The green and the rich vie for 'an ancient private kingdom': Nature groups want the 42,000-acre Glenfeshie estate taken into public ownership. Oliver Gillie reports

RICH MEN are vying with conservationists to buy Glenfeshie, an outstanding Highland estate in the Cairngorms. It contains important remnants of the Caledonian pine forest which once covered much of Scotland and is the home of the rare Scottish crossbill, the only species of bird unique to the United Kingdom.

Glenfeshie's remote grandeur, together with the mature pine forest, justifies its description by the vendors as 'an ancient private kingdom'. But a large part of the estate is within the Scottish National Nature Reserve which is regarded by conservationists as a special demesne.

The Cairngorms are the largest mountain mass in Britain and the home of a unique arctic flora. Alpine speedwell, alpine foxtail and saxifrage grow on the exposed slopes and otters play in the river. Rare birds such as golden eagle, merlin, osprey, and snow bunting find shelter in the glen, which is also home of ptarmigan, a grouse- like bird which turns white in winter, and dotterel, a bird which allots the task of incubating eggs to the male of the species.

The estate, which in the 18th century belonged to the dukes of Gordon, is being sold by the family of John Dibben, a former partner in the Smallbone kitchen outfitting company. The asking price for the 42,000-acre estate which has an average bag of 164 stags, 137 brace of grouse and 32 salmon, is between pounds 4m and pounds 5m. Part of the appeal of the estate is its connection with Edwin Landseer, the artist whose painting Monarch of the Glen epitomises romantic Scotland. The Duchess of Bedford, who was described by the diarist Le Marchant as 'a bold bad woman with the remains of her beauty', entertained Landseer in the valley, where he painted many of his enduring images of Scotland including Stealing a March and Waiting for the Deer to Rise.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Ramblers' Association and the World Wide Fund for Nature would like Glenfeshie to go into public ownership and be managed in a way which would encourage the regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest. Much of the forest was cut down during the war because of the shortage of wood and has not regenerated naturally because of over-grazing by deer.

Dave Morris, head of the Ramblers' Association in Scotland, said: 'The deer eat the young trees and must be drastically reduced in number if the pine forest is to have any chance of regenerating. But sporting owners do not like to reduce the number of deer on an estate.'

The RSPB owns a neighboring estate, Abernethie, and has the experience to manage Glenfeshie. The RSPB hopes to join a consortium of public interest buyers which would include the John Muir Trust, a charity that buys and manages Scottish estates on conservationist principles.

Stuart Housden, the RSPB's Scottish director, said: 'The Cairngorms are one of the few areas in Europe recognised as of global significance for conservation. The estate needs a sympathetic owner interested in conservation. The existing agreement which incorporates part of Glenfeshie in the National Nature Reserve has preserved the status quo but it has not prevented deterioration.'

(Photograph omitted)