2013 marks the 10-year anniversary of that momentous 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 that are like no other.
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% 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 that is synonymous with the wildness that characterises the Cairngorms.
I have lived and photographed here for nearly twenty years and have still only scratched the surface of the photographic potential hidden within the Park’s boundaries. For a photographer, the Cairngorms is a double-edged sword. The species here are rare and charismatic, coveted by generations of photographers. The landscapes too, are wild and varied and, for much of winter, cloaked in a mantle of snow. But, taking pictures here is not easy. Despite the obvious attractions of working in a wild place and the rarity of meeting other photographers, I do sometimes crave the immediacy of honeypots further south, where the wildlife is approachable and is pretty much guaranteed. In the Cairngorms everything is difficult. Sometimes, just sometimes, I have to quash my urge for the easy option and stick to my local patch.
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 from the north and my local Red Squirrels start to look as they should with their familiar bushy tails and signature ear tufts. Winter is my favourite time.
As a visiting photographer, it is hard to know where to focus your attention. Like most northerly destinations, the Cairngorms might seem initially bereft of subject matter – this ain’t no Serengeti - but with time, patience and perhaps a little local assistance, its secrets are worth waiting for.
In the ancient Caledonian Pine Forests, Red Squirrels and Crested Tits can be enticed to supplementary food and in recent years the presence of several ‘rogue’ Capercaillie has added a frisson of excitement to the woodland that encircles the mountain massif. Some of these ancient trees are over 400 years old and would have seen wild wolves walk beneath them in their formative years. If fans of John Muir’s ecological thinking have their way; wolves may yet again stalk these forests searching out Red Deer, their primary prey in other parts of Europe. Scottish Red Deer are often photographed on windswept moorland, a habitat they have evolved to cope with in the face of widespread deforestation and being fenced out of commercial plantations. But the forest is their natural home and there are places in the Cairngorms like Alvie, Abernethy and Glen Tanar where Red Deer can be photographed amongst the trees, where they are more at home.
These northern forests are home to the largest UK population of Red Squirrel, a species that has morphed from pest to conservation priority in just a few decades. Several photographers in the Park, myself included, have specially-built hides or set ups for photographing Red Squirrels and other forest specialists. Although relatively abundant, regular feeding is really the only way of ensuring the squirrels perform for photographers. Again, a little local assistance saves a lot of time.
The mountains themselves are unforgiving and susceptible to violent changes in weather, but they harbour Ptarmigan, Mountain Hares and Snow Buntings; species that are associated more with the sub-arctic than northern Britain. Ptarmigan, or Mountain Grouse, live year-round in the Cairngorms and the northern corries; an hour’s walk from Cairngorm Base Station, these are the best places to photograph these hardy birds. I have spent many hours trudging these hills, often in snow deep enough to sap your energy in just a few paces. It is tough going at times but on a still day, with an icy crust crunching beneath your feet, there is 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.
Aside from a small population in Derbyshire, the Scottish mountains are the only UK home to Mountain Hares, our only native hare and high on most photographer’s wish lists. Like their lowland cousins, Mountain Hares are unpredictable and can cause endless frustration as they bolt from almost beneath your feet, covering a huge distance in a matter of seconds. I am a great believer in creating your own luck however, and I can guarantee that you will not get a decent hare picture sitting inside complaining how difficult they are. Get out into hare habitat and spend time there – sooner or later you will get lucky.
Since the Cairngorms became a National Park, I have watched, fascinated and often bemused about 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 for whose benefit? It is that story, the story of change, the story of changing values that I try to tell because it is a story played out in National Parks across the world. Conserving nature is not about nature at all; it’s about us. 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 Parks have become a global brand, and despite their popularity elsewhere, for the moment at least, solitude is not 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.