Tag: restoration

November 17, 2017 Nick Kempe 23 comments
The Cononish gold mine as it looked on a dreich day in May – the same day as the pre-consultation event in the Tyndrum Village Hall

The failures in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park’s consultation system

A couple of weeks ago, at the Scottish Wild Group AGM, I was told that a planning application  had been submitted back in August for the new proposal for waste storage waste from the Cononish Gold Mine (see here).   The formal consultation period lasted 28 days and, while I have spent a few days feeling bad that I had missed this and failed to advertise what is being proposed, what I have realised is very few other people knew about the application either.  That is until Scotgold placed a story in the press earlier this week presenting the application as a done deal (see here for example).

 

This demonstrates a fundamental flaw in our planning system.  There was no a single objection on the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority planning portal (see here) until I lodged one on Wednesday.  Although this was outwith the formal consultation period, because the application has not yet been determined, you can still lodge comments and I would urge anyone with an interest to do so.

 

The lack of public comment until this week – there are three letters of support which all appeared on the same day – is not I believe because people don’t care about what is being proposed.   There there were significant number of objections to earlier applications.  The reason is that either people don’t know what is being proposed or don’t understand.  I have checked and it appears that neither the Ramblers nor Mountaineering Scotland were informed about the application even though the Ramblers Scotland tweeted a photo of an unlawful Scotgold anti-access sign at the weekend (see here).  (The sign is unlawful because its placed far beyond the current working site boundary).   It should be the business of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority as Planning Authority to make sure that recreational organisations are informed.  When the LLTNPA consults RSPB as a matter of course (they did in this case and every hydro application I can recall) – a good thing – why cannot they also consult the Mountaineering Council about similar developments in the hills?

 

It took me a couple of hours to understand how the 147 documents then on the Park planning portal relate to each other.  There is the main Environmental Statement  then a jumble of appendices and supporting documents which unfortunately don’t appear in the right order.  After scrutinising this I realised the first two appendices to the Environmental Statement, the Pre-application Consultation summary and Consultees responses, appear to be missing from documentation:

 

I have asked the LLTNPA to make these missing appendices public.  There seems little point to the current emphasis the Scottish Government puts on open and transparent pre-consultation if that is not reported.  I look forward to seeing the responses scotgold has made to the questions I and a friend made when we visited the consultation event at the village hall, which were all about how much more mine waste was going to be dumped on the hillside and the reasons for this.

 

What’s going on at Cononish shows is that there are major democratic deficits in our planning system.  This suits Developers and, it appears, the LLTNPA, because it avoids planning proposals from being subject to external scrutiny.   Its really important that  the public demand that the Scottish Government address these failures in the forthcoming planning bill.

 

The main reasons why the new planning application must be refused by the LLTNPA

Its not clear how much of the 8000 tonnes of waste was stored in these bags when this photo was taken in May – but in visualising the impact of the waste of the new planning proposal assume there is 7000 tonnnes in the bags and consider what 100 times this amount of waste would look like.  That gives an idea of how much waste is to be dumped – sorry sculpted – onto the slopes below the mine.

Scotgold already has planning permission for the gold mine, subject to certain conditions, and earlier this year Scotgold they were given an additional permission to start work on processing 8000 tonnes of former mine waste to extract gold. For the waste pictured above thas produced ten one ounce rounds which the press reported this week were auctioned for £46k, a mark up on nearly 400% over current market price.  I will come back to how any of this can be considered sustainable economic development or sustainable use of resources in a future post.

 

Here I will focus on the two key differences from the earlier planning application.  The first is that far more waste will be dumped outside of the mine.  The original approval included the following conditions::

REASON: To minimise the adverse landscape and visual impact and ensure that the site is restored to a satisfactory standard in this sensitive area of the National Park.”

 

The key bit is under point 5, the  amount of waste to be stored outside the mine was limited to 400,000 tonnes because of the sensitivity of the National Park.  Since the original application, the areas of the gold mine has been included in the Ben Lui Wild Land area so any protection of that sensitivity should be even stronger than before.

 

In my posts earlier this year, I drew attention to the fact that that amount of waste Scotgold wanted to dump outside the mine had increased to 530,000 tonnes of tailings.  It now that this was a vast undersestimate and that in addition to this scotgold wants to dump another 170,000 tonnes of unprocessed rock waste outside the mine.  That makes 700,000 tonnes of waste in all, a 75% increase in the amount of waste that is to dumped on the hillside outside the mine.   Nowhere in the application is this enormous increase clearly stated.  It appears no-one wants the public to know.  One consequence, if this is approved, is that the waste is now going to be disposed over a far wider area than would be needed if it was limited to 400,000 tonnes as previously.

 

It appears money has driven this change.  It would cost far more to replace waste back in the mine because the construction of tailings dams requires large up front capital investment.  So the new plan is not only to avoid replacing waste back into the mountain, its to create 10 tailings stacks of approximately 72,0000 tonnes each.  The second main difference to the earlier proposal.   This represents one full year’s worth of waste if new mining machinery is installed, 6 months if its not.  The stacks will be up to 10m high and moulded into shapes Scotgold claim will resemble moraine.

Extract planning application

One of the interesting things about this is the current proposal is claimed to be much better in landscape terms than the last one – an admission that the tailings dam as approved would in fact have had an adverse impact on the landscape in a sensitive area  (and therefore should have been refused by the LLTNPA!).  This time though we are told there will be no adverse impact, even though almost twice the amount of mine waste is to be spread over the hillside.  I am sceptical and so should the LLTNPA.

