Tag: landed estates

January 11, 2018 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The Drumochter, a fine landscape forming a gateway between north and south, marred by development – the line of the “restored” Beauly Denny construction track is marked by the scar behind the pylons

Over the last year Parkswatch has featured a number of posts about the destruction of the landscape at Drumochter, including:

  • the unrestored Beauly Denny construction track between Dalnaspidal and Drumochter (see here);
  • the failure of Scottish and Southern Electric to restore the ground at Drumochter as required by the Beauly Denny planning consent from the Scottish Government  (see here for example);
  • progress on the restoration of the Beauly Denny construction track from just south of  Drumochter Lodge to the end of the A9 shelter belt opposite Dalwhinnie (see here)
  • and, the continued proliferation of hill tracks and inappropriate use of All Terrain Vehicles around Drumochter (see here for example).

Two of these issues were considered by the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee in December (see here for papers) and will be covered here.  While welcoming the CNPA’s continued interest in Drumochter and the actions taken, this post will argue they do not go far enough and suggest some alternative measures to restore and enhance the landscape and its wildlife.

The North Drumochter Estate Beauly Denny track restoration

In February 2015 the CNPA gave consent to the North Drumochter Estate to retain a section of the Beauly Denny construction track outwith the Drumochter Hills Special Area of Conservation  and Special Protection Area (above in red) on the condition that the track was narrowed and a belt of native trees was planted alongside it.  The restoration, with the exception of the shelter belt was due to be completed by June 2016.

The start of the northern section of the Beauly Denny construction track (as indicated by arrow in map above) as it appeared in February 2016. Note the ridge of vegetation covered spoil running along the left side of the track.

A year ago the restoration had not started but sometime between then and August 2017, when I next visited, the northern section of the track (above my arrow) was restored.  The work was done by McGowan, who provided the specification for the track which was submitted to the Planning Committee, and has generally been completed to a high standard, much higher than is usual for hill tracks or for most of the Beauly Denny restoration work to date:

The northernmost end of the track. Note how the low angle of the embankment above the track has enabled vegetation to recover quickly while stored turfs have been effectively used to restore the ground below the track.  October 2017.
Before restoration, the track extended almost to the edge of the culvert. The bare banks on either side of the culvert appear the consequence of insufficient turf being stored for restoration purposes and are at high risk of erosion.  October 2017.
Looking back down a line of new grouse butts – which appear to have been installed without the appropriate consents and have caused significant damage to vegetation – to the restored section of track which starts to the right of the first pylon. The track is hardly detectable from this distance compared to the unrestored section to the left of the pylon. August 2017.

While generally McGowan has done a very good job, their ability to restore the track to the standards set out in the specification appears to have been affected by a number of factors.  Throughout its length the section of restored track is broader then specified by the planning conditions:

While generally the sides of the track have been well restored in places there appears to have been insufficient vegetation to do this: here there is an unvegetated section of ground to the right of the track while the unnecessarily large passing place appears to be another solution to this lack of material (which was not their responsibility).

The reason for this appears to be that insufficient turves were stored for restoration purposes so that there wasn’t enough material available to restore the track to the required width.  I don’t think matters too much here because the track is hidden from a distance and because of the proposals to plant native trees to help conceal it.  However, it provides yet more evidence of why planning authorities need to monitor very closely any requirements that developers store turves properly when restoration of construction tracks in required. This in my view has been the key failure of the Beauly Denny construction.

Poorly finished culvert which is fairly typical of this section of track – the dry stone finishing in the photo above was the exception. Note the grouse tick mops in the background.

My main grouse – an appropriate word here as that is the main wildlife you are likely to see? – is that most of the culverts have not been properly finished.  This I hope is something which will be pursued by the CNPA.

Another more minor grouse is that vehicles continue to be driven over areas which have been “restored” adversely affecting vegetation recovery.

Its within the context of this work that the North Drumochter estate made a further planning application to remove the requirement from the planning consent to plant native trees alongside the track.   I am pleased to say that CNPA officers recommended that this be rejected  (see here) and the Planning Committee endorsed that recommendation.   Both the North East Mountain Trust and Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group had objected to the removal of this condition and I suspect that helped the CNPA to stand its ground.

On the north section of the track, the main short-term landscape impact of the continued requirement to plant a 5m strip of native trees between it and the existing shelterbelt will be to soften the edge of the line of trees.  If the shelterbelt was ever to be felled, however, it would then be the only thing screening the track.  It is therefore a good decision in landscape terms.  Its good too for ecological reasons.  While there is generally too much emphasis on planting native trees, rather than reducing deer and sheep numbers and seeing what grows (trees will grow in some places not others),  here the trees will provide an alternative to the intensive grouse moor management which dominates the landscape.  They should provide a home to other forms of wildlife and maybe even a partial refuge to some of the creatures which are persecuted on the grouse moors.

To construct this section of track Balfour Beatty as the main contractors allowed imported material to be dumped on the moor without any apparent attempt to save the vegetation beneath (there is no evidence of vegetation being stored

Further south, along the section of track which remains to be restored, the native trees will fulfil a far more important landscaping function as the track runs higher across the hill away from the existing A9 shelterbelt and is highly visible.    The restoration of this middle section of the track poses considerable technical challenges as it has basically been floated across the moor.   In my view the best solution would be to remove all the excess aggregate from site – rather than trying to bury it under vegetation – and use it for the construction of the new A9.  Perhaps the CNPA could persuade Transport Scotland and the north Drumochter Estate to work together on this?

 

The restoration of the Beauly Denny by SSE

The second “Drumochter” item considered by the December meeting of the Planning Committee was an update report on SSE’s restoration of the Beauly Denny Item10AABeaulyDennyUpdate.

This represents a breakthrough as SSE had previously been claiming the restoration of the Beauly Denny was nothing to be concerned about and that the destruction caused to the landscape could be repaired through natural regeneration alone.      CNPA staff are to be congratulated in getting SSE, who are a very powerful organisation, to accept this officially after doing nothing for two years.

SSE provided a summary report of this year’s survey results (see here) for the Planning Committee.  This contains no analysis of what caused the problems while the solutions its proposing to pilot in 2018 – some re-seeding and fencing off of ground – are minimalistic.   The entire focus of the report is on vegetation.   There is no mention of the landscape issues and more specifically of the failure of SSE to ensure that where the track was removed, the land was restored to its existing form as required by the original planning consent.  This has left large “benches” cut across the hillside (photo above) which are still being used as estate tracks (below) and have a considerable landscape impact:

 

By contrast, although I was disappointed the CNPA report did not cover SSE’s failure to restore landforms as required, the report does explain why re-vegetation has been so poor:

There appear to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, in some areas, the soil management and handling during construction as well as restoration was poorly executed, leaving little soil material or very wet ground and secondly, there has been no clear management for grazing sheep and deer. It is clear that even where some regrowth has occurred it is heavily cropped by mammals.

Its good to see CNPA recognise that for effective restoration to take place vegetation and turf has to be set aside and stored properly from the beginning.    Evidence that SSE failed to do this can be seen everywhere:

A great swathe of moorland just north of the track as “restored” under SSE’s aegis. There has been no apparent attempt to keep vegetation separate from the stony substrata with the result there is now a boulder field just like the one created by the Glen Bruar hydro

The CNPA and SSE reports differ too on their assessment of the seriousness of the situation.  The SSE survey claims that:

“Of the sites monitored throughout the CNPA area, 41% are assessed as being in Good or Excellent condition for revegetation and a further 20% are showing demonstrable improvement.”

and then classifies the remaining 39% as being of concern.  The CNPA by contrast are sceptical about the improvements claimed and conclude

“59% are mediocre or sparse and more than half of these were also sparse last year, with no significant improvement so are likely to required additional mitigation measures to ensure full revegetation within the five year period”

Having walked the entire Drumochter section of the Beauly Denny I have to say I have strong doubts that the sites SSE chose to survey are representative – it would be in the public interest the full survey is released – and that the CNPA’s assessment of the situation is far nearer the mark.  My view is that at least 2/3 of the “restoration” is not fit for purpose.

Tower south of Dalnaspidal. Some revegetation has taken place but because soils have been so disturbed and not replaced properly grass and rush have replaced heather (as seen beyond the tower).

While  I don’t doubt that grazing is having an impact on the ability of vegetation to re-colonise bare ground, this is not the fundamental issue.   Because of the way the ground has been disturbed, SSE has created more mineral soils which will promote vegetation that is good for animals to eat. Couple that with the large number of deer in the southern part of the National Park and you have a problem.  The proposed solution to fence off areas, avoids the issue.  It would be far better for SSE to be asked to finance deer culls and compensate the estate for removing sheep from the area and aid vegetation recovery that way.

Even better would be for the CNPA to advocate the solutions which have been developed in Glen Bruar, where a failure to store vegetation properly during the hydro pipeline construction (see here) created a landscape scar several kilometres long just like through the Drumochter.  Those scars have now almost disappeared due to the application of different techniques, which involve careful robbing of vegetation, and in a very short timescale (see here) with McGowan again the contractor.  So why not at Drumochter?

 

What needs to be done to make the Beauly Denny restoration happen

While I very much hope that CNPA staff keep up the pressure on SSE, I would like to see them encouraged by their Board and Planning Committee to go several steps further than they have at present and:

  • Consider the Beauly Denny restoration from a landforms perspective and more specifically how to heal the scars that have been left by the poor removal of the construction tracks.  A first step  on this would be for SSE to commission an independent report on what needs to be done to restore the landscape to its original state (as required by the Scottish Government planning consent).  A plan could then be developed to implement this prior to any further vegetation restoration work.
  • Press for SSE to adopt a similar approach to landscape and vegetation restoration at Drumochter as was taken at Glen Bruar.
  • Reject the proposal to deal with grazing impacts through fencing and instead focus on how to reduce the number of grazing animals at Drumochter (which would also support the Board decision to require the retained section of track on the north Drumochter estate to be screened by trees)
  • Create a Drumochter landscape steering group which would bring together SNH, Highland Council, SSE and Transport Scotland (due to the A9 dualling) in order to ensure a holistic approach is taken to protecting the landscape, with a view to amelioriating/remedying past damage and mistakes and ensuring that these are not repeated when the A9 is dualled.

Most of this should be financed by SSE and would cost them far more money than their current meagre proposals.  As a consequence I expect SSE to be resistant to it despite their self-proclaimed mission to set an example as a responsible business  The most likely way to achieve change, will be if the wider public starts calling on the Scottish Government and SSE to fulfil their responsibilities and not leave everything up to the CNPA who, in the wider scheme of how this country is run, are not a particularly powerful public body.

January 9, 2018 Nick Kempe 1 comment

I start with a belief that how the land in our National Parks is managed is central to what they do.

Currently I have an appeal being investigated by the Scottish Information Commissioner about the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s refusal to provide me or to make public any information from the land management plans it has agreed with landowners.  The LLTNPA, which still appears wedded to an ethos of secrecy, is claiming the entire content of these plans is commercially sensitive whereas I am arguing that it in the public interest to know what agreements our National Parks are making with landowners.

While drafting the appeal I found in the Review of the National Park Partnership Plan 2013-14  (see here) – the last such review before these were abandoned – this:

 

I therefore, naively perhaps, made in October a further request for all information relating to how the pilot Land Management plans had been evaluated.

The initial response appeared to confirm there had been an evaluation:

As outlined in the 2014 review of the National Park Partnership plan, the pilot phase of land management plans (previously known as Whole Farm and Whole Estate Plans) was completed and evaluated. Relevant searches have been carried out for information about this evaluation process. Information has been located in various updates to the Delivery Group, extracts of which are attached in Appendix A.

However, none of the extracts referred to above and sent to me (see here) – and I appreciate the time that staff must have taken to track all down – contained anything which could remotely be described as an evaluation of the Plans.  I therefore submitted a review request  (see here) and received a response  (see here) just before Xmas   This helpfully clarifies that there was NO evaluation report but also shows that NO other meaningful evaluation of the land management plans was ever conducted.     The best that the LLTNPA could come up with in terms of evaluative information it holds on the pilot (and it dates from 2016 almost two years after the LLTNPA had claimed in the report to Ministers that the pilot had been evaluated!) is this:

What constitutes an evaluation of a pilot?

While the word “evaluation” can be used in informal circumstances – “I evaluated what to do next” – when it comes to public authorities it has, I believe, a very specific meaning which is well reflected in the Merriam Webster online dictionary definition:

    “to determine the significance, worth, or condition of usually by careful appraisal and study”

The information responses show that there is no evidence that the LLTNPA has conducted any such appraisal of its land management plans.  Yet its Review Report to Ministers and updates to Board Members suggests otherwise.   Its not clear whether this happened because the then Land Management Adviser claimed to evaluated the plans but this was never checked by senior managers (which I suspect is unlikely) or because some senior manager wanted the box ticked even if no evaluation had take place.  Whatever the case its an approach to evaluation which reflects Donald Trump’s America rather than what we should expect in Scotland.

