A week before taking action against the Cluny Estate track (see here) the Cairngorms National Park Authority issued a planning contravention notice against the owners of the Glen Clova estate for failing to remove the temporary hydro construction track behind the hotel. This is another very significant action from the CNPA and should be welcomed by all who care about the landscape. First, because the CNPA approved the hydro scheme on the basis that the track should be temporary – its permanent access tracks which cause the greatest landscape impact with hydro schemes – so well done to the CNPA for putting the landscape before profit. Second, because the CNPA are now prepared to enforce the conditions of the original planning application, unlike the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who caved in to the Glen Falloch Estate when they applied to make the temporary construction tracks there permanent (see here).
My thanks to Jojo Neff, who has been monitoring hill tracks and passed on some photos (above). Dismayed by what these showed, on Saturday I took the opportunity to have a look myself as part of a run round the Glen Prosen watershed. In the course of that I came across another temporary hydro track at the head of Glen Prosen which has also not yet been re-instated.
The track is visible from many points along the 8km ridge between Coremachy and Driesh. I was too far away – and without binoculars – to be able to tell if the horizontal scar across the hillside is still a track (would welcome information on this) or has been re-instated but to a very poor standard. The uphill section of the track is far more prominent than the lower part of the footpath to Loch Brandy.
The planning application was approved by the CNPA planning committee in 2010. There is no information on the CNPA planning portal at present following the decision letter. As a result there is almost no information about the construction track. All I could find was a reference to “temporary access tracks” in the Committee Report and this map which shows the pipeline, not a track, and indicates therefore there was no proposal for a permanent track:
The Decision Letter from the CNPA required the developer to produce a Construction Method Statement, which would have provided information about where the temporary access track was to be sited and how it was to be constructed and the ground then re-instated, but this information is not public. Nor is there any information on the planning portal about when the work started, when it was “completed” or subsequent correspondence between the CNPA and the Developer. I will ask for all this information under FOI but in my view the CNPA’s reasons for taking action should be public (and should not be limited to a one line entry on their Planning Enforcement Register). It would also be in the public interest to know just how long negotiations had been going on before the CNPA decided to take enforcement action.
The owner of the land and developer of the hydro scheme appears to be Hugh Niven, who runs the Glen Clova Hotel, the Glen Clova farm – which has been supplying Albert Bartlett with potatoes for over 25 years (see here) – and Pitlivie Farm, near Carnoustie in Angus. This according to information on the internet is the site of one of Scotland largest agricultural roof mounted PV installations. An interest in renewables then.
Mr Niven had a run in with Angus Council Planning in Glen Clova just before the Cairngorms National Park was created. In 2000 (see here) Angus Council initiated enforcement action against Mr Niven because he had created a new loch in the Glen without planning permission and there were sufficient safety concerns about the earthworks that the public road was closed for a time. Two years later Mr Niven applied for, and was granted, retrospective planning permission for the works (see here).
There are lessons for this for the CNPA. First, this is not the first occasion Hugh Niven has ignored planning law. In this he is not unusual – many landowners still see planning authorities as imposing unwelcome restrictions on their ability to manage land any way they wish. Second, back in 2000 it appears that Hugh Niven argued that what he had done was justifiable and the risk is that he will now do so again which will lead to years of wrangling. While the creation of a loch might have been acceptable on landscape grounds, the permanent retention of this track is not and the CNPA therefore needs to avoid drawn into negotiations about how this scar could be ameliorated and take a stand. This track needs to be removed and like the Cluny track, is therefore a fundamental test for the CNPA. They deserve the support of everyone who cares about the landscape in our National Parks.
As in the Cluny case, it appears that the developer does not lack resources: the latest accounts for Clova Estate Farm Ltd doesn’t show income (because they are abbreviated accounts – a fundamental issue in terms of business transparency) but does show the business has total net assets of £8,037,710. Hugh Niven therefore has the resources to pay for the re-instatement of the hydro construction track.
Glen Prosen hydro track
After completing the ridge on the west side of Glen Clova to Mayar and after coming across a new bulldozed track on the plateau leading from Bawhelps to Dun Hillocks (which I will cover in another post) the head of Glen Prosen is scarred by new tracks and clearfell north west of Kilbo.
On returning home I checked the planning report from 2013 which made clear that the construction tracks would be temporary: “Beyond the powerhouse there will be a temporary access road for construction to reach both intakes.” Again well done to the CNPA for putting landscape before profit.
The Committee Report also concluded:
Landscape and Visual Effects 40. The landscape impacts of this proposal are minor, given the scale of the development and the location in the upper Glen Prosen. Conditions relating to the construction phase of the development have been proposed to minimise any short term impact. In addition, the set of mitigation measures proposed are likely to have a positive impact on the development site in the long term.
The trouble is at present the landscape impact is anything but minor, as the photos show, and this is mainly because the construction tracks have not been removed, although the clearfell has added to the destruction. There were no signs of machinery on site and it appears therefore that the Glen Prosen estate, like the Glen Clova estate, thinks the work is finished and simply hopes to avoid the expense of re-instating these tracks. It will be much easier for the CNPA to take action if they show resolution in addressing the Glen Clova track. The message to landowners will be then loud and clear: you cannot afford to ignoring the planning rules in the National Park.
This post looks at the Conservation and Land Management section of the draft Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan (NPPP) which is out for consultation until 3rd July (see here). It argues that the Outcomes (above) in the draft NPPP are devoid of meaningful content, considers some the reasons for this and outlines some alternative proposals which might go some way to realising the statutory conservation objectives for the National Park.
Call me old fashioned but I don’t see why the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park needs a vision for conservation – “An internationally renowned landscape where nature, heritage, land and water are valued, managed and enhanced to provide multiple benefits for people and nature” – when it has a statutory is duty a) “to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area” and b) to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area. The statutory duty to my mind is much simpler and clearer, the vision just marketing speak.
Indeed, the draft National Park Partnership Plan is far more like a marketing brochure than a serious plan. This makes submission of meaningful comments very difficult. Feel good phrases such as “iconic wildlife”, “haven for nature”, “stunning and varied wildlife”, “vital stocks of natural capital” are peppered throughout the document. The reality is rather different, but you need to go to the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to find this out:
The Park has 27 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to grazing pressures
Three river and 12 loch waterbodies in the Park still fail to achieve “good” status in line with Water Framework Directive (WFD) objectives.
The Park has 25 designated sites assessed as being in “unfavourable” condition due to pressures from Invasive Non-Native Species.
In other words progress during the period of the 2012-2017 Plan has not been what one might have expected in a National Park. Instead of trying to learn from this and set out actions to address the issues, the LLTNPA is trying to bury failures under the table and to conceal its lack of a clear plan with marketing speak. There is no need to take my word for it, the problems are clearly spelled out in the SEA:
The main weakness of the new plan over the extant plan is its lack of specificity combined
with its with its very strategic nature: given limited resources and the framing of the priorities in the draft plan, it is unclear how intervention will be prioritised. For example, in the extant NPPP [2012-17], waterbody restoration and natural flood management measures are focussed in the Forth and Tay catchments. The new plan does not appear to include any such prioritisation and it is unclear if there will be sufficient resources to deliver the ambitious waterbody restoration measures across all catchments during the plan period. This key weakness is likely to be addressed by using the new NPPP as a discussion document to formalise arrangements and agreements with partner organisations on an individual basis (e.g. using individual partnership agreements as per the extant NPPP). However, it would be preferable if resource availability (and constraint) is articulated clearly in the plan document to help manage expectations;
Or, to put it another way, the NPPP outcomes are so “strategic” as to be meaningless, the LLTNPA has failed to consider resource issues and is planning to agree actions in secret with partner bodies once the consultation is over. It appears that all the failures in accountability which took place with the development of the camping byelaws (developed in 13 secret Board Meetings) will now apply to conservation.
Economic interests are being put before conservation
This failure in governance – about how plans should be developed – conceals a skewing of the National Park’s conservation objectives towards economic interests (in spite of the duty of the LLTNPA, under the Sandford principle and section 9.6 of the National Park (Scotland) Act to put conservation first). The best example is the beginning of the conservation section where the LLTNPA outlines the main threats to the “natural environment” the Park faces:
Impacts on freshwater and marine water bodies from problems such as pollution from surrounding land uses [ e.g algal blooms in Loch Lomond];
Unsustainable levels of wild and domesticated grazing animals in some upland and woodland areas, leading to reduced tree cover and the erosion of soils, which are important carbon stores [the 27 sites according to the SEA];
The spread of invasive non-native species which displace our rich native wildlife; [we are given no indication of how much progress has been made tackling this over last 5 years]
The impacts of climate change leading to warmer, wetter weather patterns and a subsequent
increase in flood events, major landslides and rapid shifts in natural ecosystems.
Omitted from this list are the many threats to the landscape of the National Park which is being destroyed by “developments”: Flamingo Land, the Cononish Goldmine, transport routes and over 40 hydro schemes with all their associated tracks.
In the world of parkspeak however all these developments will be classed as successes. The reason? One of the measures of success is “Planning & Development: The percentage of the Park and/or number of sites with landscape mitigation schemes”. The developments in the photos above have all been “mitigated” by the Park as Planning Authority – an “unmitigated bloody disaster” would be a more accurate description of what the LLTNPA is allowing to happen.
Many of these developments also impact on the ecology of the National Park. For example, despite all the fine words about water catchment planning and flood prevention there is NO consideration of the impact of the 40 plus hydo schemes being developed in the National Park on flooding (send the water through a pipe and it will descend the hill far more quickly than in a river) or the ecology of rivers.
A more specific example is conservation Priority 11 which says the LLTNPA will “Support for land managers to plan and deliver multiple environmental and social benefits, alongside economic return, through the creation and delivery of Whole Farm and Whole Estate Management Plans”. This is the same LLTNPA which, while claiming 28% of the National Park is now covered by such plans, has recently refused to make them public on the grounds they are commercially sensitive(see here). If this is not putting commercial before conservation interests, I am not sure what is.
The few specific “conservation” objectives are not about conservation at all
While there are very few specific conservation objectives in the NPPP, those that do exist are clearly driven by other agendas
Conservation Priority 4 Supporting projects that enhance opportunities to enjoy landscapes particularly along major transport routes and around settlements and also that better meet the different travel mode needs of visitors, communities and businesses. Priorities include: – Implementing a strategically planned and designed upgrade to the A82 between Tarbet and Inverarnan;
-Continuing to review landslip management measures on the A83 at The Rest and Be Thankful.
Landscape conservation has been reduced to ensuring that people can enjoy the view from the road. There is no consideration on the impact of those roads (visual, noise etc):
It is important that we ensure that key areas of the Park where people experience the inspiring vistas found here are recognised and enhanced. This means that key transport routes, such as trunk roads and the West Highland railway line, along with the settlements in the Park, continue to provide good lines of sight to the stunning views of the iconic landscapes found here.
Biodiversity in the National Park
The new NPPP actually represents a considerable step backwards from Wild Park 2020 (see here), the LLTNPA’s biodiversity action plan, which is not even referred to in the NPPP. The vision set out in Wild Park (P11), which is about restoring upland and lowland habitats, enriching food chains (to increase numbers of top predators) woodland re-structuring etc, is worth reading – a far clearer and coherent vision than in the NPPP. That should have been the NPPP starting point.
Wild Park contained 90 specific actions, which were due to be reviewed in 2017 – “the Delivery and Monitoring Group will undertake a mid-term review in 2017 of progress overall on the projects and programmes in Wild Park 2020” . There is no mention in the NPPP about what has happened to that when it should have been central to developing the new plan. Part of the problem is the LLTNPA has taken very little interest in conservation over the last three years – there are hardly any papers to the Board on conservation issues as all its focus and the Park’s resources have been devoted to camping management.
The weakness in Wild Park was that while it included many excellent projects, these were mostly limited to small geographical areas and many were located on land owned by NGOs (eg a significant proportion of all the projects were located on NTS land at Ben Lomond and the Woodland Trust property in Glen Finglas). There was nothing on a landscape scale and very few contributions from Forestry Commission Scotland, by far the largest landowner in the National Park. The draft NPPP claims (under conservation outcome 1) to want to see conservation on a landscape scale but contains no proposals about how to do this apart from setting up a network of partnerships. This begs the question of why these partnerships will now work when we know over the last 15 years similar “partnerships” have failed to address the main land management issues which affect landscape scale conservation in the National Park, overgrazing and blanket conifer afforestation.
What needs to happen – biodiversity
First, the LLTNPA needs to have some ambition. On a landscape scale this should include a commitment to a significant increase increase in the proportion of forestry in the National Park which is managed in more sustainable ways. The SEA describes this as “there is an opportunity and interest in increasing the amount of woodland under continuous cover forestry (CCF) systems. This would reduce the amount of clear fell and associated soil erosion and landscape impacts”. So, instead of failing to mention the Argyll Forest Park, why is the LLTNPA not pressing the FCS to change the way it manages forestry there? How about aiming to convert 50% of that forest to continuous cover forestry systems over the next 10 years?
And on a species level, there is no mention of beavers in either the NPPP or SEA. Amazing the lack of join up:
Wild Park described one indicator of success in 25 years time would be that “The Tay catchment beaver population has expanded into the National Park at Loch Earn and Glen Dochart and is managed sympathetically to prevent damage to fisheries and forestry production, whilst also providing a significant new attraction to tourists and habitat benefits such as coppicing and pond creation in acceptable locations.” The LLTNPA should bring that forward and actively support beaver re-introduction projects now.
Second, there needs to be some far more specific plans (which the Park should have consulted on as part of the NPPP to guage public support) which are both geographical and theme based. Here are some examples:
So, what exactly is the plan for the Great Trossachs Forest, now Scotland’s largest National Nature Reserve, which is mainly owned by NGOs? (You would have no idea from the NPPP).
How is the LLNPA going to reduce overgrazing?
What about working to extend the Caledonian pine forest remnants in Glen Falloch (which would also hide some of the landscape scars created by hydro tracks)?
What does the LLTNPA intend to do to address the widespread persecution of species such as foxes in the National Park?
What can the National Park do to address the collapse of fish stocks in certain lochs or the threats to species such as arctic charr (whose population in Loch Earn is under threat from vendace).
I hope that people and organisations responding to the consultation will add to this list and demand that the LLTNPA comes up with a proper plan for the next five years and argue for the resources necessary to deliver such objectives.
What needs to happen – landscape
First, the LLTNPA needs to start putting landscape before development and state this clearly in the plan. There should be no more goldmines, large tourist developments (whether Flamingo Land or on the torpedo site at Arrochar) and improvements to transport infrastructure (which are needed) should not be at the expense of the landscape. Tunnelling the A82 along Loch Lomond – which has been discounted by Transport Scotland as too costly – should be put back on the agenda.
Second, I would like to see the LLTNPA have a bit of ambition and make an explicit commitment to restoring historic damage to landscapes. What about burying powerlines as is happening in English National Parks (there is one small initiative at present in the LLTNP)? How about restoring damage to the two wild land areas on either side of Glen Falloch, particularly the old hydro infrastructure south of Ben Lui, the largest area of wild land in the National Park?
The LLTNPA Board should also commit to a complete review of how it has managed the impact – “mitigated” – the construction of hydro schemes, engaging the people and organisations who have an interest in this. The big issue here is the hydro construction tracks, which the LLTNPA now allows to remain in place, and which have had a massive deleterious affect on the more open landscapes in the National Park. The LLTNPA’s starting point in the new NPPP is that there should be a presumption against any new tracks in the uplands and therefore that all hydro construction tracks should be removed in future. There should be a review of the tracks which have been agreed over the last five years and a plan developed on how these could be removed (the hydro scheme owners, many of whom are based in the city, are not short of cash and could afford to do this – that would be a demonstration of real partnership working).
Finally, as part of any plan to restructure conifer forests in the National Park, the LLTNPA also needs to develop new landscape standards for Forestry which should include matters such as track construction and felling. There should be a presumption against clearfell.
What needs to happen – resources
Just like the Cairngorms NPPP, the LLTNPA NPPP makes no mention of resource issues. Instead, the underlying assumption behind the plan is neo-liberal. The state should not provide – in this case the National Park cannot expect any further resources – and the priority of government is to enable business to do business, which (according to the theory) will all some benefits to trickle down to the National Park.
This is totally wrong. We need a proper plan which sets out what needs to be done, how much this will cost and how this will be funded. The Scottish Government could of course and probably would say “no” but things are changing politically and proper financing of conservation (and well paid rural jobs) are key to the third part of the NPPP which is about rural development.
On the longest day, the Cairngorms National Park Authority initiated enforcement action against the Cluny Estate for the unlawful track up Carn Leth Choin at the head of Glen Banchor (see here).
This is extremely welcome. In March the CNPA had written to me stating that they had been in discussions with the estate about restoring the track voluntarily but if the estate failed to do this the CNPA would take enforcement action (see here). The addition to the register indicates the estate is refusing to do this and the CNPA have been as good as their word. They deserve support from everyone who cares about our National Parks for initiating this action and will, I suspect, need ongoing support through what is likely to be a long and complex process. Its not easy to bring recalcitrant landowners to heal while removing tracks is not easy. It has been been done in the cases of a handful of hydro schemes, but these have been lower down the hill. The only time a track has been removed on high ground was when the National Trust for Scotland removed the bulldozed track on Beinn a Bhuird. This took place over a number of years, being completed in 2001, and took both significant investment and expertise.
Still, the Cluny Estate appears to be owned by the Qatari Royal Family (see here) who, even if they are under lots of pressure at present due to the blockade from their neighbours, are not short of a bob or two. There is no reason therefore why the restoration should not be to the highest possible standard. While they are about it perhaps the Qatari Royal Family, if its indeed they who own the Cluny estate, should also pay for the restoration of the lower part of the track which was constructed at an earlier date and is, I understand, outside the current enforcement action.