The reason for this is that in order to extract the gold, the quartz ore need to be crushed until it becomes sand and it is this sand which will make up the bulk of the stacks.  Now while you find sand in glacial moraine there is also lots of rock and finer particles – silt which goes to make clay – which helps bind the whole lot together.    However, if you place sand onto what is a pretty wet hillside – it was sopping when I visited in May – it would all wash away which is no doubt why originally a tailings dam was proposed.   Scotgold’s proposed solution to this – although storing sand is never acknoweldged as far as I can see to be a problem –  is to use the rock waste which was to be left in the mine to line the ground, put a geo-textile on top of this and then mould the sand on top of that.    Here are the design criteria:

Now it doesn’t take an expert to see that there are potentially two major problems with this.  The first is there is nowhere I can see that any consideration is given either to the life span of the membrane or what happens when it breaks down as it eventually must.  A reasonable assumption is that when this happens the stacks of compressed sand will start to be eroded away from beneath.   I suspect by then scotgold will have long gone leaving the public to pick up the tabs for preventing an environmental disaster.

 

The second is there is no proper consideration that I can see of whether it is possible to revegetate heaps of sand in the Scottish Hills in such a way that they will be able to withstand the erosive force of water from above or from the sides.  The re-vegetation plan is to store turfs, up to 30 cm thick and then use them to cover the stacks.  How well these will take on dried sand, which should drain quickly and is different in composition to current soils/peat is unclear.   Cononish, as the chart helpfully shows, has over three metres of rain a year.  Some of that may run off the top of vegetation but some of it will seep into the dried out sand heaps.   What will that do?   And even if the vegetation does take and provides a waterproof seal, what happens if deer get into the enclosure and start to erode tracks over the mounds?    It seems to me there is a high and predictable risk of wash outs of the tailing stacks. And that’s without considering the risks of the Alt Anie changing course by more than the 30m safety zone or of other burns running between the stacks which could be subject to flash floods.  That sort of scenario lead to catastrophic wash-outs.

 

I find it strange that neither SEPA nor SNH in their responses – and they have a duty to protect the River Tay Special Area of Conservation  have asked critical questions about the risks associated with the current proposals or for evidence that the proposed techniques work in very wet climates such as Tyndrum.   Perhaps they think its ok for 530,000 tonnes of sand potentially to wash into the river system over say the next 200 years?   Smaller heaps, with less material as originally agreed, would of course reduce the size of this risk.

Hummocky moraine in Strathfillan below the gold mine. The slopes of many of these moraines considerably exceeds 30% but they have held together for thousands of years because of the mix of materials within them, blocky till set within a matrix and sand and silt which often sets like concrete.

I am no expert on erosion risks and there is some technical documentation in the application which relates to this which needs to be explained in lay terms as well as properly scrutinised.  However, from a scan of the documents – there are 100s of pages of engineering documentation – there is some information in the application which suggests storage of sand is problematic.  This indicates there are high risks of sand sheering on slopes of more than 30 degrees.  This is why the proposed stack heaps do not  resemble natural moraine (for an example see above) but are to be moulded across the hillside.

 

 The Landscape impact of the tailings stacks

One of the landscape visualisations. You can hardly see the enormous green shed below the mine or the tailings. The white/grey patch below and right of the mine represents an unrestored tailings stack.

The Environmental Statement contains a number of visualisations of the landscape impact from different angles (see above).  These without exception make the tailings stacks disappear into the hillside.  Maybe they will, but there are reasons to be sceptical:

 

  • All the visualisations are from a distance and none show what a 10m high stack will look like from close up either before or after restoration.
  • The photos are all browns, a depiction of the area in winter.  However, because the stacks will be well drained their vegetation is likely to be very different to the surrounding peaty slopes and therefore stand out from it.   How this might look is unclear.

 

There are no depictions of how the sand heaps will look when they start to erode away as eventually they must.

 

The landscape impact of the buildings and spoil around the mine is not really covered but is already having a significant landscape impact.  The assumption seems to be blots on the landscape, as long as developers can claim they are temporary (in this case it will be for over 20 years not for all time, are perfectly acceptable in our National Parks.

 

The wider implications of this application

Cononish is not the only potential goldmine in the area and scotgold, when trying to talk up its prospects to attract investors, claims there is potential for several other mines in the area.  So what will the cumulative impact be of potentially millions of tonnes of mine waste sculpted onto hillsides around the Tyndrum and Glen Orchy hills?

 

What needs to happen

The LLTNPA needs to subject the new planning application to  critical scrutiny and in particular make a clear statement about the sustainability or not of the tailings stacks.

 

If the erosion risks can be addressed, in terms of the existing planning permission, it might be better for 400,000 tonnes of waste to be stored in a stacks rather than in a tailings dam.  However, the LLTNPA needs to draw a line under the amount of waste it will allow to be stored on the hillside and this should not exceed the existing limit.

 

November 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
An unexceptional scene? Not when you compare it to how it looked this time last year (see below). Turves and vegetation have been taken from the lower (right) side of track and used to restore the scar on the upper (left) side of the track.

Following my two posts last December about the destruction caused by the hydro scheme in Glen Bruar (see here) and (here), I took a jog up the glen on Saturday.  I was prompted to do so after planning staff at the Cairngorms National Park Authority were kind enough to inform me – unprompted – that significant restoration work had been undertaken over the summer.

