The Cairngorms: a step into the future

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The Cairngorms: a step into the future

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There is something deeply liberating about setting a 200 year vision.  It allows you to paint a picture of the future you want and then make sure you take the right next steps along that path.  While this may not be plausible for some (including politicians who rarely, if ever, look beyond the five year term of a parliament), it is essential if you want to restore a habitat like Caledonian pinewood. 

This weekend, the RSPB’s Council of trustees and Management Board had their annual trip to a part of the UK to see the impact we are having for nature with others (while providing a little bit of competitive nature watching*).  This year we were in the Cairngorms.  We visited two of our iconic reserves (Abernethy and Insh) and explored neighbouring land at Glenfeshie and Glenmore.  Together - through a partnership we are calling Cairngorms Connect - we are restoring a landscape on a massive scale (60,000 hectares) to help native woodlands expand to their natural limits and to restore peatlands, wetlands and rivers towards a more naturally functioning state all whilst working closely with the local community.

It is impossible not to be inspired by what is being achieved.  Being in these landscapes is a step into the future.  It is as if you can see the forest regenerating before you – saplings inexorably making their way across the moor and onto the hills.  With a little imagination, you can sense what the landscapes will look like in the 2200s.

The work we are doing with others in the Cairngorms is setting the gold standard for landscape scale conservation and I congratulate the local teams who are making this happen.

Governments across the UK have signed up to international targets to provide more space for nature through more, bigger, better and joined up protected areas.  The RSPB is committed to playing its part and we have identified landscapes which we want to transform in partnership with other landowners so that by 2025, at least 20% of our land is well managed or nature. 

The opportunities to do this vary across the different parts of the UK as do the interventions available for us to achieve our outcomes.  Working at the landscape scale in highly fragmented countryside of the south east England, for example, is very different to working in the highlands of Scotland.  Yet, the ecological principles are the same – if you are able to think and act at scale then you can create the right mix of habitats that species need to thrive.

The steps we have been taking at Abernethy are working: a major reduction in the number of deer has allowed the pine to regenerate naturally; where the seed source for broadleaved trees is no longer viable, we have resorted to seed-sowing or tree planting using local provenance stock; and, of course, doing this means we are protecting the c4,800 species that live there including capercaillie, black grouse and osprey.

The same is true at Insh where we are responsible for protecting one of the most important populations of breeding waders in the mainland UK.  Like any wetland site, Insh has its challenges – predation, grazing and development – but the team is working methodically through these issues and it remains one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

These Council visits to bring to life our strategy and provide context for the long conversations that we have in meeting rooms throughout the year.  Reading about our aspiration to restore 60,000 hectares in the Cairngorms is useful but to really understand what we are trying to achieve, it helps need to visit the places we are transforming and to meet the partners that share our values, vision and passion.  That's why this was such a great weekend.

Next year we'll be visiting the other end of the UK - down in the south-west of England. I can't wait.

*Each year, we award a cup to the person who predicts the number of species (birds and wild mammals) seen during the course of the Council weekend.  For those of you who are interested in these sort of things, 83 species were recorded including Cairngorm specialities such as red squirrel, golden eagle, osprey, crested tit and a much-debated but indeterminate species of crossbill.  Clive Mellon, chair of our Northern Ireland Advisory Committee, came closest with his prediction and so took home the trophy.

  • I think it is quite wrong to portray the decision of whether or not to introduce broadleaves into the Abernethy Pinewoods as black and white - right and wrong. This is a shaded decision with merit on both sides of the argument. I would be surprised if any of those involved in this discussion would dispute that there would have been a broadleaved component in these forests prior to overgrazing. It is absolutely right that planting in ancient woodland is a last, not as many people would see it, a first resort. RSPB have not rushed into this: they have owned Abernethy for 30 years now. Personally, I would support the RSPB decision - these forests simply aren't pristine ancient woodland because of the damage done to them over recent centuries and for both a more representative AW habitat and for bird populations bringing back broadleaves will, I believe, add to rather than detract from these forests. Several eminent living ecologists are quoted - but what would probably the greatest of all Highland ecologists, the late Sir Frank Fraser-Darling have thought ? I suspect he'd be supporting RSPB.

    On the deer, Dr Phil Ratcliffe produced a model of the impacts of deer at different densities on the environment in the mid 1980s. Basically, deer eat the most palatable food so broadleaves get eaten before conifers - but at current Highland densities both are fairly irrelevant - it is the huge achievement of RSPB and Forestry Commission Scotland that we can actually see Pine regenerating at Abernethy and Glenmore, and once more trees creeping naturally up towards the natural treeline.    

  • Great stuff RSPB. It is this vision, ability to look ahead with some accuracy and working with other land owners that is one of the things that makes the RSPB stand strongly. Terrific.

  • Martin,

    The Cairngorms National Park has been one of my favourite stamping grounds for decades and one to which I return annually to refresh the soul, so it is always interesting to read further details of a ‘BHAG’ such as this – particularly one that was hotly contested by other eminent conservationists such as Dr Adam Watson, the late great Dick Balharry, Basil Dunlop and others when first mooted - .  Have their concerns and objections over the replanting plans in the Forest Lodge section of the Old Caledonian Pine forest at Abernethy been assuaged, or mitigated in any way, since the end of the consultative process and its aftermath?  

    On the deer cull, what is the desired deer population figure (for both red and roe) that the culling is designed to achieve?  How many deer is too many?  Perhaps a non-lethal solution could see the excess deer translocated to Insh Marshes to help control the regeneration of willow scrub and rank grasses there?  

    And it is good to see that the predation problem at Insh is to be addressed (as foreshadowed by you in this blog in June last year).  How is this to be done though?  You told us last year that anti-predator fencing to exclude foxes and badgers was not an option in such a wetland location.  How then is our Society proposing to deal with the mammalian predation dimension?  And what of the avian predation angle.  As we have seen with waders-of-conservation-concern elsewhere, fencing out predatory mammals can sometimes allow birds to hatch young, but once the chicks are mobile there is often little that can be done to protect them (  What are our plans in this respect?  

    I will be holidaying in the region for a couple of weeks next month, so look forward to visiting both reserves to see for myself, like you, how things are changing.