I also find this interesting because it shows the LLTNPA senior management’s cavalier approach to evidence and disregard for the truth started well before they manipulated the Your Park consultation on the camping byelaws.

Why openness about land management plans is needed

The lack of any proper evaluation still matters because Conservation Priority 5 in the new LLTNPA National Park Partnership Plan is on Integrated Land Management and contains this commitment:

Support land managers to plan and deliver multiple environmental and social benefits, alongside economic return, through the creation and delivery of Integrated Land Management Plans for land management businesses.

So the LLTNPA is pressing ahead with something without knowing whether the plans which have so far been put in place work.  That the LLTNPA is now trying to keep the plans it has agreed secret suggests there is something else to hide.

An indication of what this might be is given in the LLTNPA’s response which does at least reveal four of the estates/farms which have been involved so far:

  • Benmore Farm
  • Protnellan (sic)
  • Inverlochlarig
  • Loch Dochart

All are clustered around Glen Dochart/Balqhuhidder and two at least have developed hydro schemes (the Park planning portal is down so unable to check whether Loch Dochart scheme is on Loch Dochart farm).  This raises questions about the extent to which the LLTNPA has been taking account of landscape considerations in the agreement it has reached with landowners and before the impacts are considered by the LLTNPA as planning authority.

 

What needs to happen

The failure to evaluate properly the land management plans agreed between the LLTNPA and Landowners is, to my mind, a serious failure in governance and reflects the LLTNPA’s failure to take an evidence informed approach to what it does.   I would like to see the LLTNPA Board do two things:

  •  First, to affirm that it is committed to a change in direction which involves developing an evidence based approach and, as part of that, to make the evidence on which it bases its decision public.   Anything else and we are in the world of Donald Trump and his post-truth approach to government.
  • Second, to commit to remedying past deficiencies in how it has used evidence.  As part of this it could instruct its Audit Committee  to start to focus on the things that matter, including standards for evaluation and what information the LLTNPA holds which could be made public
December 24, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking back from ground west of the Allt na Benne towards Newtonmore

Last Saturday, I had a great day ski touring around and up A’Chailleach above Newtonmore.  There were feet of snow at the back of A’Chailleach and its wonderful how it obliterated most of the usual signs of human impacts, instant re-wilding!

We skied from the village, gliding over the fields by the wildcat trail which are usually a cattle induced quagmire and over the flatter area of boggy moorland.  Both areas I would normally avoid.   On the far side of the moor, as the hill began to rise, we flushed what I at first thought was a huge flight of red grouse, over 150 birds.  I then realised they were red legged partridge, just a few hundred metres from the feeding station we had seen a few weeks before (see here).  You could see where they had been sheltering and feeding in willow scrub between the moraine.   Higher up they gave way to red grouse and above that we saw several dozen mountain hare at the top of the Allt na Benne

And that prompted this thought for the first day of Christmas.  How is it that in the Cairngorms National Park, which should be the finest area for nature conservation in the British Isles and where wildlife should be wild, that there are no controls on the introduction of game birds but beavers are subject to strict controls?

Red Legged Partridge, a native of south west Europe, may now be naturalised in the British Isles but its range has only extended to the Highlands because of deliberate introductions.  This partridge is said to favour dry farmland, heaths and scrub, similar to the mediterranean habitats from which it originates and yet we are allowing landowners to breed it on bog.  Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if they provided food for hen harrier but that bird is conspicuous by its absence.   Meantime, there is plenty of suitable habitat for the beaver downstream at the Insh Marshes but there are no plans to re-introduce what was a native species to the Cairngorms.    Would that the National Park could re-wild as quickly as the snow…………..

Happy Xmas!

December 19, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Poor construction increases visual impact of tracks on landscape – track Dalnamein Nov 2016

For the last 18 months parkswatchscotland has been highlighting the failures of both our National Parks to protect the landscape and more specifically to ensure that planning conditions are enforced.   On Friday the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee, on which all Board Members sit, approved a plan  to address the issues.  Its extremely welcome and while I’d recommend all who care about our landscapes read it in its entirety (see here)  this post will explain why I believe its such a major step forward and indicate some of the challenges ahead.

The paper starts from a position of honesty and many of the cases highlighted on Parkswatch are mentioned in the report, from the unlawful creation of  hill tracks at Cairngorm, Dinnet and Cluny to the destruction caused by work on the hydro schemes at Bruar and Corriemulzie.    Other examples – yet to be featured on parkswatch!  are also mentioned and the paper ends by referring to “breaches that could have been avoided”.  That is an honest assessment of the situation and combined with a clear view of the role of enforcement “a discretionary function but one that is important to confidence in the planning system”   provides a sound framework for action.

I was pleased that the actions are not just about enforcement and that the paper considered why things to wrong:

and preventive solutions:

I would have gone further than this, believing that we will never have effective monitoring of schemes in remote areas unless that monitoring is undertaken by a truly independent person, rather than an Ecological Clerk of Works paid for and therefore in hock to the Developer.   I would also like to see more detailed specifications for hill track design and ground restoration but this could still be included in the proposal to tightening the wording of conditions imposed on developments.   What officers have been doing however is a major step forward.

Three major new changes were announced/approved to make enforcement more effective and have driven due to concerns about the proliferation of unauthorised hill tracks in the Cairngorms.   The first is that in order to take enforcement action against such tracks the CNPA needs to know where existing tracks are and is basically setting up a track register:

 

It may be almost 30 years since the former Kincardine and Deeside Council mapped hill tracks in their area but that the CNPA has now picked up that mantle again is extremely welcome.

More innovative, is the proposal to make it much easier for hill goers to report tracks:

Encouraging involvement from the recreational community – and others who go on the hill –  in this way is extremely welcome.   Apart from slight tensions when reporting the destruction of the Shieling Hill Track at Cairngorm, I have to say that for every other track I have reported, I have always had a positive response from staff at the CNPA.   Many of those cases I understand are included in the further 12 hill track cases, involving 40k of track, where the CNPA is now taking enforcement action.  There is no need to wait until  the online facility is created, you can send reports and photos to planning@caingorms.co.uk.

The third element of the proposals is to delegate enforcement powers from the Committee to officers.  While I have expressed many concerns about the way the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have delegated decisions to officers – far more than in the CNPA and its been a disaster – in terms of practical enforcement actions, time is of the essence and enforcement should not wait for weeks until it can be considered by committee.  I therefore believe the proposals to devolve to officers the ability to issue notices about planning contraventions, breach of conditions,  requiring developers to apply for planning permission (section 33) and to stop works is absolutely right.   My only concern is that the temporary stop notice is described as a last resort when actually, in cases where a developer does not immediately stop unlawful works voluntarily, it should be the notice of first resort.

In summary,  the CNPA has now given itself the tools it needs to ensure developers respect the planning system in the National Park far more than they have up to now.  The big challenge now is to implement this and ensure it happens.  How big a challenge that is is demonstrated by the CNPA’s planning enforcement register a link to which is provided in the report.  The last entry is for 2016:

 

So, making enforcement happen, through the Courts if necessary, remains a major challenge.

In terms of other next steps, the CNPA has stated that the issue of hill tracks on open moorland is one it would like to tackle in the Main Issues report for the new Development Plan  and is inviting public support for this which is welcome.  I believe though it also needs to strengthen the messages it is giving to landowners NOW and rather than admonishing them for breaches of planning conditions starts warning them of the consequences of the failure to comply with the planning system.  Sending every landowner and every land agent/factor who operates in the National Park a copy of the Enforcement Report with a covering letter warning them what action the CNPA will take against breaches of planning condition/unauthorised developments in future would be a good start.

If landowners and land agents believe the National Park is serious about enforcement action, then failure to abide by the planning system will become a financial liability with cost implications which will also affect the value of their land.  The CNPA only need to demonstrate they will pursue a couple of enforcement cases to the bitter end and I believe every landowner in the National Park would start to take the planning system more seriously.

December 15, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
Game bird rearing by General Wade’s military road north east of Luibleathan which appears to be on the Ralia Estate (its hard to tell exact boundaries from map) Photo July 2016

The £500 fine for a man who mistakenly shot a buzzard on a pheasant shoot raises some interesting questions about shooting in our National Parks.

The incident took place on the Ralia/North Drumochter estate – an estate in two parts – although its not clear which from the newspaper report.   While I have seen evidence of intensive pheasant rearing on the Ralia part of the estate (above) I have also seen buzzards on several occasions in and around the policy woodlands by North Drumochter Lodge (photo below), most recently in November.

Looking north west along the North Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands and A9 shelter belt towards Dalwhinnie

Aside from red grouse, I have seen very little bird or other wildlife on the North Drumochter Estate apart the Lodge buzzards and red deer (although I did see a Greater Spotted Woodpecker last time I was there).  What I have seen (see here) are lots of corvid and other traps.

Trap by Allt Beul an Sporain west of Balsporran Cottages

Such traps can catch buzzards.  That one can see buzzards quite easily on North Drumochter suggests that the Ralia/North Drumochter Estate tolerates or perhaps even likes them (releasing them from traps?) and it was quite possibly the estate that reported the man who shot the buzzard to the police.   Imagine a responsible keeper before a pheasant shoot briefing the shooting party and telling them to watch out for other birds who then realises one of their clients has ignored their instructions.    They would not just be very annoyed, they would also want to protect their reputation. Hence perhaps the report to the police.

Whether or not this is what actually happened, it should have.  It seems wrong that not even in our National Parks is there a requirement for shooters to be able to correctly identify what they are shooting, have the self-control not to shoot unless they are 100% certain their target is legitimate and have the skill to do so.    This is relevant to the long awaited review of grouse moor management:  any shooting license  should be dependant on shooters being properly briefed and trained and, where they are not and incidents such as this happen, the shooting license should be lost.  The Cairngorms National Park Authority could take a clear lead here by developing a code of good practice for shooting in the National Park.

While there is still some deliberate persecution of buzzards, the persecution that once confined them to the North West corner of Scotland has ended and allowed them to re-colonise the rest of the British Isles.   (I regularly see and hear buzzards in Pollok Park in Glasgow).   What this illustrates is that is that while in general shooting interests perceive some raptors, notably hen harrier and golden eagle, as threats others are tolerated and what is tolerated has changed over time.

Pheasants v grouse

In 2014 the Cairngorms National Park Authority with Scottish Land and Estates commissioned a report on the Social, Economic and Environmental Contribution of Landowners to the National Park (available here).   The research was in the form of a survey and there were 52 responses in all.  The the returns on shooting make interesting reading.

Extract from research commissioned by CNPA and Scottish Land and Estates in 2014

Now, not every landowner returned the survey and there may be problems with accuracy of the return (estates might not want to reveal their true income) but I was struck that pheasant shooting appears to bring in more income than driven and walked up grouse shooting combined.   If income was what mattered estates would be focussing on pheasant/partridge shooting – and one might have thought the animals that predate on pheasants –  rather than grouse.

 

What’s more, pheasant/partridge shooting not only provides more days shooting than driven grouse shooting, in terms of land-use it takes place over a much smaller area than grouse shooting.  As a consequence it produces far more income per hectare and – I would hazard – the costs per hectare are also a lot less.  No need to install lots of tracks and grouse butts.   Rearing pheasants, from an income perspective, appears far more rational than rearing grouse.

This, however, ignores the value of land which at present is driven by exclusivity rather than say ecological worth.  Landed estates are  valued by the number of deer or brace of grouse to be found on them because shooting red deer and red grouse has more social cachet than shooting, say, pheasants.  You can see some of this in the estate returns above:  the number of days pheasant shooting retained for family/personal use is 32 out of 396, less than 10%.    The number of driven days grouse shooting reserved for family/own use is 65 out of 230 or over 25%.  It appears that one is valued far more highly by owners than the other.

The converse to this is that any threat to what gives an estate its social cachet is a risk not just to the owner’s ability to enjoy what is so exclusive, it also threatens to undermine the price of the land and therefore their wealth.  The consequence is that hen harriers, which are perceived as a fundamental threat to red grouse, are being persecuted to extinction, whereas buzzards – which occasionally will take red grouse (they are generalist predators who prey on what they can catch) – are tolerated.

What pheasant shooting shows is that even from a fields sports perspective there are more productive forms of land-use than intensive grouse moor management:  planting or enable regeneration of woodland would enable more pheasants to be reared, which in return would allow greater revenue returns from the land.   The problem is land values and land-use are not decided rationally but by the tastes and culture of an elite and at present their focus is on grouse.  Until this is tackled raptors which commonly prey on grouse will be persecuted and others, which do not or do so only occasionally will be tolerated.

I don’t think the Cairngorms National Park Authority will be tackle the culture of the landed elite by persuasion.  As a consequence, whenever a raptor crime takes places in the National Park, they need not just to discuss this with the landowners concerned – and I hope they meet North Drumochter to establish exactly what happened – they should be considering what changes they could introduce to regulate shooting.

