’s as a valuable element in strategies to show local people how they can gain more income from preserving the forest than by their dominant income source, grazing livestock.

Since I first came to the Bale Mountains in 2011, an outstanding eco-tourism facility has opened: the Bale Mountain Lodge, in a beautiful location in a clearing in the Harenna Forest, within the National Park.  It’s completely off-grid, with a 20 KW micro-hydro scheme for electricity, and a biogas digester for waste.  The lodge is beautifully designed, and made largely from local materials with local labour.  They aimed to employ 67% of staff from the local community, and the actual figure is 82%.

The lodge pledges 3% of gross revenue to local conservation, and also has a Community Fund, which guests can donate to: its aims are set with the local village, and have included improving its health clinic and enlarging the school.

Most of the bedrooms are self-contained cottages, or tukuls, many with a deck overlooking a stream.  While you have dinner, staff light your wood-burner and provide a hot water bottle.  As you can imagine, it’s a delight to stay in a place where everything’s done well, and where you know your visit is helping the forest and the local villagers.

The creators of the Lodge are Guy Levene, a British ex-Army officer, and his wife Yvonne.  They have shown great tenacity to create and sustain a place of this quality.  The rates are high, but good value: they include all food, drinks, and use of the naturalist team as guides.  You can see more at

A quite different eco-tourism project has just opened in Manyete, a village in the forest south of the Park boundary.  FZS have helped locals to create a visitor centre which will offer the traditional coffee ceremony, and guided tours of the village and the forest.  It will also sell local products, especially the wild coffee which grows here.  Along with a campsite, these are all intelligent, low-impact ways of adding value to the forest.  Wild honey is another established enterprise, and ideas like herbal medicines are being explored.

PM readers will probably detect a lot of permaculture thinking here.  It would be intriguing to see if it could be more formally applied: but what makes the Bale Mountains so fascinating and so delicate is a three-way juggle between an ecosystem which is fundamentally wild, the needs of the people living in it, and the wisdom and funding from Government and NGO’s.  There is hopefully big learning here on a wider scale.

Earth Wisdom by Glennie Kindred

 Inspirations  Comments Off on Earth Wisdom by Glennie Kindred
Mar 062018

Glennie Kindred has walked her talk for decades in exploring deeper connections with nature, and helping others to do so. Honouring the Celtic seasonal festivals is part of her approach, and her earlier book, Earth Cycles of Celebration, is my favourite guide to them.

This book is in two parts. The first offers various ways to deepen your dialogue with the Earth, and with spirits of the land. The second is a detailed guide to ways to celebrate each of the eight Celtic festivals.

In Part one, I especially like her section on ways to deepen your rapport with trees. Although I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I still learned from this book. For example, the staff carried by a wise woman or sage man is a way they stay connected to the power and wisdom of the tree it came from.

Glennie has created many ceremonies over the years, and this book offers a valuable summary of her approach, including how to create a structure, and ways to invoke the support of the elements (earth, air, fire, and water).

She also describes the phases of the moon and their qualities in more detail than I’ve seen before, with eight phases, such as the Balsamic or Waning crescent moon: a time for letting go and transformation.

For each Celtic festival, Glennie describes its qualities and significance in the cycle of the year, and suggests forms of celebration. She also links each festival with a specific tree and describes its symbolism and healing qualities.
The book is much enriched by the magic illustrations, also by Glennie.

ISBN 978-1-84850-480-6
Published by Hay House UK Ltd.


 General  Comments Off on WHAT MAKES A WILD BOAR WILD?
Dec 092017


This true tale of animal passion comes from a showpiece of sustainable forestry in the Scottish Highlands, a project which I visited on a trip last year. Boar and pigs were part of many traditional forestry systems all over Britain.





Alan feeding the so-called wild boar

In this case, the cunning plan was to reintroduce them to help control rampant bracken. At considerable expense, a high wire and low electric fence were erected, enclosing about 30 acres.
Female boars were imported to this enclosure, and started grubbing away at the bracken. However, it was decided that they also needed man-made feed to ensure their health. The whole scheme sounded dodgy to me when I was invited to “feed the wild boar” whilst visiting.

Having gone to all this trouble, a new wildlife survey revealed that the surrounding area had a sizable population of genuinely wild boar, who were doing fine without imported feed. In fact, the wildest boar in this tangled tale are the male boars around the enclosure. Rangers found evidence of them desperately trying to get in…

One has to suspect that this huge, expensive human intervention into the life of the wild boar was unnecessary, and ill advised. There may be a more general lesson here, of thinking through consequences very carefully before we try to “restore” natural ecosystems.

I suspect that a referendum among the inhabitants of the enclosure would produce a 100% vote for union with the wild natural world around them!