Heritage: A fresh start in the land where eagles dare

It was bought by an American billionaire for his wife because it was near Balmoral. But as Stephen Goodwin reports, the nation has had to intervene to save the huge Mar Lodge estate in the Cairngorms

When billionaire John Kluge bought the 77,500-acre estate, sight unseen, so his wife, a former belly-dancer,could rub shoulders with the Royal Family, conservationists were tearing their hair out.

The estate was so stuffed with red deer (stalking was Mar Lodge's raison d'etre) that remaining parts of the ancient Forest of Caledon looked to be doomed through overgrazing. None of the Scots pines, which are the glory of glens Derry, Luibeg and Quoich, were less than 150-years-old. Deer were eating all new growth.

Plantation fences were a deadly hazard to the rare capercaille and blackcock, while higher up, in the realm of the golden eagle, vehicle tracks and the walker's boot were scaring the hillsides. Despite the notional protection of a raft of nature and landscape designations, the mountains and glens of the southern Cairngorms were being seriously degraded.

Then fortune, or fate, intervened. In 1991, fire gutted the lodge (built in 1895 for Princess Louise, the Duchess of Fife and and grand-daughter of Queen Victoria) and in the same year John and Patricia Kluge separated.

Mr Kluge restored the lodge at a cost to his insurers of a reported pounds 4m and put it and the estate on the market. In 1995 it was secured for the nation by the National Lottery. Mr Kluge had paid pounds 7m for Mar Lodge, and settled for pounds 5.5m. An anonymous donor, the Easter Trust, contributed pounds 4m and the Heritage Lottery Fund pounds 10.2m, most of which is "endowment" money. The estate could never pay its own way.

The new guardians, the National Trust for Scotland, faced a daunting task. Whole cultures had to change; not just that of estate workers and Braemar locals comfortable with the routine of an essentially Victorian sporting estate, but also the Trust itself. The charity has struggled to live down a poor reputation for "wild land" conservation, largely the result of its eyesore visitor centres at Glencoe and on Ben Lawers. There will be no visitor centre at Mar Lodge.

But nose into the glens and up towards the high mountain plateau today, and it is clear that the Trust has made a good start. (A final judgement may not be possible for 200 years). Miles of fencing have been removed and plantations of 25-year-old Scots pines thinned and cleared of "exotic" non-native sitka spruce and lodge poll pine, to give a more natural appearance.

Deer numbers have been drastically reduced and young saplings are once again emerging above the heather. Estate vehicles have been barred from many of the higher tracks. Stalkers and forest workers will have to make more use of ponies, though finding skilled ponymen and women is a problem.

Mar Lodge estate is crucial to long-term conservation in the Highlands. From the rough pasture by the Dee, it reaches to the semi-arctic heart of the Cairngorms. Four of Britain's highest mountains are here, including the second highest, Ben Macdui,at 4,296ft.

The Trust's actions are being watched closely by neighbouring estates. Conservation is expensive, but increasingly it will be difficult to ignore Mar Lodge's examples. To the west, the 42,000-acre Glen Feshie estate is on the market for pounds 6m, and the pressure is on for public ownership. The "black hole", to quote Trust rangers, in the Cairngorms jigsaw is the Aviemore ski area on the north side of the range. A chairlift company is pressing ahead with its plans for a funicular railway which would reach to within 2.5 miles of the estate boundary.

Some 3,500 red deer roamed the estate when the Trust took over. The target is to bring the number down to 1,600 by the year 2000. It is a hard task for Stuart Cumming, head of the five-man stalking team. Though they still wear heavy tweeds and take clients on to the hill at pounds 250 a stag, the stalkers' traditional role has been turned on its head.

Nine freshly shot stags hung in the lodge deer larder one evening last week, but it had been a good day. Poor weather, or a client who wants to call it a day after killing one animal, slows down the cull. Not unreasonably, the stalkers wonder what will happen to their way of life once the job is done.

Other dilemmas remain for the Trust. Its top priority, as set out in the management plan, is conservation and restoration of the "wild land quality". Second comes public access and third is managing the land as a sporting estate. Sometimes objectives conflict. "The long walk-in shall be maintained at all times and the hills shall not be made easier or safer to climb," states the plan. Signs have been removed from the interior of the estate and efforts will be made to "dissuade" mountain-bikers from using tracks away from the main valley. The Easter Trust wanted bikes prohibited altogether, but the two Trust rangers acknowledge policing would be an impossible task.

Mountain bothies also pose a problem. The high shelters act as a lure. Corrour bothy, handily situated in the Lairig Ghru, the granite-walled trench that bisects the Cairngorms, sleeps a cosy six, but sometimes more than 20 have squeezed in. Rubbish and human excrement have piled up around it. Yet the bothy, once a shepherd's shelter, is also a part of mountain history and has saved lives in foul weather. The bothies are under observation. Their guardian bodies have been told that, unless "substantial improvements" are made by 2000, the Trust "would not hesitate" to close them.

Some improvements will take longer. In 1963 the then Swiss owners, the Panchaud family, had a track bulldozed for five miles almost to the top of Beinn a' Bhuird (3,924ft) in the vain idea of developing the area for skiing. It is, as head ranger Pete Holden put it, "like a scar across the Mona Lisa", visible from miles around. Experimental restoration work has begun.

The Trust is not looking for more visitors to the Mar Lodge estate but for an understanding of the long job of enhancing the wild land quality. The sight of four golden eagles as we climbed, then crossed, the wide open plateau of Beinn a' Bhuird was perhaps a sign that nature is responding to the new management.

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