December 1, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
Its now two years since the Bruar hydro scheme opened and yet these broken sections of pipe and wrecked container have still not been removed from the glen

After my visit a few weeks ago to Glen Bruar and my post on the restoration work on the pipeline (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority indicated they had some further documentation about the restoration works and would place these on the planning portal.  They did so a couple of weeks ago (see here).   I found the documentation generally helpful and informative and welcome  the CNPA’s willingness to be transparent about the actions it has taken to ensure developers adhere to planning conditions.  The documentation also shows that the CNPA has been concerned about what went wrong and been taking appropriate action to remedy this.   This post will illustrate that, but also – as promised in my previous post –  provide evidence that there is still some way to go before the Bruar Hydro reaches the standard we should expect in a National Park.

 

Information on how the pipeline was restored

A section of the boulder scar which ran between the powerhouse and the intake which has not been restored.Somewhat paradoxically, what I regard as the most impressive aspect of the restoration work – the initial boulder scar was a landscape disaster (see here) – the “repair” of the land above the pipeline is least documented.  While detailed plans were improved in July to the minor intake, the two pipe bridges and the power house embankment, there is no proper specification for the restoration of the pipeline.  The documentation that has recently been added (see here), says little more than the reinstatement note from February 2016 which acknowledged the pipeline scar was an issue which would be fixed by removing some of the boulders and robbing turves from neighbouring areas.

Photo showing robbed area to right of track and restored area to left

The point here is that such work can be done well or badly and there appears to be no specification for the work.   I was interested to find out that the restoration work in this case had been done by McGowan, the same contractor who worked for Natural Retreats on the Shieling Rope tow at Cairngorm about which I had major concerns (see here). In this case they have done an excellent job – well done them!  I believe the explanation for this is that the excavations of the robbed turves are shallow and well spaced, allowing vegetation from the robbed areas to recover quickly.   The CNPA has told me long armed diggers were used by McGowan to avoid further damage to vegetation.  Great!   The work though appears to have been all done on trust and the question is what further recourse would the CNPA have if this work had not been done to such a high standard?  Indeed what recourse do they have to the developer for the further areas which still need attention?

While the primary focus of the CNPA should be on preventing the need for such restoration work to take place (and that means monitoring how developers remove turves when they dig pipelines or create new tracks so there is sufficient vegetation to re-cover the affected areas), there will be cases where this goes wrong.  Setting clear standards for how restoration work should be undertaken in such circumstances, based on what McGowan has done in Glen Bruar, would I  think be in the public interest.  All contractors would then know what was expected of them in such circumstances.

 

The quality of the hill track restoration

Apart from the final short section to the intake dam, there was already a track all the way up Glen Bruar but this was “upgraded” for construction vehicles.  This work included widening, adding further material to the surface of the track and creation of turning/laydown areas.  The intention had been that the track should be restored to how it appeared previously and this had now been done.   Its clear from the documentation that the CNPA has devoted considerable attention to the worst sections of track and this has had a positive impact.

The words in italics set out the CNPA’s concerns, the words below the photo the proposed response from the developer.

This is how the restored area looks now:

A significant improvement (although the right edge of the road has not been revegetated and is at high risk of erosion).  Other parts of the road along the glen appear to have also been narrowed with the result it is no longer a race track.

The finishing of the track however still in places leaves much to be desired:

The worst of the protruding culverts

There are a significant number of what appear to be new protruding plastic culverts along the track and there appears to rhyme or reason to what has been fully finished, partially finished and what just left:

Finished culvert with turf placed above stone
Same culvert, other side of road, protruding – why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One culvert is mentioned in the CNPA REINSTATEMENT_UPDATE_NOTE (the easiest document to read on the restoration works):

Why not any of the others?,

 

In several places the edge of the road is eroding.  It is hard to tell if the stone has been placed there for work yet unfinished or to mark the holes.

In other places dumped aggregate has not been removed and is spilling down the slopes beside the track.

The CNPA rightly asked for the pipe and storage areas to be restored:

The end result for the largest area (featured above) leaves a lot to be desired, with no evidence so far of the robbing turves technique to restore bare ground as used so successfully on the pipeline:

Same laydown area as in top photo, different angle – the pile of aggregate for filling potholes makes it look worse.

Perhaps this work has still to be done?

Poor finishing with material from the edge of the track spilling down towards the culverted burn below

In my view, there is still a significant amount of finishing work still required on the road.

External sections of pipeline

The restoration of these areas have been dealt with as Non Material Variations to the original planning application – an indication that the original plan were not perhaps as comprehensive as they should have been.

The first pipe bridge close to the power house had last year looked a total mess with the river threatening to wash the plinth away.  It is now much better:

Before
After

 

The restoration of the second exposed section of pipe plinth where it crosses a burn has been less successful.

The banks of burn below the concrete plinth which are bare and will erode contast with how the banks looked previously – heather covered. There is a very large patch of bare ground to the right.

The rip rap bouldering to protect the banks around the plinth looks a mess, there is a large patch of bare ground and the banks of the burn have not been restored with vegetation and one would have thought at risk of rapid erosion.

 

Other restoration work

The intake overflow pipes  – which were bright blue – have been painted and to my mind are far less prominent.

The CNPA has required a lot of further restoration around the top intake which you can read about in the restoration note update (see here).

A pool was created at the secondary intake to make it appear more natural.

While there has been significant improvements in revegetating ground around the top intakes, I am not sure that the work to improve the secondary intake has been successfully.  The river bed here was bouldery but the piles of boulders created to make the dam and cover up the concrete still look as though they have been bulldozed into place rather than deposited naturally.

There are also other major (first photo) and minor bits (photo above)  of clear up required.

What can be learned from this?

I suspect that CNPA staff have learned a great deal from what went wrong at Glen Bruar and all credit to them for the work they have done to try and reduce the impacts since the Hydro Scheme started to operate.   Almost all the issues they have had to tackle – and still need to tackle – stem from the work not being properly specified and supervised in the first place. Its much harder to address problems after the event rather than preventing them from arising in the first place.

The lessons from Glen Bruar therefore seem to be to be about the importance of getting high quality specifications agreed for works before they start and then monitoring these sufficiently to ensure they are adhered to.  Its almost certain our National Parks need more resources to do this.  The forthcoming planning bill should in my view include provisions for developers to pay for the costs of ensuring this happens.

November 27, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking back along the Allt na Beinne track to the central Cairngorms. The movement of heavy vehicles along the track in wet conditions has caused significant damage and helped destroy its quality as a recreational route

Following my post on the new and “upgraded” hill track in Glen Banchor  (see here), the Cairngorms National Park Authority has informed Dave Morris and myself that they will fully investigate what has happened and feed back to us what action they can take. This is most welcome.  I also reported to them that works had taken place on the Strone/Allt na Beinne hill track on the same estate.  This post considers the issues this raises for the planning system and then makes some proposals for how the planning system could be reformed. (There is an ideal opportunity to change the current failed system in the forthcoming Scottish Planning Bill)

 

The Strone hill track

There has been a hill track by the Allt na Beinne, which is directly north of Newtonmore, for many years.  Its marked on my OS Map which dates from 1980.   Existing tracks, just like footpaths, need to maintained and therefore when a landowner decides to undertake maintenance work that should be welcomed.  However, two issues arise from this.  The first is the quality of the maintenance, with poor work having the potential to increase environmental damage and landscape impacts as well as negatively impacting on the recreational experience (see top photo).   The second is when does maintenance turn into an alteration, now that all alterations to hill tracks fall under the planning system?

Although there is Scottish Government Guidance on the distinction between maintenance and alteration under the Prior Notification System  (see here), when Forest Enterprise Scotland tries to pass off major alterations to tracks as maintenance (see here), you can see there are major challenges to the system.  What has happened to the Strone track provides a further illustration of the issues but also got me thinking about potential solutions within the National Park.

Looking across the moor from near Strone towards the Allt na Beinne.

The track starts at Strone and is clearly partly agricultural in purpose, therefore falling into the category of a permitted development right which did not require any form of planning approval before the creation of the Prior Notification System.   The first section is of good quality,  has blended into the surrounding ground and being on  flattish ground has very little landscape impact.  Its good for walking and well used.  It shows its possible to create good quality tracks outwith the planning system.

The creation of the drainage ditch has not solved the problem of water accumulating on the lowest section of track while there has been no attempt to landscape the excavated materials.

There was, however, evidence of some recent work on this first section of track.  The estate appears to have taken the opportunity of having diggers available for work higher up the track to try and improve the drainage on dips in the track.  There are several of these at present which either are filled with water (above) or are crossed by burns (below).  I think most people would class work such as this as maintenance rather than an alteration to a track and therefore not requiring any form of planning consent or prior approval (which Planning Authorities give under the Prior Notification system).   The problem is the work is of poor quality and not in my view fitting for a National Park.  Its storing up problems, not solving them.

Burn flowing across road with excavated material dumped in foreground

Its quite predictable that the burn flowing across the road will erode it in due course.  A solution to this was pioneered in Scotland almost three hundred years ago with the Wade and Caulfield Military Roads.  Where culverts would not work – as here because the road is too low relative to the surrounding land – they used paved cross drains.  There are plenty of stones here which have recently been unearthed and dumped by the side of the track that the estate could have used to line the cross drain but they have not done so.  What this shows is we need to find a way to ensure that maintenance work, whether of paths or tracks, is to an appropriate standard.

Once a track starts getting churned up, vehicles start creating alternative routes, spreading the damage.  Caterpillar track visible bottom right of photo.

Undertaking maintenance work in wet conditions – much of the initial damage in the photo above appears to have been done by heavy caterpillar tracked vehicles – also causes damage.  High quality maintenance is not just about appropriate design or the skill of the contractor, its about the timing of the work.

Towards the far end of the moor, before the track begins to rise, a borrow pit has been created (or extended).   While borrow pits for forestry tracks are classed as permitted development rights – so if the road is created lawfully, so is the track – for agricultural roads they are not.  Because of the size of the borrow pit my understanding is the estate should have applied for planning permission.

 

Further up the track there is evidence of other small borrow pits, with material dug out from the side of the track, without any attempt to restore the ground.  I suspect Planning Authorities would see small borrow pits as part of maintenance work rather than an alteration to the track and therefore not requiring planning permission under the current system.  Even if right, however, this leaves the question of whether poor quality work such as this should be allowed, particularly in a National Park.

Unfinished culvert and new drainage ditch

The extent of the track work increases as it enters the lovely small glen taken by the Allt na Beinne.   When does maintenance, which does not require any type of planning consent, become alteration which does?

The edge of the existing track appears to have been excavated to facilitate ATV access to land on the left creating a new track

The work in the photo above may not be finished but to my mind the excavations here are far more than maintenance, they are alterations.  Whether an alteration comes under the Prior Notification System or needs full planning permission depends on whether or not the track is for agricultural or forestry purposes.  The moorland above the steep section of track is covered with signs of intensive grouse moor management so I believe these tracks are clearly non-agricultural in purpose and therefore the alterations should have been subject to full planning permission from the start.

The track above the steepest section, showing a broad strip of disturbed ground on the right

We did not have time to get to the end of the track  but noted in many sections the total width of track plus disturbed ground appeared to be up to 20 metres and included piles of rocks and boulders.  Again the scale of this is such that it should be treated as an alteration to the track rather than maintenance and there are issues both about the longer term landscape impact but also the quality of the track (which is currently a peaty morass in places – as you can see in left of photo).

Its also clear the work is not finished though the end product is not relevant to the question of whether planning permission should have been applied for, only about whether the CNPA needs to take enforcement action.

ATV track heading round to the newly upgraded Glen Banchor hill track, which is visible just below the left horizon

The final issue was that lower down you could see how ATVs or tracked vehicles are being driven from the Strone track, apparently around to meet the new Glen Banchor track.   Where tracks are created by such use the question of maintenance and alteration is complicated by the fact that such tracks are not subject to any planning approval.  In this case they represent a major extension of the track network in the Glenbanchor/Strone area.

 

So what are the lessons for our National Parks and the planning system?

I believe the photos illustrate there is a fine line between track maintenance, which does not need any approval from the Planning Authority, and alterations to tracks which do.   The quality of both, however, matter, especially in our National Parks.  The situation is then further complicated because alterations to Forestry and Agricultural tracks – such as the lower section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the Prior Notification system while those for other purposes such as deer and grouse moor management – upper section of the Allt na Beinne track – come under the full planning system.

While I believe the failure of the new owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate, who have owned the adjacent Pitmain Estate for several years, to consult with the Cairngorms National Park Authority before starting any work on the Allt na Beinne track (or Glen Banchor track covered in my previous post) is inexcusable – and they need to be held account – I think we need to recognise the current rules creates  a nightmarish situation for both land managers and planning authorities.