The significance of this action by the CNPA is far wider than just this hill track. In my view the Planning System in our National Parks (and indeed Scotland) has fallen into disrepute because enforcement action is hardly ever taken. The emphasis has been on co-operating with people who, like the owners of the Cluny estate or Natural Retreats on Cairngorm, appear to have no respect for the planning system, drag out processes of negotiation for years and do anything they can to avoid doing what is right. This therefore needs to be seen as a shot across the bows of all landowners in the National Park (its not the only one, as I will demonstrate in a future post). The CNPA need to see it through. I believe it will only take a couple of enforcement cases, where landowners learn what the costs of ignoring the planning systems are likely to be, and the whole attitude of landowners and their advisers to planning will change.
This is therefore a crucial test for the National Park and they should be congratulated for their new approach.
Back in March, hillwalker Rod McLeod, wrote an excellent report (see here) on Walk Highland about new track work he came across in Coilessan Glen, west of Loch Long, in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The glen is an important recreational route, being taken by the Cowal Way, and has recently become even more popular since Cnoc an Coinnich, the hill south of the Brack, was promoted to Corbett status.
Forestry Commission Scotland owns the land and also promote a cycle ride here:
Ardgartan shore and Coilessan Glen
Cycling – 6.9 miles / 11.0 km
Forest rides, loch shore and a fun descent back to the start.
Start by following the trail south towards the farm at Coilessan and round by the loch shore – you might just glimpse otters here. Then it’s a climb through red and roe deer’s territory in the shadow of Cnoc Coinnich before heading back down Coilessan Glen. Take a breather on the way to admire the view over Loch Long towards the Clyde!”
You might think therefore FCS would have an interest in improving the landscape and amenity in the area. The Argyll Forest Park is the oldest in Britain, created in 1935 and in its blurb the FCS exhort people to “Discover this beautiful, tree-cloaked corner of Scotland to walk, ride and relax in Britain’s oldest forest park.”
Instead FCS has upgraded part of the existing track network in Coilessan Glen by dumping aggregate on the earlier track. There is no planning application on the Loch Lomond and National Park Planning portal and the LINK Hill track group (see here) was not aware of the track through the prior notification system. While its possible the LINK hill track group missed the notification, its also possible that because this was an “upgrade” to an existing track the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority did not have to be notified (I will try and find out).
A sizeable new quarry has been created to source the new material for the track (the boulders in the middle ground are large) and gives some idea of how much aggregrate has been dumped on top of the existing tracks. In my view this should have required planning permission in the National Park.
The quality of the finishing – there was no evidence that machines are still on site or that the work is not regarded as complete – is extremely poor. It might be more accurate to say non-existent in places. Its does not appear likely that the FCS will try and extract trees up this corner so what is the argument for leaving it like this, apart from cost? This should not be acceptable in a National Park, whatever the commercial imperatives to extract timber.
The Dukes Path has been spared the upgrading work so far and gives an idea of what the tracks looked like previously. The silt trap is to catch the silt that is being washed down from the new track just above. The crushed schist forms a very fine material which is likely to continue to wash out of the new track surface for some time.
The lack of care for the landscape at the micro level is demonstrated not just by the abandoned pipe and decapitated cone but by the spoil heap at the side of the “new” track. The lack of care at the landscape level is demonstrated by the conifer replanting either side of the Dukes Path. This was one of the few sections of the Dukes Path where the walker is not hemmed in by forest on either side but but instead of using the felling as an opportunity to create a more diverse landscape, the replanting will have obscured the view completely in another 20 years.
This photo also illustrates difference between repairing a track surface compared to the upgrading work at Coilessan (below). The bare bank on left appears to date from original construction.
The history of a lack of care here is also demonstrated by the spoil to the left of the new track which has partly revegetated. It may date from earlier tree felling. Material from the new track will erode down the hillside.
The surface of the track is now firmer than two months ago, when Rod McLeod took his photos, and appears to have consolidated to an extent. I passed the Duke of Edinburgh Group shortly after taking this photo and asked them to rate the track and the walking experience. “Terrible” was the response.
Is this the way we would be treating what was a fine section of burn?
Compare the size of the former track on left with the upgraded one. Are bends this size really necessary?
In order to widen the track, further excavation of banks and ditches has been undertaken in places. The vegetated area bottom right represents former bank, a section behind appears to have been scraped bank behind that vegetated. I could see not evidence that any attempt had been made to store and replace turf over excavated areas, even in places such as this where there are native trees behind which one would hope will be left in place during the felling. The LLTNPA rightly requires vegetation to be restored in hydro track construction – even if it does not happen much of the time – and similar standards should be applied to forest track construction.
Will FCS do anything to improve this once the trees are extracted?
They have done very little to improve this section where felling is complete and indeed appears to have pre-dated the track. So, if the new track was not need for felling (top left) why is it needed now? Forest tracks have become larger and larger to accommodate bigger, heavier vehicles – just as in hydro track construction. The bigger the machines we use to work in the countryside, the bigger the tracks and the impact on landscape.
The contrast between the footpath construction in the upper part of the Glen and the track are quite stark. How can the FCS apply such difference standards? My 1980 1:50,000 map shows just a footpath, no track, up the Glen but now there is only a path in the upper part. A relief.
You can hardly see this plastic culvert under the path.
The care taken with the path contrast with the final section of the new track which finishes not far above.
The felling and replanting in background (slopes of Brack) all took place without this track “upgrade” demonstrating that there was no need for works of anything like the extent of those that have been undertaken.
How does this compare with the FCS blurb: “Ardgartan (meaning the High Garden in Gaelic) is at the heart of an area of vast natural beauty. The forest of Sitka and Norway spruce is an ideal habitat for red squirrel, roe deer, buzzards and owls. Mixed woodland along the many small rivers and burns is home to otters, kingfishers and bats.”
Even in the dense part of the forest, the upgraded track is visible from afar.
What needs to happen
The FCS needs to apply consistent standards of practice and up its game in our National Parks. In places, such as on east Loch Lomond, its doing some fantastic work to remedy past mistakes, in others, like here, it appears nothing has changed.
The LLTNPA meantime needs to start focussing on stopping any further destruction of landscape quality in the National Park through track construction, whether hydro schemes or forestry. In my view landscape protection and enhancement should be the number one priority in the new National Park partnership plan – instead of visitor management. Its not visitors that are destroying the landscape – their impacts are temporary – but how the land is managed. If the LLTNPA does not act, the very reason why people visit the National Park will disappear.
The LLTNPA and FCS need to start working together on these issues and start engaging the public about the quality of the “visitor experience” in conifer forests and how this might be improved.
Over the last couple of years, concerns in the outdoor community about the impact of hydro schemes has increased significantly and on Tuesday I went out with 6 members of the Munro Society http://www.themunrosociety.com/ to share knowledge and views on the ground. The Munro Society’s first objective is “To provide an informed and valued body of opinion on matters affecting the Munros and Scotland’s mountain landscape” and as part of this they have decided to survey the impact of hydro schemes. We went to the recently completed – or should that be compleated? – Ledcharrie hydro in Glen Dochart on what was a pretty wet day.
There was no machinery left of site, which is an indication that the developer, Glen Hydro Development Ltd, believes the work is finished. While I had seen plenty of hydro tracks with oversteep batter sides (banks) – which is contrary to the Loch Lomond and Trossach’s National Park Authority’s Supplementary Guidance on Renewables (see here) – I had not seen mounds of earth, as on the right. The way the land lies here, they are totally out of place and have changed the landscape. These things should matter in a National park.
Afterwards, I checked the planning application.
The diagram left shows the mounds of earth on the right of the track were supposed to be temporary. Why then are they still there?
The width of the new track is in places extraordinarily wide, as the double gates illustrate. Double gates have also been left in place at the Glen Falloch Hydro Scheme. One way the LLTNPA could help ensure tracks are narrower is by requiring all double gates to be replaced by single gates after construction has finished.
The LLTNPA’s Supplementary Planning Guidance actually recommends tracks are not even one gate wide:
Where tracks are to be retained, especially in locations which are sensitive in terms of landscape impact, they should be restored from the specification required for construction vehicles and be reduced in width to the minimum required for ongoing quad bike (or similar) access.
The LLTNPA’s Chief Executive subsequently clarified in a letter to Mountaineering Scotland that this should mean tracks are no more than 2m wide, which would allow for a vegetated central strip, except on uphill sections and bends where he has stated 2.5m is acceptable.
At Ledcharrie the planning documentation confirms this approach:
“Permanent access tracks will be restored to their original condition upon completion of the works. Temporary access tracks will be removed and the surrounding ground reinstated upon completion”.
A permanent track from the powerhouse to the primary intake (surfaced with local crushed stone and about 2 metres in width).
Now I think this is extremely welcome. Two metres is quite wide enough for a landrover or quad bike and would force vehicles to follow the same line along a track, allowing vegetation to establish in the middle of the track. Talking with members of the Munro Society they agreed. Maybe we need a compulsory National Standard for hill tracks in Scotland. The problem at Ledcharrie however is that almost everywhere the planning documentation for the track, and the LLTNPA’s own standards, have been ignored.
The tape measure here is extended to its maximum, 3m. The width of the track is close to 6m and there has been no attempt to restore the banks on either side creating a 9m broad scar up the hill. This should be totally unacceptable anywhere, let alone in a National Park, which says it believes uphill sections of track should just be 2.5m wide.
Not all the track restoration is as bad and there is short section above the double gate (above) where it almost meets the 2m specification and there has been a reasonable attempt to restore the land to its original condition. Why here but not elsewhere is a question worth asking? It seems totally arbitrary.
Even here, though, all is not as it should be. On the left bank the developer appears to have run out of peat to place on top of the bouldery soil. The Planning documentation required a:
management plan for the whole site shall be submitted and approved by the Planning Authority. This shall include details of:
The storage and management of the different habitat types and turves of different sizes and depths; and
Coding of habitats to ensure habitat turves are reinstated in the correct areas
Unfortunately the LLTNPA does not generally add documents required in a planning consent to the planning portal so its impossible for the public to see plan for retention of turves was agreed. The photos show however that whatever happened, insufficient care was taken in removing and restoring turves, with the result that large areas of ground have been left bare.
The planning consent also included a specific requirement that:
Turves should be reinstated over the pipeline as soon as possible to ensure maximum restoration.
The photo (above) shows this never happened – the problem is the LLTNPA is not monitoring its planning requirements on an ongoing basis through construction with the result they are ignored. While this is a failure, in landscape terms, the Munro Society members were generally agreed that the main landscape concern is the track because the vegetation above the pipe, although not restored properly, is likely to recover quite quickly.
The Munro Society team had between them been up almost every 30m bump in Scotland and besides the hill chat, one of the pleasures of going out with them was hearing what such experienced hill goers thought about various aspects of the hydro development. I have rarely seen a constructed stone culvert in the LLTNPA hydro schemes as above. They approved. While the track at Ledcharrie is far too broad, increasing its impact on the landscape, almost every culvert pipe had been properly finished, (unlike the Glen Falloch schemes). Just why contractors are good at one thing or in one area but then fail totally in others is another question that needs to be asked. I suspect the problem is a lack of monitoring from the LTNPA to ensure consistent high standards. If the problem is lack of resources to do this, the answer is simple: re-direct resources away from chasing innocent campers and direct them to protecting our landscape. The impact of even the most irresponsible of campers is temporary, the impact of these track is, in human timescales, permanent.
Just upstream of the culvert though, Stuart Logan, Munro Society President spotted that this. No-one present thought that lining stream beds with concrete is acceptable (this was the first time I had seen this). How could this happen in a National Park?
The track above the culvert was also very poor, not only far too wide, but it had been lined with blocks which appear to have been created by the developer blasting through rock bands where the soil was shallow. The end result looked more appropriate for a quarry than a National Park.
Another thing I had not seen was the use of netting in an attempt to hold soil in place at the edge of a track. Here the netting has totally failed and filled with material that has slumped down the slope, a consequence of the bank/edge of the batter being too steep. On the top right you can see how soil and rock, which could have been used to help reduce the angle of the slope, has been left dumped on top of vegetation.
On the downside of the track, below the scar in the photo above, the material excavated to create the track had been dumped on vegetation and no attempt has been made to restore this. The drainage ditch is a later addition bu,t instead of using the new turves to help restore the ground elsewhere, they had been left scattered on the neighbouring ground (large turf centre)
We had a good discussion about the main intake on the Ledcharrie burn. There was general agreement that the intake was well located being tucked below the level of the banks and surrounding ground and would not be visible from afar. There was debate about whether the rip rap embankment, in this case partially embedded in concrete, could have been designed better. I asked people about the concrete dam walls, pointing out the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance suggests these could be faced in stone, although I had never seen this. Someone pointed out there was plenty of material available to do this from the old dyke behind the intake (centre of photo). So why not?
We then walked down the track a bit before heading up to the second intake which I had only realised was there because of the disturbed ground above the pipe. You could not see it from below and some of those present had doubts about whether there was a second intake – a really good sign! Again the visual impact of the intake itself was not significant in landscape terms, although the concrete walls could have been faced with stone.
The main difference in impact between the two intakes came down to the access track.
The first intake is hardly visible from 100m away except for the access track and turning area. (The burn slanting right to left has been diverted so it now enters the Ledcharrie burn above the intake. Another restoration failure can be seen centre far side of river – a patch of bare ground created because turves and topsoil were not properly stored).
The second, and more minor intake, has no access track and the ground has been completely restored and to a higher standard than that on either side of the track below. The line of the pipe and temporary construction track will probably have disappeared within a couple of years. Everyone thought this was great, its how hydro schemes should be.
This then raised the question of why access tracks are needed. I explained that the main reason to access the intakes is to clear them of vegetation. This can be done by a person with a rake. This raised the question of why, if maintenance staff are expected to walk to the second intake, couldn’t they also walk to the first intake?
This is what the LLTNPA’s Supplementary Guidance says should happen:
It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development.
The problem is that LLTNPA have not followed their own guidance. Had they done so and the track been removed, or restored to the condition of the old path/track which runs up the glen and then over to Balquhidder by Kirkton Glen (photo below), there was agreement that this hydro would have been quite acceptable.
There was a good discussion too about how many people used the old path and whether footfall would increase as a result of the new track (we were passed by one walker). While people were generally appalled by the standard of construction of the track, there was a recognition that in terms of both landscape value and recreational use, this was not one of the most outstanding areas of the National Park. While we didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, there was a feeling that if the track could be restored to an acceptable standard, then leaving it in place in this instance was just about acceptable.
The problem though is the message that the LLTNPA is giving to developers. Glen Hydro Development Ltd is part of a suite of companies, all with the same Directors but split into separate companies (which both limits liabilities but means that only limited financial information is available as small companies are exempt from producing full accounts). Adam Luke Milner, besides being a Director of Glen Hydro Ledcharrie, is Director of 19 further companies, mostly hydro schemes, including ones at Kinlochewe, Chesthill, Fassfern, Glen Dessary, Loch Eil and Corrimony Farm. Richard Haworth is also a Director of most of these companies. If developers can get away with unacceptable standards in a National Park, they will try and get away with poor standards anywhere. Ledcharrie is yet another indication that making money, rather than care of the environment, is the main motivation of the people financing and benefitting from hydro developments.
An added complication at Ledcharrie, and a number of other Glen Hydro companies, is that on 1st March 2017 a Jan Tosnar was appointed Director and now appears to have a controlling financial interest in these companies (50-75%) through parallel companies called Renfin Ledcharrie, Renfin Chesthill etc based in Czechoslovakia. What appears to have happened is first the farmer/landowner agreed with a developer they could develop a hydro (for a rent) but then these schemes have changed hands and most of the profit is now not just being channelled out of the area, but out of the country. In other words these hydro schemes will create little economic benefit for the area but are leaving a permanent impact on the landscape. Our National Parks should be exposing these issues and engaging with local communities and recreational organisations to devise better alternatives.
What needs to happen
I would like to see our National Park Authorities engage with people who care about the landscape about hydro schemes, both about where they might be acceptable but also in developing standards for how they are constructed and restored and thinking about how economic benefits could be retained in the local area. I know the Cairngorms National Park Authority has met with the Link Hill Tracks group, its time the LLTNPA started a similar engagement with a view to strengthening how it implements and enforces its Supplementary Planning Guidance. I would suggest a day out with members of organisations such as the Munro Society would be a good place to start.
At Ledcharrie, the LLTNPA needs to make public what plans it actually agreed following the granting of planning permission and then enforce them.
How you can help
Munro Society volunteers are starting to monitor hydro schemes across Scotland and will feed the results of their surveys to Mountaineering Scotland who has agreed to take up issues with Planning Authorities. This is a huge task and they are looking for more volunteers. If you could help or have photos of hydro schemes outwith the National Parks please contact them athttp://www.themunrosociety.com/contact-us:
I have agreed to co-ordinate surveys within our National Parks, so if you have photos or time to contribute to that please contact Nick.firstname.lastname@example.org
I predicted months ago that the track that Natural Retreats unlawfully created at the Shieling, and which was subsequently granted planning permission by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, would promote flooding and be subject to erosion (see here). My thanks to the reader who, in the downpour on Tuesday, visited the shieling to record what was happening at the Cas Gantry (works which Highland Council agreed did not require planning permission because they were “de minimis”), the new Shieling hill track and down below at the Coire Cas car park. The photos tell a powerful tale.
Water overflowing the drain created above the bulldozed slope and running down beside the Cas Gantry. You can see why the green fertiliser pellets have been washed away. The erosion has got worse since photo (left) previously featured in Parkswatch. Highlands and Island Enterprise and Natural Retreats have clearly done nothing to address the problem.
The erosion is even worse directly adjacent to the Cas Gantry, where water has removed all the top soil (the hare found strangled last week was under the girders to left of photo). Before Natural Retreats was allowed to undertake any work here, full planning permission should have been required, including hydrological surveys.
Below the gantry, the water runs down the bank which was re-seeded at an earlier date. This has helped limit the damage but for how long? No slope as steep as this will be able to withstand this amount of water for long. The problem is the works at Cairngorm have altered the pattern of water flows at Cairngorm, channelling water onto new ground which will not be able to withstand its erosive force.
The unlawfully created Shieling hill track is on the slope below the bank. As predicted water is running straight down it and, after the dry spring and winter, one downpour has been sufficient to erode the track. The CNPA was warned that a track here was not only too steep, contravening SNH’s good practice guidance on hill tracks, but would serve to channel water more quickly off the hill, advice which it ignored. The suggestion from the North East Mountain Trust that the track be fully revegetated and that occasional use of vehicles over heather would do far less damage has so far been ignored.
