The Monadhliath National Wildlife Refugium – by Ron Greer

April 25, 2016 Ron Greer 13 comments
The edge of the Monadhliath from Creag Dubh
The edge of the Monadhliath from Creag Dubh

Our current ‘national’ parks in Scotland are little more than a fiasco.  I detest even using that term to describe what the last Labour administration delivered and what the subsequent SNP administration still supports, as what they have given us are not real national parks, but a farrago masquerading as a façade that is parodying a mirage.


When I have discussed the status if our so-called national parks with professionals engaged in running real ones in Alaska, Oregon, Sweden, Canada, and Ireland they either feel very sorry for us or just burst out laughing. Not that they are uncritical of their own set ups, far from it, but not one of them would ever endorse the product of lazy and incomplete political thinking and indeed perverse political actions, that the then Scottish Executive had the brass neck to call a National Park and that the SNP has the gall and hypocrisy not to address.


It’s difficult to know where to start, such is the enormity of the failure to embrace the true potential and good will that once existed. As good a place as any, is the basic concept behind the very name. A National Park should actually be what it says ‘on the tin’; an area of the country owned by the nation as a whole and professionally administered by a State ministry or other department, directly responsible to elected officials. These officials would hopefully have expertise in the subject area and certainly be well on top of their portfolios.  This is normality in most other countries and indeed is what the famous Monty Python would have called ‘the bleedin obvious’. Sadly, our current batch of politicians seem to be incapable or unwilling to embrace the bleedin obvious. What we actually have, is an area of land owned by a mixture of Quango’s, NGO’s and the usual quasi-feudal sectional private interests, into which mix has been thrown, not a professional National Parks Service, but a so-called ‘Authority’ of diverse, indeed prismatic provenance, ability and, no doubt, agenda.  It is a volatile mix likely to implode in an underwhelming conflagration of prevaricating compromises and sheer mucus-secreting, bureaucratic incompetence. The resulting mess will of course have to be dealt with at the tax payer’s expense. This mess, metaphorically and literally, as exemplified by the current controversy over camping access and litter deposition in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, is spreading out in front of our eyes.



Not only does the current set up fail to meet the basic fundamental requirement, but then goes on to fall down in other primary areas, such as the point of singularity of the NP existence and its boundaries. Actually worrying about such examples as whether or not Blair Atholl should have been in the Cairngorm Park at its inception, is like worrying about having head lice while a grizzly bear is chewing your leg off, or like a passenger on the Titanic moaning about lumps of ice blocking the WC. The parks are supposed to balance the needs of economic and social development with conservation of natural resources, with any dubiety to be resolved in favour of the last. Financial support mechanisms specific to achieving this aim are in place.  Does this then mean that, one millimetre outside of the park boundary, this will not or cannot happen? Indeed ‘compensatory’ fiscal mechanisms will be used to counterbalance or offset any disadvantages of not being in an NP, or being in a corridor- effect area. So if the same aims are to be funded from the same purse, both inside and outside the NP boundaries, what then is the point of having a NP in the first place!? Are we actually saying that true sustainability is only going to be attempted within the NP boundary and the rest of Scotland can continue to burn the ‘national furniture’ in order to boil the ‘national kettle’?


The core area of the Cairngorm Park is of course the mountains of the same name and why? Well, it’s because this is the largest area of boreo-Arctic montane zone outside of Fennoscandia and supposedly the last great wilderness in Europe (I can hear Laponia laughing as I write). The Cairngorm area is now also one of the largest (so-called) national parks in Europe. So we have then the ‘last great wilderness’ combined with one of the largest NPs in Europe. So what are we going to do about the lack of bears, wolves, beavers, elk, wild boar, wild cattle, the surplus of deer, non-native sheep, excessive muirburn and persecution of birds of prey? That’s just for starters of course, because we still have the ‘wasteland ripe for development’ attitude prevalent in the mind of local sectional interests and external commercial building interests. The recent plan for 1500 new houses will just be the tip of the iceberg. That character MacChuckemup in the 7:84 Company’s satire really does exist in spirit.


Then we have, in addition to this, the old chestnut of the landed estates with their quasi- feudal/Victorian/Edwardian agenda and of course, now, we also have the conservation Quango’s with their own corporate aims, backed up with direct ownership of land. A ‘nightmare’ is not sufficiently pejorative to cover the issues raised. In my personal experience of over 35 years of study trips in the Northern Hemisphere I do not know of any other country where the above mess would be tolerated and even the complicated matrix of relationships between the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the various State and Federal wildlife and fisheries agencies in the USA, pales to insignificance by comparison.


