Tag: scottish natural heritage

October 17, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
The “restored” construction track just south of Balsporran Cottage forms a gash across the hillside which will remain highly visible even if the vegetation does recover because the “bench” which was created across the hillside by cut and fill construction to provide a flat track has not been re-landscaped.

This post will consider the failure of Scottish and Southern Electric to date to restore the landscape caused by the Beauly Denny construction works in the northern section of the Drumochter.

 

A central planning assumption behind the Beauly Denny was that once the construction phase was complete the land would be restored to it original condition.   Initially the main exception to this was  the agreement by the Scottish Government that some existing tracks which were “upgraded” for construction purposes would be allowed to remain, including approx 7km in the Cairngorms National Park.  Such tracks were described as “permanent” access tracks. (This, I have learned from helpful communications with SSE, includes the section of track on the Dalnacardoch Estate between Dalnaspidal and Drumochter (see here)).  Subsequently, the Scottish Government decided that landowners could also apply to local planning authorities to retain “temporary” construction access tracks but these would require full planning permission. All other tracks, compounds and construction areas around the transmission towers were supposed to be restored to their original condition.

View of north Drumochter Lodge and Beauly Denny from Geal Charn.

The Cairngorms National Park Authority has granted planning permission to the North Drumochter Estate to retain the section of track from North Drumochter Lodge to near Dalwhinnie (section of track to left of lodge behind shelter belt) on condition it is narrowed and the landscape impact reduced  (see here).  The northern part of this track (outside frame of photo) was restored in the summer but the North Drumochter Estate has subsequently applied to remove the requirement for native woodland planting around it – this will be considered in future post.  The section considered in this post, where full restoration is required, lies between the south (right) of the north Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands to Drumochter summit. The line of the former construction track is still clearly visible in the photo above from a distance.

In my view the main reason for this is that the attempt to restore the former access track along this section has been risible.   The photo above shows the bench that was cut across the hillside through cut and fill (the upper slope was cut and the lower filled in with the material excavated) remains.  In effect the only restoration that has been carried out has been to break up the former track surface.   The material which forms the line of the track should have been moulded back to match the contours of the hillside, with the “fill” material shifted uphill to cover the “cut” ground and banks on the upside of the track.

The consequence of leaving the track foundations in place is not only that a permanent line has been left across the hillside but as should have been quite predictable, the North Drumochter Estate has continued to use the line as a track.  This will prevent full vegetation recovery even if the current plan, which is to leave restoration up to natural regeneration works.

The boundary between the unrestored section of track just south of North Drumochter Lodge policy woodlands and the restored section.

The photos shows vehicles are still being driven from the section of track granted planning permission by the CNPA (which still requires to be narrowed) onto the section “restored” by SSE’s contractors creating a churned up motorway.  This “restored” section is in the Drumochter Hills Site of Special Scientific Interest and off-track use of vehicles here needs consent by SNH.  (I will ask if it has been granted).  Unless the CNPA, SNH and SSE work together to stop vehicles being driven here the vegetation will never recover.

The first section of the restored track opposite Balsporran Cottages is a quagmire due to inappropriate vehicle use

 

For almost 2.5km there has been no attempt to landscape the ground of the former track into the contours of the hillside with the result that it will form a permanent landscape scar even if vehicle use was stopped

 

 

Access point opposite Balsporran Cottages has been used to create a shortcut to North Drumochter Lodge

The use of vehicles has been facilitated by the creation of access gates from the A9 enabling vehicles to be driven up onto the line of the Beauly Denny construction track, creating more erosion and preventing vegetation recovery.

 

The former track as it approaches the Boar of Badenoch from the north – in what sense is this a “temporary” track?

While the CNPA, to its credit has been very concerned about the poor restoration of this section of the Beauly Denny and the landscape scar which can be seen from the A9,  so far its focus has been on the quality of the vegetation reinstatement.

Some peat has been restored around the tower base but a far wider area has been left to “natural regeneration”.

Some of the poor restoration around the tower bases has been explained by CNPA staff as being a consequence of a failure to store vegetation properly during the construction phase leaving insufficient peat and vegetation to re-cover the area and of inadequate construction method statements 250615trackrestorationSSE (obtained through FOI).  This appears correct and the result is that more mineral soils are exposed and this will promote natural regeneration by different plant communities.  CNPA staff have suggested alternative solutions (see peatland restoration advice in link above) which so far appear to have been resisted by SSE.  One suspects the underlying reason for this is SSE does not want to incur more costs.

Section south of previous photo looking north

Its only as the former construction track approaches the Drumochter pass that the restoration work has attempted to remove the line of the cut and fill and mould the former track materials into the contours of the hillside.   While a short section of bank (on right) has been left exposed, other restoration on this short stretch has been more successful with the horizontal bench across the hillside effectively removed, making it much harder for vehicles to drive here.  Unfortunately the failure to store and replace vegetation means it will still form a very visible scar for some time.  Vegetation reinstatement, rather than landscaping, is the main issue on this short section of the former construction track.

There is one section between pylons near the Boar of Badenoch where no access track was constructed.

This photo shows what the hillside would look like if restored properly and provides a benchmark to judge the restoration.