The view in August 2016
Looking south at the worst section of pipeline scar 2016

Photo showing how turves and other vegetation has been “robbed” from below the track to cover up the scar above. Note the digger scoop mark centre.[/caption]

Its hard to tell how many boulders have been removed but given the failure to store and re-use vegetation, the only way the scar could be covered up was by robbing vegetation from elsewhere.   In Glen Bruar this has been taken from the areas either side of the pipeline.  While I am not an ecologist, it appears to have been done very well.   There is more bare ground evident in the photo above, which I have used as it shows the work was all done by digger, than is evident along most of the track.   Evidence of good practice is that the contractor has managed to remove vegetation without creating deep buckets  holes and left sufficient vegetation to prevent soil erosion.

A more typical view of how the ground below the track and pipeline which has been robbed for turves now appears

As a consequence the ground which has been “robbed” should recover quite quickly.

Restored boulder band scar showing how “robbed” turves and soil have been used.

The work on the restored area is also in my view of high quality, with the restored surface being similar to the land on either side (rather than being pockmarked with ankle busting holes) while the transplanted vegetation appears to have taken.  The result is that the ground is already blending with that to land around,  a complete contrast to a year ago.  In landscape terms this looks like an excellent example of disaster recovery.  Its interesting that the Reinstatement Note provided by the CNPA suggests that the contractor who did the restoration was different to that who constructed the pipeline.   I am tempted to suggest they deserve an award.

Evidence of plants colonising bare ground. This will help stabilise the soils but which plants will establish themselves in the medium term is uncertain

Its too early to say if the original poor restoration of the pipeline will have a permanent impact on the vegetation in the glen and, for example, allow new invasive species to move in.  Once the soils and vegetation had not been stored properly, areas of bare ground were inevitable.

 

There is also still one area where the landscape scar is prominent, where the pipeline cuts across a slope above an area of deep peat:

At present it looks like very little attempt has been made to restore this.

New drainage ditch showing depth of peat. The excavated material has been dumped on left.

There are however some obvious opportunities to do so.  The vegetation that has recently been removed to create this ditch could have been used to reinstate part of the boulder band.

The start of the section of unrestored pipeline marked by the boulder field. Note the large peat turves foreground far right which appear to date from original excavation and have never been used for restoration purposes.

My conclusion is the restoration of the pipeline still has a bit further to go but its an incredible improvement on how the glen appeared this time last year.  CNPA staff and the contractors deserve to be congratulated for what they have managed to do so far to mitigate what was a landscape disaster.   I will cover other aspects of the restoration work and impact of the hydro schemes in Glen Bruar in a further post.

 

Lessons from the Glen Bruar restoration

Here are a few lessons which I think should be learned from what happened in Glen Bruar:

  1. The Glen Bruar pipeline shows that contractors can cause incredible destruction to the landscape if not supervised properly.   Developers appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works to ensure high standards clearly did not work in this case.  This creates a strong argument – which is relevant to the forthcoming planning bill – that instead of appointing their own Ecological Clerks of Works (who are dependent on them for their wages) Developers should pay higher planning fees.  This would enable planning authorities either to supervise work directly or employ truly independent people to do so.   Our National Parks need better means available to them to prevent disasters from happening in the first place.
  2. What Glen Bruar also shows that if restoration is non-existent or not to the required standard, its quite possible to rectify adverse landscape impacts if there is the will and a skilled contractor.   If this can be done in Glen Bruar, then there is absolutely no excuse for Scottish Southern Electric and the Scottish Government to sit on their hands at Drumochter (see here).

    If Glen Bruar can be restored so can Drumochter
  3. I hope the CNPA will now use what they have achieved in Glen Bruar to make the case for active landscape restoration in Drumochter.
  4. While the CNPA provided me with the re-instatement note, this was not published on the Park’s planning portal and there is no detailed documentation there (see here) about how the restoration works were to be undertaken.  Other aspects of the restoration, which I will cover in my next post, were dealt with as Non-Material Variations to the existing consent and were published on the planning portal this year.  This is extremely helpful to enable the public to understand what the CNPA has been doing.   On the biggest issue however nothing has been published.  I think it should,  both for transparency but also to enable others to learn.
October 4, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
At a landscape scale, the impact of the work that was done to replace the shieling t-bar with a rope tow does not look too bad, with the most obvious change being the colour of the slope, which has changed from brown to green due to the replacement of heather by grasses. In the foreground you can see ragwort which has colonised disturbed ground.

After the extensive coverage parkswatch gave to the destruction caused by engineering works in Coire Cas last year (see here for example), at the end of August a small group of us went to have a look at how the restoration work was going.   In my view while there have been some improvements, there is a long way to go.   The purpose of this post is to illustrate some of the issues.

That there had been some improvements did not surprise us as Highlands and Islands Enterprise have been paying for a clear-up  at Cairngorm in preparation for a planning application to install a dry ski slope above the Coire Cas Car Park (see here) and redevelop the Ptarmigan restaurant.  Neither application would look good if Cairngorm was still a tip.    A few weeks ago Natural Retreats submitted a planning application for the Dry Ski Slope but this was then, mysteriously, withdrawn.

While a fair bit of rubbish has been removed from Coire Cas, including bits of pipe that must have been there 30 years, we did not have to look far to find more.  The cynic in me wondered if it had been placed on this side of the fence so it could not be seen by passengers travelling in the funicular!

 

The restoration of the shieling track

The shieling track, which had been created unlawfully and then granted retrospective planning permission by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (see here) looked far better then we had expected.  The whole track surface, including wheel lanes, had been re-seeded which has helped to stabilise the ground and cross drains installed, as required by the CNPA.  So, were conservationists wrong to oppose it?  I don’t think so.  The reason why it looks this good is that it has not been used..  The question is what will happen if and when it does?