It is also very easy to criticise, but much harder to offer a constructive way forward. The first step is to take the correct strategic political decisions that are based on the courage of the political convictions and, above all, upon the dedication to see them through. The WWF, the John Muir Trust, the RSPB, the SLE and other NGO’s are not political parties that will ever answer to an electorate. SNH, SEPA are not, per se, the Government. All of them need to realise that they are not the democratically elected Executive, but servants of it and assistants to it.  This will put us in a much better position to deal with the institutional arrogance of the present colonial-style Civil Service, the Quangocrats and the oligarchs of the NGOs.  At the same time, we have to come up with an alternative end point so that people can see where (and indeed why) we are heading and that we can then put to the electorate, for their permission to implement. Then, chastened or enheartened by the vox populi, we can progress to clearing up the present mire of confused priorities, agendas and protocols.


Much of the problem lies in defining physical and intellectual perimeters and parameters that can be secured for the chosen intrinsic aims of any designated areas of land. The very fact that we initially argued about the possible inclusion of Highland Perthshire in the Cairngorms NP and the kind of housing development mentioned above, is a clear indication that neither the perimeters, or the intrinsic aims, are secured, or in harmony. To get the ball rolling, I put forward the following points, below, for general discussion, on the issues above, that could then lead on to new policy definition.


We should designate Scotland into three main strategic zones which could subsume/rationalise existing land and urban designations.


a:  Sustainable Rural Cultural Landscape (i.e. All non-urban & non-industrial land in Scotland) —-   SRCL

b: Sustainable Urban/Industrial Cultural Landscape— SUICL

c: National Wildlife Refugia —-NWR


For the purposes of the present discussion on this forum the first two categories will not be discussed for the moment, though the first does not necessarily exclude elements of wildness


NWR get rid of many of the problems currently inherent in the present national park concept and structure. Here, there will be much less dubiety, because we can establish a perimeter within which there will be a totally different set of aims from all existing designations and even from what will be happening in the SRCL area. This will derive from these refugia being for wildlife only (from soil microbes right through to higher non –human animals): no new human settlements, no new adopted roads (and possibly de-adoption in some cases) or other site- specific infrastructure, no industrial development, no low flying, no sport hunting or fishing, no commercial forestry or agriculture, no use of exotic plants and animals (including sheep); no universal right to roam, no public vehicular access and indeed access to be by permit only.  There will be no evictions of existing human residents, but there will be voluntary resettlement financial packages and compensatory measures will be available for those wishing to stay on, but where their ‘traditional, land use, outwith of the immediate curtilage of their homes, will be terminated.  These NWR will be State-owned and managed (as per known international analogues) and in addition to being refugia for extant wildlife, they will also be possible sites of reintroduction of species made extinct by post-glacial human activity.


They will be areas where the ‘re-wilding’ so detested by sporting-estate apologists, will take place, where we can honour our legal obligations to the IUCN protocols and where we can make a huge national and even more importantly, an international statement about Scotland accepting its responsibilities to the biodiversity of our planet. A place where we can put our money where our mouths are and stop cajoling and castigating people in Africa and Asia about sacrificing potential farmland to preserve tigers, elephants and Mountain gorillas. Will it be controversial? Will it raise an almighty ‘stooshie’ as we say in the vernacular?  Damned right it will! Do we have the guts for it and if not why not?


Two sites come to mind in respect of initial candidates for such a NWR, the greater Monadhliath and Glen Affric. The Monadhliath are especially attractive for a variety of reasons:


  • They contain only four Munros attractive to hillwalkers, none especially spectacular in nature
  • They do not have a large internal human settlement, or major industrial/tourist infrastructure.
  • They have a wide range of topographic, bio-climatic and bio-geographical attributes highly desirable for a Wildlife Refugium.
  • They have a large geographical extent (circa 700 square miles) offering an extensive potential range area for large mammalian herbivores and mammalian/avian carnivores, thus overcoming the limitations of scale inherent in otherwise highly laudable and admirable re-wilding projects in the UK.
  • They have, via the pentangle of the A9, A82, A86, B851 and B862 roads, a clearly defined perimeter with established fence lines and traditional stone walls, behind which, a new major bespoke fence could be erected, without the intrusion causing so much antipathy as at Alladale.
  • Symbolically they were according to tradition the place where the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743AD


To this we might add that they already include the Craig Meagaidh NNR with all the lessons gained ready to be applied at the larger landscape scale.


