The Challenges
Nick Kempe

What are the key conservation challenges facing the Cairngorms over the next ten years?

The Cairngorms should be the finest area for wildlife in the British Isles. Adam Watson spent his lifetime documenting the area’s bio-diversity and how this was being lost through a relentless process of attrition. After years of lobbying, NEMT and other recreational and conservation organisations secured a National Park, only to see the vision of the Cairngorms becoming a World Heritage Site, one of the most important places for conservation on earth, dissipate into the ether.

The fundamental causes behind most of the main conservation challenges of the last forty years remain, unsolved. They are well known.

There are, to use the jargon, the two big landscape scale challenges. How do we reduce the numbers of red deer, which have destroyed the diversity of vegetation and with that the wildlife that used to live in it? And how do we find another purpose for grouse moors and all the damaging management practices (hill tracks, muirburn, wildlife persecution etc) that go with them?

Alongside this is the challenge of unsustainable development. How do we stop the endless attrition: the loss of chunks of ancient woodland to housing each year; the destruction of parts of our most important protected areas, like the Drumochter Special Area of Conservation for the Beauly-Denny powerline; the dualling of the A9? How do we stop the development juggernaut? How do we reconcile the need for renewable energy with the highly damaging impacts that windfarms and most hydro schemes have on the landscape and on ecosystems? How do we break the cycle of misconceived proposals that have been inflicted on Cairn Gorm, what should be one of Scotland’s finest mountains, ever since the Highlands and Islands Development Board was handed the estate?

Then there are the more specific wildlife conservation challenges. Can we prevent the capercaillie, once again, and the wildcat from becoming extinct? How do we enable species to extend their range successfully, whether naturally or though further re-introductions? The hen harriers, disappearing over grouse moors, and the sea-eagles, which keep getting killed. How do we unlock proposals to bring back the beaver, which would help flood prevention as well as improve aquatic habitats, and the lynx, which could play an absolutely crucial role in controlling roe deer as woodland regenerates? How do we even start talking about the wolf, the predator which could reduce red deer numbers without us having to trash the few remaining unscarred areas of the Cairngorms with bulldozed tracks?

All these challenges now sit within the context of the global environmental and climate crisis, driven by an economic system which was already in serious trouble before Covid-19 started shaking it to its foundations. After years of talk with little action, catastrophic events, pestilence, fire and flood, are now forcing change, whether anyone wants it or not.

From a conservation perspective, the pressing challenge is to ensure the responses to these crises and the catastrophic events they engender are based on ecological principles, science and the needs of the population as a whole, rather than by the whims of individuals such as Donald Trump, and sectoral interests. How can we ensure, for example, that the Scottish Government’s commitment to extend woodland cover in Scotland, as a means of removing carbon from the atmosphere, does not end in a re-run of the market free for all of the 1980s which only benefitted commercial interests? That ended up destroying a significant part of the most important carbon sink in Scotland, the Flow Country, and has created few long-term jobs.

The simple answer to most of these challenges, from landscape scale conservation, to enabling species other than ourselves to flourish to mitigating climate change, lies in re-wilding. While evidence for what re-wilding can do has been about for some time, from places like Creag Meagaidh, it is Glen Feshie that has transformed ideas of what is possible. While government agencies endlessly talked, agonised and debated targets for woodland expansion and deer culls, Wildland Ltd replaced intensive grouse moor management with walked up grouse shooting, abandoned predator control and started culling deer. As numbers dropped and more deer flowed in over its boundaries to feed on the recovering vegetation, it has continued culling. While the experts aimed for an average deer density of five per square kilometre, Glen Feshie has shown that it was when numbers reduce to around two per kilometre that ecological regeneration really started to take off.

Abandoned houses on the Dinnet Estate. © N Kempe

Contrary to popular myth, in parts of the Highlands it is the sporting estate, rather than any re-wilding initiatives, which bears responsibility for depopulation in the Highlands.

The consequences have been remarkable. The Cairngorms National Park Authority and other public authorities have still not fully woken up to the fact that they could meet all their woodland regeneration targets without any planting at all. Last year half the hen harrier nests on the estate were predated by foxes, but you are far more likely to see hen harriers there than in most other places in the Cairngorms. In Wildland’s wake, other estates in conservation ownership have followed, whether shaken out of lethargy, inspired or empowered by their example.

Old English Longhorn cattle,
Knepp estate
Stefan Czapski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There is no one single model for re-wilding. Another extraordinary example, Knepp in Sussex, is founded on grazing by the nearest we have to undomesticated herbivores. They prefer to use the term “wilding”, arguing that we should not return to some chosen point in the past, but instead let natural processes evolve and see where they take us. Nightingales, turtle doves and many other now rare creatures have returned but, just like the deer management at Glen Feshie, the initiative depends on some human intervention. Recently they provided a home to some of Scotland’s “excess” beavers to help re-wild their water courses. Most re-wilding depends on some human intention and intervention and this creates its own contradictions and challenges. These could well dominate internal debates among conservationists over the next decade. To what extent, for example, should we try to hurry up nature, as Cairngorms Connect is proposing to do by planting montane scrub on some of the most pristine slopes of the Cairngorms. Are further tracks into the core of the Cairngorms justified to help reduce deer numbers?

The key point, however, is that whatever the complexities, re-wilding is transforming the land and through doing this has made it clearer than ever before that the main barrier to conservation in the Cairngorms in the last forty years has been the sporting estate, whether managed for deer, grouse or both. Seen from this perspective, the main conservation challenge for the next decade should not be about trying to save this or that species, meeting this or that target or securing this or that policy commitment but is about the fundamental reform of land-use in the National Park.

This cannot simply be a matter of introducing legislation to control deer numbers effectively and ban practices like muirburn, which most members of NEMT would probably sign up to immediately; it also needs to be about developing answers to the questions this raises. For example:

The scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. The successes at Glen Feshie have been almost entirely financed by Scotland’s largest private landowner, Anders Povlsen, and to be replicated elsewhere are likely to need significant initial public investment.

NEMT, which has a fantastic record of advocating for conservation, has a lot to do.

©Trevor Stuchbury

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