The responsibility for restoring the damage to the landscape and what needs to happen

When planning consent was granted to the Beauly Denny the condition was that the section of ground covered in this post should be fully restored.   The CNPA to its credit has been very concerned about the standard of restoration and I have been able to tell from correspondence obtained through FOI (eg Mr D Bryden CNPA Response 26 August 2015) that the CNPA were not properly consulted about the original mitigation measures and that after a Board Visit they raised issues at a senior level in SSE.  This has had some effect and the CNPA is now involved in annual monitoring of the restoration.    Unfortunately however the 2016 restoration monitoring report, which I obtained through FOI (see here), seems to show that Scottish and Southern Electric had managed to confine discussion of the issues to vegetation recovery and not wider landscape issues:

 

2 RESTORATION
2.1 THE DEFINITION OF FULL RESTORATION
The definition of “full restoration” is not necessarily straightforward, particularly for complex vegetation communities. Totally subjective or objective approaches are likely to be problematic and it is likely that it will be necessary to utilise a combination of both subjective and objective techniques for monitoring affected locations.
The broad definition of full restoration is more straightforward than the specific detailed approach to establishing that it has been achieved. In simple terms, following construction of the overhead line, it would be reasonable to expect that the habitat should be restored to one that is of similar type, structure, species composition and of at least equivalent quality/value to that which was present prior to construction. In achieving this, certain changes to the vegetation, that may occur as a result of the construction, restoration procedures, or through natural change (or anthropogenic change) and which may be either beneficial or adverse; need to be fully taken into account.

 

Now vegetation is important, and I don’t want to minimise in any way the importance of the inputs from CNPA staff on this or the SSE classification of vegetation recovery to date as adequate when it is clearly not.  However, what appears to have been missing so far is full consideration of the landscape issues.

 

In my view both CNPA and SNH should now be calling on SSE to produce a proper landscape plan to restore the scar across the hillside caused by the failure to re-landscape the cut and fill track.  Such restoration should make off road use of vehicles along the line of the former construction track very difficult, while specific action should be taken to prevent the estate from driving vehicles onto the flatter area of moorland between north Drumochter Lodge and Balsporran Cottages.

 

SSE have the money to pay for this.  Moreover, where estates have gained permission for tracks to be retained, as north of Drumochter Lodge, this has saved SSE large sums which they would have had to spend on removing the tracks  At the very least they should be using these savings to re-invest and ensure proper reinstatement of other sections of track.  The landscape of the National Park deserves no less.

September 12, 2017 Nick Kempe 3 comments
Extract from paper on “Matters Arising” for Board Meeting 18th September, the decision as recorded in the minutes on the left

An extraordinary discussion took place at the end of the June Board meeting of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority in which Councillor James Robb, one of several councillors who will be leaving the Board this Autumn (see here),  proposed that the number of Board Members should be cut.  The reason for the proposal basically was that he felt there was very little for Board members to do, consequently the Board could operate with far fewer members  and cutting numbers would save money.

 

There followed a very open discussion – which would never have taken place in public under the aegis of the previous convener Linda McKay (all credit to new convener James Stuart) – in which basically Board numbers agreed with the proposal (it was clear during the discussion that Cllr Robb had discussed the proposal with some of the other councillors on the Board).   Hence the decision of the meeting, recorded in the minute, to approach the Minister and ask for a suspension of new appointments until numbers on the Board could be reviewed.

 

Unsurprisingly the proposal has been rejected by the Scottish Government. Our National Park legislation requires the Board to be composed of three types of members, those appointed by Ministers, those nominated by local authorities and directly elected members and the numbers of the three categories of Board Member to balance.   While reducing numbers of councillors and Ministerial nominees on the Board would be relatively simple, reducing the number of directly elected members would require electoral boundaries to be completely withdrawn, a complex business.  Also, I suspect the Scottish Government wants to avoid opening up the possibility of any debate in the Scottish Parliament about new or existing National Parks which would be created if the existing legislation was to be amended.

 

While I welcomed the open discussion and the honesty of Board Members – its not many people who voluntarily vote to make the posts they are leaving redundant – what was depressing was that not a single Board Member made a case for keeping Board Members, based not just on what they do at present but on what they could and should be doing.    It appeared from the discussion that Board Members feel they serve no useful purpose.

 

Now I can understand why that might have happened.  First, when Mike Cantlay was chair and Fiona Logan was Chief Executive, Board Members were  firmly told they were not to get involved in operational matters.   So Board Members who knew about footpaths, were told not to support staff on this and those that knew about conservation were told to keep clear of that while those simply with an interest in their area were also told to keep at arms length.    The reason for having Board Members with expertise or democratically elected and nominated Board Members disappeared.

 

Second, to keep Board Members occupied, Mike Cantlay and Fiona Logan then introduced the practice of monthly briefing sessions and seminars as a  way for Board Members to earn their £200 a day.  These meetings, rather than helping Board Members to speak freely, actually became a way of controlling them and under the next convener Linda McKay were turned into secret decision making forums which among other things developed the camping byelaws.   The National Park Board became increasingly autocratic and the result has been Board Members have been left unable to see a role for themselves.

