Country Matters: The tree-loving lord of the glen

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The Independent Online
PASSIONS are rising over the forthcoming sale of Glenfeshie, a magnificent 42,000-acre deer forest in the Cairngorms. On the one hand, the agent, Brodies of Edinburgh, is offering it as a sporting estate, famous for its deer-stalking; on the other, conservationists are suggesting that no individual should be allowed to own so ecologically important a stretch of the uplands, and they are hoping that a body such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will take it over.

Glenfeshie represents in microcosm the problem facing landowners all over the Scottish Highlands: how are they to deal with the wilderness history has left them? Should deer or trees have priority? What degree of public access can they allow without hikers, climbers and campers ruining the solitude they come to enjoy?

Two major human interventions helped to give the Highlands the bare and bony texture they have today. The first was the Clearances, the series of forcible evictions which began in the 1780s and continued for more than 50 years, as landlords emptied the glens of people to make way for sheep. The second was the Victorian passion for deer-stalking which blossomed as rich men bought tracts of mountain country and dedicated them to the preservation of game.

Together these two processes had a murderous effect on trees. The hills had once been clad by the great Caledonian forest of antiquity - an open woodland of oak, alder, birch and Scots pine; but over the centuries destruction by man, reinforced by a gradual worsening of the climate, steadily reduced the forest, and the arrival of thousands of grazing animals accelerated its demise. By the time the Victorians arrived, the term 'deer forest' had become applicable only in the medieval sense of 'afforestation', which meant the setting-aside of land for hunting.

So it was at Glenfeshie, which lies exceptionally high, with the floor of the main glen 1,000ft above sea level, and much of its ground on or above the 3,000ft contour. Only along the glen did remnants of the forest survive.

The estate was one of the first offered to southerners for shooting - in 1812 - and within a generation it had become well known as a deer forest. Here, every autumn in the 1830s, Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, went to ground in an encampment of wooden huts with stone foundations and turf roofs. Hither, in pursuit, came the lusty young artist Edwin Landseer, who fathered at least two of her 10 children and left in the estate game book a vivid glimpse of the Duchess's settlement beside the river:

The boards so green were hung around with skins of cats and foxes.

All sat by day on wooden chairs and slept in wooden boxes . . .

Landseer decorated the walls of the huts with frescos, and set several of his most celebrated paintings in the forest, so that Glenfeshie played an active part in promoting the romance of deer-stalking. Enthusiasm for the new sport ran riot - and it is a thousand pities that the Victorians paid so little attention to forestry. They spent millions building lodges, roads, pony paths and bridges, but almost nothing on re-establishing the trees.

Only in recent years have enlightened lairds addressed the problem of reafforestation - and one of the first to do so was the late Lord Dulverton, who owned Glenfeshie, through family trusts, from 1967 to 1988. For anyone who knew what he achieved there, it has been extraordinary, these past few weeks, to see him vilified by professional conservationists as some kind of vandal who did his best to destroy the ecology of the estate, using taxpayers' money to plant the wrong kind of trees, and bulldozing unnecessary roads.

In fact, he spent fortunes creating new plantations, not for any financial return, but simply to restore the appearance of the glen and to give the deer shelter in winter. He planted 1,700 acres, mostly in small blocks, which are more expensive than larger ones because they need more wire fencing round the perimeter, but kinder to wildlife, since the deer can come down between them in bad weather to reach the relative warmth of the glen.

He deliberately included exotic species such as lodgepole pine as nurses, knowing that when the deer were eventually given access to the new woods, they would eat the lodgepoles' soft bark and kill them, but that the rough- barked Scots would survive as the final crop.

He did, it is true, bulldoze some rough tracks, but again the purpose was purely practical. Needing to increase his annual deer cull, he created tracks along which four- wheel-drive vehicles could recover carcasses from the remote corners of the forest - and by hard, selective culling over 20 years, in continuous consultation with the Red Deer Commission, he achieved a remarkable improvement in the standard of his herd.

When he took over Glenfeshie, half the estate was already a National Nature Reserve, and he had some blood-curdling rows with the Nature Conservancy Council about how the place should be managed. He loathed some of the NCC officers for their bureaucratic insistence on irrelevant principles; it cursed him for doing things (such as road-building) without its permission. Yet the nature reserve still has its rare flora and fauna intact, and only a pedant could deny that the glen is in far better shape than when Dulverton took it over.

Now it is for sale again, and deer remain the nub of the controversy, since it is they, by their grazing and browsing, that prevent natural regeneration. The only way to bring back the trees is to shoot all the deer or fence them out of selected areas.

At the last count there were nearly 300,000 red deer in the Highlands. The Red Deer Commission agrees that in some areas there are too many, and it is busy inciting landowners to increase culls. But it does not agree that colossal massacres and the handing-over of large tracts to conservationist organisations are the answer.

Deer are now recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage (successor of the NCC) as an integral feature of the Highland scene, and traditional sporting estates are vital to the local community, since they provide jobs in remote areas and bring in much- needed income. The new owner of Glenfeshie will face a big challenge, especially when the new EU Habitats and Species Directive comes into force on 5 June; but it is a challenge that can be met by an individual enthusiast at least as well as by a quorum of do-gooders.