A national treasure, home to rare wildlife species and sky high mountain ranges, The Cairngorms National Park in Scotland is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Native photographer Peter Cairns reflects on the location’s unique habitat
The Cairngorms boasts a unique list of superlatives: four of Scotland’s five highest mountains, the UK’s largest area of arctic mountain landscape, 25 per cent of the UK’s threatened wildlife species, the largest surviving remnants of native woodland, stronghold populations of red squirrels, crested tits, golden eagles, ospreys, capercaillie and wildcats… all impressive stuff. And to top it off, for the last ten years the Cairngorms has been a National Park, Britain’s largest at over 4,500 square kilometres of mountain, moor, forest and loch in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.
2013 marks the 10-year anniversary of National Park designation, and now, a decade on, The Cairngorms has become a must-visit location for wildlife and landscape photographers seeking out the rare species and iconic landmarks of this place like no other.
For a photographer, the Cairngorms is a double-edged sword. The species here are rare and charismatic, coveted by generations of nature photographers. The landscapes, too, are wild and varied and for much of winter, cloaked in a mantel of snow. The appeal then is obvious but taking pictures here isn’t easy. This ain’t no Serengeti and the Cairngorms might seem initially bereft of subject matter but with time, patience and perhaps a little local assistance, its secrets are worth waiting for.
As summer in the Highlands wanes, I look forward to the vibrant autumnal colour of native birchwoods and misty dawns accompanied by the echoing roars of rutting red deer. As winter creeps closer, the first snow cloaks the mountain tops, the air is filled with the sound of migrating geese and swans from the north and my local red squirrels start to look as they should with their familiar bushy tails and signature ear tufts. Gone are the ospreys of summer and most of this year’s crop of young birds and mammals face their first winter alone.
For me, autumn and winter are about two of the Park’s unique habitats. In the ancient Caledonian Pine Forests, where some of the trees are over 400 years old and would have seen wild wolves walk beneath them, red squirrels and crested tits can be enticed to supplementary food. I have several permanent hides in the forest and have been putting out squirrel food for the last 12 years. Every winter I return with fresh images in my head — with the bar in wildlife photography rising inexorably, the classic ‘squirrel-on-a-log’ is no longer enough.
In recent years the presence of several ‘rogue’ capercaillie has added a frisson of excitement to the forest. From time to time these normally wary grouse become bizarrely aggressive to anything that enters their territory. Foxes, deer, Land Rovers and photographers are all fair game and I have the scars to prove that they should be treated with respect. They are also protected by law, so check the dos and don’ts before seeking them out.
The mountain massif, which forms the core of the National Park, is a spectacular but unforgiving place, susceptible to violent changes in weather. Like any wild place, these hills can be dangerous but that shouldn’t deter anyone of reasonable fitness from seeking out their secrets. Ptarmigan, mountain hares and snow buntings live in these mountains, species that are associated more with the sub-arctic than northern Britain. Ptarmigan live year-round in the Cairngorms and the Northern Corries, an hour’s walk from Cairngorm Base Station, is the best place to photograph these hardy birds. I’ve spent many hours trudging these hills, often in snow deep enough to sap your energy in just a few paces. It’s tough going at times but on a still day with an icy crust crunching beneath your feet, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. And the ptarmigan seem to like calm conditions too, often relaxing atop an ice-encrusted boulder and allowing the careful photographer a close approach.
Autumn and winter provides the landscape photographer with a wealth of subject matter and my own favourite haunts include Loch Insh, Loch Mallachie and a wonderful hidden birchwood at Craigellachie National Nature Reserve. There are classic views best captured with wide-angle lenses but the discerning photographer will see endless opportunity for the intimate landscape — sections of forest, reflections, patterns, textures and creative impressions.
There is no doubt that the Cairngorms is one of the most exciting places in the UK to take pictures, and increasing numbers of photographers are discovering that. But in my experience the real photographic merit of any place is found beneath the surface.
Since the Cairngorms became a National Park, I’ve watched, fascinated and sometimes bemused, how attitudes towards wild places and the creatures that live in them have changed. The Cairngorms is a place rich in natural history but is also wedded to cultural history. Here, like anywhere, there are divergent viewpoints driving policy on how best to manage the Park. Which species should live here? In what numbers and to the benefit of whom? It is that story, the story of change that I try to tell with my camera because it’s a story played out in National Parks across the world.
For photographers working in the Cairngorms and for all those who come and visit, there is an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to celebrate and showcase both the beauty and fragility of this place.
National Park has become a global brand and despite their popularity elsewhere, for the moment at least, solitude isn’t difficult to find in the Cairngorms. Marrying that sense of wildness with the myriad needs of local people was never going to be easy and ten years on, the sticky question that burdens National Park managers, remains sticky: What comes first -nature or people? Somehow sitting under an ancient pine with red squirrels cavorting in the canopy, that question isn’t so difficult to answer.