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Safaris in a National Park

THIS Article was written in 2013 for BIRDWATCHING magazine

When most people hear the word ‘safaris’ they think of exotic parts of the world like the Serengeti where huge herds of mammals can be seen in one day. But now the word is being used in Britain especially on the Cairngorm National Park by estates, some using a ranger services partly paid for by the park. I was intrigued to find out what was on offer especially as most of the safaris were to be run on and around ‘Red Grouse’ moors. I picked 4 estates to make a comparison.

The Cairngorm National Park is 10 years old this year and it claims ‘Britain's highest and most massive mountain range; its biggest native forests; spectacularly clean rivers and lochs; moorland and farmland and a stronghold for Britain's wildlife’. So will this drive the safaris to show the public a wide range of this wildlife!

The first thing you find is that every estate is run in a different way. Many of you will be surprised to find that Balmoral are offering safaris! This not just a peep at the ‘Royals’ but a 3 hour journey around the estate which covers an area of about 49,000 acres (20,000 ha) taking in the gardens and the front of the castle, through the estate farm and into the Caledonian Pine woods. Here you may spot the elusive Capercaillie or a Crossbill. From there you rise up into the moorland area on the flanks of the famous Lochnagar.

When asked what birds of prey may be seen on the safari, the response was that it was impossible to say what may be seen mainly due to the weather or the time of year. They are advertised in their web site as just ‘birds of prey’! Black Grouse are also advertised as possible along with Snow Bunting. The safaris do not run during the Red Grouse shooting season but the rangers will give you stories of their wildlife encounters on the estate. Balmoral is signed up to the ‘Highland Tiger’ campaign to save the Wild Cat so I presume the estate do not use snares. Safaris here are priced at £60.00 per person running from April to July and odd weekends in November and December. The ranger service here, also have guided walks in the summer which are free but you need to pay the entrance fee into the estate first.

Moving west across to the A9 another estate I looked at was the Atholl Estate. Here we find 145,00 acres [nearly 6000 hectors] which brakes down into 81,000 acres of open moorland and 10,700 acres of woodland, 2500 acres of which is Caledonian Pine woodlands the rest being described as farmland. With so much moorland game keepers out number rangers 12 -1 through most of the year with 2 more rangers taken on in summer only. The estates ethos for this number of keepers is ’to maintain a natural balance in our countryside and protect some of the internationally important habitats and species that live here’.

When asked if there was the possibility to see Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Peregrine or Merlin on the Safaris the answer was ‘ you would be lucky to see but Red and Black grouse also Ptarmigan along with small upland birds like Wheatear, Skylark and Dipper’. But the birds of prey are advertised as part of the estates wildlife on their web site. The safaris have been run since 2008 and the estate has had a positive response from the public with prices ranging from £190 [half day] to £340 for a full day [5 hours] with a max of 6 people. In April and May there are also special safaris to watch the Black Grouse leking on the estate.

The Ranger service on this estate is more about guided walks and general information for the public as the Ranger service runs the information centre on the estate. Guided walks are charged for and most are concentrated on the low ground. The estate is very keen to see the expansion of Black Grouse and Capercaillie with the rangers monitoring the Black Grouse as part of the Perthshire Black Grouse study group and co-ordinated by the RSPB.

Aviemore claims to be the centre of the national park and is a major holiday destination both in summer for the outdoor activities like bird watching and winter for especially the skiing. Here you find the Rothiemurchus Estate which is trying to make the most of this tourist population. Sir David Attenborough describes the estate as ‘one of the glories of wild Scotland’. The estate covers 25,000 acres [10,000 hectors] and has a large proportion of Caledonian Pine. This pine forest covers 30 sq miles and rises up the side of the Cairngorm mastiff.

The estate was presented the ‘Zoological Society of London’s silver medal’ in 1893 (designed by Landseer) for trying to protect the Osprey which finally died out due to persecution around the area. The family were then presented the RSPB silver medal in 1960 for work in helping the wild Ospreys re-colonise Speyside. So there has been a long history of wildlife protection on this estate.

The safaris here are primarily found on the lower ground. In fact when I spoke to the owner she was in two minds to drop the word ‘safari ‘. This is no disrespect to the estate as their work for encouraging the public to enjoy the wildlife is a joy to see. Even an area of heather moorland is being improved so that Golden Eagles can hunt more Red Grouse! There are viewing hides for people to watch Black grouse, Crested Tit [winter] and Osprey not to mention Pine Marten and Badger. The Ospreys have had an area made for them stocked with fish. This is part of a 5 year investment for the estate to boost the income from this special wildlife they have on the estate.

The ranger service here is the oldest private run service in the UK having started in 1975. It has a wide range of guided walks but the activities are much more from a tree zone which includes zip wires etc to water sports . This is certainly an estate which wants to create an income throughout the year. The land rover ‘safaris’ presently range from £45.00 per person to £230 for private hire with a max of 7 people.

The fourth estate I looked as was Glen Tanar. Found in Royal Deeside this estate is also trying to make its wildlife pay throughout the year. This is one of the few estates in the national park to have regular breeding Golden Eagles. When these eagles are successful at producing young, they are ‘radio tagged’ so that these youngsters can be monitored on their journey especially in the national park and around Scotland. For the first time a license has been granted by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2013 so that the public can use a hide and photograph the eagles at the nest. This takes place in June for 3 weeks.

Here the estate is confident to suggest that you will see Golden Eagle on their safaris along with Hen Harrier, Black Grouse, Ptarmigan, Ring Ouzel and Crossbills. Safaris last for either two or three hours, and will take in all the varied landscapes which make up Glen Tanar, including forestry, farmland and open moorland. Refreshments are provided as part of the package with adults at £30.00 and children under 12 £15.00.

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