Washed out stones now litter the Shieling Hill Track.
Below the bottom of the Shieling rope tow (far distance) and by the unlawfully re-graded bank, the track has become a burn. You can see how water from the bank which Natural Retreats claimed they had “improved”is flowing onto the track. There is no way of measuring how this compares to what happened before, but the destruction of vegetation on the bank is likely to have increased the rate of water run-off.
All this increased water run off is not only increasing erosion of the natural environment, its impacting on humans. The bottom of the Cas carpark was a raging torrent and is.being washed away and down into the lower Cas carpark. Below that of course is the Allt Coire Cas and the people of Aviemore.
What needs to happen
The only good thing about planning disaster at Cairngorm is that, unlike in the case of most hill tracks and other developments high up in the hills, what has happened is being closely monitored and well documented by activists. It should become a text book case of what not to do for every countryside planner in Scotland. It also provides all the evidence the Scottish Government should ever need about why ALL hill tracks should require full planning consent. What the hill track at Cairngorm shows is that as part of formal planning permission, all such tracks should require a detailed assessment of how they increase water run-off from the hill and what mitigatory measures, if any, could cancel this out. In my view where the impact cannot be 100% mitigated, the development should be refused – full stop! – as should have happened at Cairngorm.
I would never expect Natural Retreats to care about what has happened but the CNPA has repeatedly claimed that its concerned about flood prevention and limitation. So, when is it going to admit it has made a disastrous mistake at Cairngorm, start holding HIE and Natural Retreats to account and insist that they pay for a full hydrological survey which identifies options for addressing the problems highlighted here? As a first step, why not try North East Mountain Trust’s advice and re-vegetate the Shieling Hill track? As a second step, the CNPA could develop planning advice on hill tracks along with conservation organisations, re-inforcing the SNH guidance and supplementing this with information on flood prevention.
Parkswatch received information that there was a strangled hare under the Coire Cas t-bar gantry (see here) and is very grateful to members of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation group who visited the site today and confirmed this (above photo, which has had coverage on twitter). Natural Retreats’ staff then turned up, presumably to check on what was being photographed, and stated they would inform the manager. What the manager should have done then was inform the police and leave the hare as a potential crime scene – we will see.
Tnere appear two potential explanations for what has happened. The first is that this was an accident. That a hare, taking shelter on the piles of rubble under the gantry became entangled in this string/twine and strangled itself. If so, I think Natural Retreats and Hightlands and Islands Enterprise still bear a high degree of responsibility. They are meant to be custodians of Cairngorm but instead have failed to adhere to basic standards of good stewardship and have caused environmental destruction and left rubbish – which harms wildlife (as this case might show) – all over the mountain. These failures have been epitomised by their actions at the Cas Gantry where Natural Retreats bulldozed a far wider area than necessary for the “de minimis” emergency repair work that Highland Council agreed could go ahead without planning permission.
What’s more despite all the publicity on parkswatch Natural Retreats have still not restored the landscape properly, as you can see from the soil and boulders which still lie dumped below the gantry, on which the hare was found.
The second possible explanation is that this was deliberate and the string/twine was used as a snare. This would need expert investigation to establish.
There is a possible motive for the hare being killed which has nothing to do with their alleged role in transmitting ticks to red grouse. Natural Retreats took a long time before it made any attempt to restore the slopes around the gantry and because they had failed to store any vegetation had to re-seed it, usiing a fertilised seed mix. This did nothing for a while (see photo below) but now in the growing season is extremely attractive to hares – a large area of rich grass. The hare/s therefore may have been threatening to destroy the re-seeding and, rather than fence off the area, perhaps someone thought it easier to set a snare?
Whatever the explanation of the strangling, accident or deliberate or something else, the likely scenario is the hare was attracted to the re-seeded area before taking shelter under the gantry.
If this was an accident, its an accident for which our public authorities bear some responsibility. They have regularly been made aware of the destruction which has happened at Cairngorm since Natural Retreats took over. Under the Glenmore and Cairngorm Strategy HIE agreed to produce a Cairngorm Estate Management Plan, which could be used to ensure Cairngorm was managed to the highest standards. Instead, they have tolerated Natural Retreats continued mis-management of the natural environment, from rubbish dump to off track use of vehicles.
A recent example – ignore if you can the half-hearted attempt to hide the tank behind a wooden fence – what has killed the vegetation here? A diesel spill which was then cleared up, is one explanation – but perhaps Natural Retreats can offer an alternative? (which Parkswatch would be happy to publish). Whatever has happened does not appear good for either wildlife or habitats.
Meantime, there is no sign of the set of standards for environmental management which the Cairngorms National Park Authority recommended Natural Retreats adopt last year. I would recommend their senior managers and Board Members go and take a look for themselves before parkswatch publish further photos – including how the Sheiling Track which they retrospectively approved is eroding as predicted. The strangled hare is symptom of a deep malaise, more evidence that the way Cairngorm is being managed is not fit for a National Park, that Natural Retreats are not fit to be leaseholders and HIE is not fit to own it.
The solution is for management of Cairngorm to be taken over by a community consortium which includes conservation interests.
On 6th May, during the very dry spell, I went for another walk over An Caisteal and Ben a Chroin, almost a year to the day after a similar round The Glen Falloch hydro schemes (2) (with several visits in-between). The walk provided yet more evidence of why Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority staff should never have approved these tracks (which in the original planning application consented to by the Scottish Government were to be removed) but also about the poor standards of restoration. This is a disaster for a National Park whose 2012-17 Partnership Plan, which is supposed to guide everything it does, starts with the statement that:
“we want the National Park to be an internationally-renowned landscape”.
How does what the LLTNPA have allowed to happen in Glen Falloch contribute to that? In the draft Partnership Plan 2018-23 which is now out for consultation (see here) it is telling that there is no evaluation of how successful the LLTNPA has been in achieving this aim.
Previously, I have stated that in my view the restoration of the ground in which the pipelines have been buried has generally successful and little cause for concern with it often being quite difficult to make out the line of the pipelines. While I believe that is still sometimes the case, the long dry spell has accentuated the differences in vegetation and its easy to see the landscape scars (above centre). The land may take longer to recover than I had thought.
Comparing the photo above (taken a year ago on a day with far less good visibility) with the first photo in the post taken a year later, you can see that the ground above the pipeline has recovered to an extent but has a long way to go. The track itself, despite the vegetation down the middle, looks little different and forms a permanent landscape scar.
The Eas Eonan hydro track leads into an area of core wild land. The new draft Park Plan states:
“The National Park provides opportunities for anyone to have their first experience of the ‘wild outdoors”
There is nothing in the plan about how the National Park, through all the developments it has approved, has eroded that experience in the last five years. Perhaps the National Park Board and senior management team believe walking up a bulldozed track is a wild experience? Its becoming harder and harder to have a wild experience in the National Park because of decisions made by the LLTNPA. Removal of the tracks, as originally planned, would have preserved some of that.
Coire Earb is wild, and indeed falls within a core wild land area. While there was an existing track by the upper reaches of the River Falloch, this ended 1 km before the new hydro dam and formerly was out of sight when you were descending the glen. The decision by LLTNPA staff to allow the track to remain permanently has changed the experience totally.
Would not the hydro here have had far less impact on the landscape if the track has been removed as originally planned?
The Upper Glen Falloch hydro close up
The approval of the LLTNPA to the track extension to the hydro being retained has made it easier for the Glen Falloch Estate to drive vehicles off-road further up the glen. A year ago (right) there was no evidence of vehicles being driven beyond the intake, now there are vehicle tracks beside it which are destroying the ground that was restored.
Vehicles are also being driven off the track with no regard for soil or vegetation. The consequence is the track is in places likely to end up being 5-7m wide instead of the 2.5m (and 3m on steep hills and bends) which the LLTNPA recommends in its “award winning” good practice guidance which it has never enforced.
The reason for this is that the LLTNPA has basically allowed a new wide track to be created to construct the hydro scheme but then allowed the batters (see diagram below) to remain in place with minimum attempts to re-landscape the flat surface of the track (a little bit of soil and peat has just been added to the outside edge of the track). The result is that its very easy for vehicles to drive off the track while in landscape terms the track is still effectively 5-7m broad in most places.
The design of the track together with the erosion caused by vehicles and cattle have had the result that in most places there is actually now less peaty soil by the track than there was a year ago (see above).
The failure to re-landscape the former road surface so that the remaining track moulds into the contours of the land has also made it easy for the estate to create new parking or working areas which add considerably to the visual impact of the track.
There little attempt (photo above) to shape the the fill so it merges into the contours of the land. The result is a broad bench cutting across the hillside. In landscape terms, the track here is in effect still 5-7m wide rather than the 2.5-3m recommended by the National Park.
Even on the better sections, the track is far wider than the LLTNPA requires. I took my 3m tape which is here fully extended on a section of track which slopes gently downhill. I think a 2.5m track would have been more than adequate here (and probably less as you can see from the vehicle marks) but the actual track is more like 3.5m wide. What is the LLTNPA going to do to address this? The wider the track of course, the more it will stand out from a distance. There is no evidence of the central grass strips which grace the Allt Andoran track (top photo).
If there was any serious intention to narrow the upper Falloch construction track this double gate would have been removed – another illustration of just how wide this track is.
Readers who have driven up the Glen Falloch or walked there will know that the construction compound is still in place and, during my walk, there was some evidence that some further work had been undertaken to restore the destruction caused by the hydro scheme.
The restored sections however are few in comparison to those that still need attention and at this rate the track is going to take years to restore to anything like an acceptable state. That is unacceptable in a National Park whose current Plan incidentally states (and rightly so):
The outstanding landscapes and special qualities of the Park should be protected and where possible enhanced
What needs to happen
The LLTNPA needs both to learn from the Glen Falloch disaster but also find ways to reduce the impact of what has happened. This is not just about Glen Falloch, but the forty odd other hydro schemes in the National Park, many of which have similar impacts. Here is my first go at a list of actions that are needed:
Planning decisions that have significant landscape implications should no longer be delegated to staff but considered by the Planning Committee, as in the Cairngorms National Park Authority.
The LLTNPA should commission an independent report into the Glen Falloch hydro schemes which should fully involve those who are concerned about the protection of Scotland’s landscape, which should look both at the mistakes that have been made and how they can be reversed.
The new Partnership Plan needs to incorporate a meaningful landscape policy which, like the Cairngorms National Park Authority, indicates areas where there will be a presumption against development. Unless the LLTNPA does this, the current destruction of landscape in the National Park will simply continue.
The LLTNPA Board should engage with the Glen Falloch estate and develop a plan on how to remove the hydro tracks granted consent by staff. Over the next ten years the estate will receive a huge income from the hydro schemes which could still be used, as originally intended, to remove the tracks.
Where existing tracks were widened, the LLTNPA needs to ensure that all the restoration meets the standards set out in its good practice guidance. Tracks which are broader than the maximum and unfinished culverts for example should not be tolerated.
The LLTNPA should put in place measures to control the off-road use of vehicles, particularly in wild land.
The LLTNPA Board and senior staff need to get out more and take a look at what is being done in their name.
One example is the pine hoverfly. Due to intensification of forest management over the decades this is now an endangered species, so rare in fact that it is restricted to a single location in the Cairngorms National Park. It depends on the deadwood cycle – the process of trees (in this case big old granny pines) falling over or succumbing to fungal disease and decaying. The pine hoverfly’s larvae live in wet role holes created by this process – a very specific niche. Natural occurrences of these “rot holes” are nowadays few and far between because most pines in forestry are felled before they get to be old, knarled granny pines. To help save the pine hoverfly from extinction, a range of organisations in the park have been making artificial holes in tree stumps to give the pine hoverfly a home. It is hoped that in the future numbers of the hoverfly will increase to levels that allow it can survive on its own, and with more pine forest in the park being managed less intensively, natural rot holes should become common again.
Thank goodness our public authorities don’t always co-ordinate what they put out to the media. The cracks between them are most revealing. And for a broader view of what is going wrong with the approach to tree “management” in the National Park, the same issue of the Strathie contained this very interesting letter from Basil Dunlop which appears to re-inforces previous points made on parkswatch about Loch an Eileen (see here).
Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend 12th – 14th May
The place of nature in the Cairngorms National Park is highly contested and full of contradictions and this is evident in the events being organised for the Big Nature Weekend (see here). There are some great events on and, due to the current attempts to criminalise people who enjoy the countryside in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, I particularly liked this one at Invercauld:
Camp fire capers – explore around the wonderful Invercauld Estate, collect sticks and other things from nature and learn how to light a small fire without matches. It’s not the easiest thing to do but a great skill to learn and a fab party piece. There will also be marshmallows for everyone to toast! Suitable for kids 3 years + (with a well behaved adult!)
Collecting wood for lighting fires is now of course a criminal offence in the LLNPA camping management zones, incurring a fine of £500 and a criminal record. So what’s being promoted in the Cairngorms National Park Authority is a criminal offence in the LLTNPA! This just shows how completely out of touch the LLTNPA are.
On May 1st though the CNPA put out a Cairngorms Nature email which highlighted events that were taking place on five estates under the heading “Behind the Scenes” which just so happens to be the same heading used Natural Retreats on their blog to explain what they are doing at Cairngorm!
Behind the Scenes
Part of the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend is about offering opportunities that are not normally available to the public.
Landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park, it is a challenging task which is all about balance. The weekend will offer a number of opportunities to join the people who look after our landscapes on a day to day basis and get an exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ tour of a working estate.
The claim that landscape management is vital to the long term future of the Cairngorms National Park is highly ideological. What about the wild land/rewilding view? This explains that the reason why so much of the National Park is degraded in conservation terms is precisely because there is too much management: muirburn, proliferation of bulldozed tracks. Indeed one could cite the felling and replanting at Curr Wood.
The CNPA would, I guess, respond by saying “its all about balance” – to which the question needs to be asked, balance between what? Unfortunately while promoting these events at the Big Nature Weekend there appear to be no events being promoted by RSPB, SNH or NTS which might demonstrate some alternative ways of managing the land.
Click on Corgarff and you will find the event is on the Allargue Estate, which is described as conservation-minded – this is the estate where all the vehicles were parked that took place in aninfamous mountain hare massacre featured on Raptor Persecution Scotland (see here). The event is called “A Question of Balance – Wildlife and Land Management”. It makes you want to cry.
What needs to happen
The CNPA needs to stop promoting estates which do not adhere to the standards for conservation we should expect in National Parks. Now maybe the Allargue Estate has made a commitment to stop culling mountain hares. If so, I would applaud that but if not, the CNPA should not be promoting it.
The new Cairngorms Partnership Plan provides an opportunity for the CNPA to ask all estates within the CNPA that have not already done so to submit an estate management plan and for those who have them, to revise their current plans. Such plans should contain transparent statements on what wildlife is killed by estates, either for “sport” or “protection of wildlife”, on practices such as muirburn and how the estate is going to play its part in meeting the conservation objectives set out in the Partnership Plan.
On Wednesday evening I went to have another look at the northern section of the access track which had been created for the construction of the Beauly Denny powerline and which was due to be restored last year (see here). Its situated on the east side of the A9 behind the tree shelter belt and opposite the southern turn off to Dalwhinnie.
That post resulted in the North East Mountain Trust, who had been concerned about the original planning application, taking the matter up with the Cairngorms National Park Authority. It transpires that the Estate had been involved in lengthy discussions with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency about the details of how they were going to restore the track, missed the deadline and the CNPA has now extended it until the end of 2017. There was provision for this under the conditions attached to the planning consent which lasts until February 2018. Unfortunately there are still no details of this on the CNPA planning portal (see here) where the last available document is dated July 2015. If you are a member of the public, therefore, not only does it appear that the estate has failed to restore the track within the deadline but also that the National Park has done nothing about this. The CNPA is letting itself down and, I believe, making planning enforcement much harder for itself because of this lack of transparency.
The CNPA did though state to NEMT that, should the Estate fail to restore the track as per the planning permission it granted by the Park Authority, once the CNPA planning permission lapses the ground would need to be completely restored, as per the Section 37 Electricity Act consent for the Beauly-Denny. They said the Scottish Government would be responsible for enforcing this. (I am unclear how this can be reconciled with earlier advice I received from the Scottish Government that “In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place”). If it comes to that, four years will have been lost in which this land could have been restored properly to the benefit of both landscape and wildlife. Funny how delays in our planning system are always portrayed as being the fault of planning authorities when in fact by far the biggest delays and created by developers/landowners.
Meantime, the Scottish Government is even less transparent – one rule for local government, another for national government – and removes planning applications it approves from the public realm. There is therefore no convenient means for the public to find out how the restoration of the Beauly Denny is going. I resorted to a FOI request to the CNPA about what information they held and was – again very helpfully – provided with information about the restoration of land under the 76 towers and approx 28km of track that are within the National Park boundary.
According to SSE most of the restoration for which it is still responsible is going well – or rather is “of an acceptable standard”. I think the photos show otherwise, as does a report the CNPA’s peatland officer in 2015 (see here) – well done him and the CNPA. What the papers, which I will come back to in further posts, show is that SSE is just hoping all the destruction which it caused will regenerate naturally, whereas the CNPA and SNH are concerned whether this is going to happen. The problem is the CNPA appears to have very little power to make SSE do anything – although if it went public with its concerns that I think would make a significant difference.
So why has Ralia estate taken over the burden of restoring the land from SSE?
The amount of work – and therefore cost – in meeting the approved design plans for the track are considerable. The 4.7 km of track needs to be reduced from its current width of 5-7m to 3m.
So much aggregate has been imported to construct the track that even where turves have been properly stored, re-landscaping will be a real challenge. The planning permission granted by the CNPA specifies that excess materials will be removed, which would make landscaping considerably easier – a great requirement but will the estate do it?
The job will not be made any easier because so much of the temporary construction work was so poor. If this track is to be halved in width, so will the drainage pipes.
Bizarrely, among all the protuding pipes, there was one example of a culvert which had been properly finished – at both ends too! Unfortunately, the track here was even wider than normal, 7m rather than 5m, and at least one of the finished culverts will need be ripped out if the track is to be reduced in width to 3m. If this work was done by SSE, one wonders why? If by the Estate, that would suggest they are intending to keep the track at its current width, contrary to planning requirements.
