comical mating ritual of the capercaillie bird, the flash of a red squirrel
sprinting by and the grunt of a reindeer -- all set against the backdrop of an ancient
Caledonian forest, remnants of a landscape that once covered the British Isles.
National Park is nearly 4,500 sqkm of mountain wilderness in northeastern
Scotland and is the country’s largest protected area. The diversity of its
fauna and flora is often overlooked due to its renowned status as Britain’s top
ski destination. But its isolated location, far from any big cities, means that
the Cairngorms are less visited than most other national parks in Britain. A
mere 1.5 million visitors (as opposed to the Lake District’s 15.8 million) make
the journey each year.
From the park’s
main town, the ski centre of Aviemore,
valleys of lofty pine trees and pristine lochs cut dramatically into corrie-riven
mountains and the United Kingdom’s most extensive plateau. This granite massif retains
the characteristics of an arctic-alpine tundra ecosystem, where high-altitude
forest and wild, rocky plains combine with cold winds and low temperatures to
provide a habitat found nowhere else in Britain. This remoteness has allowed
rare animal, bird and plant species to thrive, and its mountains are among the world’s
last sanctuaries for many Arctic birds and plants outside of the Arctic Circle.
Walk on the wild side
Cairngorms is famed for two creatures: the osprey, which nests on a reserve after declining
to near-extinction in Britain during the 20th Century, and the United Kingdom’s
only herd of reindeer, which ranges free in the Reindeer Park above Aviemore. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
runs guided walks around the Loch Garten reserve north of Aviemore between
April and August to see ospreys and other seasonal incumbents such as siskins,
crossbills, sandpipers and otters. Ask at the Reindeer Park
about joining the herder and leading your own reindeer on a half-day trek to their
mountain enclosure (possible between June and August only).
The Rothiemurchus Estate, one and a half miles from Aviemore
Railway Station, provides a host of family-friendly safaris themed around the
distinctive, shaggy ginger Highland “coos” (cows), red squirrels and red deer.
Meanwhile, nearby Atholl Estates whisks you off by Land Rover on
safaris which take in various birds of prey, mountain hares and deer, in
stunning forest and moorland terrain. If you are looking for more than just
Estates offers a glimpse into life on the
other side of the fence: human management of the land and its potential
and climbers that make it to the most remote Cairngorm forest and plateau can
expect to see even rarer species.
crossbill, Britain’s only endemic bird, has the park’s pine trees as its sole
stomping ground. The capercaillie, a large, colourful bird with one of the natural
world’s most entertaining courtship displays, uses these forests as one of its
last European breeding grounds. Wildcats and pine martens also roam. Higher up
on the plateau, Arctic buntings, ptarmigan and golden eagles can be glimpsed,
while the mountain scrub is adorned with rare plants such as globeflower and
Recently, the reintroduction of once-native
species to Scotland (such as elk, boar and wolves) caused fierce controversy at
the Highland estate of Alladale, an
idea that could seem laughable to the locals around Cairngorms National Park. With so much prestigious, flourishing wildlife
of its own, it is ironic that the national park does not get more international
attention. But the laughter ricocheting through the valley is far more likely
to be the capercaillie, attracting its mate. Listen out: it will sound like a
quickening drum beat followed by a bottle of champagne being uncorked and
poured. It is a one-of-a-kind experience, to be sure.
The article 'A Scottish-style safari' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.