Poor track design. The cross drain empties onto the track beyond and while protecting the top of the new shieling track (right) will increase the erosion on the track  to the former Fiacaill T-bar (left – and which incidentally has never been granted planning permission). Note the rut developing at the end of the cross drain.

There is evidence for what will happen this from the top of the shieling track (the start of the track is to the right of the cross drain in the photo).  As soon as vehicles use this ground the re-seeded grass is likely to wear away and the surface of the track erode,  as on the left side of photo.  Since the shieling track is significantly steeper, exceeding at the top SNH’s maximum recommended inclination for hill tracks, the erosion is likely to be worse.

The parodox here is the only way the Shieling track will look acceptable is if its not used.  Perhaps the CNPA should have followed the advice of the North East Mountain Trust who suggested heather should have been re-established across the entire shieling slope and that the uptrack under the rope tow could have been used for occasional vehicle use?

Cross drains  have been installed along the Shieling track (left – a recycled Council road barrier is far cheaper than using natural materials) but the re-seeding has not stopped some sediment and stones being washed into them, a sign of continuing erosion.

 

Who paid for the pump house?

We did see one example of a cross drain where a significant amount of care had been taken (left).  The turfs should help hold back and filter sediments.  By contrast, above, was an example of Natural Retreats’ incompetence (right).   Water channelled against the wooden sides of the pump house building!   Rotten to the core!

The landscaping of the area around the Shieling track

The area below the shieling rope tow outwith the area granted planning permission by the CNPA. The bank on the right was unlawfully “reprofiled”.

The photo demonstrates the large area affected by the shieling works and  where vegetation and turves were not retained prior to re-instatement, hence all the re-seeding (the green in the photo).  While heather should re-colonise this area in time we will need to wait to see other longer term impacts, such as whether invasive species colonise some of the ground.  The picture will be complicated because the CNPA required compensatory tree planting as a condition of the retrospective planning permission, although this had not started at the time of our visit and there is no mention of this on Cairngorm Mountain’s “Behind the Scenes” blog (Autumn is a good time for planting).

What was pleasing to see was the interpretation boards, which had fallen into utter disrepair, had been replaced.   I suspect this was organised by the Ranger Service and perhaps by Nic Bullivant before he departed as head ranger.   It appears this was funded by the lottery not Natural Retreats who appear to have no interest in this visualisation of the future.   I believe this vision should be at the centre of an alternative plan for Cairngorm (with trees rather than snow fences collecting the snow).  Unfortunately a number of trees were killed in the unlawful works that took place in Coire Cas and one reason there are not more trees here, in contrast to the path round to Coire an-t-Sneachda – is that vehicles are allowed to drive willy nilly over the vegetation.

My biggest concern on the day was landscaping.  The area with boulders is outwith that granted planning permission but has been subject to extensive engineering works and new drainage.  It looks totally out of place and there has been no attempt to restore the slope to how it previously looked.

While culverts along the burn at the bottom of the shieling slope  – which required permission from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency – have been finished well, other culverts which did have permission from SEPA, are right eyesores.

Natural Retreats did not retain enough soil/peat to replace vegetation on top of culvert, required to enable skies to cross over to the bottom of the new rope tow.
Natural Retreats has made half an attempt to conceal these boulders by the Shieling track
Above the shieling rope tow the boulder dumps are more visible from a distance

The shieling rope tow and surrounds was subject to planning permission from the Cairngorms National Park Authority and they therefore continue to have some influence (legally) on the restoration of this area.  The three things I think they need to focus on are: restoration of vegetation, landscaping and the ecological impact of the changed drainage in the area.

 

The area above the Shieling rope tow

Highland Council agreed to works to prevent the collapse of the Cas Gantry on a de minimis basis without planning permission.  On balance I believe the lack of any planning controls has contributed to the landscape restoration around the Cas Gantry being worse than than below.

Some, but not all the boulders which were shoved under the gantry as a result of piste widening works (no planning permission) have been restored.

Turf has been placed along top of the slope which Natural Retreats excavated in order to try and prevent water flooding down it. The basic issue is the slope is too steep and no vegetation/turf was retained for restoration purposes. The bluish re-seeding pellets (left foreground) continue to get washed out and the risk is this slope will again be subject to severe erosion this winter.

Culvert pipe chopped? to create pool to provide water for snow making machines. I understand the wooden box on the right helps sediment in the water to settle out and prevents the snow making machines becoming blocked with silt.

The finishing of the culverts is very poor.

View down “track” from former shieling restaurant to recently renewed former Lifties hut.

Worst of all though is the uncontrolled use of vehicles.  The track above never used to be there, has been created through vehicle use, is far too steep and is eroding badly.  It has never been granted Planning Permission.  Forest Enterprise Scotland provides Prior Notification for new tracks as short as 40m to Planning Authorities so HIE has no excuse for this.

ATV tracks by the former shieling restaurant – there is a second track on the right running parallel to the one in the centre.

Off track use of vehicles at Cairngorm used to be strictly controlled but is now seen as unnecessary bureaucracy.

 

What needs to happen in Coire Cas?

The evidence shows that the clear-up and restoration of Coire Cas has a long way to go.  I cannot see this happening as long as Natural Retreats continue to manage it (they are both incompetent and only interested in what money they can extract from Cairngorm) and HIE owns it.   If Coire Cas is to protected and cared for a change in ownership and management is essential and the best chance of this happening is the proposed local community buy-out.

We also, however, need the CNPA to get involved,  in what in tourist terms is the heart of the National Park.   While this post has identified some areas around the Shieling rope tow where they could use their planning powers to drive further restoration, the involvement of the National Park should be much wider than that.  Unfortunately at present they are no match for HIE which receives high levels of political support despite its mismanagement at Cairngorm.

