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The Cairngorms - is this Scottish wilderness sustainable?

Ancient woodlands, endangered wildlife and sustainable development. Can man and park forge a positive partnership in the U.K.'s largest national park? Ancient woodlnads, endangered species, the Cairngorms is the UKs largest national park and one of the few pieces of wilderness left in the country. But can man and park co-exist? This little known national park is the UKs largest and one of the few pieces of wilderness left in the country.

The satisfying crunch of snow underfoot. The sun blazing down from a cloudless blue sky. The icy trickle of pure Caledonian water and the tracks of animals in fresh laid powder. This is The Cairngorms, and one of the few pieces of wilderness left in the UK.

At 4500 sq km the Cairngorms is the UK's largest National Park and twice the size of the Lake District. Cairngorms may be the UK's largest National Park but with less than 2 million visitors a year it is virtually unknown compared to the almost 50 million who visit the Lakes District annually. That alone is part of its appeal.

Well up in the eastern Highlands of Scotland, further north than Copenhagen or Moscow, the Cairngorm range sits on a subarctic, alpine plateau. Within its boundaries, are four of the five highest British mountains: Ben Macdui (1309m), Braeriach (1296m), Cairn Toul (1291m) and Cairn Gorm (1244).

It is an ancient land of snow-dusted mountains, age-old woodland, glacial glens, lochs and marshes. For some arctic birds, it is their winter home. And, for many animals, it's their last sanctuary.

Almost half the Cairngorm is considered 'wildland' and protected by European law as being of 'international importance for nature'. It's a unique example of environmental change and landscape evolution, tracking millions of years of the tropical, glacial ice age and temperate changes, helping us to understand our world a little better. Importantly, how changes to our climate affect the environment and how human impact shapes it.

People & the Park

People have been living in the Cairngorms for millennia. Evidence of their settlements, from tools to stone circles and burial cairns, have been found in the fertile glens by the mountains and on the outskirts of towns.

Today, around 18,000 people live in the park area. Almost half are involved in tourism or related services but many are involved in the agriculture, timber and game industries.

Unlike some other national parks around the world, the vast majority of the Cairngorms remains in private hands and continues to be used commercially. That raises some challenging land management and conservation issues as interested parties try to find ways to balance their competing needs: protecting and exploiting the environment.

In that way, the Cairngorms is very different from other parks of such ecological significance. There are protections for wildlife and woodland in place, however, there is also the recognition that private land will continue to be used commercially. The park takes a sustainable approach to land use and is going further by attempting to reverse the negative effects on already endangered animals and damaged woodlands.

With over 100 landowners, including gamekeepers, farmers, tourism operators, conservation charities and government bodies, there is the need for a strong partnership to make this work. To avoid conservationists constantly clashing with hunting lodges, or tour operator at odds with farmers, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CPNA) and Scottish National Heritage (SNH) are two government bodies responsible for planning and implementing park development strategies and Cairngorms Nature generally pulls the conservation partnership together.

Through Ancient Woodland

"Caledonia" was the Roman word for Scotland. Meaning "wooded heights", the name indicates the countryside was once covered with forest. Over time the lands were cleared for logging and grazing, non-native species of plants and animals were introduced and predatory native animals were aggressively culled, decimating Scotland's forests.

Yet all over the Cairngorms pockets of ancient woodlands of birch, oak, pine, rowan, juniper, willow and aspen remain intact. The Park actually has the largest native (semi-natural and ancient) woodlands in the United Kingdom.

The Park actually has the largest native (semi-natural and ancient) woodlands in the United Kingdom.

It is also home to a quarter of the UK's endangered wildlife species. In 2015, the CNPA identified 26 species of animal, plant and invertebrate as a "priority" for research and protection. These included the endangered Scottish Wildcat, Golden Eagle and Capercaillie.

One of the challenges conservation faces is the protection of species through the expansion of their habitat. For the Cairngorms, restoration of the woodlands by removing non-native plants and replanting with natives is only part of the plan. They also envisage, by using woodland corridors to link a network of forests, they will create pathways for migrating animals that could, in theory, allow wildlife to trek from one side of the park to the other. This has the effect of vastly increasing the range, food sources and reproduction opportunities for wildlife otherwise cut off in lonely pockets of forest.

Paths of Snow & Ice - An ongoing connection to the landscape

Anywhere you go in the park, whether on foot, mountain bike or kayak it is likely someone has been before you.

7000 years ago, humans crossed these interior mountains as they followed the seasons that directed their hunter-gatherer lifestyles. These ancient migration paths that cut mountain passes became the paths taken by medieval drovers bringing cattle to market. And the paths of illegal whiskey smugglers. In the 18th Century, loggers forged paths through the forests and railways brought tourists to the great game estates.

The same network of paths is used today as the way in, and around, the Cairngorms. Tourists have been taking the train from London to Scotland's sporting estates since the Victorian Era. Hikers, joggers, dog walkers and bikers make better use of the old Speyside logging tracks. While on the trails, through glens and along riverbanks, modern man walks the same path as his ancient flint carrying ancestors. It's an impressive ongoing connection to the landscape.

With a little work, the great animal migration paths will be there too, ensuring their future in the woods beside us, and a sustainable partnership between man and park.

What's in a name?

Cairngorm National Park takes its name from the mountain "Cair Gorm", which, in Gaelic, and named for the blue crystals found in the granite, means "blue hill". However, the Gaelic name for the entire range is "Am Monadh Ruadh" or "red mountains" as they contain a red crystal.



GETTING THERE: Scotrail and Citylink buses service towns in the Cairngorms. Aviemore is the main Cairngorms stop with links to Inverness, Perth, Edinburg, Glasgow or as far as London.

GETTING AROUND: The Cairngorms is not difficult to get too or around even on public transport. Many, but not all, villages and reserves in the Park are serviced by local public transport through Stagecoach or Citylink. For Cairn Gorm Mountain via Aviemore/Glenmore take No.31 bus. Walkhighlands is a great source for trail information and always includes public transport information.

RESERVES & PARKS: The following reserves are all accessible by public transport or foot from the main town of Aviemore: Abernethy Forrest NNR (RSBP), Rothiemurchus Estate (Grant Family/Forestry Commission), Glenmore Forest Park (Forestry Commission) and Craigellachie NNR (SNH) Insh Marshes (RSBP) Cairn Gorm (HIE).

PRIVATE LAND ACCESS: Do you know Scotland allows public access to private land? There are some restrictions and responsibilities of

course so check the Access Code first.

PLACES TO STAY: Cairngorms and the surrounding towns supports a wide range of hostel, hotel, B&B and lodge options. For backpackers, the Aviemore Youth Hostel is a short walk from the train/bus station and is a classic old style hostel with large, cosy living and kitchen spaces and plenty of room for storing ropes, bikes and gear. It's a favourite for serious hikers, mountain bikers and climbers of all ages.


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