Book Review

The Ecology, Land Use and Conservation of the Cairngorms (2002), Edited by Charles Gimingham. Packard Publishing Ltd, Chichester.
ISBN 1 85341 102 7 $75 (hardback), ISBN 1 85341 117 5 £40 (paperback), 224 pp including 99 photographs, most in colour.

Anyone seriously interested in the Cairngorms should see this book. Some of the 17 chapters are authoritative reviews, the first for decades, and a few such as on fish are the first ever. The review on aquatic habitats is specially notable, and of wide relevance on pollution. The most comprehensive chapters for factual coverage include the editor's one on vegetation, and those on insects, native woods, and fish.

Although physical geography has been reviewed several times, the chapter on this is useful in mentioning some recent work. However, it almost ignores human actions that increase runoff, flooding, and soil erosion, and it treats peat erosion scantily. It has only one page on climate and one and a half each on geology and soils. Separate chapters on these by other authors would have been justified. This would have left the current authors with a clear run on geomorphology, in which they have recognised eminence.

This raises questions of editorial rationale, which arise also with the chapter on birds and mammals. Though a good review, it is less comprehensive than some others, with only one page on mammals and a third of a page of references. This is no criticism of the author. The editor's vague decision that "contributors to this volume have been encouraged to adopt their own approaches to their subjects" inevitably led to too varied aims, lengths, styles, comprehensiveness and objectivity. Also, because the book was published years after authors finalised their chapters, it is out of date, seriously so in some subjects such as aquatic habitats, as well as on events such as the funicular, EU conservation sites, and the national park.

The author of the chapter on grouse allots only two-thirds of a page to capercaillie, black grouse and ptarmigan combined, and ignores almost all literature on them, presumably because he has little experience of them. In his eight pages on red grouse he cites 13 references by himself. About raptors he writes "there is evidence in the Scottish Highlands that persecution still occurs on managed grouse moors". This greatly plays down the large amount of detailed evidence showing a wide long-standing prevalence of illegal persecution on many private estates. A better qualified author could have written a more impartial and authoritative chapter.

Four chapters on land use, farming, native woods, and man and woods suffer from over-sketchy and at times repetitive accounts on human history, and it would have been better to allot a chapter to archaeology and history including populations, clearances and other emigration. The two chapters on farming and on man and woodlands contain many interesting facts, but omit or understate major criticisms of practices in farming and forestry, and play down adverse effects on landscape, wildlife, soils, and water, including pollution and floods. In particular, the chapter on man and woodlands ignores widespread damage from clear-felling, fencing, draining, dense planting, and severe "selective" felling as promoted with taxpayers' money by the Forestry Commission.

Although recreation in the Cairngorms has been reviewed before, John Mackay's chapter on it is important because of his perceptive thinking, especially his excellent last section. I wished that readers could have had more than his all too brief eight pages. This would have been possible if the editor had allotted more space to some chapters at the expense of others. Most information on physical geography, vegetation, birds, native woods, red deer, grouse, conservation, and the future has already been published and is widely available, in some cases several times over. Hence there was no need for comprehensive reviews on all these topics. A better rationale for them would have been to recommend previous authoritative reviews, summarise briefly their main points, and then give detail only for studies published since. An exception could be justified where no good review had been published before, as on aquatic habitats or fish, or where it was long out of date, as on insects.

It is a relief to find clear English by John Mackay and earlier by Roy Dennis and D.M. Shucksmith, for ponderous style and long clumsy sentences mar most chapters, including the editor's three. Though somewhat more lively, his introduction also suffers from this, as well as from undue deference to estate-owners and other local interests, and unnecessary use of anthropocentric terms such as assets and natural heritage.

The third-last and important chapter on nature conservation is a historical review. However, it leaves uninformed readers with over-optimistic impressions of estate-owners such as Lord Dulverton. He is described as "a man who had a reputation as an active promoter of nature conservation", but the author then fails to mention Dulverton's many damaging actions after buying Glen Feshie. He omits Balmoral's poor conservation, SNH's failings in preventing attempts by conservation bodies to buy Mar Lodge and Glen Feshie, and damaging actions at Rothiemurchus such as excavating poorly made vehicle tracks without permission, felling old pines in the National Nature Reserve, and erecting fences that killed many capercaillie.