It is now one year since the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy, which was supposed to deliver a comprehensive plan for Cairngorm, was agreed by the CNPA Board.   In the papers for the Board Meeting this Friday the only reference to what is going on at Cairngorm is in the Chief Executive’s report:

 

Cairngorm and Glenmore – a visitor experience partner meeting is scheduled for mid-September to agree how to take forward the programme agreed in autumn 2016 and this will be linked to work with Active Aviemore. An application is being developed to submit to Leader for funding to study how visitors to Cairngorm and Glenmore use public transport and how this might be improved.

 

While its great work is going to be undertaken to see how public transport can be improved, is this really the only progress a year later?  Unfortunately the Cairngorm and Glenmore Strategy has had a cart and horses driven through it with An Camas Mor at one end of the glen and Natural Retreats at the other.

What we need above all is for the CNPA to assert its moral authority to be the lead agency in the National Park and to start taking a lead at Cairngorm.    A good statement of intent, which should be supported by the Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham who is in favour of community control, would be if the CNPA was to offer its resources (as per its commitment to support local communities) to assist the proposed community buy out.

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?

July 13, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Destruction around the Corrimulzie intake. On first viewing this, I had assumed all the destruction had been caused by the construction of the hydro intake but the rocks in foreground, which partly envelope the bases of the two birch trees, were deposited by flood water during Storm Frank which devastated Deeside.

The Corriemulzie community hydro scheme  http://braemarhydro.org.uk/scheme/, just west of Braemar on the road to Linn of Dee, provides an interesting case of how developments can go badly wrong despite the best intentions of the main players.  I first visited this scheme, which became operational last summer, in September 2016 and was horrified by what I saw.   Subsequent research and correspondence with the Cairngorms National Park Authority established the situation was a little more complex than it appeared and both the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro were taking action to rectify the damage that had been caused by the contractors and design failings.  I have therefore delayed blogging about it but a check up visit last weekend (its a ten minute walk from the road and well worth a visit if in the area), on the way to a stravaig through the eastern Cairngorms, showed that remedial measures have only had a limited impact.  I think its time therefore to publicise what appears to have gone wrong and what lessons could be learned for the future.

The old intake dam has been infilled with flood debris. You can just see old intake pipe centre left.

Historically there was a hydro scheme on the Corriemulzie burn which supplied power to Mar Lodge.

View of powerhouse from Linn of Quoich July 2017

The new powerhouse sits by site of former powerhouse although the track to it, down from the Braemar to Linn of Dee Road, is new.   In my view – and I realise this is just a matter of opinion – the wider landscape impact of the track is not a major issue.  I did not revisit the track though last September there were both good things and bad about how the land around it had been restored.

In design terms the power house is well located, close to bank and trees, and the turning area for vehicles is small.  All positives.  The ground above the pipeline had recovered quickly, with evidence of turfs having been stored and replaced.   Incredible care needs to be taken with removal of turf and topsoil if all the surface area is to be re-covered in restoration and in this area there was not enough to use on the banks (bare patch left) though I suspect this has recovered by now.

The track has been less well done, with large boulders left on the surface of what had previously been a grassy field.  The bank on the right though is at a sufficiently low angle to recover quickly and a good example of track design.

The Corriemulzie hydro intake area

The main problem with the Corriemulzie scheme is around the main intake.  It was not pristine prior to the hydro and the hill track and vehicle use had caused some needless damage.

The hydro scheme and burn is just to the left. Note the steep bank down to the track.

 

The planning however was a chance to restore past damage and the intake was intended to look like this:

 

Photomontage from CNPA Planning Committee report which approved the scheme in December 2013

If this had been delivered, I would be congratulating Braemar Community Hydro and the Cairngorms National Park Authority whose landscape adviser had said “the location of intake is a small but very scenic a ‘gem’ of a location” and recommended the utmost care.

 

Unfortunately, what has happened is completely different to what was intended.

In order to build the dam the burn needed to be diverted through a channel created through the (true right) bank above the intake.  The intake as it appeared in September 2016.

 

The bank as it appeared in September 2016

And this is an overview of how the area looks now:

The fundamental issues here are:

  • there has been no effective restoration of the bank along the burn;
  • the bank on the hill was excavated and is far too steep to be restored;
  • the track and turning area are far too wide.

While  there had been obvious attempts at amelioration since September 2016 these have not in my view addressed the fundamental issues.

Four strips of fabric had been applied to the oversteep bank to reduce erosion but this has had no impact.   There is no sign of vegetation re-establishing itself and the problems have been increased by deer (you can see hoof marks between 2nd and 3rd strips) walking down the slope.

 

View across burn above intake

There has been “compensatory” tree planting but no attempt to restore vegetation to the bank of the burn.   This should have been done months ago at the beginning of the growing season.

A new signboard has been erected by the intake.   The line of pylons is rather ironic given CNPA’s opposition to the Beauly Denny and I wonder what Prince Charles, who opened the scheme, and talks so much about architectural standards and traditional landscapes thought about the destruction.  Its as if, though, everyone at the official opening had their eyes shut.

 

Despite the atrocious finishing along the bank and track, this photos shows some good things about the scheme.  You can just see the pipe from the second hydro running below the bridge – you won’t see it unless you look out for it – and the CNPA told the developer there was no need to erect fencing around the intake.  I agree.     All that good design though counts for little if the destruction round about is not addressed.

 

So what has gone wrong?

