Tucked around a corner of the Monadhliath mountains in the Cairngorm National Park, Geal Charn rises to a modest 925m above a juvenile River Spey.
After setting off from Kendal early that day, we left the car park at lunchtime to make the 12km out-and-back to the summit before a long weekend in the Cairngorms.
The rivers were at what Bo described as their “happy weight” – full and frothing, but not so high to be considered “raging”. As we began the climb proper after a few kilometres’ walk in, the path became sodden from recent snow melt, but was clearer at 700m.
Every so often, Togo (our cocker spaniel) would detonate a grouse mine, causing them to warble and whirr in an explosion of wings from the heather. The higher we got, the stronger the wind grew. By 900m, we were bending sideways to stay upright, staggering drunkenly across the summit plateau. Every so often, we would come across a remnant snow patch that had been polished icy smooth by the cold wind. Packed solid, they provided little grip and so all three of us were on our backsides at one point or another!
We quickly made our escape. Frustratingly, a roll of dog poo bags was whipped out of a pocket, whisked across the hill and into the distance. Despite Togo making a valiant chase, they were gone. I kicked myself, but reminded myself that even the best of us have things blown out our hands and accidentally become a “litterer”.
As we walked (more casually now we weren’t in a permanent side crunch) along the Feith Talagain, I spotted a huge herd of red deer ahead of us. Though my view of red deer is tainted these days, I am still in awe of them; they really are fine creatures.
As we neared, they surged away. There must have been 50, 60, perhaps more in the herd. We chatted for a few moments about how amazing deer are, and I wondered what had brought such a large group here.
Then I looked on my right. On the skyline, I could see half a dozen stragglers standing around huge piles of feed. My heart sank. As we continued towards the car, we could see the herd now on the road. They didn’t seem to mind us now, because they were preoccupied with something else.
On the road ahead of the deer, a pick-up truck was moving slowly, with a figure on the back tossing feed onto the road. I noticed, too, that every single one of the deer was a stag.
Scotland is now home to around 400,000 red deer, up from 150,000 in the 1960s. This “wild animal” has seen its populations both deliberately and accidentally boosted in numbers thanks to the lucrative business of deer stalking and lack of natural predators – except us, of course.
It was sad to see this emblem of Scotland in such a vast landscape which is now unable to sustain their numbers naturally. Every year, red deer perish due to exposure (hypothermia) and starvation. Deer are woodland creatures by nature, and it’s only in the last hundred years they have had to adapt to open hill life. Thus, methods such as feeders are now necessary to ensure survival and deer for hunting parties.
Valued at several thousand pounds a head, shooting is a lucrative business for estates, so it is no wonder they want to keep them healthy in these bare landscapes.
As we left the glen, it was clear the pick-up had made its way along the whole road. Driving along we encountered several dozens-strong groups of stags everywhere. It was like being in a safari.
Shaking my head sadly, we left the glen, heading off for our camp spot for the night.
We woke up the next morning at the mouth of Glen Feshie, with a soft light masking the forecasted rain of the day.
Glen Feshie has gained a reputation over the years: For some, it evokes memories of a massive deer cull that made the headlines in 2004; for others, it marks a progressive step change in Scotland’s land management.
The estate is owned by Anders Povlsen, a Danish billionaire who is now the biggest private landowner in Scotland (maybe even the UK) with 12 estates clocking up around 220,000 acres (over 890 sqkm).
He may be the biggest shareholder of Asos, but Povlsen’s reputation is now becoming that of a landowner with plans to ‘rewild’ much of the Scottish Highlands – particularly in the Glenfeshie Estate – with a 200-year vision.
We sheltered in the van for over an hour, waiting for the latest band of rain to wash over us. Some intrepid souls set off as we sat drinking tea, enjoying the fact that – as runners – we needn’t be in such a hurry. Eventually, we couldn’t hold it off much longer, and set off up the road to join the track into the glen.
Immediately, the difference between the two landscapes I was visiting that weekend became apparent. Here, pines were sprouting up all over the place, with the old granny pines now standing among dozens of their saplings.
Much of Scotland’s ancient Scots pines have been lost over the centuries due to a mixture of livestock farming, demand for timber, and an increase in the Highland sporting estates. Gnarled granny pines were all that were left – twisted old trees that weren’t useful for timber and were left to fall over themselves.
