Regeneration: the Mar Lodge Estate

Andrew Painting is a seasonal ecologist at Mar Lodge Estate, the UK’s largest nature reserve in the Cairngorms. His new book, Regeneration: The Rescue of a Wild Land takes a species-by-species look at this landscape through time, focusing on recent conservation efforts that are beginning to pay off. Here he describes a walk around Clais Fhearnaig to show how that story is written onto the landscape.

The headlines of the unfolding environmental recovery of Mar Lodge Estate are startling. 30,000-odd hectares of land, holding 15 Munros. Over 5,000 species, with more recorded every year. Ancient tracts of Caledonian pinewood, with woodland regeneration across several contiguous glens for the first time in over two centuries. A twentyfold increase in regenerating trees in ten years in monitored plots. Hundreds more hectares of montane scrub returning to the high hills. The return of breeding hen harriers for the first time in living memory. Nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent locked away across thousands of hectares of peatlands. Targeted conservation plans for a host of Scotland’s rarest plants and invertebrates.

Beyond the headlines is a much more interesting story of difficult decisions and complex controversies. Environmental conservation is a tricky task, where there are no easy solutions to often intractable problems. But this is ultimately a story of collaboration, compromise and regeneration. And if you know what to look for, it is a story that is written onto the landscape itself.

Last Autumn, I took a lovely ten mile circular walk around Clais Fhearnaig, which takes you through Glen Quoich and Glen Lui, and which also happens to be a Walkhighlands route. So, in good Walkhighlands fashion, I thought I’d write my piece like a walk report.

Start at the Punchbowl, the historic cataract where ‘Bobbing John’ Erskine, Earl of Mar, raised the standard in the ’15 rebellion. Here, among the Scots pines and scattered larches, are rare remnant patches of aspen, naturally regenerating, bringing a splash of autumn colour.

It pays to take a long view here. This is an ancient landscape with as long a human history as anywhere in Scotland, where layers of culture and social change are laid down among the trees. Mar Lodge is a place where different perceptions of the landscape intertwine. It is a National Nature Reserve, which attracts hundreds of thousands of walkers every year, but like much of the Highlands it is also a sporting estate. When the National Trust for Scotland purchased the land in 1995, to preserve it for the benefit of the nation, it could only do so with the financial backing of a range of groups from different walks of life. From the coming together of these different groups came the founding management principles of the estate: environmental conservation, open access for all, and Highland sport.

The current Mar Lodge management vision will end in 2195. By then, with a fair wind, these young aspens will be joined by hundreds more.

Keep walking along the main track, through mature Caledonian pinewood, and eventually the woodland opens up again. A cacophony of young birches and pines crowd the Quoich Water. These young trees have all erupted into life in the last ten years or so.

What has caused this sudden rush of life to return, when there has been no woodland regeneration for the previous two hundred years, leaving the relict Caledonian pinewoods in real danger of simply disappearing? The short answer is that the Trust’s stalking team has been reducing the population of sapling-munching red deer to a point where the woods can naturally regenerate. But as many of the Walkhighlands community will know, it has been something of a bumpy ride.

Look across to Carn na Drochaide, and you can see a green fuzz of trees ascending up the hill, as the pinewoods blend into heather moor. There are trees growing on this hill up to about the 2,000 feet contour. For now, there remains just a tiny fragment of ‘natural treeline’ in Scotland, at Creag Fhiachlach in Speyside. But as anyone who has walked recently around the Cairngorms Connect area or Mar Lodge will know, that is changing.

Push on up the glen. The Quoich water is a wild burn, which flows where it pleases. Deadwood in the water is its own, rare habitat, while inland shingle is a home for rare invertebrates like five-spot ladybird and Northern silver stiletto fly. Riparian woodland, as it is known, helps to prevent flooding and erosion, returns nutrients to the burns, and maintains optimal water temperatures for salmon. Good for biodiversity, good for residents downstream, and good for anglers.

Highland sport has been the dominant land use in Deeside since the royal family purchased Balmoral in 1852, and the sport was gaining popularity in the area for at least fifty years before that. At Mar Lodge, the history of the landed gentry hunting red deer for sport goes back even further, to Mary, Queen of Scots and beyond. The red deer has been the nexus around which centuries of lives have been lived across the Highlands. To imagine a landscape in which the stag was not the monarch of the glen was a difficult act. It took a long time to bring these woods on the road to recovery.

A herd of over 1,500 red deer can still be found at Mar Lodge. They can be seen rutting on the Quoich Flats, and on the moors of Dalvorar and Geldie. They remain an iconic part of Mar Lodge’s natural heritage, a draw for tourists and sporting folk alike, and a vital part of Scotland’s biodiversity. For now, they remain a rare sight in the recovering woodlands. But in the long run, the woodlands need the deer. Soon, once the long-term recovery of the woods is assured, they will return to take their rightful place among the pines and birches.