 

I have tried since the weekend to look through planning documents.  There are pages of them, one document submitted by Braemar Community Hydro is over 200 pages long, and seems to cover everything except a description of the detailed work that was planned to construct the main intake.    The CNPA landscape adviser drew attention to this in an appendix to the Committee Report and recommended further detailed plans were required before planning consent was given.   The Committee however gave approval on condition these documents were produced but unfortunately these documents, if they were produced, are not on the CNPA website.    It is possible therefore that the CNPA allowed this development to go ahead without a proper landscape plan for the intake area.    If so, that in effect allowed the contractor to do what they wanted in the intake area and undermined all the other efforts staff had made to ensure this scheme was of the highest standard possible.  One small mistake can have huge consequences.

 

However, I don’t think all the emphasis should be on paperwork, which is beyond the capacity of any  community organisation to deliver and which means they have to put themselves in the hands of consultants.   I suspect if there was a hole in the paperwork, Braemar Community Hydro did not appreciate this either.

 

A fundamental problem with the proliferation of hydro schemes is that monitoring their construction is not being properly resourced.  I think if there had been someone properly qualified on site, the bank on the hillside would never have been excavated because it would have been only too obvious it could not be restored properly.   The problem is our National Parks rely on developers appointing an Ecological Clerk of Works to do the supervision and these people are beholden to the developer/contractor who pay their wages – they are therefore not independent.   It may also be the case – given the many failures to restore construction tracks – that they don’t have the right skills.

The ground above the pipeline to the second intake has not bee restored well and will, as a result, take a much longer time to recover than it should have with increased erosion.

A related  issue is that both our National Parks only appear to start proper monitoring once construction is almost complete.  Here is what CNPA Chief Executive Grant Moir told me in January:

 

“CNPA staff noted various breaches at the site in April 2016 during a routine monitoring visit.  The agent was immediately contacted by phone to express concern and also contacted in writing.  CNPA staff and the agent for the development met on site in May 2016 to discuss how to reinstate or mitigate the unauthorised or unsatisfactory works.  The agent provided an initial written programme of reinstatement works in June 2016 which the CNPA did not consider satisfactory”

 

What a commendable response and the contrast with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority who treat everything as a Freedom of Information Request is striking.   The problem though is once the construction has gone wrong, and created unnecessary damage, this becomes very difficult and very expensive to put right.  Our National Parks need to try and find a way of preventing problems rather than detecting them after the event.

The small second intake, the pipe runs to the right of the blocks of trees which have been planted.

Lots of tree planting should not be seen as compensation for poor ground restoration work.

What needs to happen

 

I hope this post has demonstrated that the way the planning system operates at present, even when our National Parks’ have taken considerable and commendable efforts with hydro developments, they can go badly wrong.

 

The focus of the CNPA and Braemar Community Hydro needs to be around addressing the landscape damage around the first intake.   I think that to remedy the damage will require considerable expertise and require money.  If the contractor cannot be made liable, it means the shareholders for the hydro, who were expecting a 5-8% return (there is interesting information on the finances on the community hydro website), Mar Estate which is charging rent (and was responsible for previous damage in the area) and the community may have to wait for their return.  It seems to people that all the people who were going to gain from this development have a collective responsibility to ensure that this is not at the expense of the landscape.   Success would then be being able to promote this as being a nice place to go for a walk again – a “small gem” in the National Park – as it was in the past.

 

In terms of planning system failures, it seems to me these are twofold.  First, not nearly enough emphasis is put on the landscape impact of construction prior to planning approval.   Planning applications consider the wider impact on the landscape but not the more localised impact.  Its hard to see the Corriemulzie intake from any distance but the local impact is huge.   Our National Parks should be exemplars of good practice in this respect but they generally approve hydro schemes in principle without detailed Construction Method Statements.  Then, once a scheme is approved in principle, its much harder for staff to influence and its probably less of a priority, because they are judged on the time it takes from planning application to approval.    None of this is the fault of planning staff, its the system and that needs to change.

 

Second, the focus of monitoring needs to shift from the end stage of the construction to the beginning and be independent of both developer and contractor.    This would prevent problems arising.  For example, if our National Parks were ensuring all vegetation was properly removed and stored before pipelines were dug or tracks created or broadened, restoration would then be far more effective.

 

For this to happen though, our National Parks, like all our public authorities, need to be properly resourced.

 

Lastly,  it would be good, given what I see as their good intentions, if the CNPA, Braemar Community Hydro and the other main players had a proper discussion, a post mortem if you like, about what lessons might be learned and then publicised this so they could be used to inform the development of hydro schemes, both community and commercial, in future.

July 6, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The Fiacaill t-bar dump in 2016
The Fiacaill t-bar dump in July 2017
Image from Save Cairngorm Facebook Page

Over the last fifteen months Parkswatch has highlighted the lack of maintenance and rubbish at Cairngorm, one of the worst examples being the dump at the former Fiacaill T-Bar.  This was originally justified as a temporary holding area for old fence posts which were supposed to be removed in the winter season but never were.  Instead, Natural Retreats started to burn fence posts in skips on the mountain (left) and added materials to the dump.

 

With Natural Retreats seemingly immune to any adverse publicity, Save the Ciste group  activist George Paton wrote to Highlands and Islands Enterprise on 21st June pointing out the temporary dump had been growing for 18 months and that “if little Johnny was injured or worse” they would ultimately be held responsible.   Here is the response:

 

30th June

Dear Mr Paton

Your email of 21 June 2017 to my colleague Keith Bryers, has been passed on to me, as HIE’s Customer Service Improvement Manager, for response.

