Green groups in battle over Cairngorms park's missing mountains

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Britain's newest and biggest National Park opens for business next Tuesday, but already it is at the centre of a controversy over its size. It's not big enough.

Britain's newest and biggest National Park opens for business next Tuesday, but already it is at the centre of a controversy over its size. It's not big enough.

Travelling north along the A9 past Killiecrankie, the big-tree country of rolling hills gives way to the wilderness of Highland Perthshire, with picturesque Blair Athol, in the shadow of Beinn A'Ghlo, presenting a natural gateway to the Cairngorms.

However, according to critics, due to a lack of foresight by planners, the entrance to the new Cairngorms National Park is a further 18 miles north, at Drumochter.

To the fury of local residents, businesses, conservation groups and national environmental organisations, more than 300 square miles of Highland Perthshire, with some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, has been omitted from the 1,466-square-mile park.

The coalition of environmental interest groups – one of the country's largest to join together on a single issue – is to fight for a re-drawing of the park's boundaries.

The Perthshire Alliance for the Real Cairngorms (PARC) claims the boundary, between Perth and Kinross local authority area and the Highland local authority area, does not reflect the coherent natural heritage identity of the Cairngorms and will not protect the distinct wild and natural character of the southern region.

Neither, they claim, will it spread the economic and social benefits of the National Park to the whole of the Cairngorms or allow for integrated recreational management through some of the wildest and most remote areas of Britain.

"Atholl and Badenoch is where the Cairngorms start, not the far side of Drumochter," said Garry Stagg, president of the Atholl Mercantile Association, a forum of local businesses. "How do you explain to visitors why some Cairngorms mountains are in the National Park while others aren't?"

Scottish Natural Heritage had recommended to the Scottish Executive that the park should include the Perthshire mountains and stretch to 1,775 square miles – almost twice the size of the Lake District National Park – spread over five local authority areas.

But in an attempt to simplify the boundary the Government suggested cutting its size to just 950 square miles, for fear that if it was too large the park would be unwieldy and too expensive to run. After lobbying from pressure groups they were forced to compromise and extend the boundary.

The parkwill stretch from the Grantown-on-Spey area to the heads of the Angus Glens, and from Ballater to Dalwhinnie and Drumochter. It will include much of the Laggan area in the south-west and a large area of the Glen Livet estate and the Strathdon/Glen Buchat area. It is home to some of the most important high mountain ground in Britain, covering almost 10 per cent of Scotland's land mass. It will incorporate the arctic tundra of Ben Avon and Beinn a' Bhùird; the high plateaux of Lochnagar, White Mounth and Caenlochan with alpine heath, blanket bog and surrounding heather moorland, and the last remnants of the Scottish Caledonian Forest, which used to cover the Highlands. The park will be formally established on Tuesday, although the official opening ceremony will be in September. It is expected to provide work for 84 people, and cost up to £5.5m a year to run.

But with the exclusion of areas surrounding Blair Athol, Badenoch and Pitlochry, the PARC chairman, Bill Wright, believes a "very serious mistake has been made in natural heritage terms. It is obvious that the magnificent mountains in this area should be in the park.

"It is like having the first and 18th holes removed from the Old Course at St Andrews," he said, adding that it was a rushed decision to have the park opened before the parliamentary elections on 1 May.

"Fortunately the legislation allows for the boundaries to be redrawn at some future date, and although the Executive have said it won't happen for at least five years we intend to make sure that this mistake gets put right long before that."

Jimmy Doig, leader of Perth and Kinross Council, said the plans for the park had blighted a wonderful opportunity.

"Highland Perthshire should be in the park because it is a natural part of the Cairngorms and a natural gateway to the mountains. I can only hope in the future that some sense will prevail," he said.

The excluded sites

THE FALLS OF BRUAR:

Situated about four miles west of Blair Atholl, the falls are now a natural memorial to the poet Robert Burns. He visited the site in 1787 and, disappointed at the bare steep slopes surrounding the falls, he wrote "The Humble Petition of Bruar Water", in which he urged the Duke of Atholl to plant its bleak banks with trees. When Burns died in 1796, the duke created a "wild garden" in his memory, planting the riverbanks with larch and Scots pines and establishing paths and bridges.

KILLIECRANKIE:

The Pass of Killiecrankie was the site of one of the bloodiest battles between Jacobites and Hanoverian forces on 27 July 1689. It is now a tranquil Site of Special Scientific Interest and one of the finest examples of mixed deciduous woodland, consisting of sessile oak with a mixture of birch, ash, alder and wych elm and an understorey of hazel. Much admired by Queen Victoria in 1844, the woodlands have changed little over the centuries and offer sanctuary to a variety of wildlife, including hares, red deer, sparrowhawks and buzzards.

BEINN A'GHLO:

Casting its shadow over the area surrounding Blair Atholl, this ridge of peaks, the highest of which is the Munro Carn nan Gabhar at 1,121m (3,677 feet), lies about 7.5 miles north-west of the settlement and to the east of Glen Tilt. The grey hill, as its name translates, is renowned for its variety of rich grassland, high altitude stony flushes and upland birds.

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