These trees are usually hundreds of years old and, thanks to high herbivore numbers, will see most of their seedlings nibbled back every year until they can grow no more. Thus, we end up with trees standing alone in huge landscapes, without a chance of cross-pollination from other trees.
Just a few kilometres into the run, we came across an obstacle. In 2009, a storm ripped up the bridge across one of the burns that needs to be crossed to access the glen. That day, the burn was a raging torrent. Hitching the dog under my arm and locking our free arms together, Bo and I forded the thigh-deep river, which did its best to push us over.
After 6km, we passed the junction that marked the furthest I’d been into the glen before. Left headed up the Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, while straight ahead took us deeper into the glen. Shortly, we came across the Feshie Bothy, where we found a few of the wet souls who had set off before us from the car park. It is a phenomenally cosy and well-built ‘bothy’ – in fact, it’s more like a self-catering cottage than a bothy.
Continuing on, we traversed around some steep banks where the wide river was reclaiming the land. You could just feel this river was natural: it widened and narrowed as a river should, with gravel bars and banks helping control the flow; here and there, tree carcasses lay like barricades, forcing the river to find a new direction.
As our world becomes more susceptible to flooding, awareness of the role of rivers and trees in flood management is increasing. For years, our rivers have been straightened and shoved to the edges of fields and roads, which only increases their speed, and spurt out sediment and water across towns and villages further downstream. Trees can help stabilise soils and slow down the currents, preventing landslips and excessive amounts of water and debris destroying homes.
As we rounded a water-logged bend, our way was blocked by a huge fallen tree. Beyond, though, we caught a glimpse of what we’d been looking for. It looked like a school playground for trees: Dotted around, the parent trees stood watchfully over the dozens of juvenile trees that crammed the ground around them.
This is a forest in the making. And not one tree has been planted.
When we returned to the Feshie Bothy, we met Lindsay, the warden. We chatted with him for a while about the regeneration. I asked him what he thought made this regeneration so special. Before the deer cull, there were around 40 deer per sqkm. Now, there is maybe one.
Glenfeshie Estate has a zero tolerance for deer at present. The result of that is clear to see, with every tree we had seen having naturally seeded from the remaining woodland.
For many years, people have rubbished the idea that trees could grow much higher than 400m in Scotland. Now, Lindsay told us, they have found trees up to 930m. It makes sense – after all, Norway has a very similar climate to Scotland and we share a latitudinal line, and there we see trees growing upwards of 900m easily.
Specialised species such as rowan, birch and willow varieties will happily grow around 900m above sea level. I have been out planting varieties of willow on Helvellyn at between 700-800m where they are having a jolly old time. These montane trees provide excellent habitats for insects, mammals and ground-nesting birds, which in turn encourage predator species such as raptors and eagles to find food there.
Of course, deer are a natural part of Scotland’s ecosystems, but the lack of apex predators and artificially boosted numbers has meant they are now reaching unsustainable levels. What does that mean? It means deer are now perishing due to starvation and hypothermia in winter, with minimal tree cover to protect them.
Temporarily reducing their numbers allows trees to return. Lindsay was clear when he pointed out the situation in Glen Feshie will change once the estate thinks it is good to do so. At some point, the trees themselves will need management, and deer will be reintroduced at low densities, before more monitoring takes place to assess impact.
We start to see regeneration happen at around eight deer per sqkm, but ideally we need three or four to see the regeneration we need.
While reducing deer numbers may ring alarm bells for some whose livelihoods are reliant on them, the good news is that the demand for high-skilled stalkers has never been higher. Charities, public bodies and private landowners are attempting to bring deer numbers down, so having skilled stalkers is vital for that work.
Of course, other methods have been tried, most notably fencing. While effective, fencing is incredibly expensive, at around £7.20 per meter. Furthermore, the problem is still there, creating unnatural divisions in ecology between wooded fenced areas and barren non-fenced areas. Deer will naturally try to get into the trees in winter, so often they can be found dead at the edges of fencing due to hypothermia.
Birth control has also been suggested, but – in order to fire a dart – a stalker must be much closer to a deer than they would with a rifle. It would also require a massive data tracking process for the 400,000 red deer in Scotland.
We forded the river again as we left the glen, the weather slowly clearing. It had been fascinating to see how two different estates were doing different things so close to one another, with markedly different goals and results.
Nature sorts itself out quickly, but we’ve knocked it out of kilter. It needs our help to return to its natural processes to help capture carbon, manage rivers and increase biodiversity in our hills.