Highland Council has been accused by conservationists of causing potentially criminal damage to trees in a remnant of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian pinewood – while trying to build lochside parking spaces.
The area, which is managed by Forestry and Land Scotland, is home to birds and wildlife including wagtails, herons and capercaillie – an endangered species – and supports trees including native pine woodland, alder, rowan and birch.
But earlier this month Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group and the Cairngorms Campaign, discovered that excavation work had started at the side of Loch Morlich in preparation for a car park.
They claim it was done without proper consultation or planning needed to protect the unique landscape, flora and fauna.
Their concerns are backed by the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland, which claims that apparent damage caused by the work so far may constitute a criminal offence under laws to protect the environment.
Highland Council confirmed that work on the parking development had halted in response to the concerns. Next steps were being discussed with partners including Forestry and Land Scotland, the Cairngorm Park Authority, which is a funder, and Nature Scot, it added.
But campaigners, who submitted a strongly worded objection letter, are now looking for reassurances that plans for the development will be scrapped
They claim excavation work has damaged tree roots, and shared photos with The Ferret which appear to show materials including tarmac deposited around the trunks of the native trees.
The environmental importance of the land around the development has been recognised with a clutch of protections – land directly to the north of the planned car park is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and to both the north and south are special areas of conservation (SAC), and national scenic areas (NSA).
But in their letter, campaigners claim this has not been taken into account.
“Beyond the visible damage which has been caused to some native pine trees, it is foreseeable that the development will have caused damage to other flora and fauna such as juniper trees [and] wintergreen plants,” they wrote to Highland Council on 17 April. [Will upload to document cloud]
The letter continues: “As you will be aware…the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 provides that it is a criminal offence for a public body or office-holder to carry out any operation on land which they own or occupy which is likely to damage any natural feature specified in an SSSI notification, except in certain circumstances or if they have a ‘reasonable excuse’.”
The claim Highland Council failed to get planning permission before starting the work, which they say is “unlawful” and accuse the council of failing in their legal duty to protect biodiversity.
In response Highland Council wrote to inform them that work has stopped, which the grassroots organisations have welcomed while seeking a firm commitment from the council that it will not restart.
Gus Jones of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group remains worried.
“The special magic of Loch Morlich and the veteran Caledonian pines of Glenmore are admired by many,” he told The Ferret.
“This showpiece area in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park deserves the highest standards of sensitive care. Sadly this is not what it has received of late.
“We welcome the recent halting of damaging operations but remain very concerned and are looking for urgent reassurances that the work has not just been halted, but stopped for good.”
Dr Ben Christman, a solicitor with the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland, said the parking development “may be unlawful for several reasons”.
Legal issues raised by the development include breaches of planning control as the council should have obtained planning permission before starting the work, he claimed.
“A criminal offence may have occurred due to apparent damage caused to trees which may be within a site of special scientific interest,” he added. “The council appears to have breached its legal duty to further the conservation of biodiversity.
“Any developments in the area should only take place after careful prior impact assessment and following public consultation. Public authorities must act lawfully.”
He called on Highland council and other public authorities to investigate how the work had gone ahead without consultation or planning permission.
Council parking concerns
But partner organisations said they were supporting the council.
A spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland, said “very high visitor numbers together with inconsiderate parking” had led to public safety concerns and complaints.
“Together with CNPA and The Highland Council we have been looking at ways of addressing the parking problem and improving public safety, “ they added.
“The works that Highland Council started are at roadside along Loch Morlich and were intended to remove the least appropriate areas of parking, and to formalise areas that could safely accommodate vehicles. No trees have been felled.”
A spokesperson for the Cairngorms National Park Authority added it was “aware of works that have been undertaken by The Highland Council to rationalise parking spaces along Loch Morlich”.
They added: “As a funder of the project, we are supporting staff from the local authority and FLS, along with Naturescot, to undertake a review of the works done to date and to prepare a further project plan going forward.”
A spokesperson for The Highland Council agreed the area could get “extremely busy” and said it was working with its partners to “refine the existing roadside-parking beside Loch Morlich”.
But they added: “Works are now paused, to evaluate the works already carried out and to plan the remainder of the project.
“This includes the environmental impact and tree health. The latter issue has been raised as an issue by third parties recently, the parking areas being situated below trees of various ages.”
Cover image thanks to Cole Wilkie/Istock. Other images thanks to Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group.