Paving Paradise

David LinternDavid Lintern visits the site of a proposed housing development in the Cairngorms National Park.

In August this year, the Cairngorm National Park Authority approved ‘in principle’ plans for up to 1500 houses and associated infrastructure near Aviemore. It’s a plan that has been bubbling away for a number of years and might do so for a few more yet – and it’s very controversial, encapsulating as it does some of Scotland’s more difficult discussions around wildlife management, land reform and housing.

One Monday afternoon, soon after the approval of the new plans, a friend and I went to see An Camas Mòr for ourselves.

Dusk at An Camas Mòr. If the development goes ahead, the foreground will be built on.

An Camas Mòr is on the east side of the River Spey, and accessed from Coylumbridge. Arguably, if one was planning a large expansion of a town in a mountainous area and consulting just the map, siting development opposite an already built up area in a low lying strath would make sense. But Scottish Natural Heritage have highlighted ‘likely significant effects’ on neighbouring areas (protected by habitat designation) which include impacts to capercaillie, otter, fresh water pearl mussels and sea lamprey. The RSPB have also voiced their concern.

Bearberry, An Camas Mor

But I’ve learnt that there are other wildlife issues; not just on neighbouring land, but on the proposed site itself. An Camas Mòr is home to a pretty staggering number of birds and beasts including crested tits (a Strathspey local), crossbill (a Caledonian pinewood specialist), woodcock, song and mistle thrush, skylark, spotted fly catchers, yellowhammers, tree pipit, cuckoo and osprey. Then there are the badgers, pine martens, brown hare, red squirrels and otter. Perhaps less fluffy but just as interesting and important, two species of wood ant, the less common narrow headed ant, the mountain (blaeberry) bumblebee and pinewood mason bee.

Many of these species are on the ‘red list’ for endangered species or are otherwise protected, and this is just a few of the hundreds that have been discovered on site. There’s also the northern damsel fly (one of the rarest), the violet oil beetle, a moth known as the small dark yellow underwing (no prizes for guessing what this looks like) and a variety of rare fungi, one of which you can see below.

All these species slot together in a mosaic of mutual interdependence: The beetle is a parasite of the solitary bees, the moth’s only food is the bearberry shrub, the fungi exchanges nutrients and sugars with the pine trees, and so on. There’s a reason these all appear on the Scottish Biodiversity List… a document that planners are duty bound to acknowledge in application responses.

Not everyone is resident. An Camas Mòr is also an important wildlife corridor for goshawks, peregrines and swifts, who hunt overhead, and otters cross An Camas Mòr to access neighbouring burns.

Pinewood, with naturally regenerating birch.

A chunk of the land scheduled for development also makes an appearance on another list – the Ancient Woodland Inventory. The architect’s documents show a good deal of this will be cleared for construction. Some of it is planted but it’s of an age where the planting that was done is not overly dense, and there’s lots of species variety within. We noticed plenty of badger earthworks, as well as a range of weird and wonderful mushrooms, including this very rare Blue Tooth Hydnellum caeruleum.

The government’s own planning guidance for ancient woodland advises against its removal on the grounds that once it’s gone, it’s impossible to replace… but An Camas Mòr is also within both a National Scenic Area and a National Park, which makes this development more controversial still. Why?

Scottish National Parks were set up with 4 ‘purposes’. Their role is to:
– Conserve and enhance natural and cultural heritage
– Promote sustainable use of natural resources
– Promote understanding and enjoyment
– Promote sustainable social and economic development of communities within.

Balancing these four must sometimes be an intractable task, but the National Parks Scotland Act (2000) includes a guiding ‘precautionary principle’. Named the Sandford Principle, after the Lord who chaired a review of National Parks in the seventies, it states that “if, in any matter, it should appear that there is a conflict between the four Park aims, the Park Authority must give greater weight to the conservation and enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage”.

Opponents of the development are now concerned that (pre)caution is being thrown to the wind.

We also visited two kettleholes on site. These fertile and wildlife rich woodland openings began their life in the last stages of glaciation, when stagnant ice covered with sand and gravel melted away and its soil roof collapsed. Newts, toads and a very rare crane fly (the Prionocera pubescens) have been recorded here. There are more badger earthworks and red squirrel dreys on its edges, and deer trods, to and from the hollow. It’s a quiet, magical space. This opening might not be built on directly, but would be surrounded by housing.

We then walked north, out of the woodland and onto more open ground. This is a very rare type of heathland – bearberry heath – which the developer’s environmental consultants failed to identify in initial surveys, according to local environmental body the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group. The soil is made up of ‘freely draining sands’ and it’s very evidently prone to regeneration when left to it’s own devices!

Even regular heathland is a ‘priority habitat’ for the UK. On their website, the Wildlife Trust say “more than 80% of our lowland heaths have been destroyed since the 19th century. Even rarer than rainforest, heathland is one of our most threatened habitats.” Bearberry heathland is rarer still.

Osprey feathers and fish bones

We made our way through knee high heather toward the centre of the site, marked with a (roughly) 3.5 storey wooden pole, which gives a rough indication of how the development might sit in the landscape. An osprey hung above us, riding the thermals – apparently, it sometimes uses the pole to perch and eat fish caught from the River Spey. Nearby, there’s another large wood ant nest.

