Peter Cairns is Director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, an advocacy and communications group, helping to drive transformational change towards a vast network of rewilded land and sea across Scotland.
The legitimacy of Britain’s National Parks is a debate that constantly simmers. Many argue that the globally recognised ‘National Park’ brand, defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has been hijacked and diluted. Whether our National Parks are worthy of the name or not, it is clear that the British model is not the norm and that culture, rather than nature, is the defining feature of our most prominent natural assets.
Even in the country’s largest and wildest National Park, the Cairngorms, more often than not nature comes off second best to the seemingly endless quest for economic development. At the time of writing, a proposal to develop Cairngorm Mountain, the Park’s defining natural feature and the foundation for its very existence, includes a mountain roller coaster and zip wire – the latest attempt to make the books balance on a chunk of granite that is reluctant to be tamed.
Around the fringes of Cairngorm Mountain however, a very different vision is emerging; one that resonates much more with the international ethos of National Parks; one that works with wild nature and looks much further ahead than short-term economics.
I’m standing high above Glenfeshie ten miles to the south of Cairngorm. This is a glen, like most Scottish glens, with a history. Until recently that history was defined largely by what could be shot here. For the last 200 years this land has been managed almost exclusively for shooting deer and grouse. Today, Glenfeshie is changing. The bare floors of the river valley, created and maintained by high levels of grazing deer, are no longer bare. The lonely, ancient pines that might have stood for 500 years, now have neighbours – spritely youngsters free to grow, relieved of the pressure of hungry mouths. This is a glen re-awakening, literally bursting back into life.
To the north of Glenfeshie lie Invereshie and Inshriach – forests of Scots pine, birch, rowan and alder. Beyond is Glenmore Forest and then Abernethy, one of Scotland’s largest remaining fragments of the ancient pinewood that once stretched almost from summit to sea. This mosaic of woodland, wetland, peatland and mountaintop is where eagles soar, wildcats prowl and red squirrels forage. But it is also a place where nature has been unravelling for some time, a place in need of restoration.
The young trees in Glenfeshie are slowly climbing the hills and reaching out to the neighbouring forests. Recognising the potential for restoring this landscape on an unprecedented scale, a partnership of land managers have jointly committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and natural processes across this vast area of the Cairngorms National Park.
This is Cairngorms Connect. Some might look upon it as a National Park within a National Park. Encompassing over 600 sq.km. – an area larger than the whole of the New Forest National Park – this audacious undertaking stretches from the floodplain of the River Spey, through ancient forests, to the arctic-like plateau adjacent to Cairngorm Mountain itself.
The Cairngorms Connect partners of Wildland Ltd, RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry & Land Scotland, are working shoulder to shoulder to create a more joined-up landscape rich in life, that functions more effectively and better serves the needs of people as well as wildlife. As the forests expand and diversify, they will clean the air and help regulate the climate. As peatlands are restored, they will purify water and store huge amounts of carbon. Soil quality will improve and the flow of rain and snowmelt into naturally meandering river systems will slow and reduce downstream flood risk.
As the Cairngorms Connect landscape becomes wilder, more visitors will be attracted to it: walkers, adventurers, photographers, wildlife watchers and hunters will all help support local businesses and provide new, nature-based opportunities. Aren’t these the types of ‘services’ most people want from a mountain? Isn’t this what National Parks are for?
To the east of the Cairngorms Connect area lies Mar Lodge, where a not dissimilar approach to landscape restoration is evolving, creating an even bigger area of ecological, social and economic potential. And then, right at the heart of what is surely an era-defining initiative in the history of Scotland’s landscape, is Cairngorm Mountain itself and its seemingly desperate desire to reinvent itself. It might seem to the casual onlooker that its reinvention could be inspired by what is happening to the landscape around it. Just imagine Cairngorms Connect connecting with Cairngorm Mountain. Just imagine what aspirational stories could be told to an international audience from this pioneering approach to healing the ecological wounds that have been inflicted on so much of Scotland’s land and seas.
Conservation has for too long been about trying to save nature piece by piece – a rare bird or mammal here, a threatened bit of habitat there. Cairngorms Connect is dismantling this silo thinking and setting down a marker, not just to conserve the fragments and threads of wild nature that we desperately hold onto, but the whole. Nature doesn’t recognise fences or lines drawn on a map. For wildlife, the important boundaries are where opportunities improve or diminish, where survival gets easier or more difficult. The strength of Cairngorms Connect is in creating a seamless landscape for nature. The prize is a landscape rich in life; a landscape full of opportunities not only for some of Britain’s most spectacular and rare wildlife, but for people. A wilder, nature-rich Cairngorms can also be a healthier, wealthier Cairngorms, befitting of the National Park brand.
All images: scotlandbigpicture.com