Consultation on a proposal to offer permanent guided walks from the top station of the Cairngorm Mountain funicular to the summit of Cairn Gorm gets underway today.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Highland Council are carrying out the six-week consultation from 14 November to 23 December following a request by operator Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML) to offer the service. Trial walks started in July 2010 and recommenced this May at the Ptarmigan station, following a circular route on established paths.
Marketed as 'Walk @ The Top' the proposed walks will go to the summit of Cairn Gorm using the summit path, a direct line between the top station and the summit of Cairn Gorm, and the Marquis' Well path, which lies to the east of the summit path.
The new walks will require changes to the Visitor Management Plan (VMP), a legal framework between the local authority, SNH and CML for managing non-skiing visitors that was submitted by the Cairngorm Chairlift Company as part of the planning application for the controversial funicular railway. One condition of the VMP approved by SNH and Highland Council in December 2000 was that non-skiers would not be allowed outdoor access from the top station of the funicular. This was to minimise the environmental impact of the scheme, protecting the integrity of the adjacent areas which have been designated under European Habitats and Birds Directives.
A condition of participating in the guided walks is that those attending must return to the top station with their guide. The trial period saw a 100% compliance rate. The total number of walkers recorded using the summit path of Cairn Gorm during the period 17 July–31 October 2010 was 9041; only 1179 of these were on guided walks. Longer term, it's not clear how many walkers CML anticipate using a guided service.
The funicular development and paths for guided walks lie within the Cairngorms National Park, the Cairngorm Mountains National Scenic Area and are adjacent to, but outwith, the Cairngorms Special Protection Area (SPA) and Cairngorms Special Area of Conservation (SAC). SPAs and SACs are designated under the European Commission Wild Birds and Habitats and Species Directives respectively. These are some of the largest European conservation sites in Britain.
The bird species with most relevance to the proposed amendment to the VMP is the dotterel, a migrant species nesting on montane habitats – usually above 850m – from late April to late August. CML has monitored dotterel on trial walks from 17 July–31 October 2010 and 1 May–17 July this year. Observations indicate that visitor use around the summit dome in 2010 did not displace a nearby dotterel family.
The consultation document is available to view on the SNH website.