Braemar out of season is a strange place to be. Not quite lifeless, but definitely falling into an autumnal torpor. After an extraordinarily busy summer hosting the great flood of northbound domestic tourists, in late October just a few B&Bs and pubs are hanging on before some much-needed downtime.
At the edges of the village though, and in the wider, wilder countryside beyond, a lot more life is to be found. Red squirrels are emboldened by the reduced traffic, the red deer rut is just coming to an end. Dan Brown and Rachael Iveson-Brown, owners of Wild Discovery, are at a similar stage of life: busy preparing for winter and renewal next year.
I’m heading out with the couple to experience their new electric bike safari around a scenic part of Aberdeenshire. The autumn colours are aflame, the River Dee, appearing like polished steel, imperfectly mirrors the infernos above.
Our starting point for the safari is literally regal. Balmoral Castle and its sprawling estate lie in the heart of Deeside and it’s in that car park I meet my hosts, along with Tony Yule, owner of eGuide Scotland, which provides bike tours all year round as well as the e-bikes for this more specialised trip.
In 2019, Dan and Rachael, and Tony, set up their businesses separately, not knowing each other or that Covid was on the horizon. After a few exceptionally bleak months, first in 2020 then at the start of 2021, things have rebounded, and their entrepreneurship no longer feels like such a terrible idea.
We’re using electric bikes because they’re much more likely to get people out into the wilderness. The Highlands can be a daunting enough environment to explore, but doubly so if you’re worried about whether you have the leg strength to get you up the next rise.
“Plus, it’s really multi-sensory, unlike these guys,” says Tony as we’re passed by a polished black Range Rover, a guide with a mic in the front seat, guests hermetically sealed in the back.
In this year of surging domestic tourism, an organised trip such as ours brings order where there has been so much chaos. As visitors streamed north over the last two summers, many for the first time, they found it difficult to control their motorhomes, lockdown pets, and bodily functions. There’s no need to worry about those North Coast 500 problems here in the Cairngorms – there are proper roads rather than passing places, large car parks, and even toilets.
Out on the trail, Dan explains that while there are humans in this part of the world who have latterly benefited from the pandemic, the same cannot be said for the wildlife. On a loose checklist of Highland animals I hope to see, capercaillies are close to the top.
“‘Hope’ is probably the best word,” says Rachael.
“Yes, they’re not doing so well,” adds Dan, before the couple explain that in Scotland numbers of these large, boisterous grouse are thought to have plummeted by as much as 30% in the past two years alone. Any breather the climate got from humankind’s reduced international travel was evidently not felt by these birds.
“There are just around 10 males left in Deeside,” Rachael says gravely as we remount the bikes.
It’s not long before we’ve stopped again. This time to look at an impressive Scottish wood ant nest, then buzzards wheeling high above. On a luckier day they may have been golden or white-tailed eagles. Even without those trophies, Dan and Rachael’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the environment means I never feel short-changed.
Part of the mission on these safaris isn’t just about what you are seeing but understanding what you aren’t. Our bumpy path leads out of the forest and briefly away from the autumnal foliage, the Highlands suddenly erupting around us with mountains on all sides. From this vantage point we can see Lochnagar rakishly wearing a cloud hat, glens rolling up and away from us. More than that, though, we can see a landscape endlessly altered by man.
Many of the areas in front of us are extravagantly bald, the result of burning for grouse hunting. Much of the damage caused by the clearing has been exacerbated by red deer, the numbers of which are thought to now exceed 400,000. As they have for centuries, estates around here want to maintain this artificiality in order that rich people can travel to Scotland, see these animals, then easily shoot them.
The fabled Highlands landscape is far uglier as a result. “We understand that there are livelihoods tied up in it, but we do have questions about how the land is managed,” says Rachael over her shoulder as we cycle away from an incoming squall and back to the cover of trees. This section of almost unadulterated Caledonian Forest is far more varied and beautiful that what had gone before, immediately more photogenic than the planned forests of regimented pines elsewhere.
Some of the only development here came with the installation of a scenic footbridge over the Falls of Garbh Allt, said to have been ordered by Queen Victoria in 1878. She loved this place and was an unlikely pioneer of woodland preservation in this part of the country.
The contemporary landowners are of course the Windsors. The royal family are well liked around these parts and access to their land is straightforward when the Queen is not in residence. During our cycle, days before the beginning of Cop26 in Glasgow, large marquees are being assembled in the lavish lawns of Balmoral Castle, presumably to host an event related to the conference.
The House of Windsor may well have some sway, if not with Cop26, then perhaps with other wealthy landowners in this part of their territory. Some kind of rethink is needed around here, for the sake of man and beast alike. Why not make it a matter for royalty? “The whole landscape is slowly changing, bit by bit,” says Dan. “If they reduced grouse hunting and eased deer pressure, you could end up with a fantastic corridor of Caledonian Forest. There’s room for rewilding and sport to co-exist.”
Wild Discovery offers private half-day e-bike tours of Deeside from £110 per person, e-bike included. In spring they will also offer a two-night adventure weekend from £499 per person, e-bikes and accommodation included. Visit wild-discovery.com
For accommodation in nearby Braemar, Craiglea B&B has doubles from £70, craigleabraemar.com