A Highland estate owned by the Queen could be an ecological jewel in the crown if left to its own devices, finds Sandra Dick

Bought for around £750,000 by the Queen in 1978, Delnadamph Estate stretches for around 6,700 acres in the heart of the Cairngorms, just eight miles from Balmoral Castle, close to the source of the River Don and a stone’s throw from the ski slopes of the Lecht.

To the untrained eye, its rolling moorland, sparkling river and dearth of woodland epitomises a classic Highland estate.

Indeed, viewers of early episodes of the new series of The Crown will have seen the fictional royals trudge over just such a setting on their way to slaughter a wounded stag, delighting in the hunting and shooting opportunities of their wild and seemingly untamed Balmoral.

However, to others, Delnadamph’s wide-open grouse moors represent a glaring missed opportunity which, given a chance, could become the jewel in the crown of Highland estates.

For while some neighbouring estates have been busy embracing a modern vision for the Highlands with efforts to rewild the landscape with new, lush forests, introducing new methods of managing grouse moors and innovative projects to revitalise wildlife, peatlands and plants, it is claimed that Delnadamph, part of the Queen’s Balmoral Estate, has little to show for what seem to be perfect conditions for a more natural and authentic Highland landscape.

Now, conservation campaigner Nick Kempe, who recently walked Delnadamph and documented in his Parkswatch Scotland blog how he found it almost bereft of woodland and any wildlife other than red grouse, has urged the Prince of Wales, president of wildlife organisation WWF-UK and with a long record of supporting ecological and conservation causes, to step in to ensure it matches his vision for the environment.

In particular, Kempe has called on him to help bring to an end the practice of muirburn at the estate – the controlled burning of heather, gorse bushes and grasslands which promotes heather growth and boosts grouse numbers for shooting but at the same time destroys the habitat for other birds and preventing young trees and shrubs from taking hold.

Kempe has also raised concerns over apparent damage to precious carbon-capturing peat bogs, with some areas apparently stripped of vegetation to create grouse butts or churned by all-terrain vehicles.

Meanwhile, grit stations for grouse feed, which he fears may contain medicated grit, are also said to have been created on the estate by cutting blocks of turf, leaving peat exposed to degradation and erosion.

Despite the vastness of the area, Kempe said the only wildlife he saw during his walk was a handful of sheep and red grouse. While another member of his party did see a mountain hare, the sound of nearby shots being fired and a carefully camouflaged trap raised concerns.

Kempe, who walked the estate in October in the hope of assessing what the impact grouse moor land management practices had had on the estate, claims his findings suggest practices are at odds with the conservation objections of the Cairngorms National Park and with Prince Charles’s own well-publicised proclamations on conservation, nature and protecting against climate change.

He added: “It is time that was addressed, and one would hope that Prince Charles, given his oft-stated commitment to conservation, would be prepared to do this.”

The estate was purchased by the Queen to help expand Balmoral’s grouse-shooting opportunities and was reported to have been gifted to Prince Charles and his new wife, Diana, following their wedding in 1981.

However, despite the Prince of Wales’s affection for the Highlands, his new bride was said to have found the estate’s lodge uninviting.

The two-storey, 10-bedroom lodge, at the time in need of major repairs, was instead gutted and used by the Royal Engineers for demolition practice before being completely removed in 1987.

According to Buckingham Palace, the estate remains in the ownership of the Queen, and forms part of the larger Balmoral estate.

However, while some neighbouring estates have adopted modern approaches to grouse moor management and “rewilding” of the land, according to Kempe there is evidence that muirburn is being carried out across Delnadamph.

The practice of burning moorland to improve conditions for grouse has raised particular concerns over its impact on other wildlife including birds of prey, plants and the effects of burning over deep peat, potentially allowing carbon to leak into the atmosphere.

Kempe said: “The royal family is at the apex of sporting estate owners. If they were to stop muirburn then other Scottish grouse estates might follow.

“From what I have seen on the estate, there is just one patch of woodland around the shore of the river. Yet deer fences mean the estate is almost deer free.

“That presents a massive opportunity for natural regeneration, but almost any time trees get up, they are burned for the grouse.

“If muirburn was stopped and nothing else was done at Delnadamph, it would make a massive difference and the estate could be a fantastic conservation project.”

He expressed concern at the lack of woodland on the estate, including one previous plantation which now appears reduced to an “isolated stand of trees”.

Kempe added: “Delnadamph must be one of the least forested estates in the Cairngorms National Park.

“It is managed as part of the Balmoral Estate and is also part of the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership (ECMP), the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s preferred vehicle for improving conservation on grouse moors.

“According to the final report of the Cairngorm Nature Action Plan 2013/18 one of the aspirations of the ECMP was ‘woodland expansion – using opportunity mapping, seeking to increase the woodland cover over the six estates from the current average of 14%’.

“From looking at maps, I doubt Delnadamph reaches 5%. Apart from the small enclosure there was no evidence of anything being done to change that.

“The potential, however, is huge,” he added.

“The soils on the Don are generally better than on the Dee, and juniper, one of Scotland’s three native conifers, colonises the ground easily.

“Unfortunately, it is being burned before it can provide cover for songbirds or even other game birds like black grouse or woodcock.”

Muirburn on the estate also raises the risk of water cascading downhill, potentially contributing to flooding lower down the Don.

However, some nearby estates, including Glenfeshie, which is owned by billionaire landowners Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen, and Mar Lodge, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, take a different approach to grouse moor management, and have switched from muirburn to a more ecologically minded approach.

Known as “walked-up shooting”, grouse are left to breed without human intervention, and although far fewer grouse are bagged, the impact on the environment is lessened.

Kempe said a similar approach at Delnadamph, combined with the low deer numbers, would enable plants to regenerate naturally, resulting in an inspirational conservation project which others might follow.

“In much of the Cairngorms, it is high deer numbers that prevent woodland regeneration, but not at Delnadamph,” he added.

“In conservation terms, all sorts of exciting things could be happening if it was not for the muirburn. Unlike neighbouring areas, none of the moor has been fossilised by EC designations, so it could be left to regenerate naturally.

“But it seems that Delnadamph is only interested in red grouse.”

Buckingham Palace, however, said work to improve the estate is already under way: “Balmoral is a working estate and currently has a number of habitat improvement projects under way including several at Delnadamph”.

Will Boyd-Wallis, head of conservation at Cairngorm National Park Authority, said: “We are working with many estates, including Delnadamph, to deliver more habitat and species diversity alongside their moorland management.

“Delnadamph estate is one of six estates in the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership which collectively are aiming to increase native woodland and scrub cover and to restore peatlands.

“We are working positively with all six of the ECMP landowners to see more enhancements where we can as there is always room for improvement.

“It is a long learning journey for all of us and changes to land use take time, but with climate change high on everyone’s agendas change is coming nonetheless.”