Land and People in Scotland: the new Cairngorms National Park Plan showing the way in this Decade of Ecosystem Restoration
Despite its status as the birthplace of John Muir – ‘the patron saint of national parks’ – Scotland arrived late on the scene. More than a century behind the USA, and half a century behind England, Scotland gained its first national parks in 2002 and 2003, following the setting up of a Scottish Parliament a few years earlier.
Although latecomers, Scotland’s national parks are significant in size and scope. Spread across four and a half thousand square kilometers, the Cairngorms National Park is almost double the size of the Lake District. Along with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, it encompasses diverse habitats, species, landscapes, and local economies, underpinned by a rich cultural heritage.
The legislation passed in 2000 that led to the establishment of the two National Parks set out four key aims: to conserve and enhance natural and cultural heritage; to promote the sustainable use of natural resources; promote understanding and enjoyment of the areas; and to promote sustainable social and economic development of locally. Arguably, the first of these is the basis for all the others.
National parks in Scotland deliver their remits through national park plans. Public consultation around the current national park plan for the Cairngorms has been heartening. Many people have contributed their thoughts, raising questions about what the National Park is for and how it should be delivering its aims. LINK strongly supports the bold ambitions set out within the draft plan.
The whole of the park has a degree of protection in national planning policy, and just under half (49 percent) is under legal protection for nature, in recognition of the ecological importance of this extensive mosaic of crucial habitats.
Today, the pressures on those designated sites – and across the wider Cairngorms landscape – are significant. These pressures include climate change and intensive sporting upland management practices that involve muir burning, overgrazing by high populations of deer and proliferation of invasive, non-native species. This in turn is driving species loss and decline, along with habitat fragmentation, in what is perhaps the finest and most important natural heritage area anywhere in the UK. To halt the loss of our biodiversity and restore it to a condition sufficiently resilient to withstand the impacts of climate change, we need to act now.
The actions outlined in the park plan are urgently needed. A third of the UK’s land above 600 meters is within the Cairngorms National Park. These uplands are managed for a variety of purposes, which includes nature, access and recreation, forestry, and game bird shooting and deer stalking. To meet the aims of the National Park as set out in the 2000 legislation, it will be necessary to gear land management priorities towards protecting and restoring nature, while nurturing sustainable local communities and thriving local economies.
In the absence of natural predators, Scotland’s uplands, in the Cairngorms and elsewhere, are hugely impacted by our unnatural deer densities, which are among the highest of any country in the world. Estimates of deer numbers vary, with some estimates putting the figure as high as one million (roe and red deer combined) (Forestry and Land Scotland 2021), This compares with 100,000 immediately after the second world war, rising to half a million in 1990 (Simon Pepper 2016). In recent years, the numbers have stabilised – but at an unsustainably high level. In the Cairngorms National Park specifically, the mean density of red deer was 11.5 per km2 in 2021 (NPPP 2022 factsheet: Land management).
As well as preventing natural regeneration of woodland habitats, high deer numbers across Scotland, and in the Cairngorms, are responsible for traffic accidents, ticks and Lyme’s disease, and damage to peatlands. The question is: is this fair?
Scotland’s history of land ownership and land management is complicated and historically fraught. The solution, if there is one, is not easy and is equally fraught. However, as the Scottish Land Commission says: Land matters because we all use and need it. As such, land management in Scotland’s national parks should be setting the standards of exemplary land management for nature, and the multitude of public benefits that will bring. Managing for nature gives Scotland’s environment the best chance of survival, so future generations can enjoy the benefits of a healthy ecosystem, from an abundance of wildlife to stable landscapes delivering a suite of ecosystem services and providing sustainable livelihoods for local communities.
- Bringing deer numbers to a level where trees can naturally regenerate and increase ecosystem and landscape resilience to future shocks. While this level is generally accepted to be five or fewer deer per square kilometer, research shows natural regeneration of Caledonian pinewood, for example, requires deer densities below two per square per km.
- Diversify upland ecosystems to maximise species diversity and move from monocultures towards diverse and resilient ecosystems able to withstand climate change.
- Halt muirburn on peatland and fragile upland and montane soils so fragile slow-growing upland plant communities can survive, are species rich and are resilient to wildfires. This would also allow natural mountain woodland regeneration, one of Scotland’s rarest natural habitats, and prevent peat loss.
- Halt peat loss by licensing muirburn and controlling overgrazing, while targeting peatland rewetting and restoration. This contributes to Scotland’s’ carbon targets and builds biodiversity.
- Provide a home to wildlife and landscapes capable of inspiring local communities and visitors alike, building sustainable local economies in tune with nature rather than exploiting it.
- Through healthy landscapes, support diverse jobs: the numbers of jobs in traditional upland estate management are low. But they will need to increase if we are to achieve and maintain lower deer numbers so ecosystems can recover. Furthermore, the need for nature-based jobs in woodland and peatland restoration, sustainable forestry and farming, nature tourism and visitor management will only increase if we restore Scotland’s iconic habitats and species. Rural communities do much better in diverse and resilient ecosystems and with the diversification of employment opportunities that brings.
- This is the minimum we need our national parks – as the best examples we have of natural ecosystems – to deliver. Robust national park plans, designed to deliver the park aims of nature and rural community protection and restoration are vital.