Duncan Halley’s insights on the Cairngorms: the Cairngorms National Park Authority has consulted (closing date 30 September!) on its Partnership Plan to 2022, highlighting nine major issues including questions related to woodlands, deer, grouse, flood management, tourism and research. The views of Dr Duncan Halley of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, noted for his inspirational observations on the potential for restoration of Scotland’s hills, are reproduced below with his permission.
What more can be done to encourage woodland expansion and active woodland management in appropriate places?
- Data from similar climates, geologies, and landforms in SW Norway, which has experienced extensive natural woodland expansion in recent decades from a state of substantive deforestation, indicates that reduction in browsing pressures and ancillary practices such as muirburn was key.
- Data from SW Norway also suggests that following reestablishment of seminatural woodland on a regional scale, offtake of red deer can be similar to deer stalking estates in Scotland in terms of individuals per unit area. Those individuals are c. 30% larger than hill deer in Scotland, thus yielding more venison; and with better average trophy heads. Data is clear that these size differences are due to nutritional, and not genetic, reasons. Offtake % are higher than in Scotland, c.30% or more per year, because fecundity is higher and nonhunting mortality much lower than is the case in Scotland. Densities must, however, be reduced during the transitional period. This could be considered an investment in the same way as e.g. establishing commercial forestry was considered an investment in the 20th century, both economically and in terms of other goals.
- Attention to the role of fuelwood, especially of rapidly growing deciduous species such as birch, in other countries might be useful. This can provide a steady and sustainable income stream; thus encouraging woodland expansion. Fuelwood is typically additional income from land primarily used for other economic purposes.
- Norwegian data from Dovrefjell indicates montane birch woodland grows out of sheep browsing range in c. 8 years; this would probably occur rather more quickly in the Cairngorms. After that time sheep may be reintroduced at relatively higher densities than would be necessary for initial establishment. In such open woodland sheep can graze on the understory vegetation, which is higher in quality than open hill grazings, and find shelter.
- Natural regeneration on the west side of the central Cairngorms massif, in particular, has been very encouraging in recent years. An anomaly is the lack of deciduous regeneration at upper levels. Normally, species such as birch and aspen are the pioneers.
- Montane birch of the form Betula pubescens tortuosa is found at higher altitudes in Scandinavia, the Alps, Carpathians, and other areas (the altitude of the transition between forms progressively lowering towards the north). Although it is freely interfertile with B.p.pubescens growing at lower to mid elevations, the distinction is maintained throughout these areas. This implies a strong advantage to tortuosa at upper levels. Small groups of tortuosa form birch are found in Glenmore and in some other locations, but are isolated, fragmented, and individual groups likely inbred, which can reduce the ability to set viable seed. Study of their genetics and crossing to reverse bottlenecking effects, would be desirable. Local adaptations, rather than the genetic drift/bottlenecking which occurs in small isolate populations, are implausible explanations of genetic differences in a wind- pollinated and wind dispersed species present only since the Ice Age; in Scandinavia such species typically show little variation in genetics over much larger distances than are available in Scotland. Planting of tortuosa form birch at suitable elevations, to provide local seedstock for natural regeneration, should be investigated/trialled.
- It is also possible that while deer and sheep densities are low enough to permit regeneration of relatively less palatable pine, they remain high enough to inhibit relatively more palatable birch. Both deer and sheep are strongly hierarchical in their browsing preferences if higher quality browse is available.
- Aspen Populus tremula throughout its range except for Scotland is an aggressive, mobile, andfast-growing pioneer/nursery tree species. It produces millions of tiny wind dispersed seeds per adult female tree in most years. This is also the case in SW Norway, which over large areas is has similar seasonal temperatures to, but is rather wetter than, anywhere in Scotland. Climatic explanations for low seed productivity in Scotland cannot therefore be correct. The life history strategy of the species is to quickly ‘find’ and exploit disturbed ground, such as landslips, eroded stream banks, or the bases of windthrown trees, and then to grow fast to outstrip competitors for light. To do this it uses very little energy in chemical defence, allocating resources to growth; rendering it very palatable to browsers. Other species then grow up below it, so that the species tends to last for only one generation in a given location. Ecologically, aspen provide shelter and soil development that assist these other tree species in their establishment (it is sometimes called a ‘nursery’ species for this reason). In Scotland aspen seeding is rare, a strong anomaly given the basic life history strategy of the species. It seems likely inbreeding in the very small, strongly isolated groups surviving millennia of strong browsing pressures on cliff ledges, etc. may be implicated, and also that individuals biasing reproduction strongly to suckering would be advantaged in intraspecific competition in the small patches available, relative to individuals using more energy on seeding. This should be investigated/addressed in the same manner as for tortuosa birch, above.
Should the Park Partnership Plan set guidance on the appropriate range of deer densities necessary to deliver the public interest?
Yes. An alternative, and the practice in Norway, is to set guidance for deer weights, and for browsing impact. Reductions in weights (or in the Scottish case, failure to achieve them), and/or browsing pressure not compatible with adequate woodland regeneration – the two are closely related – should trigger increases in hunting offtake until they are remedied. See e.g. the large increases in average weights at Corrour estate as red deer populations were brought under control (this has also increased trophy head quality). Natural regeneration has, in consequence, resumed at Corrour.
How can management for grouse be better integrated with wider habitat and species enhancement objectives such as woodland expansion, peatland restoration and raptor conservation?
