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Tay Forest positioned to become Scotland’s third national park – but why are some fighting the ‘transformative’ change?

Crieff, Pitlochry and Aberfeldy would be at the heart of a new national park, completing one of the largest protected areas in Europe.

Victor Clements on the banks of the River Tay at Birnam and Dunkeld. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.
Victor Clements on the banks of the River Tay at Birnam and Dunkeld. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

As an area renowned for its natural beauty and pockets of wilderness, it might surprise some that most of Highland Perthshire is not in a national park.

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park’s boundaries fell just short of the region when it was established in 2002.

And when the Cairngorms earned national park status in 2003, much of Highland Perthshire missed out again.

But this could be about to change, with proposals for a Tay Forest National Park gaining ground, bringing with them the promise of jobs, millions of pounds in investment and international kudos.

An initial 10 bids to gain this status had been whittled down to five potential national parks.

These include the Scottish Borders, Galloway, Loch Awe, Lochaber and the Tay Forest.

With new momentum behind the Tay Forest bid, residents, businesses and gamekeepers inside the area’s suggested boundaries are now waking up to what being part of a national park could mean for them.

But not everyone is convinced with gamekeepers, land owners and farmers among those either nervous, or outright hostile to the proposal.

Others can see huge value in creating what – when joined with the Loch Lomond and Cairngorm national park areas – would become one of the largest protected areas in Europe.

Are people taking the Tay Forest National Bid bid seriously enough?

Located near the banks of the River Tay at Birnam is the iconic Birnam Oak tree.

At almost 1,000 years old, it has stood tall through many changes in this scenic part of Tayside.

Birnam and Dunkeld could become the southern gateway to the national park.

Crieff, Pitlochry and Aberfeldy would be other towns in the park area.

Victor Clements is the chairperson of the Aberfeldy Community Council, but we meet in Birnam.

Victor Clements is the chairperson of the Aberfeldy Community Council.
Victor Clements is the chairperson of the Aberfeldy Community Council. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

The seven members of the community council are broadly supportive of a new national park, especially one which would put Aberfeldy at its heart.

Victor can see its advantages, while also describing himself as “slightly more cynical” about the proposals.

He also speaks on the national park in his capacity as a native woodland advisor.

“Three months ago I thought there is no way there is going to be a national park in Highland Perthshire because it’s beside existing ones”, he says.

“If you were the Scottish Government you are going to put it somewhere else in Scotland to give someone else a chance.”

But he now believes the situation has changed.

“It is possible and therefore, we have to think about what this means in Perthshire and take it seriously.”

Are the Tay Forest rival bids strong?

Victor continues: “I don’t think Lochaber or Loch Awe is very strong. And the (Scottish) Borders Council are not supporting the Borders one, so you would think that undermines that too.”

“And the farmers against national parks are so strong in Galloway at the moment.

“Then you think who has got the best campaign?

“Xander McDade [the Provost] here has got the whole council behind this and its whole machinery.”

Perth Provost Xander McDade hopes to use his new role to make change.

What are the main benefits of a new national park?

In his role on the community council, Victor can see two main advantages to the creation of a new national park.

He believes it could bring more employment, hoping a new headquarters would be based in Aberfeldy.

“I guess the other big advantage is having a ranger service in Highland Perthshire”, he says.

“A national park would almost certainly give more certainty of funding over that. If you had funding that allowed people to be employed all year round it would be a good job.

“You would get good candidates who could build up an understanding of the river, making it much more effective.”

As Victor mentions, the Perth and Kinross Provost, Xander McDade has been a driving force behind the campaign.

Mr McDade is also an independent councillor for Highland Perthshire.

“There are quite clear environmental and economic benefits to a national park,” Xander says.

“Our view is that the positives outweigh any negatives.

“We certainly feel we have a strong bid because of our geographic layout. There is the opportunity to create a natural corridor joining the three national parks together.

“This would make it one of the largest protected areas in Europe.

“Having the resources of a national park would help with some of the issues rural areas are facing.”