The reason why the estate wanted to retain the track though quickly became apparent. It makes it much easier for the gamekeepers to manage animal traps or, from their viewpoint, “to conserve the countryside”. This was the first time I had seen a live bird in a Larsen trap in 100s of visits to the hills (not a coincidence, they are usually tucked away like this) and I found it quite distressing but then I see crows as beautiful creatures, one of the most intelligent of all birds, and not pests. The crow was hopping up and down and beating its wings against the side of the trap – that’s what’s meant to happen, it attracts other crows wishing to defend their territory. All my instincts were to free it but that, I recalled somewhere, is a criminal offence.
The ostensible purpose of Larsen traps is that the flapping crow (or other corvid) attracts others which are then lured into one of the two traps. In Scotland only hens’ eggs or bread are allowed as bait (as here). The theory and use of these traps from the landowner viewpoint is set out in guidance from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here). The trap in the photos appeared to meet all animal welfare requirements about provision of water, food and a perch for roosting at night. While Scotland has stricter requirements than England on the use of these traps, under General License under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it seems to me there is question about whether this General License should extend to National Parks.
While the GWCT claim there is little evidence of raptors being caught in such traps and that live traps such as this allow protected birds to be released, that claim needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the level of persecution of raptors on grouse moors. Why would estates ever report if hen harriers, say, were found in such traps? Maybe I am unobservant, or always unfortunate in my timing, but while there were large numbers of grouse about (and some song thrush, pied wagtail and wheatear) there was not a sign of a hen harrier.
What was clear was that the estate was trapping anything else that might prey on grouse. The tracks make maintenance of such traps easier for estate staff.
A multi-catch cage trap was located slightly further away from the track – as recommended by GWCT – part of the reason being to avoid the public coming into them while in use and becoming distressed. What is clear to me is the CNPA, by granting planning permission, for the retention of this track has made it much easier for estate staff to trap and kill anything that is perceived as a threat to red grouse. The CNPA talks about the need for balance between competing interests, but in terms of species there is no balance. Everything is about increasing numbers of red grouse.
While as the link shows, the numbers of grouse at Ralia have increased dramatically, what is not reported is the numbers of other species that predate on them.
The CNPA’s consent to Ralia Estate retaining this section of track appears to have had little impact on their off-road use of vehicles. Indeed, Ralia estate appears to be creating further tracks without any planning permission.
The track that has been developed along the line of grouse butts on the north side of the Allt Coire nan Cisteachan. The installation of a water bar means, I believe, that this counts as a constructed track and should have had full planning permission – its purpose, along the line of grouse butts is only too clear and has nothing to do with agriculture (where developments only require “prior notification”).
The constructed nature of the track on the south side of the burn is even more obvious and to an appalling standard (I will report it to the National Park). Although the newly “constructed” section is short, its intention is clearly to enable vehicle access up the hillside easier and yet more scars on the Drumochter.
The issue at Drumochter therefore is not just about restoration of the Beauly Denny or planning permission for hill tracks and what they are then used for – although both have had major and unnecessary impacts on the landscape – its about what off-road use estates should be allowed to make of vehicles in the National Park. In my the National Park could contain and control all these issues through the use of byelaws which introduce licenses for hunting. Such hunting licenses could require estates not to use vehicles off-track or trap any animal without explicit permission.
Had this been been published when originally intended it would have been issued to subscribers at about the same time as the general election was announced yesterday! In the world of newspapers, radio and TV I guess the post would have been scrapped. I will persist! However, its worth saying first that the general election will provide an opportunity to consider why decisions at the UK still matter to Scotland’s National Parks, even though powers to create and manage National Parks belong to the Scottish Parliament.
For Scotland’s National Parks don’t exist in a vacuum but reflect wider changes and conflicts in society. Among the matters at stake in the General Election that will affect our National Parks are:
wage levels (employment law is controlled by Westminster) – average wage levels in the Cairngorms National Park are below the Scottish average
levels of public expenditure in our National Parks, which will be determined not just by any future UK Government’s commitment to “austerity” but what is proposed by the political parties proposals for rural expenditure post-Brexit
ownership of land through complex legal and financial vehicles (which are ultimately aimed at avoiding not just tax but other legislation such as the community right to buy
All these things ultimately impact on our landscape, wildlife and ability to enjoy them. Meantime though, a little more evidence of what appears on the ground.
Ardvorlich estate hydro scheme
Following my post on the Keltie Water hydro scheme (see here), I was up on the north side of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin at the weekend (about which more anon) and took the opportunity to have a look at the Ardvorlich hydro scheme. I returned home to find that Jim Robertson of the Munro Society had sent parkswatch photos of the Tarken Glen hydro on the north side of Loch Earn. Both are featured here and, while there are many positive aspects to the way both schemes have been designed and executed, both raise issues about how successfully the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority is protecting the landscape.
The Ardvorlich hydro was granted planning permission back in 2009, before the LLTNPA published its guidance stating that pipes should wherever possible be placed under bridges and the only paper currently on the planning portal is the decision notice (see here) . Its not possible therefore to what what consideration was given to this pipe across the burn which in my view is the single worst aspect of scheme. It should not have been so difficult to align the pipe with the bridge and track so the pipe was concealed by the bridge as at Keltie Water.
The biggest landscape impact is not where pipe runs underground – the ground above the buried pipe is recovering well – but the steep edge of the track – too steep to regenerate naturally and which is likely to continue eroding for years.
Same view from closer up: a few years and I suspect it will be very difficult, even for vegetation experts, to detect line of the pipeline, quite a contrast to the permanent landscape scar created by the track. According to my old OS Map, dating from 1988, at that time there was just a path up the west side of the burn. Now there is a vehicle track on both sides.
There are two intake to the hydro scheme. The main visual impact of the western intake is the concrete on left side of dam which has not been faced with natural materials. The concrete on the right side appears to have coloured due to water flowing over it regularly so it blends better into the landscape The wooden safety fence is also unobtrusive and fits in Park’s subsequent policy to use natural materials, such as wood for fencing.
Closer up the main visual impact of the dam remains the grey/white concrete. If our National Parks and other planning authorities required intake structures to be finished in stone, except where likely to be stained by water, their visual impact would reduce considerably. The cost of this would be minimal and it could reduce carbon imprints.
In the past natural stone was used a lot more (see photo below) as it was less easy to import materials and people consequently used whatever was to hand.
The visual impact of the dam is also reduced because the track does not go right up to the dam, as in most later developments in the Park. There is nothing to draw your eye to it and as a result many people walking up the track probably miss it.
The formal track also ends short of the eastern intake (to right of view in photo) although an ATV eroded track continues up the glen (in place of the old path). What is good about this track is that there is no large turning area which is so common with so many other hydro tracks.
The second intake is closer to the track than the first and more intrusive. While the lower concrete has stained there is a much greater expanse of light grey concrete retaining wall, which is made even more obvious by the Lomond blue piping. Added to this there rip-rap boulder embankment on the far side of the burn and the excavation of the banks on either side of the burn where vegetation has not recovered (its too steep, just like the bank of the track below the bridge). The design of this intake could, in my view, have been considerable improved and the impact on the landscape reduced.
Still, its a small scheme and within the landscape as a whole the impact is not great. In many places this would be judged a good scheme but it still falls short of what I believe we should expect in our National Parks. Its not the location of the scheme that should cause concern, its the execution.
Tarken Glen hydro scheme
The border of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park runs just north of Loch Earn and only the lower part of Tarken Glen, by St Fillans, lies within it. The papers on the LLTNPA planning portal show that LLTNPA staff, in deciding this scheme, worked closely with Perth and Kinross Council.
Within the National Park there is a small section of new track to the powerhouse, the powerhouse itself and a very short area of open pipeline behind the powerhouse. This is well concealed and not possible to see from Jim’s photos.
While the intake is outwith the National Park, it is fairly typical of those found within our National Parks, being constructed out of white/grey concrete partially concealed by rip rap tendering. The gantry adds to the visual impact although viewers will note the piping is not bright “Lomond” blue. The location of this dam in a wide open glen makes it more visible than those at Ardvorlich.
The rip-rap bouldering looks as artificial as the concrete dam.
An existing track was used for construction purposes and, because the size of the scheme was relatively small, it appears the track did not require extensive upgrading. Vegetation appears to be recovering well which will give it a more “natural” feel for walkers.
The track demonstrates what a track looks like from close up where there is a central vegetated strip – as advocated in the LLTNPA’s Best Practice Guidance.
The photo demonstrates once again that the main impact of hydro schemes is not the pipeline, where these are buried, but the access tracks. While in this case the track was already in place, where tracks cut across the grain of the landscape, as in the middle ground of this photos where the track goes diagonally uphill, they are particularly prominent. While the LLTNPA did refer to the visual impact of the scheme from the South Loch Earn road, it made no recommendations about what might be done to mitigate the impact of what can be seen from the National Park.
The Tarken Glen track though is not nearly as bad as the new track (above) you can see from the summit of Meall Rheamhar in Gleann Ghoinean which again lies outwith the National Park boundary to the south.
There is a much older hydro scheme at the head of Glen Tarken – part of the extensive Breadalbane hydro scheme – which demonstrates that at least in respect of pipelines, some progress has been made.
Jim’s photo though raises questions about how much progress has been made in reducing the impact of dams and hydro intakes. In this case, the intake diverts all the normal flow of the burn, which will only flow in spate conditions, whereas intakes are always designed nowadays, due to greater awareness of hydrology and the framework of water catchment plans, to maintain some flow. Are the concrete embankments of the existing hydro intake though any worse than the rip rap tendering shown in Jim’s second photo of the new scheme?
The photos also demonstrate just how long it takes for concrete retaining walls to be colonised by mosses and lichens and to start blending into the landscape. A good reason why theLLTNPA needs to enforce its guidance that concrete dam structures should wherever possible be faced with natural materials.
Parkswatch covers our two National Parks. The Munro Society is trying to survey the impact of hydro schemes across Scotland (see here) as part of its work on measuring change in our hills. This is incredibly important work because it will provide evidence of the impact of hydro developments in mountain areas on the landscape across Scotland. Parkswatch has agreed to share with the Munro Society photographic evidence of hydro schemes gathered within in our National Parks – so if you have photos please send them as Jim and others have done – but if you have photos from outwith the National Parks, do please contact the Munro Society directly (see here) and let them know what you might be able to share with them.
The LINK hill tracks group is doing similar work on hill tracks and also collects photographic evidence of their impact across Scotland and you can submit photos online (see here) .
The Munro Society has started to monitor hydro schemes – a very welcome development – and my thanks to Derek Sime who sent parkswatch a number of photos of the Keltie Water Hydro Scheme, situated between Callander and Stuc a Chroin. While the Keltie Water forms the eastern boundary of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park all the development associated with the hydro scheme lies within it. The hydro scheme was originally approved in 2013, revised plans approved in 2014 (see here) and map below and apparently constructed in 2016.
The track up the glen by the Keltie Water from Braeleny farm is the starting point for a number of fine walks, including the southern approach to Stuc a Chroin, along the prominent rounded ridge from Meall Odhar, and a wonderful round from Beinn Each to Meall na Fearna taking in Stuc a Chroin and Ben Vorlich. Derek’s photos, which are mainly of the access track and the pipeline – there are none of the two intakes – show some good and bad things about the hydro scheme but on balance this appears one of the better schemes in the National Park.
The power house is situated close to Braeleny Farm, has been finished with natural materials and is quite tucked away. It will have almost no landscape impact on the glen, which becomes wide and open higher up. The construction compound to the left of the building has been restored well – from this distance you would hardly know it had been there – and for good measure Drummond Estate have added three blocks of tree planting. While in the wrong place, tree planting can look artifical, not far south of the powerhouse on the far side of the river (outside the National Park boundary) there is a large block of forestry while further south, along the Keltie Water, there is some fine native woodland and the planting here has the potential to link to that.
Generally the LLTNPA has ensured the power house elements of hydro schemes in the National Park have been done well – their planners I think are more comfortable with buildings than landscape – and this is appears a good example.
The other element of hydro schemes that the LLTNPA have generally ensured is done well is restoration of the ground in grassland and peatland areas. If peat and turves are removed and stored before the trench for the pipeline is dug, once replaced the ground should recover quickly. A multitude of stones on the surface as along Glen Bruar (see here) is a sign that contractors have mixed up excavations with top soil and vegetation. While you can see some stones on the surface here, generally this section of pipeline restoration appears to have been done well and is likely to recover quickly. In two years it may not be possible to see the line of the pipeline.
The section of pipe on the left of the photo is another matter. It is one of several which appear to have been abandoned as all machinery has been removed from the site and there is no sign of ongoing works. There is no need for this and it is not acceptable. Sadly abandoned sections of pipe are a feature of a number of other hydro schemes in our National Park – its cheaper to leave them in situ than recycle them – including Glen Bruar. (Its also yet another example of why the litter left by a few irresponsible campers needs to be seen in perspective).
The restoration of the ground just south of the bridge over the Allt Breac Nic and beyond it on the left side of the track appears less successful, with far more stone visible and what appears to be a boulder dump by the sheep on the far left. I suspect part of the reason for this is the ground before the bridge slopes steeply and the depth of soil here was less. Where the soil is shallower its much more difficult to separate vegetation and topsoil from rocks if the work is done by machine as it invariably is nowadays. This is a problem not just at Glen Bruar but on sections of the Beauly Denny powerline. If our National Parks are serious about ensuring the highest standards of restoration I believe they need to consider and support the development of alternative “construction” techniques in areas of shallow soil. Meantime the LLTNPA needs to consider how its going to make the restoration of this area effective.
Prior to the construction of the hydro there was an existing track to Arivurichardich. This was upgraded to enable the construction works to take place. Drummond Estate’s planning application asked for the tracks, after restoration, to be 2.5m wide. The LLTNPA, stuck by their Planning Guidance and made the following requirements:
Notwithstanding the approved plans and for the avoidance of doubt these tracks shall be reduced to a width of between 2 metres, and 2.5 metres (at essential turning areas and steep gradients only), (to be agreed in writing by the Planning Authority), and shall have a grassed central strip.
What the photo above illustrates is that this requirement has not been met. This straight section of track is more than 2m wide. You can also see how aggregate from the track has spilled down the slope to the right, broadening it still further. There is no sign of a grass central strip. Perhaps that will be put in place this spring? The problem here is not with the conditions the LLTNPA required in this case, its the enforcement of them.
A close up of the area between the two bridges (above) illustrates a number of areas where restoration work could have been better. Left of the track large amounts of stony substrata has been mixed up with the peat and may change the type of vegetation that grows back here . Another piece of abandoned pipe is visible to the right of the sign. The track itself is clearly broader than the 2.5m the LLTNPA allowed for bends and junctions. And, while I am not against all signs – this is part of a core path network – did it really have to be bright red?
The old bridge south of Arivurichardich (above) over the Keltie Water was washed away on 18 August 2004, during a violent thunderstorm which sat over Stuc a’Chroin, and which was also responsible for sweeping away a number of other bridges in the area, including that on the public South Loch Earn road at Edinample. Since then the Keltie Water has been uncrossable when it has been in spate, and while of course the hydro pipeline will reduce those levels in future, the two bridges help make the area more accessible. This is a benefit on what is part of a core path network.
What Derek Sime’s photos illustrate is that the problems with this hydro scheme is not about its location but about the way its been finished. The officer’s report recommending approval for the scheme is very thorough and show a good appreciation of the landscape:
The site is within an expansive and unspoilt glen comprising a mosaic of sensitive habitats and watercourses featuring unique geological rock formations.
It then recommends a number of specific conditions which I think are welcome. For example, one condition was that the two dam intakes should be finished in local stone. While use of local stone to finish dams forms part of the LLTNPA’s Good Practice Guidance, in reality most dams and intake structures within the National Park have been finished in concrete and no requirements made to abide by the Park’s own guidance. So, the requirement in this case is very welcome. It would be interesting though to see if this has actually happened here – photos please!
It will be interesting too to see hat the LLTNPA does to ensure the other conditions it has made, particularly regarding the width of the track, are enforced. One problem with monitoring all of this – and it will be a challenge to all the Munro Society volunteers who are adopting hydro schemes – is that the LLTNPA is not adding any information to the planning portal once a decision has been made. There is no information publicly available about the Keltie Water hydro scheme since it was finally approved in 2014. Its impossible to see therefore whether Park enforcement have done anything to address the problems illustrated in the photos. The result is if you, I or Munro Society volunteers want to find out what has happened we have to submit Freedom of Information Requests. That is wrong and needs to change.
If, following the People and Places planning consultation, the Scottish Government publishes a new Planning Bill it should include a requirement to make Planning Authorities publish on their planning portals information relating to the implementation of planning consents, including whether planning conditions have been met . One would have hoped a National Park would be doing this anyway. In the case of the LLTNPA it appears it is frightened that if it made this information public, that would expose its failure to take proper enforcement action against landowners.
The Cairngorms National Park Authority Board is meeting on Friday to discuss and approve its new Partnership Plan, the overarching Plan which guides what it will do over the next five years (see here for the 60 page plan and supporting documents). The LLTNPA’s announcement about this can be read (here). Its positive the Board is devoting a whole meeting to consider the plan – it deserves this. What follows is not a comprehensive evaluation of the Plan but rather an attempt to highlight some key issues for those who aspire to create National Parks in Scotland which are worthy of the name.
Positive changes in the revised plan
It is clear that the CNPA has listened to criticisms of the draft plan and has made far stronger statements/commitments in certain areas. Among the specific changes which should be welcomed are:
to eliminate raptor persecution in the National Park (an ongoing issue as recent disappearance of a golden eagle on the North Glenbuchat estate shows (see here)
the recognition of the role of moorland management in creating flooding downstream
the statement that the Park will “plan proactively” for beavers
the presumption against new bulldozed tracks in the uplands
the commitment to join up the path network in the eastern Cairngorms and to create a new long distance walking route, the Deeside Way
There has also been some strengthening of the general statements that underpin what the Partnership Plan should be about, particularly the creation of a section on public interest priorities for landuse in the National Park This includes the role that National Parks can play in combating climate change, reversing loss of biodiversity and landscape scale conservation as well as how the National Park can promote best practice in terms of recreational visitors and empowering local communities.
