In his long and highly productive career, perhaps the most significant achievement of former John Muir Trust chairman Dick Balharry, is the regeneration of woodland at Creag Meagaidh.
Anyone familiar with the drive along the north side of Loch Laggan will have seen the dramatic spread of birch from the roadside right up into the mouth of Coire Ardair over the last 25 years. This re-birth in native woodland is symbolic of the potential for change in our wild land; change in both the ecological condition of the land, and in the way deer are managed on it. And undoubtedly, it was Dick Balharry that was the driving force and the inspiration behind these changes.
Ironically, Creag Meagaidh was bought by the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC – the predecessor of Scottish Natural Heritage) to protect it from trees, not deer. In 1983, commercial timber company Fountain Forestry purchased the 4,000-hectare estate with the intention of blanket planting it with Sitka spruce. This led to a public outcry because it was one of the last unplanted slopes in Glen Spean – threatening access to the hills as well as the unique suite of wildlife that existed from the shores of Loch Laggan to the summit of Creag Meagaidh itself.
Hill walkers and conservationists united in their opposition, with David Bellamy threatening to lie in front of the bulldozers if the planting was allowed. The planting plan was referred to the then Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger, who restricted the planting to only half the area proposed by Fountain Forestry, at which point the company refused to enter into a management agreement with NCC and agreed to sell the ground.
NCC bought Creag Meagaidh in 1985, declaring it a National Nature Reserve a year later. The opportunity now presented itself to the government conservation agency to protect, enhance and restore long degraded habitats back to their former (and future) glory. Here was the potential to demonstrate what Scotland’s uplands could (and should) be. The dying remnants of gnarled and twisted woodlands, the bonsai rowans, the bare Molinia-dominated hills and bleak corries were testament to man’s abuse of the land for centuries.
The latest manifestation of this abuse – high densities of red deer – were steadily munching through any last attempts by the ailing woodland to regenerate itself. In a letter to the Scotsman on 25 March 1985, Roger Smith of the Scottish Wild Land Group wrote: ‘Let us leave the NCC to manage Creag Meagaidh as a nature reserve and show thereby that conservation can be a positive use of our magnificent wild land’.
Under Dick’s direction, this is exactly what was achieved. From his experiences across Scotland, but particularly at Beinn Eighe and Inshriach, Dick had come to the conclusion that fencing deer out of woodlands to protect and regenerate them merely treated the symptoms and not the cause. Instead, the estate embarked on a radical deer reduction programme that quickly put it into conflict with neighbouring traditional estates concerned about the effect reductions in numbers of deer would have on their ‘sport’. The arguments used were that ‘trees will never grow’, ‘it will never work without fences’ and ‘all the deer will be eradicated’.
These same arguments are still used by some traditional deer managers today, but thanks to the evidence from Creag Meagaidh, all three arguments can be readily addressed. The trees are there for all to see. The fences are gone. And there are still plenty of deer for neighbouring estates to shoot