On one track the work being proposed could. for different sections, be classed as:

  • maintenance not requiring any approval;
  • alteration to a forestry or agricultural track requiring prior notification and possibly approval;
  • alteration for other estate management purposes requiring planning permission;
  • an extension for agricultural or forestry purposes needing prior notification;
  • an extension for other purposes needing planning permission.

I started thinking about this after my post on the Glen Feshie tracks, questioning why the CNPA had allowed them to go ahead under the Prior Notification system without approval  (see here).    Dave Morris and I went to see Thomas MacDonnell, the Conservation Manager for Wild Land Ltd who manages Glen Feshie, a couple of weeks ago.   He was extremely open about what the estate was trying to do and the fifteen or so miles of new tracks that had been given the go-ahead under the Prior Notification system.  He was clear – and the planning documents reflect this – that the track were not just about forestry (which comes under the Prior Notification System) but also deer management and recreation (which don’t) and that it was not the estate’s decision to deal with this as a Prior Notification.   What came out of this for me though is that dealing with some parts of the proposed tracks under the Prior Notification system and some under the full planning system would have been a nightmare for both the estate and the planning authorities.  It made me understand therefore why staff in public authorities might have wanted to deal with this as one single type of application.  The trouble – which I will come back to – is it did not fit into any single classification.

 

The work though that Thomas MacDonnell has been leading at Glen Feshie, points I believe, to some of the answers.  Thomas took us out to look at some of the work the estate is doing to upgrade and repair existing tracks as well as the locations for the proposed new tracks.

The work to upgrade existing tracks is generally of very high quality and its very hard to tell that extensive work has been done to improve this track

The work to existing tracks has been treated as maintenance, and not gone through the planning system., although in may cases badly eroded existing tracks have been transformed in appearance.   How the work has been done though has been governed by a standard specification for tracks (on dry ground) which has been developed by Wild Land Ltd.  It has used the same specification as part of the Prior Notification for the new tracks.

Extract from Prior Notification – note how Wild Land Ltd is able to extract timber using narrower tracks than those specified by the Forestry Commission.In other words, Wild Land Ltd is applying the same set of standards to all the work they do, whether track maintenance, track alterations or the creation of new tracks.  Now while its possible to question some of the details of that specification – the North East Mountain Trust for example would like to see a vegetated strip being included down the centre of all tracks (which are in place on some but not all Feshie Tracks) – the existence of a specification that delivers high standards seems to me to point to a way forward for hill tracks.

If all estates undertook track work according to agreed standards, the current distinctions between maintenance and alteration, and forestry/agricultural versus other tracks would become far less important.

The way forward

Working from the basis that all work on hill tracks should meet certain standards (and these could be higher in National Parks), the Prior Notification system could be adapted to be used where a landowner had agreed a set of standards with the Planning Authority.  Whenever the landowner was planning maintenance or track upgrade works it would notify the Planning Authority of the location of such works (so they could monitor that the adhered standards were being adhered to) but no planning consent would be required.  Alterations to the line of an existing tracks could also be dealt with under this system if the agreed standards included how unused/redundant sections of track would be restored.   This would simplify the system for responsible landowners.

If the agreed set of standards/specification also included provisions about off-track use of ATVs, whose purpose was to prevent tracks being created by default, that would help address the impacts such tracks have on the landscape and to bring them under control.

A full planning application, which gave the public and other stakeholders the opportunity to comment on (and object to) proposals, would still be required for new tracks (including those for agricultural and forestry purposes) and for any works on tracks which were not covered by the set of standards which had been agreed between the Planning Authority and landowner.  This would incentivise landowners to adopt and work to certain standards.

Planning Authorities would then be able to endorse certain existing model standards for hill tracks in their planning policies which could be adopted by landowners where they so wished.  For example while Wild Land Ltd has developed its own set of standards for most of the tracks on the estate – which are in my view much better than those of the Forestry Commission which were designed for industrial forestry and not for National Parks or other protected areas – for areas of deep peat it has chosen to adopt the SNH/Forestry Commission Standards for “Floating Roads on Peat 2010.

While changing the system in the way I have proposed here would require changes to hill track regulation nationally – hence the need for discussion in the forthcoming planning bill – the CNPA could also set and promote the adoption of approved standards for hill track work in its new development plan.  The Main Issues Report for this has just been issued for public consultation and provides an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to strengthen its policy in this area.

November 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
New track, slopes Creag an Loin, Glen Banchor looking towards Creag Dubh on the Pitmain Estate, behind Kingussie. You can tell this is intended as a track, rather than just caused by ATV use, by the bouldes lining the right hand side

Earlier this year, the owner of the Pitmain estate,  who appears to be Abdul Majid Jafar, bought the Glen Banchor and Strone Estate behind Newtonmore.   I say “appears” because the information on Pitmain Estate Ltd at Companies House fails to declare who has significant control over the company.

While  Abdul Majid Jafar resigned as a Director in June 2015, to be replaced by an Indian Accountant also based in the United Arab Emirates, it appears he is still the owner.   Its not only our landownership system which is opaque, our company system is too and there is abundant evidence for this in our National Parks.  Abdul Majid Jafar’s family run Crescent Petroleum, the Middle East’s oldest private oil and gas company, so not short of a bob or too and well able to afford to do things properly if he so wished.

Map credit Cairngorms National Park Authority estate maps

The previous owners of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate were the Lindt Family, of chocolate fame.  They appear to have managed the estate for purely private pleasure (for example the internet has stories about how you could not pay to stalk there).   This had its disadvantages, in that deer numbers were very high, but otherwise estate management appears to have been low key and unintensive.   That appears to have changed since Pitmain took over, with significant consequences for land-management.   This post will consider the new track works in Glen Banchor.

The section of newly engineered track above the esker – you can see one of the sheep dog trial gates on the left. The track bends left after about 700m to a sheep pen.

The boggy moorland where the road bends west into Glen Banchor (GR 702998) and lower slopes of Creag an Loin have long been used for sheep dog trials and there was a rough track along the fabulous esker – a deposit laid down by the glacier –  that snakes across the moor.  This then led up the slopes to a sheep holding pen.   Unfortunately I don’t have photos of the old track (photos gratefully received!), so you can compare then and now, but it was little more than two wheel ruts and much used by walkers.

The esker provides a dry passage across the moor but its character has been totally changed.  The top has been lopped off to create a track with no consideration given to the landscape impact.

Under the Prior Notification system, any changes to existing agricultural or forestry tracks which increase their footprint or new ones should be notified to the planning authority (see Scottish Govt statutory guidance Page 11 onwards).  There is no sign on either the Highland Council or Cairngorms National Park Authority planning portals that this has been done at Glen Banchor (I have written to the CNPA to double check and report the track works).

There is evidence all along the former landrover track that major upgrading works have taken place. Note the large lumps of turf in the foreground which could have been replaced down the centre of the track reducing erosion and the landscape impact.

While full planning permission is not needed for agricultural tracks, the point of the Prior Notification system is it is “an important tool in preventing inappropriate construction of private ways” (Government Guidance).   In this case there are plenty of signs of inappropriate construction (including above) which are not fitting for a National Park and do not meet SNH’s Best Practice Guidance on hill track construction.

The upper section of the track is too steep and already eroding away, not helped by the lack of vegetation down the middle and an absence of drainage bars which means water runs straight down the line of the track.

Start of track 7th November
Start of track 18th November

Since I learned about the track I have been twice, first time to have a quick look and then last Saturday when I walked along the track and beyond.  While it has been very wet, the two photos show there has been a considerable deterioration in the track over the intervening 10 days and much of it has been churned into a quagmire.

The turning circle at the top of the old section of track, sheep holding pen for the sheep dog trials in the background

The problem is even worse at the top of the old section of track.  I don’t think this mess has been created by sheep dog trials, the problem is the old land rover track is now being used for other estate management purposes and far more intensively than previously.  It links to a new estate management track (see top photo) which has been created without any planning permission.

The new track contours round and down the hillside from just below the sheep holding area. You can see the excavated boulders and vegetation dumped on the right of the track.

The new track leads to another turning circle and borrow pit:

The turning circle with hummocky moraine and Creag Dubh behind
The borrow pit below the turning circle

While the newly constructed track, which comes under planning law, ends at the turning circle beyond is an ATV track, if the quagmire created can be described as a track:

Behind the moraine on the right, the ATV track forks, one part linking to constructed tracks on the Strone part of the estate, the other heading up the hillside to a feeding station:

 

Red legged partridge in cage at feeding station

In terms of planning law, all this is important.  The new section of track is clearly for game management purposes and therefore does not come under the Prior Notification System.  Full planning permission was required, it has not been applied for and therefore this is yet another case of disregard of the planning system within our National Parks by landowners.  The ATV eroded track beyond, however, because it has not been constructed falls totally outwith the planning system.

 

What needs to happen

While I understand (from an update they provided) that the CNPA are still working on the enforcement action they have agreed against  the Cluny Estate for unlawful track on Creag an Leth Choin (see here), the basic problem the CNPA faces is that until they have taken effective enforcement action, landowners won’t see planning law as being important.  Generally landowners see themselves as having the right to manage land as they wish and not as custodians for it, even in the National Park.    The result has been that unlawful tracks continue to proliferate across the National Park.  The CNPA needs to be seen to take action (just as East Ayrshire has recently done for breach of planning conditions at a windfarm).

 

Determined and rapid enforcement action would I believe, make a great difference.  This track, being so recent, would be a good place to start.  In addition, while I appreciate the Prior Notification system is very weak and not fit for purpose, the creation of an unlawful track linked to an “upgrade” of an existing track, should make it easier for the CNPA  to argue that the “upgrade” of the existing track is more than that and not fit for purpose.

 

However, at present the CNPA has NO powers to address ATV created tracks, such as the featured here leading from the second turning circle to the feeding station.  While SNH has powers to control ATV use on protected sites, only the western half of the Glen Banchor and Strone estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so there are at present no controls in this part of the National Park.  In my view this has to change.  I would like to see all ATV use on the open hill in National Parks being subject to consent through farm/estate management plans.  The CNPA could do this through the creation of byelaws for conservation purposes.

 

This leads to the wider issue of estate management and landownership.  On the landownership side, no additional checks are required before someone buys a large area of land in a National Park, either to establish whether they are fit to manage the land or what their intentions might be.    While the Gynack hydro schemes on the Pitmain Estate are in many ways exemplary (see here) , step beyond them and the tracks further up the hill are a disgrace to the National Park:

Massive turning circle on Meall Unaig, south of Carn an Fhreiceadain. This is visible from Glen Feshie.

I have always wondered why an estate can do one thing well and another so badly.  However, it appears from other new track works above Strone (which I will cover in a further post) that the estate is importing and applying its poor practice standards to Glen Banchor.   While the CNPA has tried to encourage estates to produce management statements for their land, neither Pitmain or Glen Banchor have done so.   The CNPA is therefore left in a position that when a new landowner takes over an estate, it has no idea what that landowner is planning to do in terms of estate management.  That cannot be right in a National Park.

 

What is clear from the new Glen Banchor track is that the new owners are wanting to produce more game for shooting on the estate – hence the feeding station for Red Legged Partridge.   This has implications beyond hill tracks and how they are designed.  The Red Legged Partridge, which is of Mediterranean origin, does best in the wild on dry sandy soils and so, in the wild, is normally found on agricultural land.  Increasingly though it appears to be being bred on moorland within the National Park.  This requires intensive game managements methods akin to farming.  On moorland, however, it is very exposed to predators, especially at feeding stations such as that featured here, and would provide the perfect food for hen harriers if they had not been persecuted close to extinction.  With feeding stations like this, we should expect the number of hen harriers to increase significantly.   Will that happen?

 

Leaving aside wider ecological consideration, feeding stations in our National Parks should only be allowed if estates can prove they are committed to protecting raptors.  In this case,  it would be in the public interest if that the Pitmain/Glen Banchor Estate were to clarify whether they are committed to this and whether clear instructions have been issued to staff telling them that if most of the Red Legged Partridge at the feeding station get predated by raptors that that is fine by the owners.  It would be good if the CNPA, which states it is committed to improving grouse moor management, started to ask the estate these questions and to make the responses public.

October 30, 2017 Nick Kempe 19 comments
Latest version of Welcome to the Moor sign, North Drumochter Estate.   Among the organisations endorsing the sign is the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)

Increasing numbers of a new version of the “Welcome to the moor” sign are now being erected across Scotland, particularly in the Cairngorms National Park, but so far have received, as far as I am aware, little critical comment.

Earlier version of sign, Dinnet Estate

When is a welcome not a welcome?

I have no problem with people being welcomed to moorland, in fact the more the better, but included in both versions of the Welcome to the Moor sign under the section on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code is a rather significant qualification “It is recommended to keep to paths and tracks when possible”.  So, people are not really being welcomed to the moor, only to paths and tracks, a small percentage of total moorland.