All this is positive and suggests there are people within the CNPA who have clear aspirations for what the National Park could deliver.
Weaknesses in the revised plan
While the revised plan is more aspirational than the draft, it still seems to me to fall short of what we should expect from a National Park. Here are some examples:
In announcing the Partnership Plan the CNPA cited the inclusion of a target of 5000 hectares of woodland restoration in the next five years as showing its conservation intent. 5000 hectares sound a lot until you consider that the total area of the Cairngorms National Park is 4528 square kilometres or 452,800 hectares – so the target is to increase the amount of land with woodland cover in the National Park by about 1.1% in the next five years. Nothing in that target that remotely threatens to change the way that “sporting” estates are managed. Indeed its unclear if grouse moors or stalking estates are going to contribute anything to this target or whether it will be delivered by the NGOs and Forest Enterprise.
Connected to this, the Plan states that public interest land-use objectives, such as increasing woodland cover, should be delivered “in conjunction with private objectives”. In effect this means the objectives of sporting estates. If these remain untouched, will anything change as a result of the plan? My reservations are re-inforced by the section on deer management which contains actions like the further development of methodologies for establishing the “right level” deer grazing. This type of approach that has been taken for years without any meaningful results. There are no commitments from sporting estates to change what they do.
These weaknesses derive from an ongoing commitment by the CNPA to using the voluntary approach, and that alone, to achieve its statutory objectives: “All sectors must work together to deliver for the Cairngorms”. There is not, as far as I can see, any fallback position in the Partnersip Plan which sets out what the CNPA will do if this voluntary approach, once again, fails to work. What is the CNPA going to do if golden eagles are still disappearing in the Cairngorms this time next year? There is no plan B. Worse, in my view, if there is no stick there is absolutely no incentive or reason for private sporting estates to change how they manage the land on a voluntary basis.
The basic omission in the plan is about how the CNPA will tackle powerful interests in the National Park if they fail to act in the public interest. Land Reform is one way that the power of landed interests could be tackled but, while there are welcome statements in the Plan about empowering local communities, there is nothing to say how land reform might help the CNPA meets its statutory objectives. This is not just about land though – the CNPA rightly recognises low pay is a serious issue for the majority of those working in the National Park, but makes no proposals for how this might be tackled. Instead it wants to see the contribution tourism makes to the economy in the eastern Cairngorms increase – more low paid jobs? When one of the statutory objectives of the National Park is sustainable economic development, its a major omission when the Park Plan has nothing to say about whether changing the way land is managed could create more and better jobs.
At least though the CNPA is clear – unlike the LLTNPA whose thinking is far more overtly neo-liberal (they even have a commercialisation strategy) – that public investment is key to the future of both conservation and the people living in the National Park.
The Plan reads as if the CNPA has identified most of the key issues, its just not worked out yet how to deliver its aspirations.
Omissions from the Partnership Plan
In my view, in addition to any plan to tackle vested interests, there are two further major omissions from the plan
A lack of a vision for wild land and rewilding. While near the start of the Plan there is a map showing wild land in the Cairngorms, the Plan says nothing about how this will be protected or enhanced apart from there being a presumption against new tracks. There is no commitment to restore land that has been trashed by past developments – surely the National Park should be identifying tracks and other developments that impact adversely on wild land landscapes and which we should aspire to have removed? Nor does the Plan explain how the Park’s commitment to new hydro schemes fits with wild land. While re-iterating its opposition to windfarms, on landscape grounds, the CNPA seems to see hydro as unproblematic – there is plenty of evidence that this is just wrong (see here for example). The lack of vision however goes further than this: is there nowhere in the National Park where the CNPA would like to see natural processes predominate and where nature should be allowed to take its course; what about the re-introduction of species? The beaver is mentioned, but there are no firms plans, while of lynx, which would help reduce numbers of roe deer, there is not a mention. This is an opportunity missed, an opportunity for the National Park to take a lead that would inspire people.
What resources are needed. While there is much talk of partnership (and indeed even a statement that partnerships are a way of bringing resources together), there is no systematic attempt to describe what resources the various partners can definitely contribute to make the Plan happen (an exception is a list of major capital investment projects both private and public). Nor is there any attempt to describe the resource gap, things that the Partners would like to do if they had the resources. What most striking about this is its completely unclear how the Park’s conservation objectives in the Plan will be financed (apart from the Peatland Action project).
The Parternship Plan, once amended/approved by the Board needs to be approved by the Minister for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. While there is a lot of good things in the Plan, much of this, particularly the conservation objectives, are likely to unravel because they are totally dependent on the voluntary principle. If the Minister really wants objectives such as the elimination of raptor persecution to be achieved, she would be wise to ask the CNPA to develop alternative mechanisms to ensure the Partnership Plan is delivered.
Following my post questioning what the Cairngorms National Park Authority was doing about the unlawful hill track leading onto Carn Leth Choin in upper Glen Banchor, west of Newtonmore (see here), I wrote to the Cairngorms National Park Authority. On 8th March (I have been in Norway in-between) I received this response from Murray Ferguson:
“Concerns about the track at Carn Leth Choin, Cluny Estate were brought to CNPA’s attention in 2014 and the CNPA raised the issue with Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage who had both been involved at earlier stages. Highland Council had previously determined that a lower section of the track was permitted development for agricultural purposes and so no further action could be taken. It appears that there was some confusion between SNH and the CNPA/Highland Council at the time over further part of the track and what had been authorised and only in 2015 did all the bodies come to understand the issues properly. A site visit was undertaken with SNH and Highland Council in October 2015.
Following the site visit, SNH undertook to pursue the previous owner of the estate on the grounds that the track was a breach of The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The case was subsequently investigated by Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime team and CNPA were advised to hold off our own investigations while the criminal investigations were undertaken. Police Scotland concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.
This was reported to the CNPA in June 2016 and we re-opened our investigation in July 2016.The CNPA are currently in dialogue with the estate’s representatives and Scottish Natural Heritage about restoration of ground and mitigation of impacts and a meeting is taking place soon that our Head of Planning will attend. If action is not taken voluntarily by the estate in the next few months then the CNPA will move to take formal action.”
I believe this response is extremely welcome. It helps explain the background and makes it very clear that the CNPA is taking this issue seriously (and I would have to say is quite a contrast to the way in which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park responds to concerns which I have raised with them about hill tracks). I believe though its worth considering some of the detail and the implications.
One of the problem with the preventing unlawful hill tracks, such as the one onto Carn Leth Choin, is that existing tracks have not been clearly mapped by planning authorities, including our National Parks. This makes it very difficult for Planning Authorities to establish when extensions have taken place and whether they should have come under the Prior Notification rules which came into force in December 2014 (this has been a problem for the CNPA on Deeside where the Dinnet Estate claimed its track extensions were completed prior to the new rules). In this case it has led to delays because its not been absolutely clear which section of track was agreed to by Highland Council as a permitted development. The solution to this problem was demonstrated by Kincardine and Deeside Council over 20 years ago when they marked the end points of all hill tracks on their Local Plan maps – a precedent that our National Parks should now follow.
While it can be difficult for Planning Authorities to prove that a track is NOT for agricultural purposes and therefore not a permitted development, in this case I believe Highland Council Planning Department made a serious mistake. Soon after crossing the Allt Madagain (top photo) the track enters the Monadliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and any track construction with this protected area was an “Operation Requiring Consent” from SNH:
Its not clear from the CNPA response if Highland Council planning department checked with SNH before agreeing to the lower part of the track as a permitted development as they are supposed to do for all developments within protected areas. If they did do so, there are some obvious questions that need to be asked about why SNH agreed to this. If Highland Council failed to do so that would have made it very difficult for SNH to take action subsequently.
In my view this was a serious planning failure. The lower section of track is too steep and is already eroding away. The landscape scar can only get worse. In this case this is not the fault of the CNPA as they can only “call-in” development that their constituent Councils and Planning Authorities have identified as requiring planning permission.
The fact that SNH referred the construction of the new section of track that leads to the summit of Carn Leth Choin to Police Scotland is significant. Breach of the Operations Requiring Consent is a criminal offence and the evidence shows that this clearly happened in this case: the photos below show extraction of materials, road construction and use of vehicles all of which needed permission. It would be in the public interest to know why Police Scotland decided not to prosecute in this case – it would have sent a clear signal to landowners all over Scotland of the consequences of ignoring the law governing protected areas. Its difficult to avoid the suspicion that as with raptor persecution Police Scotland treat landowners differently to the rest of the population – as being above the law.
Taking what the CNPA has said at face value, there are serious challenges with restoring this track. The material that forms the track needs to be returned to the “borrow pits” from which it was sourced.
I would suggest this material, which appears to have been simply dumped on existing vegetation (which was protected – its montane heath) cannot simply be removed by heavy machinery because that will simply further damage the ground underneath. The final removal of aggregate and restoration of the ground surface both beneath the track and over the borrow pits once the material has been replaced there will need to be by hand. That will require a skilled workforce which at present does not really exist because there has been no attempt to restore any hill tracks since NTS acquired Mar Lodge Estate and restored the Beinn a Bhuird track.
Any restoration will be very expensive but luckily the new owners, who were not responsible for constructing the track, do not lack a bob or two. They can either afford to pay for the restoration themselves or pay whatever it needs to recover money from the previous owner – who made £3.7m on the Cluny Estate in the fourteen years he owned it. For excellent background on the estate sale see Andy Wightman’s blog
Its time for the CNPA to be resolute and there are welcome signs that in this case they might be so. They only need to tackle successfully one unlawful hill track in the National Park and all landowners will start to take note of the risks of failing to comply with the law.
The stretch of land between Dalwhinnie and Feagour, on the A96 west of Laggan, taken by the Beauly Denny powerline is fairly unfrequented. Following my posts on the Beauly Denny at Drumochter (see here) and (here), my thanks to Jonathan Binny for sending these photos of the section between Feagour and the col east of Meall nan Eagain.
The Scottish Government, which overruled the objections of Cairngorms National Park Authority to the Beauly Denny, required all construction tracks to be restored to their original condition. These restoration works were supposed to be complete last year, so the photos show the “final restoration” – clearly not the original condition.
In 2013, Ben Alder Estate, which covers part of this area, applied for planning permission to keep part of the construction track (just like the Drumochter Estate did at Drumochter) but this was refused by the CNPA – for which they deserve credit. I suspect it helped the CNPA that an excellent case was made by John Thomas for refusing the track, including the added impact it would have on wild land (see here). (NB I know John slightly but I had no idea he had made representations on any part of the Beauly Denny until I checked the application on the Park’s planning portal). The primary problem that the photos illustrate is not that the CNPA are failing to consider planning applications properly or set appropriate conditions – they do most of the time – its that they are failing to enforce those conditions.
I checked with the Scottish Government about responsibility for enforcing the Beauly Denny planning conditions:
“I am interested in trying to find out what the role of the Scottish Government is in ensuring the Planning Conditions that were attached to the decision to allow the Beauly Denny powerline to be constructed are enforced”
The Scottish Government Response.
“In relation to the enforcement of conditions on planning consent, this is primarily the responsibility of the relevant planning authority, i.e. the planning authority within whose area the development is taking place.”
I think this is pretty clear. Responsibility for ensuring Scottish and Southern Electric properly restored the land after the construction of the Beauly Denny lies with the CNPA within the Cairngorms National Park. I can sympathise with the CNPA that they never wanted the Beauly Denny to run through the National Park but once that decision was made their responsibility was to ensure the work was done to the highest standards. That clearly hasn’t happened and there is no record of the National Park taking any enforcement action.
In case any reader is thinking from all the photos of destruction posted on parkswatch that destruction is an inevitable consequence of development in our hills, its worth comparing Jonathan’s photos with restoration work elsewhere
The Pitmain Estate avoided constructing a new track here and used different construction techniques for this hydro (which I will feature in a future post) but you can see quite clearly that heather has been retained and then replanted. Most hillwalkers probably walk past this pipeline without realising its there. That is not going to happy any time soon with Beauly Denny – in fact they are now talking of 20-30 years before the land “recovers”. That is NOT restoration but a very slow reclamation by nature processes.
The land looks just like any other clearfell, a mess, which will take years to recover. Contrast this with the restoration of the ground in Stank Glen by Loch Lubnaig in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs
Again, this was not restoration of a track as shows, but does show how woodland can be restored after major construction works. The work here post-dates the Beauly Denny and will be all but invisible long before nature reclaims the Beauly Denny destruction.
What Jonathan’s photos demonstrate along with the photos published in earlier posts, is that there has been a serious failure to restore the ground and tracks after the Beauly Denny works within the Cairngorms National Park. This should matter to SSE the developer – it claims to take a responsible approach (see here), including treating staff decently and tackling climate change. Along with claims about sustainability its foundational aim is to “Do no harm”. That’s not what these photographs show. SSE’s claims seem to count for nothing when it comes to how it treats the land.
However, responsibility for addressing SSE’s failures lie with the CNPA. This is not just one isolated bit of land that has been trashed by some landowner that doesn’t care, its a huge swathe of ground running right through the National Park. The CNPA should be exposing SSE for failing to hold by its own claimed principles. This is actually one case where the public could have an influence. If the destruction was publicised and SSE does nothing, customers could change their accounts. There is huge potential in this case for CNPA to sort matters out without the costs of any legal action simply through the adverse publicity for SSE which would be created if it threatened to take enforcement action along the length of the Beauly Denny. What has the CNPA got to fear?
Following my post about the failure to restore the destruction caused by the Beauly Denny by the developer, Scottish and Southern Electric, I went last Monday to have a look at the section of the “temporary” construction track on the Drumochter Estate.
Under the Beauly Denny planning application determined by the Scottish Government, all construction tracks were to be fully restored. The Drumochter Estate however submitted an application in 2013 to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the section of track on their estate. The first application was refused, mainly because the estate wanted to keep the entire section of track which ran through the estate. The section south of North Drumochter Lodge ran into the Drumochter Special Area of Conservation – why is it that only European designated sites appear to have any teeth? – and cut across the open hillside. The revised application removed the southern section of track but is still 4.7 km in length.
The Committee Report which considered the application in February 2015 track planning application was very thorough. The CNPA had opposed the Beauly Denny, was concerned about the proposed track, but was won over by arguments that with the new A9 dualling would make it very difficult for estate vehicles to access the existing hill tracks onto the east side of Drumochter. Their assessment of the construction track was pretty damning:
However, the assessment of staff was that as long as the construction track was narrowed considerably – to a maximum of 3m – and the spoil heaps used to do this, retention of the track was acceptable:
The North East Mountain Trust, which to its credit had objected to the application for the existing track was also persuaded and agreed not to object. Both the NEMT and the CNPA were no doubt partially persuaded by the illustrations from the estate of what they were proposing:
The problem is that two years later absolutely none of what was promised by the estate has happened.
Some of the track is “floating” which means it was created by dumping aggregrate onto the peat in sufficient quantities to support construction vehicles. Proper restoration would mean all this aggregate being removed. The estate promised to improve this by narrowing the track to 3m maximim and revegetating the sides using vegetation from a new drainage ditch and seeding.
The track is almost two landrover widths and should have been almost halved in breadth according to the planning conditions.
Part of the restoration proposed by the estate was removal of this “hammerhead. Nothing has been done. There are piles of spoil in the centre and along right side of the area.
Another view of one side of the hammerhead. All this ground should have been restored.
The priority of the estate is indicated by these new grouse butts. They were being brought in from the A9 by landrover and trailer. It appears it has suited the estate to retain a large storage area rather than restore the land as promised.
The CNPA, again to give it credit, had required that all the works be completed by June 2016:
Six months after the deadline for works to be completed, on the section I looked at at the north end of the proposed track, there is no evidence that any work has been completed. There are two issues here:
first you cannot tell from the planning portal whether the CNPA has agreed in writing with the estate to extend the deadline for completion of the works beyond June 2016 and, if so, the justification for this and what the new deadline is;
second, if the CNPA has not agreed an extension, its not clear what enforcement action they have taken if any.
Unfortunately, this is yet another planning case where the credibility of our National Parks is at stake. What appears to be happening in a number of cases from Natural Retreats at Cairngorm to the Bruar Hydro to Drumochter is that the CNPA approved planning applications with conditions which the developer then simply ignores. The failure of the CNPA to go public about this and use its enforcement powers gives a clear message to developers that as long as they pay someone to complete good looking paperwork, they can do what they want.
In the Drumochter access track case there is an added complication. SSE were supposed to restore this track and, being a huge company, obviously have the resources to do this properly (if there was anyone insisting they should do so). Having agreed that Drumochter Estate could keep the track, however, the risk is that all obligations of SSE will have been taken over by the estate. My guess is that will now make it impossible for the CNPA to turn round to the estate and say the planning permission no longer applies and ask SSE to do the works.
This supposition is reinforced by the fact that SSE has not been at all co-operative about restoration of the Drumochter and the atrocious standards of the restoration work they have undertaken.
The trouble is that the CNPA has allowed them to get away with this. Although very concerned about the standard of work, and taking time to visit the site, they have then resorted to their normal practice of writing letters rather than taking enforcement action when things go wrong:
20. The Convenor advised the Committee on her reflections following site visit with Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) to the Beauly – Denny overhead transmission line that she and other members had attended, along with SNH staff. She advised that it seemed that SSE Officers were not sufficiently clear as to what the restoration of the tracks involved. SSE Officers were also rather vague as to who was ultimately responsible for carrying out the restoration and reinstatement and what standard would be deemed acceptable. Following a full discussion the Committee agreed that Convenor of the Board should write to SSE expressing significant concerns. (Planning Minute June 2015)
The failure of the CNPA to take a robust line against either SSE or the North Drumochter estate means that the CNPA is storing up serious problems for itself at Drumochter and setting further poor precedents for the rest of the National Park.
The Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee on 8th July 2016 were informed under Any Other Business of the unlawful creation of yet another hill track in the National Park – at the head of Glen Banchor on the Cluny Estate. This was reported in the Strathy and the minute records that “The Committee were advised that there were ongoing investigations being carried out……………and agreed to delegate enforcement powers to Officers should they be required”. There was no further report under Matters Arising at the August Planning Meeting and I have been unable to find any further information: there has been no retrospective planning application submitted on the planning portal. Complete silence from the National Park.
I had been sent some photos of track and three weeks ago I went to look for myself, starting from Cluny Castle, over Srath an Eilich to Glen Banchor and then,from Dalnashallag bothy took the track to the summit of Carn Leth Choin.
My OS maps which are at least 20 years old show the Srath an Eilich track stopping at the bothy. Interestingly the map on the National Park planning portal also sees the track stopping here.
The creation of the track has not stopped off-track use of vehicles on the south side of the Allt Madagain.
The slopes on the south side of the Allt Madagain are just inside the Monadliath wild land area. One wonders how long it will be before the estate decides a track is needed here too?
The older section of the track is too steep – far steeper than in SNH’s Guidance on Hill tracks – and is eroding. Its only a matter of time before this track washes out.
This culvert also contravenes SNH’s good practice guidance – neither track nor culvert are appropriate in wild land areas in a National Park.
The track has now been extended to the summit of Carn Leth Choin at 843m well into the Monadliath Wild Land Area.
The aggregate has been dumped onto the hillside and in time will erode out over the grass slopes on the right.
The aggregate has been “won” from borrow pits at the side of the track, adding to the destruction of the summit heath.
You can even see the joins between the aggregate sourced from different borrow pits.
How can the National Park justify not taking prompt action about this?
The end of the constructed track – but vehicles continue from here along the ridge.
This is another example of hill tracks being unlawfully constructed in an area of wild land. Landowners need to notify the planning authority about all new tracks, and seek their views, and in planning terms all planning auuthorities now need to take account of wild land areas. In our National Park there should be no “ifs” and “buts” but a clear commitment to protect wild land. This track is also within the Monadhliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. Within SSSIs there are certain operations that require consent from SNH and among those listed for the Monadliath SSSI are the following:
20 Extraction of minerals including peat, sand and gravel, topsoil, sub-soil, limestone and spoil. COMMENT: so the estate needed permission before digging the borrow pits 21 Construction, removal or destruction of roads, tracks, walls, fences, hardstands, banks, ditches or other earthworks, or the laying, maintenance or removal of pipelines and cables, above or below ground. COMMENT: so the estate needed permission before constructing this track – did they ask and was it granted? 26 Use of vehicles or craft except on existing tracks. COMMENT: so has the estate got permission from SNH to drive its vehicles beyond the end of the new track?
Another reason for the CNPA to take action, both it and SNH need to work together to sort this track out (just as they need to do at Dinnet (see here)). The problem for the concerned public is there is a complete lack of transparency about what, if anything, is being done. A first step towards improvement would be if the National Park published all cases where it was investigating the need for enforcement action as well as what enforcement action it has taken http://cairngorms.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Planningenforcementregister1.pdf. The second problem is that the CNPA takes so long to take enforcement action that landowners reckon they can get away with anything – this is undermining the whole purpose of the National Park.
The new National Park Partnership Plan, which is due to be sent to Ministers for approval in a couple of months, could signal a change of direction and set out a new sense of purpose in respect of hill tracks if it made a commitment to:
mark the extent of all hill tracks in the National Park on a public map (as Kincardine and Deeside did 20 years ago) so that its easy for the public to report any unlawful new tracks
taking immediate enforcement action against any new hill tracks which are created without planning permission or prior notification and that these should be restored stone by stone if necessary
work with SNH, using powers under the SSSI legislation, to stop off-road use of vehicles in protected sites and to consider the introduction of byelaws to do the same in areas which are not SSSIs.
In my two posts on the retrospective planning application for the Shieling Ski tow track last week (see here) and (here) I outlined why this was a test case for the National Park. On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Authority planning committee unanimously approved the recommendation of its officers and the application (see here for news release) or (here) for article in the Press and Journal It was the wrong decision and while a number of Board Members asked searching questions of what is going on at Cairngorm, the CNPA still appears to prefer to put its head in the sand rather than safeguard the area for the people who care about it, including skiers. It could have been so different…………….
Here is what Eleanor Mackintosh, Convener of the CNPA Planning Committee said:
“Both applications [the Shieling was one of two] comply with our planning policies but it is frustrating that the applicants did not gain the correct planning consents before undertaking their developments. That said – I am happy to support the enterprising developments at Inshriach – I think it provides the area with a unique tourist accommodation offering for visitors.
“I am also pleased that the proposals we are giving planning permission for at Cairngorm Mountain include a long term restoration plan for a wider area of ground, including the creation of new montane woodland habitat. This careful approach to balancing the operation of the ski resort with sensitive long term management of the ski area’s natural habitats is one we look forward to seeing as an integral part of all future plans to enhance the offering on the mountain.”
The development may have complied with planning policies but it certainly did NOT comply with wider Park policies (including the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy recently approved by the Board and flood risk reduction). Development planning is supposed to support those policies, it says so in the Park Plan. It also demonstrates just how weak the Park’s Development Planning policies are: the hill track clearly contravenes SNH Guidance on Hill Tracks but this carries NO weight with the CNPA. Inevitably the gravel surface on the hill track will erode but the CNPA has nothing to say about this as it has no policy in this area. At a time when CNPA staff are struggling to respond to the unlawful hill tracks in the Park and generally atrocious standard of construction, this is a major failing which needs to put right. Any policy on hill tracks in National Parks should be far stronger than SNH’s guidance because that policy covers the country as a whole and the public has a right to expect more from protected areas.
While the montane planting is a small positive step in the right direction and was presumably negotiated behind closed doors (will it be HIE or Natural Retreats that pays for this?) perhaps Eleanor Mackintosh could explain why the CNPA didn’t take the opportunity to ask Natural Retreats to repair all the other damage it has caused in the Shieling area which was not part of the planning application?
Perhaps too Eleanor Mackintosh could explain how the CNPA’s failure to take any action to stop the destruction at the Shieling three months after being told about it demonstrates a careful approach?
The problem appears to be that the CNPA simply accepts whatever land-managers say is necessary for operational purposes, even in cases such as at Cairngorm where those operators clearly haven’t told the whole truth. An example came at the meeting where in response to questions to why the track was needed, I am told Natural Retreats staff said it was necessary to ensure vehicles avoided crossing the electric ring main. That this was nonsense was shown by Natural Retreats own landscape plan
The dotted yellow line starting mid-left, which illustrates the ring main, actually goes under the new hill track! Furthermore there is no issue with vehicles crossing the ring main, it simply needs to be run through a duct (see here). Unfortunately the CNPA seems incapable of challenging Natural Retreats on these false claims.
Neither does the CNPA seem capable or willing either to consider alternatives which might be more in keeping with the aims of the National Park. I know of at least two alternatives that were put to the Park. I sent one, after my last post on the Sheiling, Email to CNPA re hill track, suggesting that vehicles could use the rope tow uptrack for occasional use. The North East Mountain Trust quite separately suggested that if the hill track was really only for occasional use, it should be resown and planted with heather to stop the erosion. One could debate the merits of either proposal – and I am sure they were not the only solutions – but the point is the CNPA appears to have failed to consider alternatives before taking the decision. As long as developers know the CNPA is not prepared to force them to consider alternatives, its quite predictable that the whole sorry business of unlawful developments followed by retrospective planning applications will continue.
Still, according to feedback I have had from the meeting (its not in the news release), Eleanor Mackintosh did agree to write to Natural Retreats expressing the Committee’s displeasure at the retrospective nature of the application. This is the third time I am aware of that she has written such letters in the recent past (other cases have been the Dinnet Hill Tracks and the extensive development at Badaguish). It would be interesting to know if the CNPA can provide evidence that this has made any difference? Ultimately its actions, not words, that count.
What is different this time though is that the CNPA also agreed to write to HIE as landowner. This is significant and a step forward because HIE as landowner has failed to exert any control over Natural Retreats, its tenant, and indeed, as parkswatch revealed last week, had actually paid them for the illegal works (though it is now asking for £2000 back). Whether HIE will get this back, is less certain. As of at 11am on 31st January the accounts for the year to December 2015 for both Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (due on the 24th January) – the company vehicle through which Natural Retreats operates Cairngorm – and Natural Assets Investment Ltd (due 17th January) which owns CML Ltd were marked overdue on the Companies House website. Is this failure in financial governance acceptable to HIE? The best explanation for all the destruction at Cairngorm continues to be that this is all about money and the only reason for the hilltrack at the Shieling is that having destroyed the ground cover it was the cheapest option available to HIE and Natural Retreats. Unfortunately the CNPA is continuing to allow money to be put before the natural environment.
The planning problem
While the Planning Committee has told Natural Retreats it expects them not to make retrospective planning applications in future, this is unlikely in itself to do anything to stop the destruction at Cairngorm. First, Highland Council has simply approved certain works on a de minimis basis despite the evidence of the destruction Natural Retreats is causing through such works.
Second, where Highland Council did require Planning Permission, for the West Wall Poma, the CNPA failed to call in the planning application and Highland Council, like the CNPA at the Shieling, have failed to enforce planning requirements. Perhaps they expected the CNPA to take this up?
Third, Natural Retreats continues to drive vehicles and shift boulders and vegetation all over the hill – there is extensive evidence for this.
The way forward
Any long-term solution to the problems at Cairngorm will require a proactive National Park, a new landowner to replace HIE and an operator at Cairngorm which is accountable to the local community, recreational and conservation interests. Meantime though, here are some things the CNPA could do to start tackling the problems at Cairngorm:
In their letter to Natural Retreats the CNPA should also ask them to produce an inventory of all the damage across the mountain with a view to developing proper plans – as were eventually submitted for the retrospective application for how to restore it – which should be subject to public consultation. There is no need that the only consultation that ever takes place is when planning permission is required.
The CNPA should also ask Natural Retreats to produce a policy and proper procedures on how to protect the environment at Cairngorm (everything from use of vehicles to restoration of ground) as requested by Murray Ferguson in an email last year. This too should be subject to public consultation. Both could form part of the masterplan for Cairngorm which Natural Retreats has committed to producing this year as part of the Glenmore-Cairngorm Strategy.
The CNPA in their letter to HIE should ask them publicly to commit to the points in points 1 and 2 above and, assuming they wish to continue their lease with Natural Retreats, amend it to incorporate these points.
The CNPA should also write to Highland Council asking them to agree a joint approach to planning at Cairngorm which should involve no further works being agreed on a de minimis basis or emergency basis (which avoids the need for planning permission) and a rapid response to any reported breaches of planning requirements. They should also agree what resource/expertise they need to oversee any future ground works at Cairngorm and who is in the best position to do this.
The retrospective planning application for the unlawful hill track at Cairngorm (see here) and (here) will be considered by the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee on Friday (see here for all papers). In contrast to the initial planning application to replace the lift at the Shieling, which consisted of just five documents (see here), the retrospective application consists of an incredible 83 documents. This is a consequence of the public protests at the way Natural Retreats has been managing Cairngorm, which have included a significant number of objects to the application, which in turn has forced Natural Retreats to produce further plans . Whatever happens on Friday, the protests have forced Natural Retreats to undertake a series of remedial measures and improvements on the site. The scandal is that without the public protest, none of this would ever have happened. This post considers the failures of our public authorities to safeguard Cairngorm the future of which is central to the future of the National Park..
The policy context
The Cairngorms National Park Authority has a number of policy documents and plans which should have informed how it responded to the planning application which are NOT referred to in the officers report to the Planning Committee (see here). This wrong because the Local Development Plan, approved in 2015, explicitly states in paragraph 1.20 that:
“The National Park Partnership Plan provides policy priorities and programmes of work to deliver the vision and long term outcomes. The Local Development Plan helps to deliver them by implementing those policies”
So, its quite clear in policy terms that the planning section should be helping to deliver the CNPA’s wider objectives. I will highlight here two pollcies/strategies which are very relevant to the current planning application.
In September 2016 the CNPA Board approved the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy (see here). A number of commitments from that strategy should have affected how the current planning application has been dealt with:
“The purpose of the Partnership is to collaborate in the strategic management of these landholdings in order to deliver: An exceptionally high quality natural environment” Comment: the Committee Report fails to explain how the destruction and poor restoration work in Coire Cas contributes to that purpose?
“Ensure enhancements within the ski area are implemented to high quality standards appropriate to the sensitive environment” Comment: so does the CNPA Planning Committee really believe the works associated with the Shieling Ski tow have been of an acceptable quality?
“1. Management interventions will improve the natural environment, landscape and visitor experience and retain the sense of wildness and space found in the area”. Comment: Natural Retreats has used claims that removal of the old bulldozed uplift track and bulldozing of the bank below the Sheiling have improved the landscape to justify everything it has done. Both claims are questionable. Yes, the old uptrack was highly artificial, but so is the smooth slope that has replaced it with hardly a sign of the many boulders which used to cover this glacial landscape.
“Natural Retreats and partners to develop and deliver masterplan for Cairngorm Mountain” Comment: how can the Planning Committee decide on agreeing to this track if there is no masterplan? Agreeing to the track will set a precedent for new tracks alongside every ski lift at Cairngorm. Is that really what the CNPA want? Its clearly not needed as skiing operations have been managed for over 50 years with a more limited track network.
The second policy relevant to the current planning application is flood prevention and management. Again, there is no mention of this in the Committee Report despite it being one of the 9 Big Issues in the draft Partnership Plan. That document explicitly says hill tracks can lead to increased flooding and also:
One of the most important factors with respect to managing flood risk is the maintenance and enhancement of vegetation cover, which may disrupt overland flow and reduce through flow.
There is also no reference to the Spey Catchment Initiative which states “the ability to manage land, particularly in the uplands, in a way that attenuates rates of runoff will be crucial to this process” (of flood prevention).
Officers have not only ignored their own policies, they have also made the following extraordinary statement in the Committee Report:
47. In terms of objections raised regarding the need for the track, Local Development Plan policy supports in principle the extension and diversification of existing operations. Objectors have raised the issue of no need being demonstrated for the retention of the track. In this regard it is generally considered, in the context of a track within an existing long established ski resort that the party best placed to determine the operational needs of their business are the applicants. In any case, the need for the track is not required to be demonstrated as it is not a requirement of policy. The role of the Planning Authority is to consider the land use impacts and merits of the proposal, assessed against policy.
The implications of this are that not only should the CNPA abdicate any role on Cairngorm, as Natural Retreats as operator are deemed best placed to decided operational requirements, but also that every landowner in the National Park would be given free rein to install new hill tracks wherever they want. It puts operational management before the natural environment. This is totally wrong. Cairngorm is part of a National Scenic Area and the statement is contrary to CNPA’s statutory objectives as a National Park.
The failure of the Cairngorms National Park Authority to take appropriate enforcement action
The photo above was one of five that Alan Brattey sent to the CNPA on 4th September 2015 along with the following email:
The email was passed to Planning Enforcement and when after four weeks Alan had heard nothing more he emailed planning enforcement on 5th October to try and find out what was happening. He eventually received a reply on 29th October which indicated that a member of staff had visited the site and thought there was no problem (I have all the emails). Alan then contacted the Head of Planning Gavin Miles and, on 8th December, the CNPA told Natural Retreats to stop the works immediately – three whole months after they had been notified of the problem. Despite knowing what was going on, CNPA staff allowed Natural Retreats to ignore planning requirements until it was too late and all the damage had been done. One could speculate whether this was a result of lack of skills and knowledge of the staff concerned (planning staff in our National Parks would appear to need more training on issues such as good track design, management of vegetation, flood risk etc) or a management decision not to challenge Highlands and Islands Enterprise on anything that goes on at Cairngorm, but whatever the case, lessons could be learned. The CNPA has a planning enforcement charter and extensive enforcement powers 160722PlanningEnforcementCharterFINALAPPROVED and it would have taken nothing for staff to have told Natural Retreats to suspend all work until they had clarifed what was going on and reached agreement on a way forward. They did not do so. There is of course no mention of these failures in the Committee Report.
The failure goes further than that though. This is part of what Gavin Miles wrote to Alan Brattey in December:
Waiting to the Spring was is fair enough but, over a year later, there is no evidence that the Park has undertaken a proper re-assessment of what Natural Retreats had actually done. The Committee Reports confines its considerations to the hill track and bank and provides NO assessment of the wider destruction and the impact that this has had.
The role of HIE in the Sheiling Hill track
I received a helpful email from HIE earlier this week which helps explain their role in the replacement of the Shieling ski tow.
First, the new Shieling ski tow, like the other ski lift infrastructure belongs to HIE but they decided to get Natural Retreats to install it because:
It is no exaggeration to say that Cairngorm is an exceptionally challenging environment, where contractors need to be highly flexible and ready to work carefully and quickly, often amid rapidly changing weather and ground conditions. Exceptionally, therefore, HIE agreed that it was appropriate for our tenant to manage the works to improve these HIE-owned assets, since they are in control of the assets, hold the health & safety responsibilities across the whole site and have the necessary specialised staff on site
The reason for this explanation is I suspect that under the procurement rules and their own procedures, HIE should have put the works at Cairngorm out to public tender (because of the estimated cost of £83k) instead of handing this to Natural Retreats. HIE are concerned they might be legally challenged on this, hence the first sentence. What should be quite clear to HIE now in view of what happened – works undertaken at the wrong time of year and without any regard being given to the Method Statement – that Natural Retreats do NOT have the “necessary specialised staff on site” to undertaken such works properly. All work that is paid for in future by HIE to upgrade or maintain its own assets therefore should go out to public tender.
As explained in my previous reply, CML were reimbursed by HIE for payments made against evidenced invoices paid by CML, with HIE checking the progress of the works. There is an overall project budget and estimates for each item are made within that. We have flexibility in how we manage the works and have not set a specific limit to spend as the scale of works is relatively small. I would stress, however, that works are discussed in advance and monitored carefully.
What this confirms is that HIE knew about the destruction but did nothing. What’s more, they paid Natural Retreats for works done in contravention of the planning approval:
“The estimate for groundworks was £83,000 excluding VAT. The final figure paid for groundworks was in fact £77,453 excluding VAT (correcting the figure of £78,353 excluding VAT given in the earlier FoI response).
