Glen Feshie – a new beginning

WITH the high tops scoured by rain and gale force winds it was a day for staying comparatively low-level. We went to Glen Feshie, one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms.

Feshie Estate has been the subject of much controversy over the years, largely because successive landowners have insisted on maintaining high levels of red deer. This resulted in an important remnant of the Caledonian pine forest becoming ravaged by browsing deer.

However, a more recent change of ownership and the enlightened attitude of its factor has seen almost miraculous change. Today the glen is bursting with new life and its a joy to behold.

I went to Feshie a while back and had a long chat with the man largely responsible for the changes, Thomas MacDonell, and I wrote the following feature for the Scots Magazine in 2012.

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Glen Feshie – A New Beginning

TAKE visitors into most mountain areas of the Scottish highlands and they will most probably gasp in wonder at the natural beauty that lies before them. The size and shape of the hills, the sheer expanse of sky and the humbling awareness of human insignificance is not unusual but in many cases those visitors will be gasping at a land that is degraded, shorn of its indigenous vegetation, bare of trees, and lacking in biodiversity. Caledonia stern and wild, but more often than not treeless.

It’s well known that pine and birch woods once covered much of our uplands but less than one percent of this natural woodland remains. Man’s not entirely to blame – a wetter climate and peat formation have played their part as have burning, deliberate forest clearance and overgrazing.

In recent years serious attempts have been made to encourage the regeneration of the remnants of the Caledonian Pine Forest that once covered much of the highlands.  In Glen Affric, Rothiemurchus, Glen Tanar and Abernethy, to name a few, there is evidence of new growth as young pines, birches, rowans and aspen are given the opportunity to flourish. At the foot of Coire Ardair on Creag Meagaigh, near Laggan, a birch wood that was dying was brought back to life, life in all its biodiversity, by simply removing the browsing animals that fed off any young seedlings that dared to poke their heads through the earth. And now an estate that has been described as the “jewel in the crown of the Cairngorms” has put the regeneration of its pine forest at the top of its management plans.

Glen Feshie will always be associated with the 19th Century artist Sir Edwin Landseer and his Monarch of the Glen. That iconic red deer stag has become a symbol to those who oppose the estate’s plans to regenerate the woods by culling large numbers of deer. The latest owner of the estate, Danish clothing millionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, wants to more than double the area of native woodland from the existing 1,900 hectares over the next five years and he plans to do that by maintaining the number of deer at a lower density than previously.

Under Feshie Estate’s previous ownership, a large cull of red deer had taken place in partnership with the Red Deer Commission, a cull that led to allegations of “wildlife crime” by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. More recently there has been criticism of the estate’s plans from community leaders in nearby Kincraig, who claim that the proposed regeneration will turn the estate into a “jungle”. But after only a few years of this regeneration management, the changes to the face of the landscape are marked and positive. Young pines are growing on the roadside slopes, young birch trees are abundant and there is a freshness and a vibrancy in the glen that suggests nothing less than complete renewal. Capercaillie have been seen in the glen again and blackcock numbers are rising. Red deer still roam the woodlands and the slopes around the Glen – there are just fewer of them now.

Glen Feshie wears its “jewel” description with some justification. The area has a long history of people living and working here, and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large quantities of pine timber were taken from the woods in the glen. This extraction continued before and during the first and second world wars. Feshie was greatly favoured by Queen Victoria and the natural beauty and mystery of the glen inspired the artist Edwin Landseer. Such inspiration is not surprising – there is a sense of timelessness at work here. It’s an intriguing thought that some of the older pines, the so-called ‘granny’ pines, are between 250 and 300 years old so thirty generations of these trees take us back to the end of the last ice age!

These gnarled and knotted old trees are rock hard and anchored deep. Their orange-red trunks contrast vividly with their bottle-green foliage and you can feel their antiquity in the rough bark. And nature has woven an immaculate carpet of lichens and mosses on the woodland floor – juniper and heather live alongside bilberry and cowberry, and wintergreen chickweed and orchids open in the sunlight of summer. It’s a beautiful environment, but it has, until recently, been shrouded in the hush of an old folks’ home. There has been no progeny, no youngsters coming through, because the deer have been eating them.

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Go there now on a bright spring morning and you’ll find the place glistening with new growth and alive with birds – crested tit, tree pipit, dipper, common sandpiper, skylark, wryneck, jay and crossbill in or near the woodlands and golden eagle, peregrine, dotterel, ptarmigan, red and black grouse, dunlin, greenshank and ring ouzel on the hills and moorlands. In addition to red and roe deer the mammals include mountain hare, brown hare, otter, badger, fox, wildcat, pine marten, weasel, stoat, water vole, red squirrel and moles. Pine martens are resident and wildcat has been seen in the lower glen.

Two years ago my wife and I had been mountain biking in Glen Feshie and as we trundled down the estate road I became aware of a large Range Rover drawing alongside us. I’m afraid my pre-Land Reform Act bogies are still alive in me, and my natural instinct was to expect some form of confrontation about access, but I was wrong. A young tousle-haired man leapt out, introduced himself as Thomas MacDonell, the estate factor, and asked if we had noticed the regeneration in the glen!

His bubbling enthusiasm was infectious. We had, in fact, been delighted and amazed to see the abundance of new growth in the glen – pines, juniper, rowan, birch – the glen was being transformed, and much of that transformation can be put down to the vision and enthusiasm of Thomas MacDonell himself.