Wood Ant nest

At the north end of the site we passed sandy banks peppered with hundreds of solitary bee nest holes before dropping down slightly to the Spey itself. This borders the development area, but Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation group and Scottish Campaign for National Parks are all concerned that sewerage and other pollution from new housing will affect water quality, impacting directly on the Freshwater Pearl Mussel that live here. They’re a fascinating creature, living for up to 130 years, and spending their early life attached to the gills of Atlantic Salmon. It’s not a free ride; in exchange, they filter and purify rivers.

They are already under pressure from erratic water levels (linked with climate change) and agricultural pollution on the Spey. Scotland has about half the world’s population and therefore an international responsibility to care for this globally threatened species.

Should the development go ahead, there are plans for this area to become a country park.

Otter tracks, River Spey

What about that balance; sustainable economic and social development vs. nature conservation and enhancement? Highland Council show only 332 sales of both new and second hand housing between 2007 and 2015 in the area. They report that the highland population is growing but wages are proportionally lower than in other parts of the country, and highlight a continued need for affordable or entry level properties.

14% of all homes in the National Park are second or holiday homes (actually a slightly higher number in Aviemore itself) as compared to 5.7% across Highlands and 1.5% in Scotland. Aviemore has a young demographic, too, which pushes demand for entry-level properties up. Many older houses are large or detached, which skews the ‘average’ price up to around £190K – in excess of what many young families on lower wages can get a mortgage on. As someone who has recently arrived to live in the area, I can attest that prices are high and turnover is slow.

Shortly before dawn

If there are pressures, what’s being done to help? The developer is required to provide 25% affordable housing, but ‘affordable’ can mean a range of things – there is no precise legal definition. It’s generally understood to mean houses for sale or rent below market value, but this of course is still market dependent. ‘Social housing’ is not on the table here, say the Park Authority. They are now pushing for an increase in affordable housing over and above 25% within the park boundary, which is a positive step – but this won’t apply to An Camas Mòr.

In addition, an annual household service charge to manage recreation and its impact is being discussed for this new site, which may be over and above the price of bricks and mortar.

On one hand, the An Camas Mòr website says that measures like the Rural Housing Burden ‘could’ be used to provide some low cost housing. These Title Conditions can mean housing trusts get first refusal to buy a property when it comes up for sale, and thus keep terms and prices amenable to the local community in perpetuity. The Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust has provided informal advice to An Camas Mòr about affordable housing, and was recently contracted to carry out a public survey of potential residents and local businesses. They will report their findings to the developer shortly, but have told me it’s unlikely they would provide development or management services in this instance.

On the other, the An Camas Mòr website also states that many people “want to buy a home outright without Conditions to the Property Title, perhaps because these can complicate re-selling the house; getting a mortgage; or effectively, limit the amount people can spend on a new home.” Instead, they say they plan to design-in affordability by creating clusters of smaller homes without views to the woods and hills (for locals to live in), while also building flats above businesses and houses on the edges of the development with views, to encourage ‘sustainable’ tourism.

So at the moment there is very little detail for local people, or indeed any others, to base an informed decision on. All we currently know for certain is that ‘affordable’ depends on who is buying and who is defining, and the use of a rural housing burden or other title conditions are far from guaranteed. As a result, there are hopes, fears… and a lot of speculation.

The centre of the site shortly before dawn, no filter required.

Is An Camas Mòr the right place for this development? The following week, I went back with the intention of taking more photographs, some of which you see here. I was drawn to that totem pole, a symbol of our dominion over nature. Later, I tucked myself away in a corner of the heath and spent the night listening to the wind in the trees. It was one of those nights when it surges – a thin white noise beginning from almost silence, approaching for an age and then upon me in a great rush. In the lulls, distant music from the pubs of Aviemore, the sleeper pulling out of the station, the odd motorbike engine… but it was no less bewitching because of that. Shortly after dawn the Osprey appeared again, making several passes as the sky moved through it’s orchestra of blues and pinks signalling the end of summer.

An Camas Mòr is not ‘wilderness’, but it is most definitely wild; a naturally regenerating heathland, full of thriving, bustling wild life. It’s also a wildlife corridor for several other species, in a landscape layered with nature designations designed to protect it.

I’d urge you to do the same as I did, and pay An Camas Mòr a visit. Go and admire the views to the mountains – views that the windows of the houses designed for locals to purchase may or may not look out onto. Go and see how much blue fungus or badger sign you can spot. Try not to disturb the wildlife, please… but go, and see if you think we’ve got the balance right, or whether it’s worth writing to your MSP about. [The developers are planning to hold a site visit for members of the public soon – if interested you can register for it via their website.]

At least, go and bear witness. You’ll find it on the 1:25K OS map named as ‘Cambusmore’, directly east of the Highland Resort over the Spey. It’s easily accessible from Aviemore on National Cycle Route 7.

Tell your MSPs how you feel

An Camas Mòr is in a National Park, and significant to the economy, Scotland’s biodiversity goals, tourism, health, well-being and our global reputation for outstanding natural heritage. As such, all MSPs should take an interest in it. You can find a contact list here.

If you are not sure who represents you, this map will help you find them.

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