A critical report has alleged a series of failings by national park chiefs in protecting the unique geological heritage in their care.
The report claims that the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) has mishandled the management of a stunning collection of ice-age features around Callander, one of the main gateways to the park.
The scientists behind the report are urging LLTNPA to do more to protect the park’s “geodiversity.”
In reply the park authority said it has backed measures to provide a comprehensive overview of the area’s geodiversity.
The new paper — to be published by the respected journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association — talks of a “gap in understanding” about landforms by the LLTNPA, “opportunities missed” to further geological understanding, and a failure to carry out a geodiversity audit recommended 14 years ago. A geodiversity audit would catalogue the presence and condition of geological features.
The landscape features around Callander were formed when glaciers advanced at the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago.
Huge ridges of gravel known as moraines were pushed up by the advancing glacier in the Teith Valley. Remarkable raised riverbeds known as eskers – formed by streams flowing underneath the ice – are still clearly visible in the area, along with other features.
LLTNPA is the planning authority within the park, and can limit development in areas it deems to be of scientific or environmental importance.
But the report’s authors, Dr Eileen Tisdall of Stirling University, and Dr Angus Miller, vice-chair of the Scottish Geology Trust charity, highlight a series of issues they claim shows the authority is failing to ensure geological sites are properly acknowledged and protected.
With demand for building materials raised by the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Queensferry Crossing over the Forth, the Auchenlaich moraine near Callander was being dug out for gravel between 2011 and 2017, under permissions pre-dating the park.
However the park authority failed to organise logging of data from the site as material was extracted, the report says. Such data could hold important clues about the nature and timing of climate change, as the glacial re-advance which created the moraines resulted from a sudden cooling of the North Atlantic, something climate scientists believe could happen in future as the Greenland ice sheet melts more rapidly into the sea.
Chalets were allowed to be built on land Tisdall and Miller say forms part of a rare moraine feature, despite their advice when the developers applied for planning permission.
The way this application was handled, the report claims, demonstrates “the gap in understanding landform and landscape”, with the planning authority satisfied the landform was not being impacted while geoscientists thought differently.
The report notes that scientists have made repeated objections to planning applications, and volunteered their expertise to LLTNPA to help protect geological features, to work towards the vision of Scotland’s Geodiversity Charter.
The park has signed the charter, which has also been backed by government agency NatureScot and Scottish Government ministers. The charter says that those with an interest in geological features should work together to designate and conserve them.
But the report claims there is a gap between LLTNPA’s commitment to the charter and what it has achieved, due to “failure to recognise the wider benefits of geoconservation” and the authority’s lack of an in-house geology expert.
The paper adds: “Progress in the last decade …. has been limited. Poor communication between [the park authority], academics and local groups has led to short-term, reactionary responses to planning applications. Opportunities have been missed for longer-term co-operation and planning between all groups to progress geoconservation within the national park”.
It says a full geodiversity audit recommended by experts 14 years ago has not been carried out, and adds: “The lack of any current in-house geological expertise has meant that the development of geo-focused interpretation and the recognition of important geosites in the planning process has not been taken forward.”
The authors also point out that the park authority’s partnership plan 2018-23, setting out its long-term vision for conservation and land management, does not even mention geoconservation or geodiversity.
Tisdall said she was aware the park, like other arms of government, is short of money. She said an audit had now started and the recent formation of a geology expert panel by the park, including herself and Miller, was a welcome sign of progress. But she added: “It’s very slow and very piecemeal, not what you would expect from an institution like a national park.
“You would expect them to be in a position to do much more and either they just can’t or there is no pressure elsewhere in the system, for example from the Scottish Government, to do much on addressing geoconservation.”
She added: “Most people are concerned about biodiversity loss, most people know what that is and they’re happy to do all sorts of things for squirrels. But they are less confident and have less knowledge and understanding when it comes to geodiversity and they are less willing to connect them all together.”
Writer and campaigner, Nick Kempe, who monitors the country’s national parks through his Parkswatch blog, said the report pointed to major gaps in the park authority’s work, with planners failing to use their common sense about important geological sites.
He said it compared unfavourably to rules around development on sites of archaeological significance, where experts are called in when developers came across “any old pile of stones.”
“Our national parks were set up to give a lead on conservation – if they can’t give a lead on geological conservation that’s a pretty strong condemnation of the system,” he said.
Stuart Mearns, director of place at LLTNPA, said the authority is “well aware of the importance of the glacial landforms in Callander”, adding those features have informed decision-making and strategy for the area since the park was formed.
He also argued the chalet application referred to by the scientists was not on the moraine, saying expert geological advice was taken over the site, and planning conditions were made to protect the geology.
“More widely, we regularly consult NatureScot to provide geodiversity expertise and have sought their advice on the potential impacts of developments, woodland creation proposals and peatland restoration schemes,” he said.
He added: “This year, we completed an audit of some potential local geodiversity sites elsewhere in the Park. This work was carried out in discussion with a panel of experts, including the authors of this academic paper.” This audit, he said would help protect these sites and inform future strategies.
This report was updated at 12.11 on 8 November 2022 to add a comment from LLTNPA.
Photo credit: iStock and Rob Elliott