Health and safety within the Cairngorm Estate is, naturally, of paramount importance, both for HIE as landowner, and CML [Caingorm Mountain Ltd] as operator of the visitor facilities.  HIE staff meet CML regularly to monitor performance on a broad range of operational issues, including safety.

With regard to your specific concerns about the present conditions in the Fiacaill T Bar area, our understanding is that this location is being used temporarily to store materials while current maintenance works are progressing.   We have already discussed this issue with CML and will raise it again, both to be assured on health and safety matters, and to ensure that the area is tidied as soon as is practicable.

 

Playing the Health and Safety card appears to have worked because in the last few days (see photos above) Natural Retreats has started to  clear the Fiacaill T-bar area.  Well done George, it shows how activists can make a difference.

 

The downside is that at present it appears the only way to get HIE to act at Cairngorm is threaten them with Health and Safety.  The test in this case will be whether, having tidied up the site and made it “safe”, HIE stop Natural Retreats using it as a dump and get them to remove the concrete plinth which formed part of the t-bar structure.   I have my doubts. HIE, like many other public authorities, is far more interested in large new capital vanity projects than in restoring sites affected by past developments or in basic maintenance.  What Cairngorm needs first and foremost is some attention to basics and all the evidence shows this is not happening.

 

Natural Retreats’ failure to develop an environmental plan or standards for Cairngorm

 

Last year, after parkswatch drew attention to the lack of any proper environmental management plan at Cairngorm (see here) CNPA staff wrote to Natural Retreats urging that they develop a set of standards for operating at Cairngorm.    This request was repeated by the CNPA Convener of Planning, Eleanor Mackintosh, in a letter (see here – thanks to George Paton who obtained it through FOI) to Natural Retreats dated 14/2/17:

 

“I would also urge you to develop some simple, best-practice management standards for your operations that you can consistently apply to your own works or those undertaken by contractors”.

 

Actually, there is no need for Natural Retreats to develop new best practice standards, because these already exist.  What they should have been doing, in consultation with conservation and recreational interests, is to review and update standards for the management of ski areas which were developed back in the 1980s (see here) as well as those developed during the construction of the funicular.   It has suited HIE to forget this history, the lessons from the past and, if there is one thing CNPA should be doing at present, its to demand that these lessons are incorporated into new standards.

 

Where Eleanor Mackintosh got it wrong, I believe, was to suggest to Natural Retreats that the management standards should be “simple”.   Cairngorm is a complex mountain environment and the examples of best practice that have been developed over time range from the simple to the highly complex depending on what is proposed.  To apply best practice standards consistently and appropriately would require the types of skill and expertise which are sadly lacking among managers at both at Natural Retreats and HIE.

 

The crumbling environs of the Day Lodge

Clearing up the Fiacaill dump takes very little effort or money, it could all be done in a day.  That it has taken so long tells you something about the way Cairngorm is being managed.  Its not just the natural environment that is being mismanaged though, the state of the buildings at Cairngorm tells a similar story, as these recent photos from around the Day Lodge show.

Before Natural Retreats bought Cairngorm Mountain Ltd from HIE, they were paid a sum, which I understand was c£600k, to cover delapidation works to buildings.  A sad indictment of HIE’s failure to maintain the buildings at Cairngorm during the period 2008-2014 when it had direct control.  This money appears to have been either insufficient or has not been spent by Natural Retreats as intended.

The failure to carry out basic maintenance and repairs is a UK wide phenomenon.  The powers that be, in both public and private sectors, would prefer to let buildings collapse and then build new ones, rather than spend any money on maintenance.   Money spent on maintenance though not only improves amenity – what message do these photos give to visitors to Cairngorm? – it helps create local jobs.   Natural Retreats appears though to have no interest in investing in the things that matter at Cairngorm but would rather be involved in grandiose new projects financed by the public sector.

Under the terms of HIE’s lease, Natural Retreats are supposed to maintain buildings in a reasonable state of repair and has to contribute to both a Buildings Sinking Fund and Asset Replacement Fund.  It would be in the public interest that Natural Retreats’ contributions to these funds (they were supposed to pay £11k to the ARF in March 2016 and £27k in March 2017) and expenditure from them are made public – I will ask!

How long before a visitor trips on this edge and sues Natural Retreats?

I suspect Natural Retreats will only maintain the built environment around the Day Lodge when forced to do so for health and safety reasons – if I was their  insurers I would be upping their premiums.    It shouldn’t need health and safety though for basic maintenance and care of buildings to take place at Cairngorm, it just needs an owner and operator that cares about the place.    Unfortunately all the evidence shows that neither HIE or Natural Retreats care and, while activists need to press for improvements at Cairngorm, the only long-term solution is for the land to be taken away from HIE and transferred to an organisation that does have the interests of the mountain and the people at its heart.

July 4, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The new track runs round the head of Glen Prosen – here looking towards Bawhelps

During a round of the Glen Prosen watershed 10 days ago, I came across a bulldozed track on the plateau at the head of the Glen which appears to be just inside the boundary of the Glen Isla Estate and therefore created by that estate.    The lack of vegetation on the surface – on what is a relatively fertile soil – and the state of the turves which have been piled by the track suggest the track is relatively recent.   There is nothing about this track on the Cairngorms National Park Authority planning portal and it therefore would appear to have been constructed without planning permission.

The new hydro tracks in Glen Prosen viewed from Mayar. The boundary of Wild Land Area 16 is at Kilbo, centre right, where the track meets a burn flowing in from the right

I had not realised when blogging about the Glen Clova and Glen Prosen hydro tracks (see here)  that the head of Glen Prosen was within Wild Land Area 16 “Lochnagar and Mount Keen”.   There is a presumption against development in wild land areas – even more reason, if more were needed, for the CNPA to taken enforcement action and ensure the “temporary” hydro access tracks are removed.