How much could the Tay Forest National Park cost?

Xander also believes there is a mandate for a national park, with 58% of those taking part in a consultation process responding positively to the proposals.

Perth and Kinross Council says there were over 350 responses to a Consultation Hub survey. Meanwhile, more than 160 people attended in-person drop-in sessions.

“We feel anyone that wanted an opportunity to have their voices heard had that opportunity,” he says.

“The bid has also been well publicised in the local and national media.”

The councillor is also the former convener of the Cairngorms National Park Association.

He estimates that the Scottish Government has given £100 million in public funding to the Cairngorms over the last 20 years.

“This is an enormous amount of money supporting local communities, jobs and community development.”

National park could mean big business for Dunkeld eatery

On the other side of the bridge from Birnam, Orkun Cevik is dicing onions in a container at the Atholl Street Car Park.

The owner of The Craft Diner burger shack is hoping a new national park could bring more visitors into the area.

It is a busy Monday morning in the bustling Highland Perthshire town and I’m lucky to catch the chef between customers.

“I don’t know how locals feel about it, but small businesses like me need more footfall”, says Orkun.

Orkun Cevik, chef and owner at The Craft Diner in Dunkeld.
The owner of The Craft Diner, Orkun Cevik believes the national park would increase visitors to Dunkeld. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

“One good thing about Dunkeld is that there are no chain operations. It could be perfect as long as there are no corporations like Nandos, McDonalds or Starbucks.

“And as long as they keep it natural and open-minded to allow the small businesses to be part of it, it would be a perfect idea.

“A lot of people come to Dunkeld and as long as the weather is good this place is packed”, he adds.

“I don’t know if Dunkeld can handle more people because it has a lot of parking issues.

“It would be great if they had a national park, but they need a proper foundation for it and to improve some of the services around here.

“They need to fix the flooding in Dunkeld and the massive traffic issues on the A9 before they open a national park, so people can travel better.”

What are the arguments against a new national park?

Ronnie Kippen is a retired gamekeeper with over 40 years of experience on the moorlands of Glen Quaich.

He strongly condemns the plans for a new national park and is worried by the impact he believes the Cairngorms National Park has already had.

“When we have a financial crisis is it the right way to spend money when the ground is actually getting looked after perfectly well at the moment?”, he says.

“The last thing we are requiring on Tayside is more bureaucracy and money being spent, which could be spent on other issues.

Ronnie Kippen is a retired Highland Perthshire gamekeeper, with over 40 years of experience. Image: SGA Media.

“They are closing toilets down in Aberfeldy and they want to spend millions on a national park every year.

“Before you turn it into a national park it must be in pretty good condition, so why change things?”

Moorland Group attacks Tay Forest National Park process

One of the primary criticisms of the national park bid has been levelled at the way the consultation process was carried out.

The Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group also opposes the national park.

It represents gamekeepers and shepherds, with some of those joining a protest outside the council headquarters in Perth in February.

It argues that the consultation period was flawed because it only received around 350 responses.

Those against the Tay Forest National Park plan at Perth and Kinross Council HQ in February 2024. Image supplied by Kirk Norbury.

In a recent Facebook post the group said: “The entire bid process was fundamentally flawed.”

The group says 78% of land managers oppose the creation of a Tay Forest National Park.

It says these are “the very people who will disproportionally bear the brunt of any policies taken forward by a potential Tay Forest National Park”.

What are the next steps?

The Scottish Government had pledged that a new national park will be opened in 2026. But that was part of the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

It is not yet clear what the collapse of the power sharing agreement between the two political parties might mean for the new national park plan.

But if the Scottish Government remains committed to creating a new national park then Xander is confident that the Tay Forest bid is in a strong position.

“We want to bring everyone along with us, especially those who aren’t sure or supportive of the proposal at the moment,” he adds.

“We understand there are some concerns in parts of the community.

“If we are successful we want to make sure the national park is for everyone who lives in Highland Perthshire.”