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Nature Reserves and Local People:

Two Case Studies from Badenoch and Strathspey

Stewart Taylor, Les Street and Pete Mayhew, RSPB, North Scotland

1. Abernethy Forest Reserve

2. Insh Marshes Reserve

1. Abernethy Forest Reserve


The Abernethy Forest Reserve, which extends to 12,795 hectares, includes a range of internationally important habitats from native Scots pine forest on the low ground rising through heather moorland and blanket bog to the high montane plateaux of Cairngorm, Ben Macdhui and Bynack More.

The Scots pine woodland covers approximately 3,265 hectares of the reserve. Of these, 1,935 hectares comprise native pinewood - Britain's largest surviving fragment, and 1,330 hectares pine plantations ranging from 10 to 110 years of age. A further 5-600 hectares is in the natural regeneration phase, the first part of plans to add an additional 2-3000 hectares of new forest to the reserve over the next few decades.

Such a large woodland is extremely rich in terms of biodiversity with all the key pinewood birds present (capercaillie, Scottish crossbill, crested tit and black grouse) along with very high numbers of other dependant species of flora and fauna, some of which are restricted to Abernethy and a few other sites in the UK.

The montane zone within the reserve (land over 800 metres above sea level) extends to some 2,351 hectares and is as important as the native pinewood. 1,154 hectares of this area lie above 1,000 metres, comprising assemblages of flora and fauna which are extremely rare within Britain and Europe.



The management at Abernethy hinges on achieving the right levels of grazing by red and roe deer to allow the forest to spread outwards and upwards by means of natural regeneration. Within the plantations, management ranges from total removal of areas of non-native conifers to thinning regimes which improve the quality of ground vegetation and densities of planted Scots pine. Management is aimed at increasing biodiversity rather than at creating saleable produce for the sawmill and in many areas profit is foregone to enhance habitats as quickly as possible. There is a policy of open access to visitors as long as this does not compromise the natural history interest of the site.


In contrast to the practices on traditional sporting estates, deer numbers have been reduced humanely and quickly to allow habitat recovery to take place. There is no need to provide animals for sporting clients, although a small part of the cull is carried out by the previous owners of the estate.

Meeting the Costs of Conservation

Managing Abernethy costs around 130,000 net per annum. This can result in the response, "Well, it's all right for you to manage an estate like this, the RSPB has lots of money". Members' money is crucial, but Forestry Authority and other grants are also important. The combined income allows us to manage a large area of land without the continual need to generate profits from within the estate. That means we are able to leave substantial areas of forest unmanaged and to maintain deer numbers at levels which benefit the site. Forty kilometres of deer- and stock- fencing have been removed, benefiting capercaillie and black grouse hugely and allowing the forest to develop more naturally. This has resulted in major aesthetic gains and benefits to the landscape. New woodland is appearing in patches, over widely-dispersed areas, rather than in lines in plantations.

Culled deer are sold to two local game dealers. The woodland management is shared between reserve staff, locals employed on winter contracts, and larger forestry companies, provided they can guarantee to use local contractors. Good contact is also maintained with locally-based businesses for saw supplies and maintenance, and fuel supplies, whilst additional contractors carry out timber forwarding, haulage and track maintenance. As trees are removed from forest bog systems, local contractors are used to infill drains and plough-lines. Sometimes these are the same contractors who dug the original ditches. Timber is sold to both local and more distant saw mills and pulp mills.

The primary aim of establishing woodland regeneration without fencing, has meant, sadly, that a sheep grazing tenancy with seasonal grazing for over 600 sheep was terminated n 1991. However, we are currently investigating the feasibility of a limited amount of grazing, possibly by cattle, within some of the woodland area.

Continuous cover forestry

Currently there are no plans for silvicultural management within the semi-natural woodland (currently Britain’s largest area of non-intervention woodland), and about half of the plantation woodland is subject to a time-limited thinning programme. In the Mondhuie section of the reserve a decision has been taken to designate 140 hectares of Scots pine plantation as continuous cover forestry - small scale, continuous timber production, without resorting to clearfelling and planting, all restocking being by natural regeneration. There are various management options, from external contractors to a link to a community forest, with, hopefully, local folk getting a living out of direct management of the woodland.

Management Plan Consultation

The Mondhuie area mentioned above is the most recent extension to the reserve, bought in 1994. The process of preparing a management plan was designed to take local views into account. A series of open meetings took place to discuss the importance of the area to the nearby village of Nethy Bridge, and to present a series of management options. The ideas put forward at the meetings were then discussed before the draft plan was written. Copies of the draft plan were circulated for comment before the final working document was produced. For the first time in the Society’s history of preparing management plans, the final document is now available to the public, and copies have been lodged with a number of key bodies (such as community councils) within the immediate area. Later in 1998, a revision of the management plan, covering the whole reserve, will follow a similar process.

Green Tourism

The Osprey Centre attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors each year and an additional 50,000 people visit parts of the reserve for the scenery, walking and wildlife. Close to Loch Garten a series of way-marked walks are much used by visitors and locals alike, and there is unrestricted access over an additional 100 km of tracks. The reserve is also used regularly as a venue for seminars and training courses with delegates using local hotel or B&B facilities. Natural history experts, both professional and amateur, also visit the reserve each year to add to our knowledge of the site, and all stay locally.