Readers are not told the very large cost to taxpayers of achieving inadequate conservation in the Cairngorms. It has been difficult to ensure that private landowners abide by NNR agreements and has cost much to pay some of them not to damage or destroy the conservation values for which the area is world famous. Some landowners have become adept at extracting money from public agencies and playing one off against the other, such as where SNH and FC are both involved in grants applicable to woodland.

The chapter does not mention SNH's review of NNRs, a review notable for its confused conflicting thinking. SNH contemplates abandonment of some NNRs, including parts of the Cairngorms, because there has not been enough "on-site visitor provision" or promotion to increase visitor numbers. This is perverse, as such promotion would be inappropriate and damaging in wilderness land such as the high Cairngorms.

The author ignores the reprehensible attitudes of the Scottish Office and its agencies (including SNH) over the funicular, and over capercaillie habitats and EU conservation sites at Cairn Gorm. He does not explain the lack of progress towards designating the Cairngorms as a World Heritage Site for wildlife. Despite government commitments since the 1980s, little has been achieved, because successive Conservative and Labour governments including the Scottish parliament avoid the actions that are necessary. Although the author usefully summarises some conflicts between public agencies, such as over proposed ski developments at "Lurcher's Gully", he generally underplays or omits conflicts with private estates or with governments.

Such inconsistency pervades more seriously the editor's last two chapters on the future. As a board member of the Countryside Commission for Scotland, he backed a national park with full planning powers and other far greater powers than SNH proposed recently. As a later member of the Cairngorms Working Party, he backed its proposals against such a park or powers. Then at the end of the book he writes of a national park, "the fact that there is now an end to the long history of opposing views on the future management and administration of this magnificent area must be welcomed as a great step forward". This was over-optimistic and uncritical, as amply shown by events since.

Imagine foreigners or UK citizens who know little about the Cairngorms and who turn to the introduction and the last three chapters. Would they understand how national, indeed international, interests in conservation have been thwarted and taxpayers' money wasted in activities damaging to conservation, such as blanket planting of uneconomic exotic conifers? Would they realise the main cause, which is political attitudes in governments and top civil servants, and in the place-men who lack prior credibility and deep expertise in conservation when appointed as chairmen and top staff of state conservation agencies? Would they learn the main effect, which is the subversion of national interests by down-grading natural evolution of habitats and up-grading the short-term wishes of a tiny minority of local traditional vested land interests that damage the long-term national interests? Would they gain an understanding of the main issues in the Cairngorms, as distinct from learning some new facts? I think not.

Absent in the last three chapters and introduction is a clear statement of the international scientific rationale for nature conservation. Nowhere does one read of the crux, that the national interest in the Cairngorms is unquestionably the natural evolution of landscape, habitats and wildlife, and hence as a consequence the informal recreation which depends upon these and which forms the mainstay of the local economy. Nowhere does one read that this national interest has been seriously damaged for over a century by overstocked deer, a land use of only local interest for a tiny minority. Nowhere does one read that the use of taxpayers' money by state agencies such as the FC has been the main new cause of damage to landscape and wildlife in the last half century.

Readers must turn to an economist's chapter on land use, population and economy to see the heart of the problem, that "The history of land use in the Cairngorms, then, is one of private property rights often diverging from the public interest". With evidence he shows that the so-called "voluntary principle" has been insufficient for upholding public interests in conservation. On the central issues of conservation, this is the best chapter in the book, even though conservation was not the subject allotted to this author. Also, his review of social and economic aspects is of much interest, backed by data and references. It deserves a wider readership, including the politicians and civil servants who dominate policy-making and schemes for using taxpayers' money.

Most plates have poor sharpness and contrast, and the few good ones such as 32-35, 52, and 86 are welcome in being so different. Plate 69 of Cur (sic) Wood by J. Atterson, formerly a senior FC officer, is good, but ironically Curr Wood was damaged in 2002 by insensitive felling, authorised by the FC and without objection by SNH. Several plates repeat the same view. The cover painting is called "The Cairngorms in a Snowstorm", but no snowstorm is visible. It depicts Beinn a' Bhuird poorly, making it erroneously shapeless and uninspiring. Sadly, that is like too much of the text which follows.

On the jacket one reads that the book "provides the background information and references for further academic research and managerial decisions". In fact, further research will rest on those who rely on original papers, not summary reviews such as those in this book. Managers are unlikely to base their decisions on this book, because most chapters that involve management issues have boring styles suitable for academic readers, and omit many important management issues. The editor does not tell readers clearly what the book's aims and purposes were, or for whom it was intended, and evidently he did not tell his authors. One gets the impression that many of them found the task uninspiring. A clear editorial remit would have resulted in their chapters being better and reaching a wider readership. This could have made notable progress towards something more important than them or us:- sound conservation in the Cairngorms.