Now I was involved in drawing up the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and the only place it says that people should keep to paths and tracks is the section on privacy where it advises people to keep to a path or track –  if there is one – when passing people’s houses.   The whole point of the access legislation is it gives people a right to roam, whether on paths or off-paths.  While no detailed guidance for grouse moor has been developed under the SOAC, detailed guidance was produced for deer stalking – after endless discussion and debate between recreational organisations and landowners – and that is very clear:

“Any requests (to avoid certain areas) should relate to specific days and apply to the minimum necessary area – this is more likely to encourage a positive response than a longer-term and more general message”.

Extract from Stalking and Public Access: Guidance for Land Managers

The furthest official guidance goes on deer stalking is to say that when stalking is actually taking place, “you can help by using paths, following ridges and following the main watercourse if you have to go through a coire” (see left).  Contrast this with  the Welcome to the Moor signs.   They recommend people remain on paths and tracks at ALL times.  The implication is that if you ignore the recommendation, you are being irresponsible.  Even for  people who are fully aware of their  access rights, ignoring such signs creates a feeling on unease – will someone challenge you if you go off path?

 

There is no justification for the “recommendation” on the sign.  Driven grouse moor shooting takes place on only a few days of the year and model signage has been produced to inform walkers that shooting, like deer stalking is in progress.   The Welcome to the Moor sign makes no reference to the use of temporary signs to alert walkers when shooting is taking place because to do so would be to undermine the general message which is the public should stick to the path.   The hypocrisy is these same estates are allowing vehicles, which do far more damage, to be driven willy nilly across grouse moors.

 

It is significant that these signs have not been endorsed by the National Access Forum and the latest version does not include the SOAC logo.  So why is the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which is the statutory access authority and has a duty to protect access rights, lending its name to an initiative that is trying to undermine access rights?

 

The conservation benefits of grouse moors?

Its worse than that though.  The first heading “Moorlands are full of wildlife” is for much of the Cairngorms National Park – and particularly where these signs are being erected – a lie.  A few years ago  I started wondering if I was missing something about grouse moor managers claiming moorland is good for wildlife – I would describe myself as a bad bird watcher – and deliberately went for a number of walks over moorland wildlife watching rather than walking up hills.  Apart from red grouse and meadow pipit I have seen very little.

 

There is a reason for that and its got very little to do with my wildlife obervation skills. There is very little to see.   In the September edition of Scottish Birds, the journal of the Scottish Ornithologists Club,  there was an excellent article about the Lammermuirs which received  national publicity (see here).    Its not just about raptors, since the 1980s waders have declined as much as merlin, while grey partridge and short-eared owl had disappeared completely, the sound of the cuckoo was much rarer, while on the burns common sandpiper and dipper were hard to find.  In addition, the authors found young ring ouzel appeared to have a fatal attraction to traps.    I believe these findings are equally applicable to the Cairngorms.

 

As evidence for this (the exceptions prove the rule) you could do no better than read the Glen Tanar estate blog (see here) – and thanks to Raptor Persecution Scotland for the tip-off.   The descriptions of stoat hunting hare are fantastic.  What a brilliant estate!  Unfortunately your chance of seeing stoats or raptors in much of the National Park is minimal.

 

 

Trap on north Drumochter estate

The reasons for this are twofold.   The first is that any wildlife that is perceived as impacting on Red Grouse numbers is being systematically exterminated on most grouse moors in the National Park by a variety of means including trapping.    That trapping is becoming a very political issue is seen by the claims last week (see here) by the Scottish Gamekeeper Association that visitors have been tampering with traps.   The real question is not this – if its happening I can understand why people are angry enough to do so – but why our National Parks allow ANY trapping of wildlife?  And if you think that is radical, its worth reading this comment from the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (link above) that the UK is the ONLY country in the EU to still allow Fenn traps (the traps you find in the wire cages that are placed on logs across streams to catch stoat and weasel):

Fenn Trap Dinnet Estate
Lizzybusy

October 27, 2017 at 10:14 pm

Almost all shooting estates, and predominantly grouse shooting estates, use Fenn Traps. These diabolical traps should have been outlawed in the UK in July last year but the UK government was the only EU country to seek a derogation of implementing the ban for two years. These traps have been banned in the rest of the EU, Canada, the USA, and Russia and negotiations on the International TREATY have been taking place since the 1990s. The ban in the UK should have been enacted under the AIHTS (Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards) which outlaws traps which do not kill the ‘target’ animal within a certain time period (depending on the species) and by crushing the skull. Fenn Traps do not meet the criteria.  In October 2015 Defra commissioned animal research into possibly two traps to determine whether these traps met the criteria. The research finished in February 2016 and the report of the results was given to the government just before the ban deadline. Defra claim there are no traps which meet the criteria which have been drawn up before any new traps can be approved for use with stoats (the animals they are allegedly used to ‘control’ In the UK on grouse moors. I have been waiting and repeatedly waiting for a copy of the report since July 2016 which is supposed to be released ‘soon’ ‘shortly’. In the meantime Defra have held Ministerial meetings about this international agreement with all the usual brigade (GWCT, BASC, NFU, NGA, MA, CA etc) but no animal welfare groups (or rather Defra identifies the establishment that carried out the lethal animal research as the animal welfare representative group!). All these groups and MPs with pecuniary interests in the shooting industry have held meetings with Defra and Ministers about the AIHTS for years.  A key meeting with about 20 individuals and pro-shooting groups was held in January 2016 which was attended by Senior Defra officials. Following the meeting, Defra officials worked with some of the lobbyists to draw up an action plan for derogating the Agreement. Despite repeated FOI requests, Defra claims that no minutes of that meeting to discuss compliance or non compliance with an International Treaty were taken by Defra officials and none of them took notes!   The GWCT have confirmed to me that their representative chaired the meeting and one of their group took the minutes of the meeting. They are refusing to release them to me and Defra claims not to have received copies of the minutes of this important legally crucial meeting so they cannot release them!

 

There is a link between the signs telling people to keep to the path and the persecution of wildlife in our National Parks.  Most grouse moor managers just do not want the public to see what is going on.  It won’t be long until landed interests start calling for access bans from grouse moors to preserve the rural way of life.  The best thing anyone who cares about wildlife in our National Parks can do therefore is to leave the path, record the wildlife you see (for example on birdtrack) and record traps and other signs of wildlife persecution.

 

The second reason why you won’t see much wildlife in our National Parks is because of the way heather is promoted above all other plants, partly through moorland drainage but mainly through muirburn.

The destructive impact of muirburn, Glen Gairn

The only reason moorland is a rare habitat globally, as stated in the Welcome to the Moorland sign, is that no other country allows land to be managed in this way and yet we continue to do so, even in National Parks.   On the one hand the Welcome to the Moor sign claims moorland is an important carbon store, in the next its describing muirburn which releases carbon.   The sign claims muirburn is a carefully planned operation when in fact its highly disputed and contentious.  The evidence for this can be seen in the new Muirburn Code which was issued in September:

The boxes in orange indicate the issues which have not yet been agreed – almost all are about how muirburn should be carried out.

In relation to the Cairngorms National Park, one might ask how the CNPA’s endorsement of these signs compatible with what is has said about moorland management during the development of the National Park Partnership Plan:

  • Controlled muirburn reduces the fuel load and can reduce the likelihood of spread of wildfires. Poorly managed muirburn can lead to destruction of rare habitats, carbon emissions, impact on water quality and creation of wildfires. A more selective approach would provide increased habitat biodiversity by leaving areas of scrub around the moorland edge, rather than managing simply in terms of either forest or moorland.  (The Big 9 issues report).
  • In some places however, the intensity of management measures to maintain or increase grouse populations is out of balance with delivering wider public interest priorities
  • During the course of this Plan period we seek to establish, deliver and promote a shared
    understanding of what good moorland management looks like in the Cairngorms National
    Park. There is national guidance and current initiatives such as the revised muirburn code, and
    the Principles of Moorland Management. We will work with moorland managers and all relevant
    interests to agree what practical implementation of these means in a Cairngorms context and to
    deliver greater public benefits alongside other estate management objectives.

There was nothing in the Partnership Plan to say heather moorland was a globally threatened habitat yet the CNPA has endorsed a sign which says just that.  There is nothing in the signs which says the estates concerned have made any commitment to change the way they manage grouse moors so the implication is the CNPA is endorsing the way these estates are managed at present, which involves muirburn, bulldozing of tracks, persecution of wildlife.

 

What needs to happen?

The CNPA by endorsing these signs is in effect endorsing the intensive type of grouse moor management, which it says it wants to move away from, and undermining access rights.  The CNPA keeps trying to say its caught between landowners and conservation and recreation interests and needs to take a middle way.  However, when when push comes to shove it appears to end up supporting landowner interests rather than the rights of the public.

 

What is should do is tell the sponsors of this sign, Scottish Land and Estates, the Scottish Countryside Alliance Education Trust and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust that it will no longer support these signs and that the message about access needs to be changed to make it clear that people are welcome all over grouse moors.  If necessary, it could work with recreation interests and the National Access Forum to apply existing guidance under the SOAC to grouse moors so grouse moor managers are absolutely clear about what is acceptable.

 

Meantime I think the only signs the CNPA should be associated with are on estates like Glen Tanar which do respect the vast majority of wildlife and try to manage the land in the way the CNPA set out in their Partnership Plan.

October 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments

Just when it appeared that the Cairngorms National Park Authority was starting to get a grip on the proliferation of hill tracks which has blighted the Cairngorms landscape, they have blown it.  Faced with a proposal by WildLand Ltd, the company controlled by Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire to create almost 15 miles of new hill tracks between Glens Feshie and Tromie, they have decided these can go ahead without any planning approvals.   This is an astonishing decision which undermines the planning system as well and the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year.  (You can view all the documentation that has been made public on the Highland Council Planning portal here)

Photo/photomontage from the landscape assessment

The purpose of this post is not to consider the details of the proposed tracks, which form part of a wider plan to reforest a large area between the Feshie and Tromie with native woodland and which I will consider in a further post (there are I think many positive aspects to the proposals), but to look at this decision from a policy and planning perspective.   What is important here is not just the size of the proposed developments – 15 miles of track in a National Park – but that 7.3km of the track are within the Cairngorms National Scenic Area and 9 km in the Cairngorms Wild Land Area.

 

The policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and this decision

Many conservation and recreation organisations welcomed the statement in the National Park Partnership Plan approved earlier this year that there would be a presumption against new constructed tracks in open moorland areas.

 

This commitment was developed further in the Main Issues Report, which set out the main areas for public consultation in the forthcoming Local Development Plan, which was considered by the CNPA Board on 6th October:

 

Preferred Option

The existing Local Development Plan includes a specific policy on landscape. It outlines a presumption against any development that does not conserve the landscape character and special qualities of the National Park. This has been used effectively to control and mitigate the impacts of new hill tracks in cases where they require planning permission. We think the existing policy will continue to provide an appropriate means for controlling these forms of development in the future. However, we also think that we could give more clarity on the issue of hill tracks by amending the policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s specific presumption against new tracks in areas of open moorland.

 

“Do you agree that the new Local Development Plan should include an amended policy to reflect the National Park Partnership Plan’s presumption against new hill tracks in open moorland areas?”

 

It is somewhat ironic that just the day before (see here), on 5th October, CNPA staff had emailed Highland Council that despite the potentially significant landscape impact, they were content for the proposed tracks to be dealt with by Highland Council under the Prior Notification System.

The track proposals, the green area on the right marks the National Scenic Area while the tracks in the bottom half of the map are in the Cairngorms Wild Land area. Some of the proposed tracks including U-V, A-B and B to the green which marks the edge of the forestry plantation, run across open moorland. W-X is an upgraded ATV track which runs along the ridge of the Corbett Carn Dearg Mor.

What is even more extraordinary about the CNPA decision is that back in the Spring, in their response to the Government planning consultation on People, Places and Planning they had argued (rightly in my opinion) that the whole Prior Notification system for hill tracks was flawed and that tracks should require full planning permission:

 

We also consider that the review should consider whether some development that can
be undertaken through prior notification or approval as agricultural and private roads
and ways should simply require planning permission. Many tracks on open moorland
and hills have some link to an agricultural purpose, even where the primary use is for
sporting activities. These tracks can be contentious, but the public may never know of
their approval nor have an opportunity to make representation on them. We suggest
that new tracks on open ground that are not in enclosed farmland should simply require
planning permission, irrespective of the purpose of the track.

 

The Feshie track proposal was, one might have thought, an ideal opportunity for the CNPA to consider properly the implications of a large development of hill tracks under the planning system and allow the public to comment.  Instead, the CNPA have totally contravened their own policy position.

The brown shading marks the Cairngorms Wild Land areas where there is supposed to be a presumption against new developments. Most of the proposed tracks in the application which fall into this area are in what is currently open moorland.