This will not be a commercial enterprise and there will be no specific ecotourism function major tourist visitor centre, standard commercial forestry, or any form of agrarian or pastoral agriculture. Its scale in the Scottish/UK sense will be integral to its nature and we  should not underestimate the scale of the investment in cash, effort and commitment this will require, but such a project would be significant in an international context and could attract inward investment from global agencies. If fruition arrives, I would like to see it named in honour of Dick Balharry.

13 Comments on “The Monadhliath National Wildlife Refugium – by Ron Greer

  1. The silence is deafening, but I suspect that there are two main groups among the silent: those who mainly agree, but whose professional and personal economy depends on working within an NGO , Quango , private estate or by obtaining consultancy fees from them, and do not wish to offend them( thus proving my point about the current power brokerage) and secondly, those seething with anger at the concept, but steering clear of comment in case it opens a penetrating debate on the status quo which operates in their favour at present.

    1. Well Ron, one person contacted me because they thought I had written the article – first version appeared without your name, sorry! – and was concerned I was suddenly a convert to permits in National Parks. I’m not but I also think disagreement and debate is essential for us to find a way forward for our National Parks and am totally opposed to the secret consensus building that appears to be the modus operandi of the LLTNPA Board. So, I welcomed your contributions and hope more people will contribute their ideas.
      Meantime a question. I thought the most controversial idea in your piece was the suggestion that the wildlife refugium should be fenced (I will write about permits separately). Fences are really about mammals, including humans. They won’t stop birds, although they may kill a few, or smaller animals. So, do you see the role of a fence as keeping animals in or humans out and what difference would it make? Would not the money, as in forestry fences, not be better spent on other things?

      1. Without a defined and secure perimeter delineating the difference in management and ownership, then there is no point. In the current oxymoron national parks, we have the farcical situation of a physically non defined border being managed and owned in the same way each side of that fake line on the map. The area I am suggesting is already defined by roads, walls and fences and so it’s just a matter of an upgrade to provide the refuge with refugial characteristics—from us— well because it’s a refuge and not a giant city playpark and housing development area like the Cairngorms and the other Glasgow boating pond one.
        The opponents of large mammal reintroductions use the Project Fear& Faecal Matter approach to prevent change and to some extent the fence/barrier will help assuage these fears, but the main purpose of the barrier is to keep things out, including poachers, arsonists and those wanting selfies with the baby Lynx etc., but more especially, an immigration of large herbivores from the ‘wet desert’ to the delicatessen of herbivorous delight that will become extant within the boundaries once the current Victorian-Edwardian rural dystopia ceases within the boundary.
        Though I have highlighted the need to eliminate all the agricultural, industrial and sporting activities, that may and indeed should operate in the new surrounding sustainable cultural landscape, the NWR will have to be managed/overseen by a professional wildlife service to ensure protection and function, hopefully as time develops, with an ever lighter and lighter touch. Building a fence and walking away is not an option. We are already paying for fences and management in the form of subsidies and grants often to private individuals/ commercial interests who have £ millions, indeed billions in assets. The area is not a wasteland ripe for development, but a wasted land ready for rehabilitation. We spent huge amounts of effort and cash wasting it and indeed in keeping it wasted. We just need to redirect that effort and cash, stop being fixated about ‘my right to roam’ and have the magnanimity to suspend our demands in a specific defined area for something truly noble.