 

What is very sad though is that Board Members have become so neutered that even under the new more open regime of James Stuart they cannot see a useful role for themselves.    I believe there are plenty of opportunities for the Board both to start showing leadership and also to start putting proper governance arrangements in place.  I think this should be based around a number of  areas of activity:

  1. Board Members should know what is happening on the ground and being done in their name.    This means them getting out to see everything from the hydro tracks that are destroying the National Park landscape to the inappropriate areas designated as “camping permit zones”.  This would enable them to make informed inputs into policy development and to scrutinise papers properly.   The current Board is totally failing to do this,  is  disconnected from what is happening on the ground and as a result cannot do its job properly.
  2. Elected Board Members, both councillors and those directly elected,  should be engaging with the local communities they serve and helping to articulate community concerns and aspirations.  That they are failing to do so I think was epitomised by the case of former Councillor Fergus Wood, who was resoundly defeated in the last election, in no small part because he had pressed ahead with a proposal for a campsite without consulting local people.  The same elected representatives for Strathard totally failed to listen to the concerns of the local community about the size of the Loch Chon campsite.  When push comes to shove, the democratically elected representatives have always listened to their Chief Executive before the communities they serve.   The large democratic deficit in the National Park needs to be closed and that will take time and effort.
  3. Board Members should be engaging with national recreational and conservation interests – the people with expertise in the Park’s statutory objectives to promote public enjoyment and conservation.  Had they been doing so I don’t think we would have ended up with  the camping byelaws or the land management practices which still dominate much of the National Park and are destroying its conservation value (whether intensive forestry with clearfell or overgrazing by sheep and deer).  Again, this will take time and effort.
  4. Board Members should be taking a leadership role to ensure effective partnership working with other public sector organisations.  I find it amazing that Councillor Members, having called a year ago for more effective working with local authorities to address litter (noted again in the minutes as an issue) do not appear to have done anything to assist with this process.   They appear to have no idea of how to do this and to have lost sight of the reason they form a third of the membership is to ensure effective joint work with their councils.  If the structures aren’t there, its their job to create them and they need to start doing so.   However, the issue of effective co-ordination goes far beyond local authorities.  The Board needs to have members meeting and networked with other public authorities such as the Forestry Commission, SNH  and SEPA and to have links with delivery organisations like Sustrans and Transport Scotland .   If they started doing so, the National Park might have a chance of delivering a partnership plan which made a real difference, instead of each sector just carrying on as it is managing what is left of ever decreasing public sector budgets.

 

It will be interesting to see if the Board Meeting next week has any discussion in public about creating a meaningful role for Board Members.  It appear from the fact that senior staff have marked this matter arising as “Closed” that they don’t want this to happen.

 

 

May 8, 2017 Nick Kempe No comments exist
Letter to Strathy 15th March 2001 courtesy of Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group

My apologies to readers that in my post on Curr Wood (see here) which highlighted the importance of the wood to the pine hoverfly, I had missed an article from the Strathy the previous week making this very point and providing some of the history to the site  Strathy 17.4.20 Curr Wood felling concern.   Taken together the articles  raise some serious questions about how species which have been agreed by government as priorities for conservation are being protected in the Cairngorms National Park.

 

Controversy about the management of Curr Wood, which is situated just south of Dulnain Bridge on Speyside, dates back at least 15 years (see letter from Adam Watson above), i.e before the CNPA was created in 2003.   The importance of Curr Wood to wildlife appears linked historically to a sparse  felling regime which has allowed Scots pines to grow older and larger than elsewhere and left much of the ground undisturbed.  Curr Wood hosts the largest population of the twinflower in the UK and is the last remaining refuge of pine hoverfly.  Both are priority species under the UK and Scotland’s Biodiversity Action Plan, although strangely the site itself has not been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).   The site therefore, although of obvious importance to conservation, is not protected as such.

 

Pine hoverfly larvae have very specific habitat requirements.  They develop in rotten pine stumps, usually in association with the pine butt-rot fungus, which are 40 cm in diameter – this is thought because smaller stumps do not provide a sufficient area for the larvae to develop.  After about 8 years, rotten stumps dry out and the hoverfly needs to move on. http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1849928.pdf    What this means is if smaller trees are chopped down too early , the stumps are no use for the pine hoverfly, while if too many are chopped at the same time, there is nowhere for them to move on to.   Pine hoverfly are still l found in Curr Wood precisely because the felling has been so selective.   Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) in their statement to the Strathy last week, claiming to have protected pine hoverfly by putting machine exclusion zones in place, appear to have missed the point – for the pine hoverfly its the felling regime that matters.  What FCS has not explained is the likely longer term impact of the felling license on the remaining population of pine hoverfly, and in particular, the likelihood that the pine hoverfly will colonise the areas being felled in future.    If we want to save the pine hoverfly, restricting it to one area of one wood looks a high risk strategy.

 

Both the pine hoverfly and twinflower are  also listed in the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan as being priority species for the National Park.  This was confirmed in the new draft Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan, to which FCS is a party.   One of the priorities of that plan is “Safeguarding species for which the Cairngorms National Park is particularly important” – which includes the pine hoverfly.    It is legitimate therefore to ask how FCS thought it good enough, after sending a formal consultation to CNPA and RSPB about Curr Wood, to proceed with the felling license when they received no reply.    Did no-one in FCS think of picking up the phone to ask the views of others on the “mitigation measures” it had decided?   This is a failure in Partnership working by public agencies – just what the Partnership Plan is supposed to prevent.