The situation is much worse than that however.   By allowing the proposal to be decided under the Prior Notification system – which was introduced for agricultural and forestry tracks which are treated as permitted developments under our planning system – even if significant parts of the development were justifiable, the CNPA has lost any ability to control what happens under what the planning development and left the entire development to trust.

 

Where a track is agreed through the planning system, a planning authority will always attach conditions, for example about how it should be constructed.   Wildland Ltd has produced far more documentation than would normally be submitted for Prior Notifications, for which it is to be commended, and many of these look good.  However, not only is the public being given no chance to comment – representations from the North East Mountain Trust who were consulted privately that the visual impact of the tracks would be reduced by a vegetated central strip have been ignored –  the CNPA and Highland Council now have no means of ensuring what has been proposed happens in practice.  Without planning conditions, there can be no enforcement.  This development is being left to trust.

 

What is going on?

I do not think responsibility for this mess lies with the Feshie Estate/WildLand Ltd but with our public authorities.  These include Forestry Commission Scotland, SNH, Highland Council as well as the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Its clear from references in the planning documentation that Wildland Ltd consulted with our public authorities as early as last December.  Its also appears that initially the CNPA did the right thing and asked for a full landscape assessment, as is evidenced by his extract from a communication quoted in the landscape assessment produced by Wildland Ltd:

What then happened is also revealed by the WildLand Ltd documentation:

So, just as the CNPA were telling the Scottish Government that the Prior Notification system was not fit for the purpose and before they had received any detailed information about whether the tracks could be said to be forestry or not, they had agreed that the proposals should be dealt with under the Prior Notification system.    This effectively pre-judged the decision and ruled out any public engagement and consultation.  I had been feeling a bit guilty that it has taken me three weeks, since I first heard about the proposals, to consider them on parkswatch but its clear the decision was effectively made well before then.

 

There is nothing to indicate that WildLand Ltd would have objected if they had been asked to submit a full planning application which could have been considered by the public.  While there are legal complexities about when a forestry track is a forestry track, the Wildland Ltd documentation makes it clear that these tracks are also to assist with deer management and have been designed to improve recreational access by walkers and cyclists.   In other words they are not pretending, as many estates do, that these tracks are solely for forestry purposes and therefore don’t require planning permission.   And while there might have been complexities in considering in one application tracks that did not require planning permission with those that should have required it, it is clear from the fact that WildLand Ltd submitted this as one proposal – rather than the normal track creep which is so evident in places like Drumochter – that they are trying to be open and transparent.  Its our public authorities which are the issue.

 

I can think of several possible explanations for the CNPA’s stance, none of which in my view are appropriate for a National Park:

  • A full planning application – which would have required Board visits etc – was too much work.
  • The CNPA trust WildLand Ltd, in a way that they don’t trust other estates – hence they don’t see the need for planning conditions.
  • That because Glen Feshie has been successfully reducing deer numbers and enabling native woodland to regenerate, its crucial to the National Park achieving its landscape scale restoration targets, and the CNPA therefore did not want to risk this being disrupted in any way through a planning application.

To me though none of these quite ring true.   I had started out by thinking perhaps the CNPA was under huge pressure from Glen Feshie estate but looking at the planning I don’t think that is the case.  Feshie appear to have been co-operative.  I am left with the suspicion that there is some hidden factor behind this terrible decision.   Perhaps the CNPA will disprove this and publicly explain their position and why they appear to have ignored their own and national policy?

 

Its time the CNPA started to put its money where its mouth is, trust public consultation processes and use them properly.   Had they done so, I am sure the end result could have been a new track network which achieved conservation purposes but with less impact on the landscape and wild land then the current proposals.  Examples of this will be considered in a future post.

October 21, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments
The Allt a’Chuillinn hydro track from slopes of Beinn Chabhair, Eas Eonan hydro track right background – photo credit Tom Prentice Autumn 2017

Last Saturday, sitting in a hut in the Snowdonia National Park, I came across a Guardian travel supplement “Adventures in Wild Britain” which featured ten places to experience Britain’s most stunning wildlife.  One of the places was Glen Falloch at the head of Loch Lomond (see here).

 

Regular readers and anyone who hillwalks there, will know that the landscape in Glen Falloch has been trashed by what were supposed to be temporary hydro construction tracks being granted consent by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority to remain on a permanent basis.     Of all the new Glen Falloch hydro tracks, the one up the Allt a’ Chuillinn is the least obtrusive in landscape terms from the bottom of the Glen and has been used by the National Park to demonstrate what a good job they are doing.

Track up to Allt a Chuillinn intakes June 2016

The quality of the restoration work on the Allt a’ Chuillinn track is indeed better than most of the other Glen Falloch tracks to date but the top photo shows the landscape impact.  A harsh artificial line, which is far more prominent than the Allt a Chuillinn itself, which penetrates up into the hills right to the edge of a core wild land area.  The LLTNPA officers failed to take this into account when they gave consent under delegated powers to the Glen Falloch Estate to retain this and other tracks.

 

Glen Falloch runs between the two Wild Land Areas that have been agreed for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.   Any development in Glen Falloch has obvious implications for wild land areas 6 and 7 but instead of thinking about how these wild land areas might be enhanced,  the LLTNPA has allowed tentacles of development to penetrate up all the side glens.  Wild Land areas 6 and 7 feel considerably less wild now than they did when they were created three years ago.

 

You would not know any of this from reading the Guardian article.  There is not a mention of the new hydro tracks although it would have been almost impossible for the journalist and photographer to go where they did without seeing some of these tracks.  Anyone looking at the photos in the article or reading the purple prose – “We walk for hours and miles for glimpses of deer, but what glimpses” – who didn’t know the area would be left with the impression that Glen Falloch estate is pristine.

 

The Guardian makes no mention either of the impact of the 700 deer on the estate, whether on the areas of ancient woodland at the bottom of the glen or on the mountain sites of special scientific interest or whether the estate is managing this effectively.  The article refers to “the stalker” – I have met him, a nice guy who is very relaxed about access – but it appears nothing has changed since 2013 when in their submission to the Land Reform Review Group (see here) the estate reported it employed one full-time member of staff.   Even with occasional part-time assistance one stalker could not possibly “manage” 700 deer effectively.  The Landowners however use their staff – who undoubtably work in tough conditions – to sell a message which journalists and politicians find very hard to question.

 

The promulgation of landowning ideology has always swithered between claiming how many jobs are sustained through their goodwill and current management practices and describing these jobs as precarious (with the implication that any land reform would lead to a total collapse in rural employment).  Glen Falloch however now has lots of money because its hydro schemes are operational and generating significant profits.  It will be interesting to see if any of this money is used to promote management of the estate in accordance with National Park objectives or even, dare I say it, to promote rewilding in the two wild land areas.  One suspects, however, that just like on the grouse moors very little of the money earned by the estate will be re-invested and the tracks, by making it quicker for the stalkers (or gamekeeper) to travel round the estate,  will simply enable the estate to keep the number of people they employ to a minimum.

 

The Guardian article illustrates the extent of the challenge facing proponents of conservation and land reform.   Landowning interests are extremely good at manufacturing portrayals of Highlands life for public consumption which are based on images of unspoilt landscape and wildness.  These, as in Glen Falloch, conceal the truth as to how the land is actually being managed.  Our National Parks should be challenging all of this.   My suspicion however is that in this case the LLTNPA’s large marketing team, which is mentioned in the second sentence, set the whole thing up.   Unfortunately, the LLTNPA in Glen Falloch is part of the problem, they have been failing to protect the landscape and wild land while doing nothing to promote local employment or to use the hydro schemes as an opportunity to invest in more sustainable forms of land-use.  They need to be pressurised to take a different approach in their next 5 year National Park Partnership Plan.

October 9, 2017 Nick Kempe 6 comments
Digger 6th October 2017 just southwest of col between Geal Charn and A’Mharconaich, West Drumochter Hills. Note the hillwalkers in the foreground.  GR 592766 approx.  The track curls round into Fraoch Choire north east of Beinn Udlamain.

If you see a digger in the hills……………report it!

On Friday, I went for a run up Geal Charn and went just beyond the summit because the views then open up down Loch Ericht.  There was a digger a little way to the south on what used to be a stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.  Over the last ten years or so new bulldozed tracks have proliferated on both sides of the Drumochter pass and had a massive impact on the scenery.

Track behind north Drumochter Lodge
Tracks leading into west Drumochter hills from Balsporran cottages. The track on the left, up the Allt Choire Fhar leads onto the col in the top photo with the digger.
Screenshot from the very helpful Cairngorms National Park estate boundaries map

Most of land on the north side of the Drumochter pass is part of the North Drumochter or Ralia Estate as it is sometimes known.   As far as I can see from the National Park and Highland Council planning portals only two of the North Drumochter tracks has had planning permission, a  short section south of the telephone mast in the Glen back in 2012 and a section of the Beauly Denny construction track running north from Drumochter Lodge.  The tracks on the open hillside appear not to have been subject to planning at all.

 

The problem has been that under the old planning rules agricultural and forestry tracks did not need planning permission except in National Scenic Areas.  Estates used the presence of a few sheep, as in the first photo above, to claim these were agricultural tracks when they have been primarily used for grouse moor management.       However, after coming under considerable pressure from environmental and recreational NGOs, in December 2014 the Scottish Government introduced the Prior Notification system where landowners are supposed to notify planning authorities of the creation of any new track and any works to existing tracks which effectively extend them (e.g broadening the width of the track).

 

Many estates, however, are not observing the new rules and its a considerable challenge for Planning Authorities to monitor what is going on on the ground.  (Its not possible for planning authorities to take enforcement action against works that are more than three years old).   The LINK hilltrack campaign has had considerable success encouraging hillwalkers to report new tracks but one of the challenges for both LINK and planning authorities is to determine when the track work was done .   The presence of diggers however provide evidence that work is being done.

 

What struck me on Geal Charn, a popular Munro, is just how many hillwalkers must pass track construction works on the hill  and assume that all is legitimate.    If you care about the landscape, report it!.  A good place to start is the Link Hill tracks group (see here).

 

Has the work on this track been granted planning permission or been properly notified?

You can also report direct to the Planning Authority.   Several planning authorities, including the Cairngorms National Park, are now placing all Prior Notifications on their planning portals and its quite easy to check if work has had planning permission if you know the council or National Park boundary.  In this case I went to Cairngorms National Park Authority planning applications and did a map search:

The OS Map is out of date and does not show recent tracks but the track in the top photo follows the line of an old stalkers path into the Fraoch Choire.

When you zoom in one level more than this you get to maps which depict all planning applications in red.   The situation in this case is a bit complicated since the yellow marks line marks the Cairngorms National Park boundary and the digger in the photo may have just been outwith the CNPA boundary (although of course it could have done works on either side of the boundary).  I therefore also checked the HIghland Council planning portal but as far as I can see no full planning application or Prior Notification has been submitted to either Planning Authority:

HIghland Council planning portal snapshot showing line of old footpath into Fraoch Choire. If the track had planning permission or been notified to the Planning Portal there should have been a red line by the line of the footpath.

Now of course its possible that North Drumochter Estate has notified Highland Council of the work and it has not appeared on the their planning portal or that works are of a very minor nature (routine maintenance of existing tracks) and therefore don’t need to be notified.   However, what the planning portals shows is that there is NO obvious explanation for the presence of the digger or that works have been agreed here.   I believe therefore there is every reason to report it.  So, I will!

 

If you find it difficult to access or the Planning Authorities on-line portals don’t let that put you off.  (The IDOX planning portal still does not allow you to see planning applications on maps if you use firefox as your web browser although I reported this glitch to the Scottish Government early this year)    You can email photos to the planning authority and ask if they know about this work (CNPA planning 01479 873535or planning@cairngorms.co.uk) and the LINK Hill tracks campaign (see here again) will always welcome information.

 

Hill tracks and protected areas

Where it can be hard for the planning authority to take enforcement action under planning law is if works are of a minor nature.   This however contributes to a new problem, track creep.   Tracks are gradually widened or extended or ATV tracks receive some maintenance work which over time then add up to a new track.    The photos I have – and unfortunately I did not have time to take a close look which would have been better – suggest this may be happening in this case.

 

There are other mechanisms however by which we could prevent this happening.   In protected nature sites many operations require consent from SNH and much of our National Parks are supposed to be protected in this way.  SNH has a very useful website, called sitelink which enables you to do map based searches of whether a site is protected (and it works with firefox!):

The big hatched block shows the boundary of the Drumochter Hills SSSI, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area (birds).

It appear that the digger, while it might have been just outwith the CNPA boundary was within the Drumochter Hills SSSI, SAC and SPA boundary.   Within that SSSI all work on vegetation, ditches, tracks and off road use of vehicles requires permission from SNH.   So, I will report the digger to  SNH too, although in an ideal world one would hope that our National Parks at least would automatically pass on this type of information to SNH!  Indeed, I believe one of the primary ways that the CNPA could prevent the further extension of hills tracks – a policy commitment set out in its new National Park Parternship Plan – would be to encourage and work with SNH to make the system of Operations Requiring Consent far more robust than it is at present.