Abernethy and the Local Economy

A recent study (Rayment 1996) shows that the visitors to the Osprey Centre spend 1.7 million locally, supporting around 69 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs. Excluded from these figures are the other visitors who stay locally and visit the reserve, but not the Osprey Centre, during the summer season and the rest of the year. To put this into perspective, 19 out of 74 advertisements featuring accommodation in mainland Highland in the RSPB members’ magazine, Birds, mentioned Loch Garten/Abernethy.

Direct on-site employment accounts for 11 FTE jobs. Other sources of employment are 1.25 FTE jobs for contractors engaged on the site; 5.1 FTE jobs supported by the local spending of staff and contractors and buying supplies; 1.4 FTE jobs with the local timber and venison dealers supported by the site's production.

In total, therefore, Abernethy now supports 87 FTE jobs in the Badenoch and Strathspey economy as well as supporting crofting tenants, a shooting let and a sawmill. These benefits contrast with the 1.5 FTE directly employed jobs when Abernethy was managed as a traditional sporting estate.

While the Abernethy finances may not be a blueprint for other estates, we do believe that there are lessons which may be relevant to other land managers, particularly in relation to a more broadly-based estate economy in which there are revenues from timber, deer, grouse, fish and tourists.


Rayment, M, Abernethy Forest Nature Reserve - Its Impact on the Local Economy: A Case Study. RSPB, 1996.

2. Insh Marshes Reserve


Insh Marshes Nature Reserve is an outstanding wetland of international importance covering 1,000 hectares of the floodplain of the river Spey between Kingussie and Kincraig in Inverness-shire. The area is considered to be the best remaining large example of river fen system left in Britain and merits the highest designated status of statutory protection for its wealth of birds, plants and animals.

This ten-kilometre long wetland floods several times a year, mostly during autumn to spring whenever heavy rains or snow-melt fill the Spey. A sizeable population of Icelandic whooper swans overwinter, and a thousand pairs of wading birds such as snipe, curlew, and redshank, plus hundreds of pairs of waterfowl including rare species such as goldeneye, pintail and spotted crake, nest from April to June. Seasonal inundation and waterlogged ground are essential conditions for these birds to survive. The same environment provides a home for over 500 kind of plants from beautiful orchids to exceedingly rare sedges and grasses. Animal life ranges from numerous otters to minute aquatic life, some of the latter still being discovered.

In summer most birds depart and the marshes provide grazing for local farmers' livestock, plus a little grass for hay and other forage cutting in drier areas, until the autumn floods return forcing cattle and sheep to higher ground and completing the annual cycle on this wonderful floodplain.


The linchpin of management on the Insh Marshes is the close working relationship between RSPB and local farmers. Grazing maintains a relatively close-cropped sward and provides ideal conditions for the plants, birds and animals using the area. If the floodplain is not grazed, the diversity of plant species diminishes and willows begin to encroach on the wetland. Eventually the land becomes unsuitable for certain species of breeding waders.

RSPB has arrangements with seven local livestock farmers in the form of crofting tenancies, and several grazing licences or farming partnerships. Staff on the reserve maintain the grazing infrastructure of fencing, gates, ditches, tracks and bridges, and provide further help in the form of electric fencing, some assistance with animal husbandry, tractor topping of rushes, control of scrub and, from 1998, the provision of stock handling pens.

RSPB income from farming activities is modest; the most important gain is perceived to be the enhanced habitat for wildlife. Farming interest in the wetter areas waned during the 1980s and the reduction in livestock led to a decline in palatable grazing, as rank species such as soft rush Juncus effusus began to dominate. This spiral of decline was arrested when the links with local farmers were re-established in the 1990s. The mutually beneficial arrangements now in place benefit both wildlife and the local farming economy. Such is this change that there is now competition for grazing licences in some areas.

A thousand or more sheep and nearly two hundred cattle have returned to graze and browse on the floodplain during spring to autumn, much as they may have done for centuries. This is an example of close inter-dependence between conservation and farming interests and one which benefits both parties in this working relationship.

Insh Marshes as a Flood Storage Area

During times of spate, water spilling over the floodbanks of the Spey needs a place where it can be held for several days, if it is not to cause social or economic disruption. At these times Insh Marshes acts as a flood storage area until enough water passes through the narrow constriction on the river downstream of Loch Insh and flood levels subside.

There are multiple beneficial spin-offs in the form of flood relief for the villages of Badenoch and Strathspey, splendid wetland habitat for all the specialised wildlife which thrives in the area, and the beautiful silvery flooded meadows.

Green Tourism and the Local Economy

Research shows that most holiday-makers visit the Scottish Highlands for scenery, walking and wildlife. Nature Reserves and statutory environmental designations help maintain these areas in the condition in which visitors expect to see them, and the provision of nature trails, literature, displays and other visitor facilities enhance the experience.

Nearly ten thousand people now visit Insh Marshes each year. Over half of these come specifically to see the wildlife, whilst others wish just to enjoy the scenery. In addition, local people walk dogs, and there is even a band of hardy folk who bathe in summer in the icy water tumbling down from the Cairngorm mountains through the Tromie gorge. Visitors and residents can participate in sport fishing on the Spey by taking advantage of angling which is let to local clubs.

A recent study concluded that visitors to Badenoch and Strathspey each spend an average of 30 per head per day. Thus, nearly 200,000 is brought to the local tourist economy each year by Insh Marshes Nature Reserve alone.

This sustainable land use provides free facilities for visitors to enjoy and also boosts the local economy through tourism and farming. It protects a unique national asset by conserving habits and wildlife, and also provides the entire community with the added benefit of flood relief: a real 'win-win' situation for all.



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