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18 Mar 2021

A landscape of hope

Written by Andrew Painting
A man is standing on a steep-sided mountain. The tops of the mountains in the background are under cloud.
At work on Mar Lodge Estate
With any luck, you’ll have your own ‘landscape of hope’ – a patch of ground that, either by accident or design, is being reclaimed by nature. It could be a fallow field neglected by a developer, where some of the local house martins gather mud for their nests. Or the nature reserve you volunteer at, or have visited through lockdown, where the birdsong brightens a gloomy morning.

I’ve been extremely fortunate with my own landscape of hope: 30,000 hectares of regenerating Caledonian woodlands, bogs, moors and mountains right in the heart of the Cairngorms.

As an ecologist, I’m essentially an environmental auditor – I monitor the health of wildlife and ecosystems, and if there are problems I try to find ways to fix them. From April to October, I spend most days in the hills, counting trees, finding raptor nests and rare plants, and monitoring experiments and human impacts. Truly a dream job, despite the cold, the wet and the midges!

Mar Lodge Estate hosts some of Scotland’s last remaining Caledonian pinewoods – woodlands that have been with us since the end of the last Ice Age. But when the Trust acquired the estate in 1995, these precious woodlands were in a bad way, struggling to regenerate and in danger of being lost completely. By 2016, when I first arrived at Mar Lodge, the fruits of two decades of hard conservation work to save them were beginning to show. For the first time in centuries, the Caledonian pinewoods were expanding through natural regeneration and montane woodland was returning to the high hills. On the moors, hen harriers were breeding for the first time in living memory.

A wooded landscape with mountains in the background, all under a blue sky.
The Caledonian pinewood at Mar Lodge Estate

Most conservation stories you read in the news are pretty depressing, so in 2018 I started writing this book simply as a way of trying to get this good news story out there. There are conservation stories behind scores of species found on the estate, so the first writing challenge was deciding what to leave out! The book covers not just the story of the regeneration of the Caledonian pinewoods, bogs, moors and mountains, but also the stories of species – from curlews to capercaillies, stags to salmon, moths to mosses.

As I delved in to writing and researching the book, I realised what is really interesting about Mar Lodge is that it’s a confluence for different historical, cultural and social concepts about the land we share and the species we share it with. The estate strives to balance the needs of nature and people. It’s both a National Nature Reserve and a Highland sporting estate. There have been bumps along the road, but the biggest success of the Mar Lodge project has been the coming together of people from all walks of life in a common cause for the benefit of everyone. So this book is a collection of stories of regeneration and reconnection, of collaboration and communication between different groups and cultures to make a better future for everyone.

Of course, Mar Lodge Estate is no paradise. There are still problems to be solved, and there always will be. The estate is only 25 years into a 200-year management vision. The world is facing an environmental and climate emergency, and the UK is ranked 189 out of 218 countries for its ecological intactness. But the Mar Lodge story shows that if we work together in a spirit of collaboration and compromise, then it’s not too late to revive our planet.

The National Trust for Scotland was created to hold Scotland’s greatest assets in trust for the benefit of everyone. It’s tough work, and can only be done with the help of its members and supporters. So they can all be truly proud of the hand they have played in the renaissance of the Mar Lodge pinewoods.

It’s an amazing thing to see a landscape in recovery, from the bed of the burn to the top of the mountain. I would encourage you, in this, the Trust’s 90th anniversary year, to visit Mar Lodge when lockdowns permit, and experience for yourself this giant landscape of hope.


Buy your copy of this fascinating book from our online shop.

Head and shoulders of a man in a  blue fleece. He is standing in front of autumnal trees.
Andrew Painting, author of ‘REGENERATION: The Rescue of a Wild Land’

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