I can confirm that CML will be repaying HIE for the value of the works undertaken to alter the bank without planning consent, which is £2,000.”
I am delighted that HIE has now, after I brought this to their attention, realised that they should not have paid for unlawful works and for the first sentence in the following statement:
HIE indeed requires those carrying out works it is funding to observe and abide by planning regulations, and we regret that this did not happen in this particular instance. To be clear, the creation of the track on the line of the old tow track was part of the works covered by the Planning Permission and was included in the method statement; the track was required to undertake the project. It is the proposed permanence of this track (rather than its reinstatement as authorised in the planning consent) that is now at issue and is included in the retrospective planning application.
The second part of this statement though appears wrong. The Construction Method statement 2014_0251_DET-METHOD_STATEMENT-100105315 is vague and contains no drawings but its quite clear from the photo above that NO temporary track was put in in order to undertake the works as HIE suggests. The track referred to in the application appears to be the old ski uptrack which of course did need to be restored and which appears to have been used by the diggers to access the site. So, its not true to calim that “it is the proposed permanance of this track that is now at issue”.
HIE appears to still be on the defensive. If they really cared about Cairngorm they could use this clause in their lease to take action against Natural Retreats.
All HIE have done so far is reclaim the £2000 they had paid out for unlawful works.
What needs to happen
The Planning Committee on Friday needs to ask some much broader questions than those covered in the Committee Report. I have suggested here this should include:
How the planning applications supports the wider policy and plans for the National Park
The failure of CNPA to take appropriate enforcement action and the lessons which could be learned from this
HIE’s role, as a public authority, in supporting the National Park to achieve its objectives.
In my next post I will demonstrate there is ample evidence on the ground to show why the current application should be rejected.
There is evidence that Natural Retreats have been undertaking some sort of tidy up at Cairngorm, which is welcome if not before time. The Shieling Rope Tow fencing has been completed. The section of the Carpark T-Bar fencing that had been taken down to allow a machine to move out of the uptrack has been nailed back on after lying on the ground for 3 months. Some of the spoil materials have been collected together and the place does look tidier.
Indeed Natural Retreats has claimed that some of the mess – such as that at the unofficial dump they created at the old Fiacaill T-bar base (photo above) would be cleared once the snows arrive. This, they have claimed, is because snow would reduce the impact of vehicles transporting redundant materials out. The trouble with this claim is not just that redundant materials such as the old chestnut fencing which is lying against the new snow fencing get buried as soon as it snows – which may explain why many redundant materials have been lying around since before last winter – its that Natural Retreats have been causing damage to vegetation elsewhere.
The Car Park T-Bar
Parkswatch have previously featured vehicles driving by the Carpark T-bar uptrack and the impact of that is clearly evident. The vegetation has been seriously damaged and the ground is now being eroded by water.
Highland Council approved the laying of new cable along the Car Park T-bar – which clearly needed to be done – without planning permission as they regarded the works as “de minimis.” Its clear that the impact of vehicle use here – whether for follow up work on the cable laying or for other works – has not been “de minimis”.
While the trench for the cabling by the Car Park lifties hut, which had been left open for something like six months (photo left) has now been filled in, the quality of the restoration has been extremely poor. You can still see a trench which will act as a drainage channel. The natural vegetation here had all been highly modified by the high levels of use but in order to help the ground recover and prevent erosion the trench should have been filled in months ago. The most recent good practice guidance all suggests that where trenches are required restoration should take place as the work goes along in order to reduce impacts. Maybe Natural Retreats has is a good explanation for the delay in this case? If so I would be happy to post this on parkswatch.
The Coire Cas T-bar gantry works
Highland Council agreed to emergency works on the Coire Cas Gantry in 2015 to make it safe for skiing and to “de minimis” groundworks and as a consequence waived the requirement for planning permission. They were informed this last time last year of concerns which they dismissed (see Letter re Coire Cas Gantry anonymised) and closed the case. I am afraid the recent photos show there has been a dereliction of public duty.
And this is how the lower slope adjacent to the gantry looks now
The topsoil is clearly washing out. This is partly a consequence of the steepness of this slope but also of a failure to store vegetation and re-seed the area in the Spring. Its fairly predictable that there will be further significant erosion during the rest of the winter and that the slope will become unstable – will the Natural Retreats solution be simply to scoop up more material from elswhere and dump it on the slope? Its time the CNPA talked to Highland Council and they agreed that all works should be required to meet certain standards and that this be enforced. If the only way to do this is to require planning permission whenever that is applicable, then that’s what our public authorities should do. All the evidence clearly shows that leaving Natural Retreats to supervise works continues to fail.
The Shieling Rope Tow area
The places where Natural Retreats’ contractors scooped out vegetation with diggers – in order to “restore” the reprofiled Shieling rope tow slope – have now predictably filled up with water. In flood prevention terms this may not be a bad thing, as all the other works Natural Retreats has done has had the effect of increasing water run-off, but it has changed the ecology of slope. What’s more the efforts to try and minimise the impact of the funicular, by taking extreme care over grounds works, has simply been undone. All this work appears to have been funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and I am currently in dialogue with them about exactly what they funded and what if any of the damage has been paid for by Natural Retreats.
The unlawful track that Natural Retreats created by the Shieling rope tow is due to be considered by the CNPA planning committee at the end of January. While the seeding has partially established grass along the track, the blue pellets and stones in the foreground indicate that the top of the slope has washed away again. Its too steep and the drainage scoops are unlikely to solve the problem. They are likely to be seriously eroded by the end of the winter.
The cumulative impact of the destruction of vegetation and increase in water run-off caused by the Shieling Rope tow appears to be impacting on the path below it. The path is now extemely soggy and you can see how lower down its starting to form a burn. I trust that the CNPA consider these issues at Planning Committee and how this fits with the local area flood prevention plan.
The new River Spey catchment management plan was published in November (see here) and announced by the Cairngorms National Park Authority in December. The first plan was in 2003 (see here), the year the CNPA was created, and a review of progress conducted in 2015 was published earlier in 2016 (see here). Its yet another plan which should affect what happens in our National Park (half the Spey catchment is within the CNPA boundary), but does it? Conversely, has the National Park made a difference to what’s in the plan?
While the introduction to the new Plan claims that “that considerable progress has been made in many areas” since 2003, the Review report indicates otherwise:
The Review Report, besides indicating that progress over the last 12 years has been slow, shows a striking division between where progress has been good and where it has been more limited. The Review reports significant progress on preventing pollution of the Spey and its tributaries (eg discharges from distilleries, run off of agricultural chemicals) and flood warning systems, both of which are the responsibility of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. By contrast it shows relatively little progress on issues of sustainable land management and conservation of species associated with river habitats (where the CNPA arguably has lead responsibility). Indeed, the conservation related actions where best progress appears to have been made relate to species protected under European legislation (e.g lamprey), where SNH has been targetting its efforts, rather than landscape scale conservation (which is what the CNPA has identified as one of the 9 Big Issues facing the National Park).
While it would be easy to read too much into indicators of progress, which can contain many subjective judgements, there is nothing in the Review Report that indicates the National Park has made much of a difference so far. It would need further research comparing progress on the Spey with rivers outwith National Park boundaries to establish this more objectively but I think this should be of concern to both the CNPA and the public.
Unfortunately, I am not sure the new plan will make any difference. This is partly because of it has no teeth. The introduction states this clearly: the plan, which “has been developed by the Spey Catchment Initiative Steering Group (SCISG) in no way overrides, takes precedence over, or prioritises any organisation’s or individual’s remit.” In other words it does not bind any of the partners to do anything. Its also due to the belief (contained in the quote from the Review above), that everything can be achieved by “co-operation, collaboration and partnership working”. Unfortunately, what this has led to is a lowest common denominator approach where the plan only contains objectives that the various partners can agree on, rather than what should happen in a National Park. There are several good illustrations of this.
Moorland and river catchment planning
The first is that there are just two mentions of moorland in the entire Plan despite moorland covering half the catchment area. The Plan contains quite a bit on the impact of farming, both on water quality (agricultural pollution) and flooding (flood plains provide most of best agricultural land) but nothing on moorland. This contrasts with the original 2003 Plan which at least contained a section on moorland which explains (part of) its importance to river catchment planning:
7.5 Moorland Management
The uplands are of crucial importance, forming the headwaters of tributary burns in large parts of the catchment. The uplands therefore require careful management to ensure that the implications for water quality from land-use activities, and any changes in land management, are fully addressed. Grazing animals such as cattle, sheep and deer play an important part in the rural economy of the catchment. Grazing animals also help to shape the landscape and contribute to biological diversity. However, over-grazing and trampling, especially in the more fragile upland areas, is known to exacerbate the problems of erosion, with resultant impact on habitat quality of watercourses. Other moorland management activities, such as muirburn, can also exacerbate the problems of erosion if not carried out properly. The effects of past moorland drainage schemes (moor gripping) can lead to more rapid run-off with resultant increased sediment load in some tributaries. This may have a consequential adverse impact on some salmon spawning tributaries. It may therefore be beneficial in places to assess the extent of this problem and consider blocking off moorland drains to reduce the level and rate of run-off.
So, why does the 2016 Plan say NOTHING explicitly about what needs to done on moorland? A possible explanation is that estates have refused to co-operate and, since the whole Plan depends on co-operation, moorland has been simply left out. Meantime the role of moorland in promoting flooding downstream has become much better known and was even referred to in the draft CNPA Partnership Plan, though no concrete actions were proposed there. Its now well established that both muirburn and bulldozed hill tracks promote water run-off, the opposite of what is required, but in the Plan there is not even a suggestion these issues need to be tackled though there is one vague action point “Manage land, particularly in the uplands, in a way that attenuates rates of runoff (thereby reducing the severity of floods and droughts)”. This is not just a missed opportunity, its scandalous. The Plan though does contain a section of community planting of trees to try and reduce the impacts of flooding downstream. This is misguided effort. The main focus to reduce the flow of water run-off from the hills needs to be upstream and therefore either involve landowners, or, should they not co-operate, involve compulsory measures that change how the land is managed.
The Catchment Plan and the draft CNPA Partnership Plan
The second, and related issue, is that the Catchment Plan makes no reference to the draft CNPA Partnership Plan although this was published early summer 2016. This is strange because one of the Big 9 issues the CNPA identified in that Plan was flood management and one of the proposed actions in that paper to reduce flooding was “Reduced speed of water run-off from uplands” – which would imply changes to moorland management. Ironically the draft Partnership Plan identifies Catchment Plans – such as the new one for the Spey – as one of the key delivery mechanisms for any actions agreed in the new Partnership Plan actions and claims “Catchment Initiatives have been very successful as a delivery mechanism, engaging with stakeholders and communities.” So how is the Catchment Plan going to deliver the objectives of the Partnership Plan when there is no join up between the two plans?
I am coming to the conclusion that the multiplicity of plans in the National Park has simply become a mechanism to ensure no-one in the National Park actually takes responsibility for what happens.
The Catchment Plan was finalised about the same time as Roseanna Cunningham announced she had approved the re-introduction of beavers to Scotland, so I was interested to see what it had to say about beavers:
Support and manage beaver reintroduction or colonisation should it occur. Should beavers be reintroduced to the Spey, monitor numbers and their impacts on farmland and woodland
Absolutely nothing about the positive role beavers could play in flood prevention or tourism or the fact the Speyside has previously been identified by research undertaken by the National Park (see here) as one of the places most suitable for their re-introduction. No vision! Just sit back and see if the re-introduction of beavers occurs. Now, I am pretty certain this is not what front-line staff working on nature conservation and flood prevention in the National Park would want, and I think the explanation is that staff have been told “don’t put anything about beavers in the plan” because it could upset the farming lobby. What does this say about the conservation objectives of the National Park?
If this was a proper partnership plan, rather than a lowest common denominator one, it would be proposing dates for beaver re-introduction and ways that farmers could be compensated for any losses.
River catchment management and outdoor recreation
While the Plan touches on outdoor recreation, there is no explicit reference to the struggle that is going on at present between riparian landowners and outdoor recreation interests, whether this is landowners keeping walkers from the Spey (see here) or blocking off launching points for kayaks downstream of the National Park. Reading the plan you would simply not know there were major outdoor recreation issues or about the failures of the current mechanism of the Spey Users Group to resolve conflicts.
River catchment and hydro schemes
The Catchment Plan mentions how the older hydro schemes (e.g the Spey dam) have affected water flow and fish movements while also explicitly encouraging community hydro schemes, such as that at Kingussie. It does this without any discussion about where hydro schemes might be appropriate and where not. Since small hydro schemes are the developments most likely to have an impact on how water flows through the Spey catchment, this omission is surprising.
Its also surprising though because the CNPA has produced guidance on landscape sensitivity and this includes a section on small hydro schemes http://cairngorms.co.uk/park-authority/planning/landscape-sensitivity/?small-hydro. This is an area where the CNPA is far in advance of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park which does not give any geographical indications or where hydro is more likely to be acceptable. Yet having indicated for the whole of the Spey catchment areas where hydro might be more or less acceptable, there is no mention of this in the Spey Catchment Plan. Another failure to join up different plans and policies.
What needs to happen?
The Spey Catchment Plan has too many serious omissions for the CNPA to be able to use it as a delivery mechanism for the new Park Partnership Plan. Either the Catchment Plan needs to be re-written and quickily, which I cannot see happening, or the CNPA in putting forward its Partnership Plan for Ministers needs to include clear plans and actions for the following, based on what I have outlined above:
a clear plan for moorland restoration which will reduce the rate of water run-off from the hills (this could include both peatland restoration and reforestation)
a clear statement of the role of hill tracks in promoting water run off and a commitment to remove unlawful tracks and restore the ground
a commitment to re-introduce beavers to the Spey catchment within the next two years
a clear statement that the interests of riparian owners will no longer be treated as taking precedence over recreational interests and a commitment to resolve conflicts between the two
a clear statement of where hydro schemes would not be appropriate, either on grounds of landscape sensitivity or ecology or outdoor recreation
This is my second post on the Bruar Hydro Scheme (see here) which I visited at the end of August. I am fairly confident that few of the issues identified in this post will have been remedied since my visit but would welcome more up to date photos from anyone who is in the area.
The Glen Bruar Hydro track is about 12k in length in all. While prior to the installation of the Bruar Hydro scheme there was already a track from Calvine to Bruar Lodge, most of the track appears to have been “upgraded” to enable heavy construction machinery to be brought in. It has been extended in two main places (there is also a short section of new track close to the A9 which I have not looked at), the first a new spur off the existing track down to the powerhouse, the second from opposite Bruar Lodge up the west side of Bruar Water to the dam.
All along the track the remains of piles of aggregrate, that have been dumped on vegetation, are clearly evident. The SNH Guidance on hill tracks snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/heritagemanagement/cons.. does not say anything explicitly about storage of track materials – my guess is that this is because it assumed track constructors would never dump materials in this. Other parts of the guidance make it very clear it expected the verges of hill tracks to be properly restored:
The Environmental Statement from the developer (ultimately Atholl Estates) stated they would follow SNH’s guidance, so the question is why has this not been observed?
The side of the track here is eroding away and into the burn below. The SNH Guidance is very strong on the need to prevent track materials being washed into burns.
Another view of the eroding track edge. Note the boulders placed to prevent vehicles driving off the edge and the width of the track. Its c4m wide at this point. According to SNH Guidance the maximum required for 4 wheeled drive vehicles – all that is required here – is 3m and Lomond and Trossachs National Park Guidance indicates a maximum width of 2.5m on straight lengths of track. This track should have been reduced in width once the construction had finished. There is no sign there has been any attempt to do this.
Another view of the same section of track. Contrast the finishing of the original track here – the stone facing – with the latest work which appears to have consisted of dumping aggregate on and alongside the old track without any attempt at finishing.
The SNH Guidance clearly states track developers should restore/finish the edges of new tracks as construction progesses:
So much for the developer (Atholl Estates) providing an “immediate source of vegetation cover” to reduce the risk of erosion. I have looked through the planning documentation and part of the problem is that while the developer said they would follow SNH guidance, there is no documentation I can find in the planning application documents on the Cairngorms National Park Authority webite setting out how they intended to do this. Moreover, while the CNPA attached a large number of conditions to the planning permission (some of which were not observed and have never been enforced – see first post) very few of these concerned the track. Indeed the main requirements were for the short new section of track by the A9.
No requirements were made for the new section of track to the powerhouse. While there have been attempts made to revegetate the verges of the new sections of track, the track here is far wider than it need be.
Contrast the way this culvert has been constructed – which is typical of the culverts along the new sections of track – with what the SNH Guidance says on how it should be done:
A new drainage ditch has been dug along this section of upgraded track, its unfinished ditches and edge of track on left is unfinished – there has been no attempt to revegetate it, either with turfs or re-seeding.
Among the kilometres of upgrade track where there has been little or no attempt to mitigate the landscapes or environmental impacts of the work, this bridge stands out as an exception. Note the new retaining buttress on the right. Unfortunately it appears the work has never been finished as material is still spilling down round the edges of the stone work on either side of the bridge.
Another view of the not quite finished bridge
While the SNH Guidance allows for passing places this corner would be more suited to a race track. Large areas of vegetation have been destroyed and never restored. How can this be allowed in a National Park?
Here aggregate appears to have been dumped on the edge of the area excavated for the pipeline. The Developer claimed the poor restoration of the pipeline was because the organic material was too shallow but said nothing about how they had dumped other materials onto the line of the pipeline. This could only have happened after the pipeline had been “restored” as the road aggregate sits on top of the “pipeline restoration”.
The track is not even good for the people who live or work at Bruar Lodge. Here staff have had to mark the holes that have eroded out of the track. Its not clear to me why Atholl estates would have tolerated such poor work.
While there was mention of temporary areas of tracks and laydown areas in the planning application all were meant to be restored. Why has this vehicle area been left in the midst of the scar left by the pipeline? Its hard to imagine how restoration of a hydro pipe and track could be worse than this (do send in your photos).
