Human Impacts on the Northern Cairngorms by Adam Watson and A Snow book, Northern Scotland by Adam Watson.


For any serious student of the ecology of the Cairngorm Mountains these two books by Dr. Adam Watson are essential reading and should be on all school and public library shelves.

The volume, Human Impacts on the Northern Cairngorms, is in two main parts, the first being based on the scientific evidence which Dr Watson presented at the Lurcher’s Gully Public Inquiry, into the proposed westward expansion of downhill ski development at Cairn Gorm. The Inquiry followed objections by the then Nature Conservancy Council and other bodies, to the Cairngorm Chairlift Company’s proposals for new ski lifts and other facilities in Coir an t-Sneachda, Coire an Lochain and Allt Creag an Leth-choin (anglicised to Lurcher’s Gully) and for a new road into the Lurcher’s Gully.

Dr Watson’s evidence was based mainly on fieldwork carried out by him in 1981, but also on his long experience and knowledge of the area, both as a research scientist and as a recreational skier and mountaineer. This is the first time much of this information has been published and made available to the general public.  Technical descriptions are given of the corries with details of geomorphology, snow lie, soil types and vegetation etc.

The second part of the book brings the story up to date with a range of topics such as an analysis of visitor counts, human impacts on soils and vegetation, flash flooding, habitat changes and impacts on bird and mammal populations. Most of this is again based on his own meticulous recording and observations but he also quotes other field workers and lists their published evidence.

Of particular interest here is the chapter on human induced erosion on Cairn Gorm where Dr Watson quotes examples of excessive human trampling and widening of paths, causing deposition of infertile grit onto the thin top soils and smothering the existing vegetation. Recovery of this vegetation by re-colonisation of such areas is usually an extremely slow process. The photograph on the front cover of the book taken in 1970 shows how bad things were then, after the bulldozing of the new pistes,  the construction of ski lifts and new buildings.

There is another particularly interesting chapter (co-authored with Desmond Nethersole-Thompson) on the changes in bird populations at Glen More. The demise of the population of waders and other species from the area around Loch Morlich due to forestry drainage, close planting of non-native conifers and increased visitor pressure, is well documented.  The early plantations of Sitka Spruce at canopy closure also killed much of the ground vegetation and reduced the value of the woods for the specialist pinewood bird species such as black grouse and capercaillie. However as a post script to this chapter Dr Watson does give credit to the Forestry Commission for a change in management practice since the 1990’s ‘to create a pinewood reserve in Glen More in order to forge a link between Abernethy and Rothiemurchus’.

It is almost 30 years since the first Lurcher’s Gully Public Inquiry and it is easy to forget that a whole generation of recreational hill users has grown up, perhaps unaware of the battles and debates of the past. We should all be grateful therefore to people like Dr Watson who has fought so tirelessly for the protection of the Cairngorms and who has made so much of the scientific information available to the public in this book.

The Cairngorm Mountains are the snowiest part of the British Isles and have been the subject of study by scientists and amateur observers for many years. Adam Watson’s interest in the snowfields was sparked by his schoolboy readings of Seton Gordon’s books on the Cairngorms. Seton Gordon’s observations on surviving snowfields began in the years before the 1914-18 War, but he documented the recollections of older local people on the subject whose memories went back to the mid 19th century.

Dr Watson has brought the story up to date by publishing his field observations from 1938 to the present day. He has also applied his methodical scientific approach and has analysed historical records from the Earl of Fife’s ‘Journal of Weather at Marr Lodge (1783-92)’ to more recently published papers and Met Office records. He also quotes local Strathspey people’s observations and recollections, such as the late Pat McLean of Nethy Bridge, Donnie Smith of Lurg and  Carrie and Desmond Nethersole-Thompson of Whitewell.

The evidence shows that there have been significant declines in snow survival compared with the years up to the early 1930s and this trend has accelerated since 1990. The melting of the ‘Eternal Snows’ (as described by Seton Gordon) occurred only in 1933, 1959, 1996, 2003 and 2006. The recent snowy winters of 2010 and 2011 may well be an aberration.

A snow patch in Badenoch summer 2012.

There is a particularly interesting chapter where Dr Watson discusses the suggestion by some researchers that the colder climatic conditions of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s and 1800s may have resulted in the return of glaciation to the Garbh Choire Mor of Braeriach. Their theory was based on the age of the lichens growing on the rocky ridge below the snow beds of the inner corrie. Dr Watson considers this unlikely and suggests that these rocks are not of recent morainic origin but are probably a protalus rampart, that is rocks which have fallen from the cliffs above due to frost shattering.

There are also notes and photographs showing the use of snow by hill birds and mammals and some excellent photographs of snow features and snow avalanches.

This book is a must- read for all snow enthusiasts; for scientists or for the casual observer who wants to learn more of the snow fields of the Cairngorms which add immeasurably to the landscape value of our uplands.

Both books are published by Paragon Publishing.

David Duncan