In short, the book will show even the best-informed enthusiasts some facts they did not know, but does not provide a good understanding of the main issues. NEMT members will decide for themselves, whatever reviewers write, but I think most will see it in libraries and will not buy it, given its excessive cost.

Some technical details

Some chapters report unjustified generalisations from the literature, made originally without good evidence by authors other than those in this book. Rigorous peer review could have reduced this. For example, no direct evidence has been published for a big increase of dotterel or for the climate speculations advanced as its supposed cause. The authors of several chapters assert that scrub has spread at Cairn Gorm because of less browsing by red deer, which were said to have been disturbed and driven away by an influx of tourists after the ski development. Even the editor in his vegetation chapter writes of the corries west of the ski development that "disturbance has kept the deer away". This supposed cause is advanced without any evidence and in the face of the documented extermination of the Cairn Gorm deer herd by the FC's actions, many years before the ski development and its ensuing tourist influx.

The author on native woodlands states that pinewood survival has partly resulted from the acid "mor" soils of pinewoods being less suitable for farming, but farmers elsewhere ploughed acid "mor" soils over much of lowland Scotland. The main reason for lack of arable farming in the Cairngorms pinewoods (and hence for their survival), is that soils are too freely drained or slopes too steep for farm cropping. The free drainage results from the nature of the glacial deposits, as stated frequently in authoritative publications by pedologists. The same chapter reports a paper by another author who claimed that a decline of broad-leaved trees has caused a loss of soil fertility, but no direct evidence has been published to back that speculation. In this chapter, the statement that woodland restoration at Crannach has proceeded "with the minimum of fencing" sits uneasily with the fact that the owners erected miles of deer-fencing with the aid of taxpayers' money.

The authors of the chapter on man and woodlands assert that "muirburning over the past century or two has destroyed and prevented forest regeneration". In fact, the densest regeneration follows burning, and the authors underplay or ignore the lack of regeneration due to sheep or deer, and to gamekeepers pulling out seedlings and felling bigger trees (as Jennifer Cook described at Dinnet, Mountain Views 51). In this chapter one reads of "heather-dominated moorland created by man through repeated burning with consequent loss of nutrients in smoke and by leaching of the ash". Net nutrient loss due to the burning of heather-dominated moorland is a suggestion that lacks good evidence. Even for the Cairngorms, the authors still wish scarifying or tining "on seriously degraded sites, for example where a thick litter layer had built up, dense vegetation has become established or a strong ironpan has developed under heather". They fail to state what is "degraded" about a thick litter layer or dense vegetation or an ironpan, all of which can occur in native pinewood as well as under heather.

Further loose comment appears on p. 187 where the editor writes "The dominance of heather has accelerated podsolization". This is misleading, because podzols occur under many plants including Scots pine, oak, birch and blaeberry as well as heather. It may be questioned whether an "accelerated" podzol can be demonstrated from any soil profile under heather as against under pine. The editor writes that an iron pan leads "eventually to the replacement of heather by acid bog vegetation", but heather has long continued to be the main plant above iron pans in the widespread peaty podzols of the Cairngorms region. The editor reveals his poor knowledge of the area by overstating "In high summer the mountains are free from snow, apart from one more or less permanent patch". In fact, many patches have lain even in the least snowy of high summers, a fact clearly evident to any observant person even from the public roads around the area.

Plate 18's caption refers to Allt Mor at Cairn Gorm, when it should be Feith an Eireannaich at Lairig Ghru. Place-name errors in captions are Snap Coire na Spreadhe. Corrie Bhrochain, Glen Einich, Glen Fee, Glenn Shee, Loch an t' Seilich, and Loch a' Gharbh-Choire. It seems incongruous in another caption to refer to a pine-clad "lake" as part of the essence of "Cairngorm conservation". The text also contains errors in names, such as the editor's vegetation chapter with Geall Charn and Coire Sharroch (Caenlochan Glen), but Caenlochan holds no such corrie. The publisher states that this book is "edited by an expert on the area", but although that could be said correctly of a number of individuals, the editor is unquestionably not one of them. Such bragging by a publisher is unseemly.

The fundamental defect that led to the above snags over details and the book's other failings is the lack of a critical editorial rationale for authors, associated with insufficiently rigorous checking and no external referees.

Adam Watson

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