What needs to be done

Besides using its planning powers and working more closely with SNH, it seems to me its time the CNPA (and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority) considered using the other powers it has to bring hill tracks and hill track work under control and protect the landscape.  I have previously advocated use of byelaws, which the National Park can create in order to protected nature conservation interests, to control grouse moor management.  Part of that should include extension of tracks and use of diggers on the hill.

 

It will help build the case for that if people out on the hill report what they see and, ideally, complain.

September 29, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Looking south along the first part of the unrestored Beauly Denny access track.  Its 4-5 metres wide, twice as wide as necessary even if it could be justified.  The Beauly Denny was bad enough but why this too?

At the end of August, after a stravaig over the east Drumochter hills, I looped back to Dalwhinnie through the Drumochter pass, the idea being to combine enjoyment with a look at the effectiveness of the restoration of the land along the Beauly Denny.   Just beyond Dalnaspidal and hidden behind the A9 shelterbelt,  I came across what can only be described as a track motorway on the Dalnacardoch Estate, an unrestored section of the  Beauly Denny construction track which appears to have been retained to facilitate intensive grouse moor management.

The track starts by the second pylon in the photo and is more or less hidden to people walking up A Bhuidheanach Bheag from opposite Dalnaspidal, although linked to the A9 there by an older and much narrower landrover track.  It extends about 3km north past the Sow of Atholl (left of A9) to the summit of the pass and boundary of the Dalnacardoch and North Drumochter Estates.

The start of the unrestored section of Beauly Denny access track heading north.  The first pylon is photo in numbered GMI 157.

Originally, the intention was almost all the Beauly Denny construction tracks were to be removed entirely once the power line had been erected and the land restored to its original condition.  The Scottish Government than agreed for several sections of track to remain permanently.

The pylons are numbered north to south

From the pylon numbers,  it appears that the section of track is 26b. If so, according to the “Monitoring Report for 2016” supplied to me by the Cairngorms National Park Authority under Freedom of Information, this is NOT one of the “temporary tracks to be retained”.

Moreover, unlike the tracks on the North Drumochter estate (see here), no application has been made to the Cairngorms National Park Authority to retain the track and they have confirmed they never approved it.     The first question that needs to be answered is whether the Scottish Government has approved the track  in secret and contrary to the policy position of the Cairngorms National Park Authority which has made its position very clear:

 

“I think we should make it very clear that the retention of sections of track associated with Beauly-Denny line will only happen in exceptional circumstances.”  (Eleanor Mackintosh, CNPA Convenor of Planning, statement to press after approval of retention of short section of construction track in forest at Kinlochlaggan).

 

If the Scottish Government has not approved it, the question is why have Scottish and Southern Energy failed to fully restore the land?

 

The failure of the track to meet approved standards

If the track has been approved, there are further questions as to whether the Scottish Government agreed to the retention of a motorway – a track which is twice as wide as necessary and which fails to meet other basic standards for good track construction as these photos illustrate.

Former laydown areas at the side of the track have not been restored
Track spoil dumped on moorland
Unused construction materials have been left on moorland – the moorland here is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest
The temporary construction bridge illustrates there has been no attempt to narrow the track on either side
There are relatively few protruding culverts but more would appear if the track had been narrowed
The unrestored ground here is  over 10m wide

For a track like this to be approved in a National Park would be a national disgrace but if not, the question is how and why is it being allowed to slip through the net?

 

The purpose of the track

It was quite obvious, jogging along the track, why the estate wished to retain it – and, at the very least they must requested SSE not to restore it.

Crow trap

 

Upturned peat turves serving as dispensers for medicated grit could be seen on both sides of the track
Similarly stoat traps
Two more traps

Unfortunately my camera battery packed up just before the end of the track but this was marked by a line of grouse butts up the hillside.

 

Intensive grouse moor management is now under scrutiny as never before.   How has this track, which impacts both on the landscape (while hidden from the A9 it would be clearly visible from the west Drumochter Hills) and on wildlife been allowed to remain in the National Park?

September 14, 2017 Nick Kempe 11 comments
Old pine tree surrounded by regeneration at An Camus Mor, isn’t this what our National Parks are for?

Large developments are, I believe, fundamentally incompatible with the whole concept of National Parks, wherever they are located across the world.   National Parks are places where the natural environment should come first, not second.  That’s why I, like many people, object to the An Camas Mor development in principle.  We should not be building new towns in the Cairngorms, whether or not these impact on protected European sites or have implications for access by visitors (see here).

That does not mean I am against new housing in our National Parks, indeed there is a crying need for social housing in the Cairngorms, but this must be of an appropriate scale and appropriately situated.   Anyone who cares about the natural environment should visit An Camas Mor and see for themselves.  In my view its a totally inappropriate location for housing, whatever the size of the development.
Earlier this week a reader expressed scepticism that the pole (left hand photo) could mark the centre of the proposed development.  I can well understand why, the location is beautiful and unspoilt, just the sort of place our National Parks were set up to protect.   I was shocked too when I visited two weeks ago and very quickly started asking myself how could the Cairngorms National Park Authority ever have consented to a development here?
Looking north towards the pole which marks the centre of the development. The Caledonian forest here is regenerating over heathland and rough pasture.

The most intensive building is proposed for the centre of the development  in the areas marked red on the map below (the pole in the photos marks as I understand it the centre of the green circle on the map).  The approved development  proposals include buildings 3.5 storeys high.   If you can see the Lairig Ghru from ground level at the centre of An Camus Mor, its quite obvious it will have a major impact on the landscape of Glenmore.  Indeed, the impact of the development on the landscape was one of the reasons why the CNPA imposed the condition that the development could be halted after 630 houses had been built.  The removal of that condition was the key change approved  by the CNPA when it agreed to vary the original planning application this August.

Extract from CNPA committee report August 2017

After my visit to the site, I believe the map in the Committee report showing the boundary of the site and dating from 2009 is totally misleading.

Much of the the east side of the site (left of the red line along the road, the B970, is depicted as rough grassland.  Its not, its regenerating  Caledonian pine forest. This is partially acknowledged by the Developer who describes the part of the site where houses will be built as “elevated woodland” – while carefully avoiding the term “Caledonian pine forest”!
This photo, from the planning papers, clearly shows that An Camas Mor is mainly woodland. You need to get up close to appreciate that a large proportion of it is regenerating Caledonian pine forest.

Unsurprisingly, in order to sell the development, those acting on behalf of Johnnie Grant, the landowner, included plenty of illustrations from Gehl, world renowned architects, of what the built environment might look like (and numerous sustainability features) rather than showing what the new town would replace.   Unfortunately very few people apart from quad bikers visit the site and experience for themselves what the developers are wanting to destroy.  I think if they did, there would be an uproar.  Yes, Gehl’s designs may be world-leading but these should be used for a new town somewhere else where they could be a credit to Scotland, not in a National Park.   While the CNPA Board did visit the site before taking their decision, they were transported along a  track by minibus – not the best way to see what it is really like.

One of the kettle holes on site, formed by the melting of the Glenmore glacier and home to rich wildlife, including the Northern Damselfly. The developers have now apparently agreed not to destroy these kettle holes, although we saw signs of recent works on the far bank.

An Camas Mor has had a variety of uses.  Parts have been and still are used for grazing cattle (which probably explains open nature of woodland in photo above) and parts have been planted (with grant aid).    In ecological terms however, much of the soil structure appears to be intact, which helps explain why, with trees regenerating, so much wildlife has now been recorded on the site.

Regenerating birch in Scots pine plantation
Granny pine in Scots pine plantation

Even where trees have been planted and the land ploughed, there has been regeneration, while old pines have been preserved. On my visit I saw Osprey, Red Squirrel, signs of badger and otter as well as rare funghi and various creepy crawlies (you can see excellent photos on the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group flickr album (see here)).

Regenerating woodland on the southern edge of the proposed development looking west to Aviemore

An Camas Mor, rewilding and the Cairngorms National Park

An Camas Mor is not pristine, one reason why its not so far been designated as a protected nature site, and there are plenty of signs of poor management.
Drain creation, Rothiemurchus style
This “forest” track was widened to provide access just prior to a pop concert a few years ago.
Eyesores from previous land-use remain

However, it is re-wilding.   Paradoxically one of the reasons for this is the proposed new town.  An Camas Mor has been left alone, allowing natural processes to take hold, while the land round about is intensively used.

Looking south from An Camas Mor across intensively farmed fields
From what I have learned though, An Camas Mor always had this re-wilding potential, because although partly abandoned now, much of it was never intensively used.   It is therefore just the sort of area that the National Park should have earmarked for regeneration and extension of the Caledonian pine forest.
The CNPA however appears to have turned a blind eye to the re-wilding potential and to have reached the wrong conclusion about the validity of the Environmental Statements accompanying the planning application:
Extract from Committee Report

The reason that the records of species found at An Camas Mor has increased is not just because there has been more recording – and part of the credit for that goes to the Badenoch and Strathspey conservation group rather than the developer – its because as a result of rewilding the wildlife on the site is improving the whole time.  The longer its left, the more will be found.  If the CNPA had insisted on proper surveys for the most recent application and compared these to all the species it has prioritised for protection in the National Park, it would have had lots of reasons not to agree to this development going ahead.

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present appears to give little priority to rewilding. Our National Parks, which could have offered a means to re-wild  parts of Scotland, have not had the drive or will to promote the potential of nature against the interests and wishes of landowners.  Meantime, apart from national nature reserves none of our other nature conservation designations – a major flaw – can be used to restore nature to places.   Our designation system is focussed on protecting what is there, not what could be.       We sorely need a means to promote re-wilding which is not entirely dependent on the goodwill of the landowner.
If Anders Povlsen, who is doing so much to re-wild Glen Feshie, or the RSPB rather than Johnnie Grant had owned this land,  I think it would be being quietly promoted as one of the jewels in the Cairngorms.   From a conservation perspective, the Scottish Government would have been far better giving Johnnie Grant £7.2m to buy up An Camas Mor than buying part of the Rothiemurchus Estate (see here), which was already fully protected.
While both the Scottish Government and the CNPA know that An Camas Mor sits at the centre of the main areas of woodland where Capercaillie now survive, they have seen the challenge as being to find ways to let the development go ahead without impacting too much on capercaillie.  Hence the detailed Habitats Regulations Assessment and mitigation proposals for An Camas Mor which, if enforced, will inevitably restrict access.   They could and should have looked at this from a completely different viewpoint.  What is the rewilding potential of An Camas Mor and what role could it play in saving the capercaillie (once again) from extinction in Scotland?
I have asked Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group why there are not capercaillie in the woods?    The first reason he gave is recreational use, and by that he did not mean walkers (I did not see another walker in two hours on what was an English bank holiday)   but the use of the forest for quad biking.
The people quad biking were very nice, obviously enjoying themselves and I even heard the tour leader, who had stopped everyone at a particular point, explain the orange marks on some trees marked those to be felled and this was being done to improve ground flora in the woods. How this fitted with the proposed development I am not sure!
The second is that part of An Camas Mor is used for pheasant breeding.
While specific, let alone conclusive research, is lacking,  even the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (see here) admits that pheasant rearing can lead to competition for food and drive other game birds (in which they include capercaillie) from the most intensively used areas while also attracting predators.
Now I am not against either quad biking or pheasant rearing, in the right place.   However, given the current parlous state of capercaillie, surely what the CNPA should be doing is engaging with relevant interests to help capercaillie re-colonise this site (and other such woods)?   This should include, if necessary, helping the current businesses relocate (if An Camas Mor goes ahead they will be finished in any case).
In a previous post  (see here)  I argued  we need an alternative plan for An Camas Mor and this  could be funded by the money which the Scottish Government apparently intends to invest in the development.   Having had a good look at the site, I believe the core of an alternative plan for An Camas Mor should be about how we can allow it to continue to rewild.  That would not cost much in itself:  narrow a few tracks to footpaths, restore other damage, remove human artefacts and rubbish and then leave nature take over..    It would then leave plenty of money to develop social housing elsewhere.
The only problem?  Landownership and how to change who controls the land.
September 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 2 comments

Like many people, I suspect, I have been waiting for  months for another case of raptor persecution to occur in the Cairngorms National Park.  For under the current grouse moor management regimes that dominate much of the National Park, its not a case of “if” but “when” another raptor will disappear.   While its taken longer than I expected, last week the RSPB announced  a young hen harrier, which had been satellite tagged on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate, had disappeared just north of Ballater.  As Raptor Persecution Scotland reported (see here) its almost certain this was on either the Invercauld estate, held by a Trust on behalf of the Farquharson family or Dinnet estate, owned by former Cairngorms National Park Authority Board Member Marcus Humphrey.   Their article documents known cases of raptor persecution in the area.