 

Ten years ago (see SNH document above) there was a serious attempt to conserve the pine hoverfly and indeed to re-introduce it to areas such as Rothiemurch, which included the appointment of a dedicated member of staff.   These re-introduction attempts appear to have failed and the pine hoverfly appears to have disappeared from its other refuge, Anagach Wood, so is now confined to Curr Wood.  Even more reason one might have thought for FCS to have worked in partnership with all the parties, including the pine hoverfly Biodiversity Action Plan Steering group, to work out a joint approach for Curr Wood.   That doesn’t seem to have happened so far.  Its time therefore for the CNPA to take a lead here, in terms of partnership working, and to call on FCS to work with other parties, including local people.   One might have hoped that, 14 years after the National Park was created, agencies would be working together more effectively.

 

The unstated issue and challenge behind all of this is land-ownership.   There is something wrong when private landowners can still more or less do what they want on sites vital for conservation in our National Park without considering the wider good.   While the failure to designate the site as a SSSI has no doubt contributed to this, there have been at least four different owners since 2001:   Seafield Estate sold the wood to BSW timber 2001 who sold to Henry Becker in  2002 who then sold on to Billy Martin.   That is not a good way to manage a prime wildlife site which needs a consistent approach.  Instead, Curr Wood has been subject to different owners with different objectives.   More evidence of the need for a new approach to landownership in our National Parks.

 

One option would be for FCS to buy Curr Wood – after all it did stump up £7.4m to buy up part of Rothiemurchus, so why not other woodland of conservation importance in the National Park?

 

The strongest advocates for this site though, as with other areas of woodland on Speyside, appear to be the  people who live near it.    The CNPA in its Partnership Plan included some positive commitments to empowering local communities without saying how it might do this.  So why not engage with the local community about the future of Curr Wood?     While resources to buy the wood might be an issue, why not think ahead?   How about the CNPA  sponsoring a common good fund for the Cairngorms which could assist communities to buy up land in the National Park?    As with the Victorian common good funds, people might even bequeath money for the benefit of the National Park and the people who live in it and enjoy it.

 

A wider perspective on why the CNPA needs to intervene in Curr Wood is given today in an excellent piece by their Chief Executive, Grant Moir, in the Scotsman (see here).   Nature is good for people, so why are we destroying it?    And, Curr Wood even includes a core path!

March 20, 2017 Nick Kempe 1 comment
The lower part of the track on Carn Leth Choin (foreground and upper right)  which Highland Council treated as a permitted development not requiring planning permission

Following my post questioning what the Cairngorms National Park Authority was doing about the unlawful hill track leading onto Carn Leth Choin in upper Glen Banchor, west of Newtonmore (see here), I wrote to the Cairngorms National Park Authority.  On 8th March (I have been in Norway in-between) I received this response from Murray Ferguson:

 

“Concerns about the track at Carn Leth Choin, Cluny Estate were brought to CNPA’s attention in 2014 and the CNPA raised the issue with Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage who had both been involved at earlier stages. Highland Council had previously determined that a lower section of the track was permitted development for agricultural purposes and so no further action could be taken.  It appears that there was some confusion between SNH and the CNPA/Highland Council at the time over further part of the track and what had been authorised and only in 2015 did all the bodies come to understand the issues properly.  A site visit was undertaken with SNH and Highland Council in October 2015.

Following the site visit, SNH undertook to pursue the previous owner of the estate on the grounds that the track was a breach of The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The case was subsequently investigated by Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime team and CNPA were advised to hold off our own investigations while the criminal investigations were undertaken. Police Scotland concluded that there was insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.

This was reported to the CNPA in June 2016 and we re-opened our investigation in July 2016.The CNPA are currently in dialogue with the estate’s representatives and Scottish Natural Heritage about restoration of ground and mitigation of impacts and a meeting is taking place soon that our Head of Planning will attend. If action is not taken voluntarily by the estate in the next few months then the CNPA will move to take formal action.”

 

I believe this response is extremely welcome.  It helps explain the background and makes it very clear that the CNPA is taking this issue seriously (and I would have to say is quite a contrast to the way in which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park responds to concerns which I have raised with them about hill tracks).  I believe though its worth considering some of the detail and the implications.

 

Commentary

 

One of the problem with the preventing unlawful hill tracks, such as the one onto Carn Leth Choin, is that existing tracks have not been clearly mapped by planning authorities, including our National Parks.  This makes it very difficult for Planning Authorities to establish when extensions have taken place and whether they should have come under the Prior Notification rules which came into force in December 2014 (this has been a problem for the CNPA on Deeside where the Dinnet Estate claimed its track extensions were completed prior to the new rules).    In this case it has led to delays because its not been absolutely clear which section of track was agreed to by Highland Council as a permitted development.    The solution to this problem was demonstrated by Kincardine and Deeside Council over 20 years ago when they marked the end points of all hill tracks on their Local Plan maps – a precedent that our National Parks should now follow.

This section of track of the Carn Leth Choin track was treated by Highland Council as a permitted development but it sits within the Monadliath SSSI and was an “Operation Requiring Consent”.

 

 

Only the lowest section of the hill track is outwith the Monadliath SSSI

While it can be difficult for Planning Authorities to prove that a track is NOT for agricultural purposes and therefore not a permitted development, in this case I believe Highland Council Planning Department made a serious mistake.  Soon after crossing the Allt Madagain (top photo) the track enters the Monadliath Site of Special Scientific Interest and any track construction with this protected area was an “Operation Requiring Consent” from SNH:

 

The Operations Requiring Consent for the Monadliath SSSI that relate to tracks and vehicle use

Its not clear from the CNPA response if Highland Council planning department checked with SNH before agreeing to the lower part of the track as a permitted development as they are supposed to do for all developments within protected areas.    If they did do so, there are some obvious questions that need to be asked about why SNH agreed to this.  If Highland Council failed to do so that would have made it very difficult for SNH to take action subsequently.

