Work to drive a five-kilometre track through Rothiemurchus forest in the Cairngorms National Park is putting red squirrels, wood ants and ancient Caledonian pines at risk, they say, and amounts to “environmental vandalism”.
But this is disputed by the three public agencies who are overseeing the cycleway. They insist that the damage is “minimal” and that the project will bring long term gains.
The construction of the last leg of a cycleway from Aviemore to Glenmore is being managed by the Forestry Commission, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage. Work was begun in February and is due to be completed in June.
Rothiemurchus forest is one of the best preserved remnants of the ancient Caledonian woodland that used to blanket the Highlands. It is home to a huge range of endangered species, including capercaillie, crossbills and ospreys, and is under statutory protection from three separate nature designations.
But according to the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, the forest and some of its species are under threat because of the poor way in which the track is being built. Elementary standards had not been met, said the group’s convenor, Dr Gus Jones.
“Surveys for some key species like wood ants have been demonstrably incomplete, turfs and soil are not being cut and stored to allow for reinstatement following excavations, and trees are being bulldozed aside.”
Jones has seen and photographed the damage, which he claimed was harming the natural diversity of the forest. “This is a national disgrace,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“We are witnessing environmental vandalism at one of the most important conservation sites in Europe by the very agencies supposed to protect it.”
Craig Macadam, a conservation officer with Buglife concerned with protecting insects, pointed out that wood ants were a “keystone species” in the forest. They were vital for the health of plants and trees and were food for capercaillie, red squirrels and pine martens.
The construction of the track had thrown the viability of some wood ant nests into doubt, Macadam alleged. “For the wood ants, the construction of the track is like driving a motorway through the centre of a town,” he said.
“Not only are the nests being marooned by disturbance of the surrounding land but their foraging routes are being blocked and the small pines that they forage on are being removed.”
Rothiemurchus was “incredibly important for invertebrates”, Macadam argued. “It is astonishing that a project like this can go ahead without a detailed survey. If this is what can happen at a designated site, what hope is there for other sites in the Cairngorms?”
The Forestry Commission accepted that “some degree of disruption was inevitable”. But it insisted that the damage would only be temporary, and that the habitat beside the track would be restored.
The cycleway had been carefully designed, planned and managed to minimise its impact on the woodland, said a commission spokesman. “All of the project partners are satisfied that no species has been placed at long-term risk because of the works.”
The Cairngorms National Park Authority agreed there had been “a few hiccups” in the early days of the construction work, but they had been dealt with. “We aim for all developments of this nature to be carried out to the highest environmental standards,” said an authority spokeswoman. “This is a very positive example of partnership working, which aims to meet the needs of the environment, wildlife and people.”
According to Scottish Natural Heritage, a great deal of time and effort had been invested to ensure that construction work was undertaken with minimal damage. “There may be some local biodiversity benefits from the work,” argued a spokesman for the agency.
“Tree thinning will allow ants to colonise the sides of the track, the disturbed ground will permit further regeneration, and plants and trees will re-establish themselves. And there will also be wider benefits, for example the health and well-being of people enjoying the outdoors.”