The pressure for very high grouse bags is unusual in an international context, and of relatively recent origin in Britain. It is considered unsporting in most other countries, and was considered so – in trenchant terms – by traditional grouse shooters in Britain into the 1890s (e.g. Bertram 1890, Outdoor Sports in Scotland – ‘in no sense sport…poulterer’s work’). A move to a culture more concerned with the quality of the hunting and outdoor experience would be more compatible with wider habitat and species enhancement objectives. The link between numbers killed and prices to shoot should be removed. It is not found in other countries. Walk-up shooting, the usual form outside Britain – and in Britain before the late Victorian period – is more compatible with the wider objectives and should be encouraged.
What land use changes are needed to deliver more effective natural flood management and how can they be supported/funded?
- Reafforestation, especially of seminatural type without artificial drainage, is the primary measure. It has been shown to be of considerable effect in damping flood peaks (and drought troughs, of importance among other areas to salmon angling).
- A recent comparative example may be the effect in December 2016 of Storm Desmond in N England/S Scotland, and in SW Norway which it also hit and where rainfall levels were even higher, onto similarly saturated ground. Damage, as assessed by insurance claims, was one ninth the level, per person, in Norway compared to that of N England / S. Scotland (NB rural population densities are higher in SW Norway given its dispersed landownership/settlement patterns). While research would be needed to establish the causes, the most obvious difference between the two areas is that in recent decades SW Norway has substantively reafforested, largely through natural regeneration.
- On a smaller scale, recent work in Devon and in the Ardennes on the effect of beaver damming of smaller streams; and in Belford, Northumberland mimicking beaver activity artificially, has shown considerable effects at tributary stream level in retaining water, and in slowing speed of throughput even when heavy rains fall on an already saturated system. In the Ardennes this has been implicated in a reduction in flood peaking in villages lower down the river catchment. See Campbell-Palmer et al 2016, The Eurasian Beaver Handbook, section 5.3 for review.
- Alteration of government financial measures to promote natural reafforestation, by making natural regeneration equivalent to planting, would be very useful (and logical). There remains a strong, if unconscious, assumption in Scotland that reafforestation = planting (and fencing). This is often in evidence in policy statements and other literature. Planting may, of course, often be necessary to reestablish seed stock as many areas are remote from a natural source.
How can the National Park tourism sector be strengthened?
- A flagship restoration programme of a natural treeline succession from Caledonian pine forest through birch belt and willow zone to alpine tundra, currently not found anywhere in the British Isles, has considerable potential to attract public attention and tourism income. Glenmore in general and the ski area at Cairngorm in particular would have great potential in this respect. The montane woodland types as well as being of great conservation interest would perform the function that unattractive snow fencing now performs (as such woodland does in Norwegian ski resorts, for example). This would also provide an additional attraction in the summer at the site, make it more robust to human walking pressures, and enhance the landscape by concealing road cuts and other infrastructures on the hill. It is already very accessible, and very well equipped to serve the general public for tourist/education purposes. In the short term attractive, and in Scotland very rare, plants of the habitat type such as Alpine blue sow-thistle could be re-established. In the long term reestablishment of charismatic migrant species of the habitat, such as bluethroat, could be expected. Such a programme should attract heavy media attention, and has potential for considerable funding from lottery, NGO, and philanthropic sources.
- A cabin sector, on the pattern common in Norway, could be of considerable economic benefit and could easily be connected to landscape enhancement/woodland restoration. Places close to main roads and railways, such as the Drumochter Pass, would have particular potential in this area. In Norway this is a very considerable rural income source through sales, lets, maintenance, and providing services generally. Cabins can vary in standard; many in Norway have electricity and other amenities which, sensitively provided, do not detract from the natural amenity of places already affected by infrastructural developments like Drumochter. Attention to blending in with the surroundings through e.g. subdued external colour schemes and grass roofs (these days underlaid with heavy duty plastic coverings, which provide the waterproofing function) is important. Sensitively applied, densities of up to 50/sq km are achievable in reestablished seminatural woodland without affecting the landscape values or the sense of individual space for each, where human impacts such as transport infrastructure already affect the area. Wildlife/conservation values can be considerably enhanced.
What more can be done to diversify the National Park’s economy beyond tourism?
Fuelwood is a sustainable, carbon-neutral source of income, harvestable in a steady manner from seminatural woodland. It can be processed using simple equipment, which can be bought in B&Q equivalents in much of Europe. In Norway in 2009, the average household used 817kg of fuelwood and the sector generated a declared income of 323 million kr (£37 million). Energy yield was assessed at 7.29TWh/ 626 ktoe (kilotonnes oil equivalent) by Statistics Norway. This was additional income from land all of which had other primary economic uses.
What are the key research priorities for the next five years and why?
Research on seminatural woodland regeneration and its integration into a cultural landscape would be very useful. Natural regeneration is free, provides a carbon sink, enhances soils and soil fertility, damps flood peaks and drought troughs, reduces erosion and landslips, and has considerable wildlife and landscape benefits. It provides direct income streams from timber, fuelwood, hunting, livestock grazing at moderate densities, and tourism. At present deciduous trees are not regenerating at upper levels in CNP, as they naturally should. Aspen is not fulfilling its normal ecological function as a pioneer/nursery species at any elevation. The reasons should be investigated. Comparative research with SW Norway, where climate and geology is closely similar and where natural regeneration from a substantively deforested state is now in its mid-later stages depending on the area, would be illuminating.