The section of track which was allowed as a permitted development appears to terminate at this large borrow pit at over 650m up the hill. The construction has been undertaken with no regard for this being a SSSI

In my view this was a serious planning failure.  The lower section of track is too steep and is already eroding away.   The landscape scar can only get worse.  In this case this is not the fault of the CNPA as they can only “call-in” development that their constituent Councils and Planning Authorities have identified as requiring planning permission.

 

The fact that SNH referred the construction of the new section of track that leads to the summit of Carn Leth Choin to Police Scotland is significant.   Breach of the Operations Requiring Consent is a criminal offence and the evidence shows that this clearly happened in this case: the photos below show extraction of materials, road construction and use of vehicles all of which needed permission.    It would be in the public interest to know why Police Scotland decided not to prosecute in this case – it would have sent a clear signal to landowners all over Scotland of the consequences of ignoring the law governing protected areas.  Its difficult to avoid the suspicion that as with raptor persecution Police Scotland treat landowners differently to the rest of the population – as being above the law.

 

 

Taking what the CNPA has said at face value, there are serious challenges with restoring this track.   The material that forms the track needs to be returned to the “borrow pits” from which it was sourced.

I would suggest this material, which appears to have been simply dumped on existing vegetation (which was protected – its montane heath) cannot simply be removed by heavy machinery because that will simply further damage the ground underneath.  The final removal of aggregate and restoration of the ground surface both beneath the track and over the borrow pits once the material has been replaced there will need to be by hand.  That will require a skilled workforce which at present does not really exist because there has been no attempt to restore any hill tracks since NTS acquired Mar Lodge Estate and restored the Beinn a Bhuird track.
Any restoration will be very expensive but luckily the new owners, who were not responsible for constructing the track, do not lack a bob or two.  They can either afford to pay for the restoration themselves or pay whatever it needs to recover money from the previous owner – who made £3.7m on the Cluny Estate in the fourteen years he owned it.   For excellent background on the estate sale  see Andy Wightman’s blog

 

Qatar royal family buy Cluny Estate

Its time for the CNPA to be resolute and there are welcome signs that in this case they might be so.  They only need to tackle successfully one unlawful hill track in the National Park and all landowners will start to take note of the risks of failing to comply with the law.

Use of vehicles, which is an Operation Requiring Consent, extends beyond the end of the unlawful hill track
November 15, 2016 Nick Kempe 2 comments
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Walking the Aviemore to Kincraig section of the Speyside Way on 30th December 2015. Much of the walk was then marred by pylons which I understand are due to be removed.

The Cairngorms National Park announced last week it has won a planning quality award for the extension of the Speyside Way from Aviemore to Kincraig (http://cairngorms.co.uk/planning-award-for-speyside-way-extension/):

 

“The judges praised the Park Authority for its partnership working, community consultation and sheer determination over a decade to develop the best off road route to connect Aviemore to Kincraig.

This included the first use of a Path Order in Scotland to secure rights to develop the path on the preferred route”

 

I think the staff involved do need congratulating on their persistence but the time taken to deliver this path and the walking experience demonstrate that our access legislation is still very weak when it comes to creating new paths and that our landowners still have far too much power.  The basic problem was that the Kinrara Estate objected to the Speyside Way crossing its land, even under an electricity wayleave, and it required two consultations in 2005 and 2007, approvement in principle by Scottish Ministers in 2009, then a path order which required a public inquiry before being approved in June 2012.  Three and a quarter years later the extension opened in September 2015.

 

No wonder the Ramblers Association cited the Speyside Way extension in its submission to the Land Reform Review Group in 2013 in the part of its submission which dealt with “Failure to expand path networks”:

 

“While core paths plans are now drawn up, that does not mean they are being
implemented on the ground – and core paths comprise just a small proportion of the
entire path network. As noted above, access authorities seem reluctant to use the
powers they have within the Act, and this includes powers to use compulsory purchase
or path orders. Just one path order has been used in Scotland, to extend the Speyside
Way, and this followed many years of fruitless discussion with the landowner
concerned. Much time is spent on negotiating with landowners across Scotland who
are resistant to public access, with the public becoming increasingly frustrated with
plans for path networks that they have helped to develop but which produce no change
on the ground. It is inconceivable that transport departments would spend so long
negotiating routes for new roads and yet paths do not have the same status despite
potentially being of huge public benefit.”

 

Now I don’t believe the ten year delay in getting the path off the ground was either the fault of SNH (who had started on plan for the path) or the Cairngorms National Park Authority who took on the work c2009.  However, neither highlighted the case to the Land Reform Review Group (indeed from a trawl through the responses the CNPA did not even make a response).  I think this is wrong.  Our National Parks should be trailblazing when it comes to new paths and if they do not have sufficient powers to do this effectively they should be highlighting the issues to the Scottish Government.