Young birches crowd around dead relatives. The recovery of the birchwoods came in the nick of time. Research has shown that the mature birch trees in Glen Quoich are dying at a rate of around 9% per decade – a number only likely to increase as more of these short-lived trees reach the end of their natural lifespan. Once a seed source is gone, it is much harder to return lost woodlands to health.

By this point in your walk, Beinn a’ Bhùird will be dominating the view. There are more stories to be told from the mountains, where sensitive habitats are prone to disturbance and climate change is already beginning to bite. But these will have to wait for now.

The Reverend Cordiner, on his travels in the 1770s, saw young pines growing in the Upper Quoich, cared for by local crofters and foresters. The work of the dendrochronologists at St Andrew’s University suggests that most of the pines we see in the Upper Quoich today are those very same trees.

Once you’ve taken your fill of this more open landscape, turn left, up the hill, to the pass of Clais Fhearnaig. Listen out for ring ouzels while you’re there.

Trees are returning to Clais Fhearnaig, the hollow of the alder, including the occasional alder tree. Ancient pine stumps tells us that this pass was forested until fairly recently. In time, this pass will once again create a woodland link between Glen Quoich and Glen Lui. The floor of the Clais was dammed to create a trout fishing loch in the 1800s. The trout are still in there, living happily enough.

Descend from the pass, and again you’ll be tempted into the hills, this time by Carn a’ Mhaim, and if it less cloudy than when I went out, Ben Macdui. But instead turn south, back towards the Dee.

This is Glen Lui, where people and pines lived side by side for centuries. In 1840, Glen Lui was cleared of its crofters to make way for deer to hunt. Glen Ey, then a part of Mar Lodge Estate, was cleared at a similar time. Michie, the chronicler of Deeside, wrote of the crofters of Glen Ey, ‘compelled to give up their fields to the deer of the forest, to kindle in the breasts of those that remained a spirit of hatred against the offending proprieter.’ The Caledonian pinewoods of Glen Lui had been felled for timber by this point.

The pines are returning, linking the pinewoods of Doire Bhraghad, Glen Derry and Glen Luibeg. They jostle alongside some of the 200 Scheduled Ancient Monuments which are dotted across the estate, and the remnants of no fewer than eight illicit whisky distilleries.

Keep following the Lui, staying on its eastern bank. From openings in the pinewoods of Doire Bhraghad, the wooded Brae, you can see glimpses out to open ground. Here are the blanket bogs and rolling moors of the south and west of the estate, home to not just stags, but also golden plover, dunlin and merlin. Scotland was never a fully wooded place. A healthy upland environment is one of diversity – a place, in short, where both meadow pipits and tree pipits can thrive. There are more stories to be told from the open moors – peat-stained stories of curlews and hen harriers. But our way today leads east, back to the car.

A couple kilometres on, and deep in Doire Bhraghad, sits this chap – a huge granny pine with a girth of over 6 metres. This massive tree, a miracle of nature, is the way it is because of humans. Centuries of high browsing levels by deer meant that once it had established itself it had little competition from younger pines. So it grew and spread, reaching a ridiculous size. What’s truly exciting about the Mar Lodge landscape is that it is only twenty five years along a two hundred year journey. It will only be after this magnificent tree is long-gone, and its descendants currently growing around it have reached their full maturity, that people will be able to judge whether or not this grand restoration project has been successful.

Change is coming to the Highlands. People are waking up to the environmental and climate crises that are engulfing the earth, and demanding change from the status quo. Mar Lodge Estate is no utopia, and there is no perfect way to live and work in a landscape, but its attempts to balance the needs and cultural values of different people under the aegis of landscape scale environmental restoration offer an interesting insight into what the future could hold for the Highlands.

So come to Mar Lodge, when lockdowns permit. Walk through the regenerating Caledonian pines, among the red squirrels, crossbills and martens. Walk up into the high hills, among the ring ouzels and juniper, and late lying snow patches, and listen for ptarmigan. Keep an eye out for eagles and peregrines. Be sure to visit the moors, see the stags, the curlews, the red grouse, the merlins. Swim in the burns, under the returning aspens, willows and birches. While you’re here, ask yourself: what do we want our uplands to look like? What do we want them to do for us? What creatures do we want to share them with?

Regeneration: The Rescue of a Wild Land by Andrew Painting is published by Birlinn on 18th March 2021 (£20, hardback).

A live online launch event will be taking place at 7pm on Thursday 18th March https://birlinn.co.uk/event/regeneration-by-andrew-painting-book-launch/

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