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
2. Insh Marshes 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
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 Britains 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 Societys 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.