Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Evolution of Wuling Farm (En Voyage)

People head to Wuling Farm to enjoy nature at its very best, but much of what makes this high-altitude retreat so alluring is the result of carefully thought-out human intervention. The farm occupies a valley deep in Taiwan’s mountainous interior. No part is lower than 1,740m above sea level, and from it hikers set off for the summit of Snow Mountain, which at 3,886m is the second-highest point on the island. 

Some of the scenes which greet visitors in 2017 are quite different to those of a generation or two ago. Just as the palisade from which Wall Street gets its name eventually disappeared, agriculture is no longer one of Wuling Farm’s main reasons for being. But before explaining why that change has occurred, we should outline the farm’s history.  

Members of the Atayal tribe, one of Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian ethnic groups, hunted and gathered here for centuries. The outside world finally arrived in the early 1960s when the valley was identified by the government as a place where some of the many thousands of servicemen who’d followed Chiang Kai-shek from mainland China in 1949 could be resettled.  These soldier-pioneers cultivated cabbages and built stone cottages. Several of the latter still stand, and it’s possible to arrange an overnight stay in one. Accommodation details and other useful information can be found on the farm’s bilingual website.

Around this time, the valley gained its current name. Wuling is the name of a place mentioned in Peach Blossom Spring, a prose work by Tao Yuanming, a poet who died almost 1,600 years ago. This classic of Chinese literature concerns a man who loses his way, follows a stream, and comes across a sublime grove of peach trees. Continuing onward, he discovers an idyllic yet secluded community. Receiving a warm welcome, he stays for several days. When he eventually returns home, he tells the local magistrate what he found, but despite the sending out of numerous search parties, no one is able to relocate the utopia. 

Taiwan’s Wuling, by contrast, is very easy to find. Motorists can approach via Hehuanshan (this stretch of road is the highest on the island, ascending to an altitude of 3,275m) or from Yilan in the northeast. Driving to the farm from Taipei takes just over three hours.

Soon after the farm was set up, the managers realized good profits could be made growing fruits which can’t thrive in Taiwan’s sultry lowlands. Apple, pear and - fulfilling a prophecy implied by the valley’s new name - peach orchards were established. Red and green maples were added to the landscape, as were Chinese cork oaks and sweetgums. Together with native Formosan Alders and walnuts, these trees offer fall visitors an astonishing range of yellows, oranges and reds. Those who arrive around the end of winter are treated to gorgeous displays of cherry and plum blossoms.

It’s still possible to buy locally grown fruit at Wuling Farm, but since 2003 many of the orchards have been replaced with stands of native trees. Shei-Pa National Park, which oversees the valley as well as pristine highlands to the north, south and west, is particularly keen to preserve species like the Taiwan red pine, the Taiwan Hemlock  and the Taiwan Douglas fir. Where fruits (and tea) are still grown, pesticides and artificial fertilizers are no longer used. 

Many of these changes have been made for the sake of a fish, and 2017 marks the centenary of its discovery by scientists. A hundred years ago, while visiting a police station in the area, an assistant to Japanese scientist Oshima Masamitsu was told that fish somewhat similar to trout could be found in several high-altitude streams in this part of Taiwan. With the help of some Atayal – who called the species bunban or kulubang – the assistant obtained a salted tail of one fish.

After further research, in 1919 Oshima published a description of the fish scientists now call Oncorhynchus formosanus. The second part of the name, you’ll likely guess, derives from Formosa, the name by which Taiwan was known in the Western world between the 16th century and the mid-20th century. In terms of appearance and habits, Oncorhynchus formosanus isn’t exceptional. They seldom live more than four years, and few are longer than 40 cm. The mere fact they’re endemic - meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth - isn’t really that special. Of Taiwan’s 220 freshwater fish species, 36 are unique to the island. 

What’s commonly called the Formosan landlocked salmon isn’t just rare, but also the world’s southernmost salmon species, and the one surviving at the highest altitude. For these reasons, both scientists and the Taiwanese public regard it as extraordinarily precious. Its status as a national icon was cemented in 2002 when it appeared on Taiwan’s new 2,000-dollar bills.

What makes this type of salmon landlocked isn’t a lack of access to the sea, as you might assume, but rather the species’ intolerance of warm water. Its eggs cannot hatch if the water’s temperature goes much above 12 degrees Celsius, and mature fish begin to suffer from fungi and bacteria when temperatures top 17 degrees Celsius. 

Official efforts to bolster the Formosan landlocked salmon date from the 1980s, by which time the population in the wild had fallen below 300. Formerly abundant in six tributaries of the Upper Dajia River, which drains into the Taiwan Strait 67 km west of Wuling Farm, the salmon now thrives only in Qijiawan Creek (pictured here). 

This stream, 15.3 km long and never more than 12m wide, is one of the valley’s scenic focal points. Whether you pause at the road bridge near the entrance to the farm, or the crossing which leads to Taoshan Waterfall (three hours’ walking will get you there and back), you’ll likely find this waterway so attractive you’ll loathe to tear yourself away.

The weirs which once punctuated the Qijiawan are gradually disappearing. One was destroyed by a typhoon, but five others were removed by the national park after scientists concluded they were made the stream run slower (and thus warmer), and impeded the salmons’ breeding. Thanks to these and other measures, the wild salmon population has recovered to over 3,000. Live, artificially hatched salmon are on display in the Taiwan Salmon Eco Center (which has more than one English name, and is closed on Mondays), as are Taiwan shovel-jaw carp, another species which makes its home in the creek.

A few salmon and carp fall victim to the valley’s Tawny fish owls. This bird, Taiwan’s largest owl, isn’t seen nearly as often as the local population of Taiwan partridges, Brown dippers, and Plumbeous redstarts.

Just as the valley has rare fish and unusual birds, it also boasts a stunning range of flowers. More than 270 species have been recorded, and March is said to be when the farm’s wildflowers are at their best. This coincides with the fruit-tree blossoms. Those who come a little later in the year will be treated to exuberant rhododendrons, while after late July golden needle flowers (also known as day lilies) are a highlight. There are no bad times to visit Wuling Farm - only bad times to forget your camera!

Because En Voyage is currently a print-only publication, I've posted the entire article.

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