Glen Prosen runs parallel and left of Glen Clova. Most of the new track across the plateau appears to be in Wild Land Area 16.
View to Dun Hillocks from east of the Mayar Burn. Lochnagar is on the right.

After crossing Driesh and Mayar, we met the track near the Mayar Burn.  While I was tempted to follow the northern section towards Dun Hillocks and Finalty Hill, I was not sure my legs would take it (first longer run of the year!).   It was difficult to see how far the track goes because of the rolling nature of the landscape here which is well described in the Wild Land Statement (see here) which was published last year:

 

At a broad level, the landform tends to be convex, limiting visibility up and down slopes. This means that, from the hill tops, neighbouring glens are screened and there is a horizontal emphasis of open views directed over successive tiers of ridges and tops extending far into the distance and contributing to a sense of awe.

 

What is clear is that it penetrates well into the Wild Land area 16.  I couldn’t tell either if it enters the Lochnagar and Deeside National Scenic Area, the boundary of which runs in a straight line between Mayar and Finalty Hill  (any information on this, particularly photos, would be welcome).

The plateau, the head of the Mayar burn is the lower ground on far right of photo, the track just to the left of the photo.  While the grouse butt is well disguised, it indicates that this track was created for “sporting” purposes and therefore should have required full planning permission.

The creation of the track has removed much of the challenge of navigating across what was a featureless area of plateau.  If you have ever tried to walk between Tom Buidhe and Mayar in the mist you will know what I mean.   This quality of the plateau, so important to adventure, is also well described in the Wild Land statement:

 

Despite a mixed composition of hills and undulations, the simplicity of the landform and land cover at a broad level means individual peaks do not tend to stand out and it can be difficult to estimate vertical scale or distance within the landscape. This makes navigation challenging upon the hills and plateaux, especially in low cloud, thus increasing risk.

Looking towards South Craig at head of Glen Prosen.  The track is intermittent in the sense that it is a mixture of track eroded by regular vehicular use and new sections where the turf has been completely removed.

Because its intermittent, although the constructed sections predominate, its possible that the track was not created all at once but over time.

View across track to Mayar.  The creation of drainage channels adds to the mess and impact on vegetation.

The track has been created by a digger scraping off the turf and dumping it by the side of the new track.  The positive thing about this is it should make restoration of the track quite simple.  All the estate would have to do is replace the turves and soil onto the bare surface.

 

Intermittent section of track up Bawhelps

The older vehicle erosion shows that its not just constructed tracks which are the problem – its vehicle use.  The CNPA should be addressing the issue of vehicular use on higher ground.    A start would be to restrict the type of vehicles that can be used, ban heavier vehicles like landrovers and just allow quad bikes which are much lighter and, if used carefully, cause much less damage to vegetation.  This could be done through the creation of conservation byelaws.

Looking southwest from Bawhelps, Badundun Hill and Mount Blair in distance.  The track comes up to Bawhelps over Midhill from Glen Isla.

We didn’t follow the track over Mid Hill and so did not ascertain where it started (again photos would be welcome) but it appears most of it lies within the Cairngorms National Park boundary.

View along new spur to track which runs south east along Broom Hill, Craigie Thieves behind.

There is a short spur to the track down Broom Hill, which unlike other sections of track has been created by importing aggregate and dumping it on top of vegetation.  This section of track will be much harder to restore.

The spur then turns into a vehicle eroded track before ending completely before the bealach between Broom Hill and Craigie Thieves

Had I not stopped to take photos, we would have made fast time from the Mayar Burn to the bealach with Craigie Thieves.  After that, the going was much slower and although the hills were much lower, they provided a wilder experience even after we had crossed out of the National Park.

Looking towards Eskielawn outside the National Park boundary.

Although there was a fence, the absence of track made a huge difference to the experience,  altogether wilder and hard on the legs, and not just because I was forced to play the role of aged deerhound trying to keep within sight of my mate!

 

Until, that is, we came to this monstrosity on the Hill of Adenaich, well outside the CNPA boundary, and the responsibility of Angus Council to fix.     Sadly, whether these tracks are created or not appears to have very little to do with the Planning Authority, its all determined by the landowner: most create tracks, some don’t.  It would be good though if our National Parks became exemplars of good practice and the CNPA by its actions inspires Angus Council also to take action.

 

What needs to happen

 

I have reported the track featured here to the CNPA, asked them to confirm whether they were aware of it not and stated that it appears to have been constructed for sporting purposes and therefore should have required full planning permission.    In my view the track should be removed.   The CNPA in their new Partnership Plan, to their credit, have stated that there will be a presumption against new hill tracks within upland areas in the National Park.  This one enters a Wild Land area to boot so there is every reason for them to take action.   If the CNPA act fast, much of the damage could  be restored quite quickly (because the turves removed to create the track are still usable) so I would urge them to do so.

 

Whether the Glen Isla estate, which straddles the National Park Boundary, will co-operate remains to be seen.   While the Glen Isla estate appears on the CNPA map of estates which lie within the National Park (see here) there is no estate management plan.  The CNPA initiative to get estates to publish management plans was a good one but has been ignored by many landowners.  In my view the publication of management plans for all estates within the National Park should be compulsory and such plans should include maps of all existing tracks (and where they end) as well as a statement from each estate about what vehicles they use off track.  This would it much easier for the CNPA to take enforcement action in cases like this.

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.