 

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The extension also raises significant issues in relating to the quality of the walking experience which the CNPA has simply not mentioned.  Indeed in their news section they claim “we built the path on the best route for both visitors and local communities”.   That is a matter of opinion but I think if the CNPA asked the public they would disagree.  As one foreign visitor said, the trouble with the Speyside Way is that it avoids the river and this is very true of the  new section.   Of the c8 kilometres of new path, only c2 km, near Kincraig, are by the Spey.

 

speyside-way-extension
Speyside Way, the thick brown line.                                                          Map Credit CNPA

The problem was and still is that the Kinrara Estate did not want people walking along the river, despite having a right to do so, or Bogach, the loch north of the Duke of Gordon’s monument which is a great place to watch ospreys fishing.  Unfortunately our public authorities were not strong enough to stand up to the estate and the result is the Speyside Way avoids all the best things places to visit in the area.  A missed opportunity.  I would advise anyone who wants to experience the best that Speyside has to offer should find their own route rather than follow the Speyside Way until close to Speybank.

 

Apart from the route it takes, the path provides a good illustration of a number of access issues.

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While Network Rail don’t actually say here you will be prosecuted for crossing the line the message is unwelcoming. Railway crossings are a problem across Scotland but surely our National Parks should be trailblazing solutions with Network Rail which facilitate access rather than stopping it?  The new gate and sign looked to me like a response from Network Rail to the creation of the Speyside Way.
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While the wooden fencing has been done to a very good standard the overall experience is one of being hemmed in and kept away from nature. Compare this to walking along a river bank.  Openness is important to walkers and rarely have I seen such a constricted path.
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The landowners concerns, however ridiculous – they appear to believe that cyclists or runners risk colliding with wildlife – show why all the fencing is in place.
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Another  ridiculous sign. Note the two dog proof fences on either side of the path – there is  nowhere for a dog or people to go. Arguably, because of the new fencing, the creation of this section of path has made access worse not better. What is the point of access if you cannot step off the path and go and sit under a tree?
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Nature beats planning!

 

 

img_1453-copyOur access legislation means that people can walk the Speyside Way extension and all the land around it whether the landowner agrees or not.  Unfortunately the CNPA had not for whatever reason managed to get the owner of this wood or the Forestry Commission to remove this sign which is not compliant with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

 

What should the Cairngorms National Park do about the Speyside Way extension?

Despite my criticisms, the extension is a new path and that is a plus. I think it is important though the CNPA does not in any way suggest that the Speyside Way is the only or main walking route between Aviemore and Kincraig.  I would suggest the CNPA:

 

  • Removes the signage which is not compliant with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code
  • Produces a plan to reduce the fencing along either side of the path to improve the quality of the recreational experience
  • Signposts alternative routes, including how to follow the Spey itself
  • Stops the spin and say how it really was for the staff involved
  • Use this example to argue the need for Access Authorities to have stronger powers to create new paths in the places people want to visit

I also suspect that if the CNPA had treated organisations representing recreational users, Ramblers, cyclists and horseriders as true partners, many of the problems with this path could have been avoided.  The Ramblers, for example, have long campaigned again signage such as is evident on the Speyside Way extension and I believe if they had been involved it would not have been tolerated.

November 13, 2016 Nick Kempe No comments exist

 

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The Morven Site of Special Scientific Interest as shown on SNH sitelink. I walked with my partner Louise from Glen Fenzie, bottom left of map up to Mona Gowan (new track on its south ridge not shown on map) along ridge to Morven and then down to Morven Lodge.

Following my post on “How to protect wildlife in our national parks”  I have been thinking about how the Cairngorms National Park could achieve its stated objected of landscape scale conservation on the Dinnet Estate where I walked in September.   I have since used it to illustrate the connection between grouse moors and rural depopulation (see here) and the persecution of wildlife (see here).

 

I had not checked what areas on Dinnet were protected by nature conservation designations before our walk but there is in fact a connection between what is protected and what you see.  Unlike  many SSSIs in the National Park all the features are currently classified as being in favourable condition, with only one of these – the assemblage of upland birds, surprise surprise – classified as declining (see here). However, and this is a major problem as we will see, the site is not regularly monitored and the last survey of the Alpine Heath was back in 2000.

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On grouse moors there are high culls of red deer, because they are believed to impact on grouse numbers, with the consequence that trees can regenerate as here by the A839 in Glen Fenzie

 

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One of the reasons Morven is designated a SSSI is because of its juniper. The reduced grazing pressure is also helping juniper regenerate outwith the SSSI
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The regeneration however does not last for long because of muirburn, which has here destroyed what was a large patch of juniper (the bare branches across the middle of the photo). Juniper is not fire tolerant unlike heather.

 

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The fence, running to the summit of Mona Gowan, marks the boundary of the SSSI. Within SSSIs landowners have to ask permission from SNH for operations requiring consent and for Morven this includes creation of all hill tracks. The bulldozing of this new track just outside the SSSI boundary is not a coincidence.

