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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Severin Carrell Scotland editor

Highlands stone bridge becomes symbol of Scottish land reform battle

The Wade bridge on the Far Ralia estate in the Cairngorms.
The Wade bridge on the Far Ralia estate. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

A small stone bridge which arches across a crystal-clear stream in the Cairngorms has become the symbol of a fresh land reform battle over private financiers buying up Highland estates.

Dragonflies dart under its delicate single-span arch, while meadowsweet, bog myrtle, Scottish bluebells, mountain pansy and dainty yellow trefoil add splashes of vibrant colour to the dense carpet of heather along its banks.

The bridge is a scheduled monument, built on an estate known as Far Ralia near Newtonmore, in the late 1720s by General George Wade’s engineers. It sits on one of the Highlands’ famous network of Wade’s roads, laid to help the British army reach deep into the mountains after the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

In 2021, Far Ralia was bought for £7.5m by a property investment trust run by the Scottish investment firm Standard Life, now known as Abrdn, to help it offset its CO2 emissions and in time sell carbon credits.

Abrdn Property Income Trust plans to plant millions of broadleaf trees over 765 hectares (1,890 acres) and restore 200 hectares of damaged peatland; in all, the estate – previously a grouse moor and deer forest – covers 1,462 hectares.

Abrdn quickly became known as another of Scotland’s “green lairds”, the growing group of absentee landlords snapping up Highland estates to plant new forests and woods, and to rejuvenate peatland, as large corporations invest in efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

With NatureScot, the official conservation agency, having signed a deal with private financiers to invest up to £2bn in woodland creation and biodiversity projects to help combat the climate crisis, partly funded by carbon credits, sensitivities about projects such as this are escalating.

The Wade bridge, regarded as one of the finest surviving examples, sits on the estate’s boundary. Last year Abrdn’s contractors sank fence posts into the ends of its parapets to control access to the estate, to the fury of conservationists. Complaints were submitted to the Highland council by Laggan Heritage, a local history group.

A gate and road on the Far Ralia estate.
A gate and new road on the Far Ralia estate. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The gate was moved but the controversy over Abrdn’s activities at Far Ralia, which sits on the western side of the Cairngorms national park, escalated.

Parkswatch, an influential blog which investigates the activities of Scottish national park landowners, raised detailed complaints about a large road cut deep into the estate to carry forestry vehicles, accusing planning authorities of failing to properly enforce rural planning rules.

The road, part of which covered up the Wade road, involved erecting an industrial-looking steel bridge over the burn this summer, supported by banks of bright green sandbags, only a few metres from the Wade bridge.

Despite its wealth – the investment trust had a portfolio worth £437m last year – Parkswatch discovered that Abrdn had won £2.56m in public subsidy to help its tree-planting, funding that includes 556,000 vole guards to protect the saplings from being eaten. Abrdn also hopes to get funding for its peatland restoration.

View of a new bridge near the Wade bridge.
View of a new bridge near the Wade bridge.
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Pete Moore, of Laggan Heritage, said Abrdn’s approach to the local community seemed naive and tokenistic.

“They’re operating in the goldfish bowl of a national park, and their main problem is they’re not setting out a very clear plan or communicating that to local businesses and the local community,” he said.

Abrdn, one of Scotland’s largest financial firms, insists the project will follow the highest standards. It is heavily culling deer to promote natural regeneration, using the same methods as its near neighbour, the Danish billionaire conservationist Anders Povlsen.

Abrdn estimates Far Ralia could sequestrate up 150,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2060.

It cites a report by Prof Andy Purvis, of the Natural History Museum in London, which found the project would in time greatly boost the area’s biodiversity.

“Far Ralia can expect strengthened resilience and ecosystem-service security,” he said. “Certainly a successful outcome for the regeneration plan.”

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