  2. I’m not disagreeing with anything in this article, although I’m not sure viable populations of big predators can thrive inside a 700 square mile enclosure. It’s a tricky one. You’d want wildcat and lynx to be able to cross the fence, to mate with those outside or spread out as numbers increase. But you wouldn’t want feral domestic cats to get in. So a wildlife refugium would of necessity affect a wider area.
    So I think public engagement and access to viewing platforms, walkways or tours would be good, as part of a necessary raising awareness of the wider context and inclusion of rewilding and regeneration to revitalise hills and moors throughout the highlands, and impart nutrition, shelter and biological health to agricultural and commercial pursuits.
    Ultimately the aim could be to have no need of the fences. I totally accept we will need them at first, to allow regeneration to get going in peace.
    Still, there is no way around the absolute necessity to challenge and transform our “conservation” establishment if we want to get anywhere at all. Here on Harris, the last strongholds of the slow worm, best of all the gardener’s friends because they efficiently remove slugs, are in and around the extensive gardens of the castles at Stornoway and Amhuinnsuidhe. The estate manager at Amhuinnsuidhe tells me he is being encouraged by SNH to torch the moors above the garden, where slow worms are seen. That will incinerate any hibernating slow worms. Idiots.
    In the run-up to the debate in Westminster triggered by 123,000 signatures on a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, I wrote to my (SNP) MP for the western isles asking how he saw the matter. I got back the standard issue response singing the praises of grouse moors as havens for curlews, lapwings and golden plovers. I pointed out to him that in the western isles we have thriving populations of curlews, lapwings and golden plovers, and no driven grouse shooting. What can we say about that standard of engagement with an issue in which opinion polls have consistently shown a big majority of UK citizens in favour of putting an end to it ? In the event, when the debate took place in the Commons, the SNP contingent simply stayed away.
    4.5 million hectare of Scotland are run for the gun, according to the Britsh Association for Shooting and Conservation. Yes, that’s what they call themselves. That’s an area 27 times the size of Skye where snares strangle whatever they happen to catch, raptors supposedly protected by law mysteriously disappear, and fires are set which from time to time go out of control and along with hibernating animals take out trees and the odd sheep and who knows what else. It all happens without any response from those paid to uphold our laws, or our conservation agencies.
    They tell us, ah, jobs, like they say about the monoculture tree plantations and the salmon cages, as if it’s a law of nature that you cannot create economic opportunity without some environmental destruction. In the case of shooting, according to BASC’s own figures it employs about one man per 50 hectares. Can we really do no better than that ? And as with spruce plantations and salmon cages, it’s shitty work for shitty wages, swallowing vast sums of subsidy. I could add a long list of better ways to employ our young people, revitalise the economy of the Highlands and Islands, and enhance our entire sense of what Scotland has been and can be, but that’s enough from me for now.
    We urgently need a big change across the entire Highlands and Islands, and in the places where these things are decided.
    On that, Ron, Nick and I are as one.

    1. Steve,
      Thanks for that. I don’t think the area is too big a problem as it’s three times the size of Isle Royale where there is a long term study base on a wolves/ moose relation with the soil-vegetation conplex. If we has a 700 square uninhabited island off the West Coast, would we consider it too small.

  3. I just shared this fantastic piece on the True Nature Foundation Facebook page and the very recently created Ecosystem Restoration Consortium Europe Facebook page.
    This deserves more exposure and hopefully support.
    If there is anything True Nature Foundation can do, let me know.
    Best wishes,
    Henri Kerkdijk-Otten

  4. Although I agree wholeheartedly with the creation of wildlife refugia and agree mostly with your thinking, I believe that fencing a refuge off is the wrong direction for a few reasons.
    Firstly I don’t see the need. You can clearly delineate a perimeter without a physical boundary present, and both sides of that boundary can be treated very differently in terms of land management, ownership, subsidies etc…
    Secondly, I’m against any form of fencing or restricting access to humans, especially in scotland where universal (until recently!) right to roam was a hard won right for all people. There’s no overwhelming reason why the rewilding of a landscape/ecosystems needs to exclude people. Modify their behavior perhaps (no hunting etc…), but exclusion is not required. Anyhow wildlife has lived along side various hominids in Europe for nearly a million years, there’s no reason why if we are not actively suppressing it, that it shouldn’t flourish even in our presence. After all a fence would make little difference to those intent on illegal activity within the refugia. Rewilding ecosystems can go hand-in-hand with rewilding ourselves.
    Thirdly by fencing off the area you actively prevent expansion of wildlife and ecosystems that are flourishing in the refugia. Surely a better approach is to make an unfenced refugia the beating heart of nature in a region. From this like spokes on a wheel the wildlife can spread out through ‘wildlife corridors’ to occupy areas that we currently manage for nature, increasing the biodiversity and health of an entire land rather than just within a fenced off park.
    Just my tuppence worth. Its a good debate to have.

    1. Agree totally-it was the abandonment of the right to roam that didn’t fit with me too. I think the rest is an admirable goal though going to be very difficult to attain in the current political climate.

      1. Vera,
        I chose the term Refugium very deliberately , including protection from quasi-religious right to roamists demanding the right to take selfies with the Auroch calves and the Lynx kittens and extra parking spaces for their RVs along the Laggan road. It will need a special Act Of Parliament to derogate the RTR within the defined boundaries of the NWR. I fully support the right of responsible roaming elswhere. Yes, the current political climate is not easy and the the present hierarchy within the SNP government is not even willing to engage with the concept of Scottish national parks actually being owned by the Scottish nation–quite a bit to go then.

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