 

 

 

 

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The creation of the tracks has not however stopped the estate taking vehicles into the SSSI and damaging the moorland.  “Use of vehicles or craft likely to damage or disturb features of interest except four-wheel drive or similar agricultural vehicles on existing estate roads and tracks” is one of the Operations Requiring Consent on the Morven SSSI. Its not possible to tell from Sitelink if SNH consented to this or not as the details of the consents are not publicly available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Construction, removal or destruction of roads, tracks, walls, fences, hardstands, banks, ditches or other earthworks, or the laying, maintenance or removal of pipelines and cables, above or below ground” is another Operation Requiring Consent. Its not clear if the estate got consent either to dig this hole to create this mound for putting out medicated grit for grouse. While adminstration of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are all ORCs, strangely feeding medicated grit to grouse is not.
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Another earthwork created to feed medicated grit to grouse within the SSSI. Morven beyond.
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As we got further into the SSSI, the evidence of land management operations reduced and the wildlife increased.
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Having not seen any mountain hare on Mona Gowan, on the edge of the SSSI, on Morven there were many. “The killing or removal of any wild mammal or bird, including pest control, except bird species covered by the General Licence (Scottish Government Rural Directorate); other species under a specific licence issued by SGRD.” is listed as an ORC. SSSIs could thus be used to protect mountain hares.
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There was also lots of fantastic heath, another feature for which Morven is designated a SSSI
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The Cairngorms National Park Authority is currently dealing with tracks created without planning permission on the Dinnet Estate. This track and large borrow pit, on Roar Hill, is within the SSSI and both track and pit were Operations Requiring Consent. Its unclear if SNH gave consent to these tracks but its quite clear they have had a large impact on the vegetation and should not be allowed on nature conservation grounds. Note also the muirburn. “Burning (and) changes in the pattern or frequency of burning” are also ORC.
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More damage by all terrain vehicles within the SSSI
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Below that however is the success story, the large expanse of juniper which is now classified as being in favourable condition. Walking through it was a wonderful experience.
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While there was some sheep grazing, except for tussock fields of purple moor grass, I cannot think of a time in Scotland when I have walked through grasses as tall as this. Again, a great experience.
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As soon as you leave the SSSI there are traps everywhere. Even if small mammals like stoats are not persecuted within the SSSI, as soon as they move out they are. The SSSI is too small to support species that require large territories like eagles. Its thus failing to fulfil its potential.
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As soon as you leave the Morven SSSI, you are back into intensively managed grouse moors where muirburn stops all regeneration of the land.

 

Nature protection and landscape scale conservation

I have been thinking about how Alison Johnstone MSP’s suggestion that Nature Conservation Orders could be used to protect the mountain hare in the National Park could be applied to the Dinnet Estate and what other mechanisms are available to protect species and enable habitat restoration.

  • The purpose of Nature Conservation Orders is to protect natural features from damage.   They are stronger than the Operations Requiring Consent because they make certain activities that damage natural features illegal.   They can also be applied to land contiguous with an SSSI or European protected site  or any land which Scottish Ministers believe to be of special interest for its natural features.  They could thus, in theory be used to ban certain activities from the entire National Park.
  • The provisions relating to Operations Requiring Consent should  be sufficient to prevent much of the persecution of wildlife that goes on on grouse moors that are designated as SSSIs as the Morven SSSI shows.   The problem is the lack of monitoring (SNH does not have the resources to monitor sites properly) and the will to use existing powers to take enforcement action.   There are plenty of powers to force landowners to restore damage, the problem is they are not used.     I think a first step to improvement would be if SNH published in full those Operations Requiring Consent it had approved for each SSSI and together with this a mechanism for the public to report land-managers who had breached these conditions.   The public would then be clearer if damage such as that documented above (the earthworks, track creation and damage by ATVs) had been agreed with SNH or not.
  • In the case of species protection outside SSSIs, species like mountain hare are already protected.  The problem is that SNH has consented to culls because of claims that mountain hares carry ticks and damage trees.  Again, this is a matter of the will of our public authorities to take on the landowners.
  • What is lacking at present however is any effective means to extend areas which are doing well in conservation terms.   A basic flaw of our conservation system is it was designed to protect what is already there, than what might be there.  To protect land SNH has to undertake a lengthy and bureaucratic process to show that certain habitats or species are present in a particular area.  If they get lost, that area can lose its protected status.   When I was on the Board of SNH there were proposals from the RSPB to create Special Protected Areas to save hen harrier.  To designate an area SNH had to show sufficient hen harrier were present – all that did was  incentivise the landowners to kill off their hen harrier as quickly as possible to avoid their land being designated.  So, in my view we do need an effective means to enable natural processes and species to be restored to areas which do not meet the criteria for SSSIs or European Protected Areas.
  • National Parks are one way that this could be done as they have the power to create byelaws for nature conservation purposes that cover all land, not just SSSIs.  Hence my proposal that the Cairngorms National Park should regulate hunting through byelaws.  The CNPA however could, if it had the will, introduce byelaws to control/stop damaging activities such as muirburn.
  • Another mechanism however could be Nature Conservation Orders.   Their advantage over byelaws is that they could be applied to particular areas of land.   They are a stick which the Cairngorms National Park Authority, if it worked with SNH and the Scottish Government, could use to encourage landowners to work in partnership.   The CNPA keeps talking about the need to work in partnership but I very much doubt that Dinnet Estate, whose failure to co-operate with the National Park on hill tracks I intend to blog about soon, would agree at present to any reduction in the damaging activities it conducts on its land outwith the SSSI.   If the CNPA however was able to say it had decided that the area of juniper should be expanded beyond the SSSI boundaries to achieve landscape scale conservation, would be happy to agree with the estate where to do this but if they failed to co-operate, would ask SNH to issue a Nature Conservation Order……………….well, I think that might just provide an incentive for partnership to work.

