A beautiful film about the rewilding efforts in the Scottish Highlands. Passionately relayed by Hutch and Christo who are striving to understand how we as mountain bikers can reduce our impact on the spaces we access on bikes and on foot.
Nice work all involved!
Find out more in this article which accompanies the film.
Riding this landscape is a real privilege. The Scottish access laws that allow you the freedom to do so are among some of the most generous in the world. Rough hill trails guide our descent past the Green Soldiers towards the granny pines which stand strong and proud amongst the heather. The tough bark and knotted branches of these historic beauties tell their own story. Their presence alone is testament to their resilience and perseverance. They’ve stood here through industrial revolutions, world wars and are now being given a chance to be part of a future focussed on restoring and rewilding their surroundings.
There’s an element of vulnerability as you gain height towards the Cairngorm Plateau. An incredible vantage spot to view the landscape and imagine how it once looked.
Many centuries ago a journey through Glen Feshie would have looked starkly different and not only for the lack of bikes. While the tranquility and beauty would remain, the Glen’s biodiversity would have been markedly different. Years of timber extraction, intensive grazing and land use has eroded the complexity of the landscape to the stripped back and simplified state synonymous with more recent times - a monoculture in some places.
Over the centuries humans have sustained intensive land-use and looking back, we’re now able to see that impact. While this exploitation continues unabated in many places around the globe, we’re now in a position to observe it from a more educated position. As outdoor users and custodians of the natural environment, our understanding of how to better interact with land habitats is improving. Many landowners are making their own commitment by looking at more sustainable and beneficial land management practices in an attempt to rewild the lands and recover the biodiversity that’s been lost. Estates are combining forces and tackling this head on and none more so than the efforts being made at the Glen Feshie estate in the Cairngorms.
Our exploration of the Cairngorm National Park and this landscape was just beginning and after an ascent across the Cairngorm Plateau to the summit of Sgòr Gaoith we descended off the peak of the Munro, undoubtedly one of the most thrilling outdoor experiences you can have, before reaching the tree line just below 600m. From the hills you get a real perspective of the glens below, in all directions. With only a fifth of Scotland’s forests now native and 4% of Scotland’s land area being covered by semi-natural woodland the view would have no doubt looked very different in the past. The situation is improving with forest cover increasing from 4% to 19% in Scotland over the last 100 years - whether this is the right cover begs a bigger question.
As you approach the tree line in Glen Feshie, you’re met by the first sight of the Green Soldiers - young pines marching up and out of the valley floor. These are the proud infantry in the rewilding army, forging a new future and returning the landscape to its former self. They’re the heroes of this story and support aims to reach targets of woodland cover in Scotland of 21% by 2032 among other vital targets to rebalance and restore such landscapes.
As we ride among these Green Soldiers we meet up with Ronan Dugan, an ecologist working within Glen Feshie. Mountain biking has always been a pastime of Ronan’s but it’s his passion to help restore the natural environment within the Cairngorms and play his part in fighting the climate crisis that shines. The rewilding of Glen Feshie is part of a long term vision backed by owner Anders Povlsen. The work is part of the wider Cairngorms Connect project which has a 200 year vision aiming to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park - we use the term rewilding carefully here as it can be interpreted in many ways.
Sometimes it takes someone with grand visions and bravery to steer things in the right direction. Anders Polvsen is steering the future of Glen Feshie in a really exciting way.
It seems like Glen Feshie is representing a pivotal opportunity to return the lands to what they once were - letting nature take over and managing the access and connection that outdoors users have with it. Humans have always intervened with Nature but sometimes leaving it to do its own thing is important. The Feshie continues to carve a new path through the Glen.
As we venture deeper into the Glen, discussions turn to how recreation and tourism can work to support these regeneration efforts. Over coffee with Ronan, we consider our impact as riders and hill users but also acknowledge the opportunities attracting people to the area can have. Visitors generate income which allows estates the kind of continued investment that enhances and maintains their scenic locations. Currently this estate and surrounding owned by Povlsen are reportedly subsidised to the tune of £1.6m per annum, something which ultimately isn’t sustainable.
As individuals, we can enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits that come from accessing and exploring the wilderness. Whether we visit on foot, bike or even horseback, our visit to Glen Feshie has put into question what our relationship with our surroundings should look like and how we can contribute to their protection while still benefiting from them. It’s through following the example of forward-thinking landowners like those involved with the Cairngorm Connect project that our true wilderness will return.
Ending our ride and our time in Glen Feshie. Seeing the work that’s ongoing and educating ourselves has been enlightening. Our relationship with nature is a complex one and a holistic approach is needed to recover it while as a user still being able to access it responsibly.
As the warm evening sun dipped over the horizon, we completed the last of our descents through this stunning and fragile landscape and had time to reflect on how we as riders access land responsibly. How can we support projects focussed on improving biodiversity and what should our relationship with nature look like? While the debate is ongoing we figure a good start is choosing to stand firm among those Green Soldiers forging on with the frontline work. We’re excited to return in the future to see the pines, birch, rowan, willow and other species support a rich habitat with increased biodiversity.
This article and feature would not have been possible without the support of FUNN components, a partner of The Contour Collective.
For more information on the conservation projects mentioned in this article, visit the links below as a starting point and join the conversation yourself:
Photos - Douglas Somerville.
About The Contour Collective: The Contour Collective aims to make mountain biking more accessible through our videos, stories and racing. We want to get more people outside, exploring and finding new places in the UK and abroad to ride. We want to help riders through their mountain bike journey giving them ideas and the knowhow to progress as a rider and adventurer.