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Thomas MacDonell

Born and bred in nearby Kincraig Thomas has known this estate all of his life and witnessed at first hand the problems created by too many deer. It was while working as a fencing contractor, building fences around little tracts of woodland for the Nature Conservancy Council and then Scottish Natural Heritage that he came across deer that were starving to death. During the harsh winter months in particular, there simply wasn’t enough food to feed the high numbers of deer that existed. Secondly, he realized that the vegetation within the fenced enclosures grew in unsightly blocks that looked unnatural. The fences themselves looked out of place in such wild landscapes and posed a threat to birds, particularly capercaillie. Surely, he thought, there must a management solution whereby deer occupancy could exist with the emergence and growth of seedlings? The answer, of course, was to reduce the number of deer to a level that was compatible with seedling growth, and, armed with this realization, Thomas set out to discover as much as he could about the balance between deer management and conservation.

Red deer management is an extremely complex subject but the challenge to land managers is simple enough – how to get the right deer numbers to maintain benefits to people in jobs, in venison and in tourism against the potential damage to wildlife habitats. Red deer have also become a problem on Scotland’s roads, particularly in winter when they are attracted by the salt put down by road gritters.

Thomas MacDonell’s family have long been entrenched in farming and sporting estate activity, so he was well aware of the controversies that existed in deer management, particularly the anxiety that existed in sporting estates to keep deer numbers high. He decided to work with a range of people to learn and promote understanding about the need to manage deer in a way that takes into account a wide range of interests and perspectives. Those interests include commercial deer stalking, tourism and nature conservation. He quickly learned that management is about getting the correct deer density, or the number of deer divided by the area of land, so the impacts they cause are acceptable to all who use the land.

When Glen Feshie was sold to Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006 Thomas lost little time in sharing his vision with his new boss. The Dane was receptive, and  immediately began plans to further expand and improve low-level woodlands while also restoring mountain woodlands with rarer species such as aspen, holly and oak. He has already spent a considerable amount of money in repairing and maintaining footpaths, and the old electricity poles that once marched up the glen have been removed and the cables put underground.

Over the next five years, the estate hopes to more than double the area of native woodland from the existing 1,900 hectares to around 4,000 hectares. Some planting will be carried out in areas where the seed source is missing but most of the increase will come from natural regeneration.

“We want to do it in a way that will improve the quality of this wonderful and special place, while maintaining local employment,” Thomas told me. “Indeed, in years to come when the deer settle in the forest again it won’t be so easy to cull them. It’ll be a cat and mouse game trying to shoot them in the trees. That’s when we’ll need to employ more stalkers, there’s definitely employment opportunities in conservation.

“I reckon that in the next few years we’ll have to shoot about 400 deer every year to maintain a deer density that’s compatible with the regeneration of the woodlands, and that’s without building any fences. That’s not an unusually high figure, other estates about the same size as Glen Feshie will have culling targets that are very similar.”

Regenerating woodland along the riverbanks will help freshwater life including the Atlantic salmon, and both Thomas MacDonell and Anders Holch Povlsen are keen to further expand and improve low-level woodlands while also restoring mountain woodlands with rarer species such as aspen, holly and oak.

I asked Thomas to paint a picture of how he would like to see the estate in the future.

“I want to see a much larger network of woodlands on the estate, a return to how it would have looked during the heyday of the Great Pine Forest of Caledon,” he told me. “I want to see more trees growing in the deeper soils and shelter of the low ground. The forest should be patchy and varied in nature, with lots of clearings and open spaces. Higher up there should be a low-growing cover of gnarled and twisted undersized trees, made up of pine, birch, willow and juniper, trees that are capable of coping with the exposure and thinner soils. And on the mountain tops, dwarf trees like the mountain willow should be clinging to the land, surviving the harsh conditions by nestling among the carpet of mountain mosses and sedges.”

Already others are recognising the value of the work that is being undertaken on the estate. David Green, convenor of the Cairngorms National Park has been fulsome in his praise following a Park Board visit to Glen Feshie.

“Traditional sporting estates in the park are working hard to meet many objectives,” he said. “We were impressed by the constructive but challenging long-term management approach to sustainable development balancing out the environmental with the economic and community interest.

“In particular, we are supportive of the estate’s active restoration of native forests, improvements to hill tracks and other initiatives.

“It was also good to learn more about how the estate is keen to engage with the local community and encouraging responsible outdoor access – all reflections of the aims of the national park.

This is an estate that is moving forward in a very positive way and drawing a line under the controversies of the past.”

Meanwhile Dick Balharry, one of the country’s most respected naturalist, says; “On a recent visit I was very impressed by the actions of estate staff that has led to the revival of this land. For fifty years I have witnessed the glen. Over that time I have had reason to be depressed regarding its future well being. Although as yet in its infancy, and still vulnerable to fire and grazing pressures, the promise for the future is optimistic. This has been a major undertaking and has at times been controversial. With adjacent estates showing similar shifts in land management, I wonder if, in the not too distant future, a red squirrel will be able to travel within native forest from Speyside to Deeside! The future of Glen Feshie is now on the right road to recovery but it needs all our support to ensure that it remains so.”

Young birch bursting into life along the stream banks

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3 thoughts on “Glen Feshie – a new beginning

  1. Have been for two walks in the glen this year and absolutely loved it. This is what the Highlands should look like, gnarled old Scots Pine and new growth interspersed with heather. Lovely to see Crested Tits investigating nesting sites amongst the pines. Will be back whenever I can get the time off.

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