 

The Cairngorms National Park Authority issued this news release in response to the incident:

Statement: Hen harrier disappearance

1st September 2017

From Grant Moir CEO, Cairngorms National Park Authority

“A hen harrier has once again disappeared in the Cairngorms National Park, with a satellite tracker ceasing to transmit. The Park Authority is determined to stop these recurring disappearances.

“Earlier this week the CNPA met with Police Scotland to discuss how increased use of special constables can help to tackle wildlife crime in the Cairngorms National Park. We also continue to work on other solutions to these issues.

“The CNPA look forward to the establishment by Scottish Government of the independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and will feed in to that review.”

(see here for link)

However, while such a solution might work in a National Park where the Board was determined to tackle landowners, unfortunately the reality at present from the destruction at Cairngorm to the profileration of hill tracks is that the CNPA does not appear to have the will or resources to use its regulatory powers.   So, even if the CNPA introduced a licensing regime – and was allowed to act independently of its minders at the Scottish Government – this might not change anything.
Another solution is to nationalise the land.  In many National Parks across the world land is in public ownership.  National Parks were set up in Scotland on the assumption that it would be possible to persuade landowners to cooperate.   They have now had 15 years to do so and some still blatantly ignore all the conservation objectives of the National Park.  I think its time therefore for people to start demanding that where there is evidence of repeated raptor persecution (or a repeated failure to meet other conservation objectives) on particular estates in our National Parks the Scottish Government should compulsorily purchase the estate concerned.  Tney could then transfer the land to a new National Parks land-management service, as exists in other countries, to manage.
August 18, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Photo from Luss Gathering Facebook page 2017 (it took place Saturday1st July) – count the tents and shelters!

The Luss Gathering takes place each year on Luss playing fields which now form part of the west Loch Lomond camping management zone.   Since last year the camping management byelaws have made it a criminal offence to erect a tent in a camping management zone without explicit authorisation from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.   Mostly such authorisation is granted through the camping permit system the Park has created but this only allows tents to be put up in specified permit areas.   Luss is not one of them, no doubt because some local residents had blamed camping for all the problems of anti-social behaviour the village was experiencing and so no camping under permit is allowed close by.

 

The other way permission to put up a tent can be obtained is to apply for an one-off exemption to put up a tent or tents.   Decisions about such exemptions are, under the Park’s procedures supposed to be advertised on the Park’s weekly planning list which I have been monitoring for some time now.    Most of the applications are from Duke of Edinburgh and Scout Groups, with hard-pressed voluntary Scout Leaders and teachers,  no longer able to organise expeditions which stay overnight in the camping management zones without the Park’s permission.   The bureaucracy and additional workload is signficant and I feel for the (mainly youth) groups involved.  They were, just like other responsible campers, never part of any problem – indeed being supervised, the chances of such expeditions causing any damage were minimal – but nevertheless the Park has required them to apply for permission to camp.

 

I tend to recall applications from other bodies for exemption from the camping byelaws – that from the Loch Ard Sailing club comes to mind – but don’t remember seeing one for the Luss Highland Games.    I have double-checked all planning applications decided for the Luss and Arden Community Council since April on the Park’s planning portal and cannot find any appllcation to exempt the Luss Gathering either.  I am thus reasonably certain that the Luss Gathering did not apply for and were not granted permission to pitch the tents that feature on the photo above.   If I am correct,  all those responsible in putting up these tents have committed a criminal offence.   Ridiculous I know, as common sense tells us that these people have done no wrong.

 

But neither has Mr Trout, the angler who is being prosecuted simply because he broke the byelaws for doing what he has done for years (see here), just like the people who organise the Luss Gathering.  Neither has done any wrong.  Mr Trout told me that the police officer employed by the National Park, PC Barr, when cautioning him, had told him the law is the law and has to be enforced.  It would be interesting to know how many events PC Barr or other police officers have attended over the summer – I cannot believe that there was no police presence at the Luss Gathering – and what action they have taken.  My guess is none but I would be more than happy to publish information from the police or the LLTNPA if I have got this wrong..

 

The camping byelaws are daft but since during the Your Park consultation both Luss Estates and  members of the local community in Luss strongly supported them, there is an argument they should be made to live by the rules they have created for everyone else.   I would prefer it if they now joined those of us who believe the camping byelaws were never justified, are completely unfair and a complete waste of resources and call publicly for them to be dropped at the earliest opportunity.

 

Meantime, there was a helpful reminder of the real problems which the National Park Authority should have been addressing at Luss in this letter which appeared in the Herald on Monday.   It is significant that it is from someone who is in the tourism industry.   The new National Park Partnership Plan needs to completely change the focus of what the Park is doing, from wasting money and resources on trying to chase off responsible campers to the provision of the basic infrastructure the Park needs.

 

 

 

August 15, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment

One of the priority actions under the last Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Partnership Plan was to develop long-term Land Management Plans across the National Park, an objective that everyone with an interest in land-use and landscape should support.   Interested to understand what progress had been made, I asked the LLTNPA for copies of all plans that been agreed and in June the LLTNPA informed me (see here) that plans had been agreed with 18 private businesses “which equates to 29% of all privately owned land in the National Park”  – exceeding their 25% target.  However, they refused to release any of the Plans that had been agreed on the grounds they were commercially sensitive.  To me, this seemed bizarre, surely how land is being managed in our National Parks is a matter of public interest and should be public?

 

I therefore asked for a review of this decision EIR 2017-043 Review request and this week received a response, EIR REVIEW 2017-043 Response estate plans.  This claims that these land management are so full of commercially sensitive information – which can be exempt from publication under the Freedom of Information Act in certain circumstances – that they cannot be released.   The implications of the Park’s claims for Land Reform and land-use management are profound.   What the Park is in effect saying is that because the plans contain commercially sensitive information they will not release the information these plans contain relating to the Park’s statutory objectives to conserve the landscape and wildlife, promote public enjoyment of the countryside and sustainable use of resources.  Among other things the following would now appear, according to the Park, to be state secrets:

  • agreements made with landowners to manage deer numbers and reduce the impact of deer grazing on the environment
  • agreements made with landowners to improve recreational infrastructure, such as car parks or campsites
  • agreements made with landowners about how land could be managed to reduce the risk of flooding
  • plans to protect vulnerable species or to control predator
  • plans for future developments, such as hydro schemes

In effect the Park is claiming that agreements it makes with landowners on how land should be managed are secret and not a matter of public interest.   This is totally wrong and contradicts National policy.

 

The Scottish policy position

 

Last year the Scottish Government issued a revised Land-use strategy for Scotland 2016-21 http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0050/00505253.pdf  under the title “Getting the best from our land” – note the “our”.   Here are some relevant extracts:

 

a) Under “Principles Land Use” “People should have opportunities to contribute to debates and decisions about land use and management decisions which affect their lives and their future.”

How can people, including local communities, contribute to land-use decisions in the National Park if information about land-use is secret?

 

b) Under “Our Vision” “A Scotland where we fully recognise, understand and value the importance of our land resources, and where our plans and decisions about land use will deliver improved and enduring benefits, enhancing the wellbeing of our nation.”

How can we know if decision the Park is making with landowners about land-use are delivering “improved and enduring benefits” if these decisions are secret?

 

c) The Land Use Strategy also supports the three underpinning principles in A Stronger Scotland, The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2015-16.  The third of these is “making sure that we encourage and facilitate participation by everyone in the debates and decisions that matter to them most, regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds”

How does the LLTNPA’s secret agreement with landowners support this objective?

 

d) Under “Our Objectives”  “Urban and rural communities better connected to the land, with more people enjoying the land and positively influencing land use.”
How do secret management plans enable more people to positively influence land-use?
e)  “Our Objective to maximise the opportunities for land to deliver multiple economic, environmental and social benefits is still valid and at the heart of this second Land Use Strategy.
In 2011 we published an information note on Applying an Ecosystems Approach to Land Use…………(which)….. “summarised the three key steps which are important when using an ecosystems approach, these are:
• considering natural systems;
• taking account of the services that ecosystems provide; and
• involving people.”
How does keeping management plans secret involve people?

f) 2.5 Land Use and Communities “We are all part of a community. A community can be based on its location (for example,people who live, work or use an area) or common interest (for example, the business community, sports or heritage groups). Both need to be at the heart of decisions about  land use because land is at the core of our communities. It provides places for us to live, work, and enjoy recreation………………When people can influence what happens in their community and contribute to delivering change, there can be many benefits. Pride in the local community can increase, people may be more inclined to go outdoors and be active, or have the opportunity to grow their own fruit and vegetables and eat more healthily. All of these things improve people’s physical health, mental wellbeing and overall quality of life.   It has also been shown that most people feel that they should be involved in local land use decisions beyond the rights already provided by the statutory planning system; this is why we need to encourage better connections between communities and the land.”

So according to the Scottish Government involving people should be central to land-use – except in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park it would appear.  The LLTNPA is not only failing to consult on land-use decisions, its keeping information about the basis of those decisions secret.  And our National Parks are supposed to demonstrate best practice!     Its worth noting here that the Cairngorms National Park Authority does publish estate management plans.  While they are far from perfect, in fact in many cases so general as to be meaningless, at least what the CNPA is doing is public and provides a basis for debate.   It appears that the LLTNPA would prefer that not to happen.
Its hard to avoid the conclusion that at some level the LLTNPA has in effect been taken over and is being run for landowner and business interests rather than the public interest.

Land management plans and freedom of information

The Park makes two interesting statements in its Review Response refusing to make land management plans public.

The first is that “there is commercially sensitive information throughout the documents, such information is not discretely held within one part of the document. The plans also contain copies of reports provided by third party consultants on the viability of businesses and future plans.”   Now, while I am sceptical about how far landowners have provided commercially sensitive information to the National Park, if there is indeed commercial information inserted throughout the plans, the obvious solution – apart from redacting the commercially sensitive information which would be a lot of work – is to redesign the plans so that business information is held in a separate document which would not need to be made public.   This would make it easy to publish plans which set out the agreements made  with landowners – e.g deer numbers, extent of woodland restoration, plans for new paths – without the financial information that underpins the delivery of this.   Having said this, where work is to be financed through public funds, I see no reason why this information should not be public.  Its should be in the public interest, for example, to know what Forestry Commission Scotland intends to grant aid.

The second is the LLTNPA’s statement  that “the ILMPs have been put together with businesses within the National Park on the understanding that this information is not shared publically (sic)”.   My understanding of Freedom of Information law is that this is totally wrong: public authorities cannot get round the Freedom of Information Act by making private agreement with landowners or anyone else that the information will not be public.   That is why in every public tender and contract clauses are included which state that any information provided is subject to the provisions of Freedom of Information law.   The LLTNPA statement suggests once again that its being driven by landowning and business interests, not the public interest.

What needs to happen

While I will appeal to the Information Commissioner – the National Park cannot be allowed to drive a cart and horses through our Freedom of Information legislation – this is a matter that the LLTNPA Board need to address.   I believe they need to:

  • Require staff to re-design estate management plans so that information that is legitimately confidential is separated out from decisions that are being made about land-use
  • Consider how to consult and involve the public in the development of land management plans as per Scotland’s Land-use Strategy
  • Commit to publishing all plans that have been agreed so far as soon as possible
June 26, 2017 Nick Kempe 4 comments
Recent clearfell at the Rest and Be Thankful. The conservation section of the draft NPPP fails to address the issues that matter such as the landscape and conservation impacts of industrial forestry practices in the National Park Photo Credit Nick Halls

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.

 

Conservation parkspeak

 

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.

Netting above the A83 in Glen Croe has further trashed visual amenity in the glen while not stopping the problem of landslides.   The problem is the A83 takes the wrong route – almost anywhere else in the world this route would have been tunnelled but not in a Scottish National Park.
Scotgold has permission during its trial at Cononish to store 5000 tonnes of spoil in bags – think what 400,000 tonnes would look like.
The Beinn Ghlas hydro track in Glen Falloch – the whole of Glen Falloch, which runs between the two prime wild land areas in the National Park, has been trashed by hydro tracks which planning staff agreed could be retained (originally they were to be removed) without any reference to the LLTNPA Board.

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.

Beinn Ghlas hydro scheme – the LLTNPA appears uninterested in evaluating the impact of channelling water off the hill through pipes

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

 

The photo that appears on the page on Conservation Outcome 2, Landscape conservation

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:

Why is FCS building artificial dams when beavers could do the same job?

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.

Powerlines at northern end Loch Lomond dominate much of the landscape of what is supposed to be a world class walk, the West Highland Way

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?

Alt nan Caoran Hydro intake south of Ben Lui and Ben Oss – you can just see pipeline above centre of dam

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.

June 23, 2017 Nick Kempe 10 comments
Part of upper section of Cluny Estate track, Glen Banchor

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).

 

The latest entry on the CNPA’s Planning Enforcement Register

 

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 lower section of the track up the shoulder of Craig Leth Choin is apart from the landscape impact, too steep and will be constantly subject to erosion

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.