By contrast the work on the new section of track beyond Bruar Lodge appears to have been constructed with far more care. It is much narrower than the section of upgraded track and restoration work has taken place along the verges. This is less than 2k though out of a total track length of 12k. The reason for this appears to be that the CNPA did set out conditions:
I have been unable to find the specific construction method statement among the planning papers on the CNPA website (I need to check again in case I missed them) but it does appear the CNPA has followed up this planning requirement and this has had positive outcomes. However, since there was also a track up to the dam on the east side of the river, there are now two tracks to the dam rather than one. Why was this necessary?
The turning/storage area by the dam however has not been restored or properly cleared up. Again note the track aggregate dumped on the bank on the left.
This is the section of the old track north of the dam, ie beyond the hydro scheme. It illustrates a number of features that the CNPA should ensure are applied to the 12k of track to the dam, namely its narrow, the sides are vegetated and a narrow vegetated strip runs down the centre of the track (as recommended in guidance by the Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority on hydro tracks). While this track penetrates a prime area of wild land, in design terms it illustrates the standards our National Park should be aspiring too where tracks are agreed.
The section of track linking Glen Bruar to Calvine appears to have been subject to far less upgrading work than that in Glen Bruar itself. If construction vehicles could access the Glen by this track, which is far steeper and narrower than any of the track along the glen, it begs the question of why the Bruar track needed to be upgraded. Possibly it was in poor condition but simply dumping tons of extra aggregate on top of the existing track as a quick fix, which is what appears to have happened, should never have been allowed.
What needs to happen
In my last post I made suggestions about what the CNPA needs to do to ensure proper restoration of the hydro infrastructure apart from hill tracks. In relation to the hill track, I believe the CNPA needs:
to commission an independent survey of the track along with options for restoring it so that at the very least it meets the standards set out in the SNH guidance on hill tracks
take appropriate enforcement action
learn from the experience of this and other tracks and adopt a clear set of standards for all hill tracks (it has guidance for hydro schemes but not for hill tracks as such)
Ewan Kearney, Director and the public face of Natural Retreats/Natural Assets claimed in the Strathy article last week that:
“Natural Assets has invested £1.3m into CML [Cairngorm Mountain Ltd] at Cairngorm over the last two years. In addition to this any profit generated through CML as a result of the operation is invested back into the business”.
My last post, which showed Natural Assets cut what was spent at Cairngorm by over £400k in the first year it owned CML while increasing administrative expenses by over £300k and thus sucking money out of the company, casts serious doubt on the second part of the statement. Its common practice these days for companies to hide and move profits through internal administration charges – Amazon is a well known example. If Ewan Kearney stands by what he has claimed, then it would be easy for him to prove it: he could simply make public the management accounts (which give details of all transactions) for Cairngorm and agree that all internal transactions between CML and Natural Assets/Natural Retreats could be open for public scrutiny. Moreover, he could release data on types and levels of staffing at Cairngorm, such as appeared in the CML accounts to March 2014 before Natural Assets bought the company:
What about investment then?
The figures from the accounts indicate there has been little or no investment in operational costs, such as staff, so I think we can take it most of Kearney’s claimed £1.3m over two years has been into capital. The CML accounts tell us how much investment there has been into assets and of what type. What they do not say directly is whether this is enough.
First another proviso. Investment means different things to different people and Mr Kearney’s claimed investment into CML could include the £231,239 it cost to purchase it. Unfortunately we won’t know the truth for another year because Natural Assets has changed the accounting year and the new accounts for CML will just be for 9 months until December 2015, 18 months after they bought it. You can however see some of what happened in the the first 10 months Natural Assets owned CML.
Line 2 under the Note on Tangible Fixed assets shows “additions” in the year to March 2015 of £616,544. Double that and you are not far off Ewan Kearney’s claim of £1.3m of investment over two years.
However, all is not as it appears. Look at the line below, “disposals” and you can see that Natural Retreats sold plant and machinery originally valued at £844, 715 which after “depreciation” (3 lines below) was worth c£140k. Now if the disposal sold for a sum anything like that, Natural Assets realised a gain which it could use to help buy the £616k of additions. That would mean a net investment of say c£480k. Moreover, the note at the bottom of this section on Tangible Assets makes it clear that recorded under the “additions” is the full value of items held under finance leases or hire purchases agreements. The value of “assets” held in this way increased between March 2014 and March 2015 by over £150k. Assume a three year hire purchase agreement and that knocks another £100k off what was actually invested, meaning the real investment was c£380k or only just above what was invested in the previous year’s accounts before Natural Assets bought CML.
It appears then that for Mr Kearney’s claim to be true Natural Assets must have invested c£920k in the succeeding financial year. While we don’t have the accounts from March 2015-December 2015 we do know from a Freedom of Information Request, that was quoted in the Strathy article, that HIE has invested £601,286 into the assets CML operates since Natural Assets takes over. (Thanks to George Paton for this cairngorm-hie-response-to-foi-on-cm-spend-17-august-2016 its well worth a read) Now most of this expenditure to my knowledge appears to have taken place since March 2015 which raises the question of whether Ewan Kearney’s claimed investment of £1.3m over 2 years includes this support from HIE or not. Now, as a result of my concerns about the unlawfully bulldozed track in Coire Cas (see here for example) and the extremely poor standard of work on the new Rope Tow. I contacted HIE who said that Natural Retreats was responsible for the contractors, i.e had the contract with them. This shows that HIE funded CML to do these works. The key question therefore is whether Natural Retreats has included grant funding in their claimed investment of £1.3m at Cairngorm or whether the grant funding is on top of this. Ewan Kearney and HIE should come clean now and release all the figures relating to capital investment.
While the answer will be interesting, whatever the case its clear the investment has not been enough. This is shown by the collapse of the Cas Gantry just over a year ago through lack of maintenance.
The FOI response shows HIE paid £73,377 to “fix” this. Given the appalling standard of the work you wonder why HIE ever agreed to hand-over the money. Indeed you could ask the same question about the installation of the Sunkid rope tow and associated works which HIE funded to the tune of £160, 596 or the replacement of the electrical cabling to the tows where they have paid £315,641. This expenditure has been the opposite of Best Value. One wonders what else HIE is going to pay for and what else remains their responsibility (I have not been able to work this out from the lease yet).
I guess HIE saw these as trifling matters because the big prize in its view was redevelopment of the Day Lodge into a mountain conference centre which Natural Retreats claimed might cost £15m to complete http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-34651446. This development was totally inappropriate for Cairngorm and has now collapsed. Replacement of the Day Lodge was however so central to HIE that it was made a condition of the lease and therefore HIE could now, if they wanted, terminate this. I think they should do so.
I believe the agenda of Natural Retreats is not about investing at Cairngorm but taking what money they can from it. While the controlling interest of the Natural Assets/Retreats group of companies, is held by David Michael Gorton (http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/11/21/will-natural-retreats-bring-decently-paid-jobs-cairngorm/), who has sufficient funds to invest whatever was needed at Cairngorm and indeed a swathe of the Highlands, he has not chosen to do so so far. His investment vehicle in holiday businesses, Natural Assets, last year incurred losses of £5,734,703 and is £20,715,910 in deficit overall. It has no money to invest and a bank would be mad to lend money to it. What happens therefore entirely depends on the goodwill of Mr Gorton and whether he keeps taking money out of Natural Assets. HIE should never have sold Cairngorm to such an organisation and should get out while it can.
These problems have arisen because HIE is still looking for the big fix at Cairngorm – the funicular was the previous attempt to do this. What is needed is a totally different approach to development which respects the mountain environment while coming up with creative ways to enable people to enjoy it. This needs to involve people with ideas, like the Save the Ciste Group, like montane shrub zone enthusiasts, the local community, recreational and conservation organisations. I think this could happen if the lease with Natural Retreats was terminated, the land transferred from HIE to Forestry Commission Scotland and serious discussions started about creating a community consortium to manage Cairngorm. It also needs a different form of finance but I think if HIE had funded a community organisation to the extent they have funded Natural Retreats there would have been much better outcomes for all who care about Cairngorm.
In 2013 the Cairngorms National Park Authority was informed about the extension and expansion of hill tracks on the Dinnet Estate owned by former CNPA Board Member Marcus Humphrey. These works had been undertaken without planning permission by Findrack Investments Ltd who lease the shooting (both deer and grouse as far as I am aware) from the estate. Three years later the CNPA managed to persuade Findrack Investments to submit a retrospective planning application for the upgrade of 7.5km of what were claimed to be existing tracks (as illustrated in the map above). These were subject to a very thorough report with accompanying photos to the Planning Committee in July 2015. This estimated that there are 38km of track in all on the estate, claimed that 22km are in acceptable condition but recommended that 16km required planning permission. The report only dealt with the upgrade of the three tracks in the diagram not with the other 8.5km of track for which no retrospective planning application has yet been received. It appears these 8.5km are likely to be sections of new track although this is not clear from the report. This suggests there has been NO progress on dealing with the new tracks despite negotiations going back to 2013.
I went for a walk round the Dinnet estate in September (see here) and (here) and have been meaning to blog about the tracks ever since. I have been prompted to do so by the November meeting of the CNPA planning committee (see below).
The Planning Committee in July agreed to grant retrospective planning permission to the remedial works proposed by Findrack Investments subject to their meeting 5 further conditions within 3 months. Part of the Minute is interesting:
Two days before the deadline set by the Planning Committee, Findrack submitted a set of proposals to the CNPA which were judged inadequate. At the Planning Committee in November officers submitted a further report stating that if the conditions were not met within the week, enforcement action. It is not clear from the planning portal, where the latest information on the application dates back to 14th July, what the currrent position is..
The section of track 2 in the three photos above appears to have deteriorated significantly since the photos which were taken by the CNPA enforcement officer.
The photos above, combined with those taken by Park staff, show that the CNPA needs to act and sort this out. While I did not walk the third section of track in the map above, track 6, I suspect the biggest issues are yet to be consider by the CNPA in public.
So, why hasn’t the CNPA acted earlier?
While the July Committee report is thorough and in many ways a good piece of work it shows the shortcomings of the current approach to planning in the National Park. There are worrying statements in the report such as:
“a compromise could be reached to focus on the most significant issues” – should our National Parks be compromising on the landscape?
“tracks are a feature of these landscapes” from the landscape adviser which suggests they think the battle has been lost.
Most of the justifications for the remedial works are also based less on landscape grounds than the need to prevent soil and other materials eroded from the track impacting on the River Dee and Muir of Dinnet Special Areas of Conservation. The Access Officer reports that the development “would have a minor impact on outdoor access”: well, the one pair of walkers we met on this section of track agreed that they had destroyed walking experience.
Its as though the staff employed by the National Park have lost the will to fight for the reasons why it was set up, to protect the landscape and natural environment.
And part of the reason for that, I believe, is that CNPA staff are expected to work in partnership with people who simply aren’t prepared to do so and are also part of our governing elite.
Findrack investments, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Partnership working
Findrack investments, which lease the shooting on Dinnet and who made the retrospective planning application, appear to be a private investment company run by two people, Vikram Lall and Andrew Salvesen. They are not short of a bob or two, according to their latest accounts Findrack Investment have almost £33.5 million invested in various shares and securities, while Lall and Salvesen are also directors of Findrack Hostels which own Euro Hostels, which many readers may have heard of, and has c£15m of assets. I think we can take it that these two gentleman could afford to pay for all the works outlined in the retrospective planning application and to remove all unlawful tracks if they wanted to or, failing them, if the CNPA forced them to do that.
Lall was previously a merchant banker and has been director of many companies, including charitable ones. Andrew Salvesen was a Director of Aggreko, which constructs and hires power generators, 1997-2009, and has been one of Scotland’s most “successful” companies. He has been a Director of Countryside Alliance Insurance Services (the CA represent the hunting and fishing lobby in England) and has been a Director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust from 2013 having previously been a Director 2008 to 2012. Its the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust which agreed the need with SNH to suspend mass hare culls and is also working with SNH to develop a methodology to count hares (which is apparently required before the Minister will take any action – see previous post).
Now, I am not sure if the CNPA are aware who the Directors of Findrack Investments are but, given the destruction they have caused in the National Park and the way they have failed to co-operate with CNPA staff on the Dinnet hill tracks, I think its a fairly safe conclusion that there is little chance of them working in partnership to improve wildlife diversity on our moorlands. Indeed, Dinnet is not part of the east Cairngorms Moorland Partnership which the draft Partnership Plan promoted as being the key vehicle by which it would develop conservation in partnership with landowners. This leaves a great hole in the middle of that partnership. The conclusion really should be quite simple, where partnership is not working, regulation and enforcement is needed and the CNPA now needs to devote the resources necessary to remove the unlawful new tracks from Dinnet and ensure the pre-existing ones are brought up to the right standard, not just the worst cases as suggested in the report, but any work that did not meet the required standards.
More broadly, the CNPA might usefully consider what Andrew Salvesen’s directorship of the GWCT and apparent inability to work in partnership might have on the likelihood of the GWCT partnership with SNH delivering any meaningful evidence on hare numbers. This is the evidence they say is needed before they can do anything to stop the mass culling of mountain hares. It may be just coincidence but on our walk through the hills on the Glen Fenzie half of the estate we saw not a single mountain hare until after we had entered the SSSI on the flanks of Morven. While I’d be very happy if anyone can provide photos that show otherwise, what wildlife exists on Dinnet is totally connected with the hill tracks. The tracks are used by keepers to check traps, look out for raptors and feed grouse. There are lots of grouse and not much else. Half the purpose of these tracks is to destroy wildlife that is seen as a threat to shooting interests – I think of them now as persecution tracks as well as scars on the landscape – so removing the tracks that have no planning permission would be good for both the landscape and wildlife and consequently would be good for walkers too.
Following my post on “How to protect wildlife in our national parks” I have been thinking about how the Cairngorms National Park could achieve its stated objected of landscape scale conservation on the Dinnet Estate where I walked in September. I have since used it to illustrate the connection between grouse moors and rural depopulation (see here) and the persecution of wildlife (see here).
I had not checked what areas on Dinnet were protected by nature conservation designations before our walk but there is in fact a connection between what is protected and what you see. Unlike many SSSIs in the National Park all the features are currently classified as being in favourable condition, with only one of these – the assemblage of upland birds, surprise surprise – classified as declining (see here). However, and this is a major problem as we will see, the site is not regularly monitored and the last survey of the Alpine Heath was back in 2000.
Nature protection and landscape scale conservation
I have been thinking about how Alison Johnstone MSP’s suggestion that Nature Conservation Orders could be used to protect the mountain hare in the National Park could be applied to the Dinnet Estate and what other mechanisms are available to protect species and enable habitat restoration.
The purpose of Nature Conservation Orders is to protect natural features from damage. They are stronger than the Operations Requiring Consent because they make certain activities that damage natural features illegal. They can also be applied to land contiguous with an SSSI or European protected site or any land which Scottish Ministers believe to be of special interest for its natural features. They could thus, in theory be used to ban certain activities from the entire National Park.
The provisions relating to Operations Requiring Consent should be sufficient to prevent much of the persecution of wildlife that goes on on grouse moors that are designated as SSSIs as the Morven SSSI shows. The problem is the lack of monitoring (SNH does not have the resources to monitor sites properly) and the will to use existing powers to take enforcement action. There are plenty of powers to force landowners to restore damage, the problem is they are not used. I think a first step to improvement would be if SNH published in full those Operations Requiring Consent it had approved for each SSSI and together with this a mechanism for the public to report land-managers who had breached these conditions. The public would then be clearer if damage such as that documented above (the earthworks, track creation and damage by ATVs) had been agreed with SNH or not.
In the case of species protection outside SSSIs, species like mountain hare are already protected. The problem is that SNH has consented to culls because of claims that mountain hares carry ticks and damage trees. Again, this is a matter of the will of our public authorities to take on the landowners.
What is lacking at present however is any effective means to extend areas which are doing well in conservation terms. A basic flaw of our conservation system is it was designed to protect what is already there, than what might be there. To protect land SNH has to undertake a lengthy and bureaucratic process to show that certain habitats or species are present in a particular area. If they get lost, that area can lose its protected status. When I was on the Board of SNH there were proposals from the RSPB to create Special Protected Areas to save hen harrier. To designate an area SNH had to show sufficient hen harrier were present – all that did was incentivise the landowners to kill off their hen harrier as quickly as possible to avoid their land being designated. So, in my view we do need an effective means to enable natural processes and species to be restored to areas which do not meet the criteria for SSSIs or European Protected Areas.
National Parks are one way that this could be done as they have the power to create byelaws for nature conservation purposes that cover all land, not just SSSIs. Hence my proposal that the Cairngorms National Park should regulate hunting through byelaws. The CNPA however could, if it had the will, introduce byelaws to control/stop damaging activities such as muirburn.
Another mechanism however could be Nature Conservation Orders. Their advantage over byelaws is that they could be applied to particular areas of land. They are a stick which the Cairngorms National Park Authority, if it worked with SNH and the Scottish Government, could use to encourage landowners to work in partnership. The CNPA keeps talking about the need to work in partnership but I very much doubt that Dinnet Estate, whose failure to co-operate with the National Park on hill tracks I intend to blog about soon, would agree at present to any reduction in the damaging activities it conducts on its land outwith the SSSI. If the CNPA however was able to say it had decided that the area of juniper should be expanded beyond the SSSI boundaries to achieve landscape scale conservation, would be happy to agree with the estate where to do this but if they failed to co-operate, would ask SNH to issue a Nature Conservation Order……………….well, I think that might just provide an incentive for partnership to work.
The destruction, displacement, removal or cutting of any plant or plant remains, including shrub, herb, dead or decaying wood, moss, lichen, fungus and turf.
In respect of borrow pits within Muir of Dinnet and Morven and Mullachdubh SSSIs whilst the method statement refers to borrow pits there is no information to state whether these are subject of the planning application and therefore to be used. Works to borrow pits within the SSSIs may require consent from SNH.
33. In respect of the Muir of Dinnet SSSI and its geomorphologic interest, SNH note that the original track cuts across a number of sub glacial ridge and channel features, with the recent upgrading of the track causing additional damage which cannot be restored and has increased visual intrusion. The proposed mitigation should benefit the geomorphologic interest by visually reducing the interruption to the landforms