In the heart of the Scottish Highlands, a visionary new initiative is now boosting biodiversity and nature-based tourism, writes Daniel Allen.
From a vantage point high above the mist-cloaked Glenfeshie valley, one side of Coire Garbhlach glows golden in the late afternoon sun. To the east, carpeted in alpine flowers, the undulating, high-altitude tableland of Moine Mhor (“Great Moss” in Gaelic) stretches as far as the towering peak of Ben Macdui. On the edge of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park, it’s a wildly dramatic panorama.
To many of us, the term Scottish Highland estate conjures up images of grouse hunting, mounted stag’s heads and musty stately homes. Yet here on Glenfeshie, a new way of managing the land is leading to tourism and leisurely pursuits of an altogether different and far more benign kind.
“The concept is pretty simple,” says Davie McGibbon, the Glenfeshie estate’s head gamekeeper, as he strides over the Moine Mhor looking for red deer. “In the absence of predators, we are committed to keeping deer numbers at a natural level to prevent overgrazing. Doing this lets native tree species return, which in turn benefits a whole range of other animals and plants.”
From around 100 deer per square mile in 2002, the Glenfeshie estate is now down to just five. As a result, virtually every landscape is undergoing an evolution, with Scots pines recolonising valleys and slopes. There have been increased sightings of field voles, red squirrels, pine martens, golden eagles and tawny owls, while populations of endangered black grouse and capercaillie are also thriving.
Glenfeshie is not the only body of land within the Cairngorms National Park looking to boost biodiversity by controlling deer numbers. The Cairngorms Connect project has seen the estate team up with RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Enterprise Scotland. The four neighbouring landholders, whose properties cover a combined 595 square km, share a long-term vision to restore habitats and grow nature-based tourism.
Drawn to the comeback of wild nature, increasing numbers of people are already visiting the Cairngorms Connect area. Lodges and bothies (former labourer’s huts or cottages that are now used by hikers) are being renovated and reopened, while active pursuits and nature-based experiences are multiplying. On the Glenfeshie estate, which is part of the Wildland Limited property portfolio, guests can hike, bike, ride horses, swim and go birdwatching.
James Shooter is a photographer, filmmaker and guide who has lived and worked in the Cairngorms National Park for five years, running a series of wildlife photography hides to watch species such as osprey, red squirrel, crested tit and black grouse. He believes Cairngorms Connect should be a role model for other conservation initiatives across the UK.
“This is exactly the kind of ambitious landscape-scale restoration project that we need in this country if we are to improve the overall health of our habitats and wildlife,” says Shooter. “With Cairngorms Connect developing and the wild gradually becoming wilder, so the local nature-based economy is really taking off. It’s great to see more and more people reconnecting with nature here.” cairngormsconnect.org.uk