 

 

 

The destruction, displacement, removal or cutting of any plant or plant remains, including shrub, herb, dead or decaying wood, moss, lichen, fungus and turf.

In respect of borrow pits within Muir of Dinnet and Morven and Mullachdubh SSSIs whilst the method statement refers to borrow pits there is no information to state whether these are subject of the planning application and therefore to be used. Works to borrow pits within the SSSIs may require consent from SNH.
33. In respect of the Muir of Dinnet SSSI and its geomorphologic interest, SNH note that the original track cuts across a number of sub glacial ridge and channel features, with the recent upgrading of the track causing additional damage which cannot be restored and has increased visual intrusion. The proposed mitigation should benefit the geomorphologic interest by visually reducing the interruption to the landforms

June 15, 2016 Nick Kempe 3 comments
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Photo credit Ron Greer. Bulldozing ground lower Coire Cas before installation new ski tow and snow fencing

While I usually visit the Coire Cas carpark at least a couple of times a year to climb or ski tour it was years since I had taken a proper at the Cairngorm ski area.   I was prompted to do so with Dave Morris  two weeks ago by this photo taken by Ron Greer last year.

 

It was pure coincidence our visit  happened just after Natural Retreats announced their decision not to replace the Day Lodge at Cairngorm with a new building http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/06/06/plans-cairngorm-dropped/ and that they were considering other options, including a mountain bike track.   I have since been doing a little digging of my own.

 

The destruction was to “improve” the skiing, to install a beginner’s rope tow and smooth out the slope.

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In the past the destruction evidenced by Ron’s photo would never have been allowed.  The construction of the funicular 1999-2001 pre-dated the creation of the Cairngorms National Park but strict construction requirements were put in place.  For example, the use of machinery was restricted and the bases of some of the concrete stanchions which you can see in the right hand photo dug out by hand.  I disagreed with the funicular – which has always be a white elephant – but at least at that time there were serious attempts to preserve the mountain and meet some of the criticisms of conservationists or indeed anyone who cared about the mountain.  It appears that this is not longer the case, that Natural Retreats and its sub-contractors have been allowed to run amok and completely destroy the soils here.

 

While there have been attempts to restore the vegetation  over most of the ground, there is already evidence of extensive problems.

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There are patches of ground where there has been no attempt to restore the vegetation that has been removed.
Erosion in form of gullying at the top of the track
Erosion, including gullying at the top of the new bulldozed  track
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Some of the attempts to restore vegetation have clearly failed

 

 

 

 

We have had a relatively dry year so far but its clear that with a period of heavy rain significant areas of the “restoration” work will wash away and the track, which points straight downhill and has no channels to collect the water flowing down it will start to develop deep erosion channels.   This is not simply about standards of work that should be unacceptable in a National Park, its also about risks  that the whole slope is  washed away completely.   I believe the public authorities, the Cairngorm National Park Authority, Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Natural Heritage need to act on this and fast.

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The new track in Coire Cas is several hundred metres in length and the slopes to left and right of it have been extensively modified

After our visit I found out the new track has had no planning permission – its an unlawful development in the heart of our National Park and to make matters even worse so far NO enforcement action has been taken against Natural Retreats.     Indeed I understand that significant other parts of the work undertaken by Natural Retreats had no planning permission and hope to cover this on Parkswatchscotland in due course.

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The new fencing is more concentrated lower down the hill

 

There is an aesthetic debate to be had on whether the new fencing looks better than the former chestnut fencing.  The old fencing was well past its sell-by date and it may be the new horizontal plank design is more effective at trapping snow.   What is indisputable though is that the new fencing does not make this a good place to walk and partially undermines previous attempts to create paths for general tourists through the ski area.

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Where now?

The destruction evidenced in these photos at the heart of our National Park should be of serious public concern and though harder to address than the rubbish that is littered everywhere, that would  not prevent effective action if there was the will from our public authorities and politicians.

 

That Natural Retreats has breached planning requirements in the first two years of what is a lease which has something like 22  more years to run should not just be taken as an awful omen, it should trigger a review of the lease by HIE who own the land.  I have already asked HIE for a copy of the lease and if this does not contain a require to adhere to planning conditions, one needs to be inserted immediately.  If Natural Retreats failed to accept this I believe this would demonstrate they were unfit to operate any ski area in National Parks and that alone should be grounds to terminate the entire lease.

 

Breaching planning permission in the core of a National Park is unacceptable and the CNPA now needs to undertake a full audit of what elements of the works undertaken by Natural Retreats had planning permission and which did not and then take appropriate enforcement action.   They also need to look at the quality of the restoration work in consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage who were involved in setting standards for the funicular development.  I believe this should include commissioning an independent report on the damage that has been done here and how it can be repaired.

 

The damage caused by Natural Retreats means the ground and vegetation cover in Coire Cas will almost certainly never be able to be restored to its previous condition.  To put it bluntly the land here has been trashed.    I believe this is unacceptable which is why there need to be serious consequences for Natural Retreats.   I very much doubt now they are fit to manage this area but the who care about this area, and the public authorities that are supposed to be its custodians, need to look forward and find solutions.   I will argue in my next post on Cairngorm that the destruction caused by Natural Retreats provides an opportunity to develop a new vision for the ski area that would make it better for skiing, walking and wildlife.