Behind the scenes at Balmoral

Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend 2018 delivered an amazing 60 events as “a celebration of the fantastic natural heritage of the Cairngorms National Park“, providing a flavour of what the Park has to offer. We took time out to visit just one event at Balmoral, basing ourselves at nearby Ballater and exploring more that Royal Deeside has to offer.

The BIG Weekend is becoming a major event for the Cairngorms, not only showcasing the incredible nature in the National Park but also opening opportunities for businesses to thrive on an influx of visitors … both from home or abroad. This May’s calendar of events was no exception.

Driven by the National Park Authority, the initiative celebrates the Cairngorms’ natural heritage and is designed to appeal to all – from families with young children to the seasoned nature lover. And that fact was borne out on our visit to Balmoral. We’d signed up to discover more about how they manage Red Deer. The programme promised “an afternoon in the company of the Queen’s Head Stalker – find out how Balmoral Estate manages their deer. Meet the highland pony who brings the deer down to the larder and go inside to find out how the meat is processed. Visit the target areas to see how stalkers are trained and finish the discussion in the magnificent Balmoral ballroom.” It didn’t disappoint – delivering all this and so much more.

The ticket to the free event told us to head for the main gate at Balmoral – and keep an eye out for the Queen’s head stalker who’d be wearing Balmoral tweed. We spotted him and were welcomed by him – Gary Coutts – and by Mike Cottam of the Cairngorms National Park authority. There were a dozen of us on the visit – some with children, some visiting, some living locally and one studying land management at Uni.

Teas and coffees served, we took our seats for a presentation. First up – Mike. He explained how the National Park – working with estates across the Cairngorms – are working together to deliver a Deer Management programme for and on behalf of the Scottish Government. Mike’s language was simple enough for the young ones and detailed enough for the grown ups. There are Deer Management Groups across the Park – the largest National Park in the UK – and each has a set of 14 ‘deliverables’ set by Government to manage and maintain not only the park’s Red Deer population but also a range of elements that affect designated sites, forestry and climate change. Mike explained the complexity of private and public bodies working together – and the expectations placed on private organisations to deliver ‘public interest projects’.

The initiatives are monitored by Scottish Natural Heritage – and reviewed every three years where projects are graded with a traffic light system. Balmoral sits within the South Deeside and North Angus Deer Management Group. They’re currently two years into a five year cycle (2016-2020) – so will be reviewed again by SNH in 2019. Mike explained the review looks at ‘sustainable deer management’ and that four areas are covered: welfare, social, economic and environment. Under each of these is a range of topics that are monitored and measured for ongoing evaluation.

Stalking is a passion of Mike’s. A Yorkshireman who has found his way to the Cairngorms, he told us that he has his dream job – albeit it comes with its challenges. To help bridge the gap between government agency and the park’s landowners, Mike is also treasurer and secretary for a couple of the Deer Management Groups – and that gives him invaluable insight.

There was a risk some of us may glaze over when Mike talked through a few spreadsheets – but his engaged, easy-going style helped us all to understand! He ran through the science behind the deer management and how different Scottish Universities have helped in some of the groups’ planning. We heard about how deer are counted – stags, hinds and calves – and how the totals, density and ratios are monitored and managed.

There were two key facts we took away from Mike’s talk: his explanation that culling hinds helps to increase the population of stags: in short – when hind numbers increase, their condition deteriorates due to competition for habitat. By reducing the numbers, the groups are helping the remaining hinds to thrive and strengthen – and to produce more stags. Secondly, an awareness that different land owners have different priorities when it comes to wildlife. Some are focusing on flora and natural habitat – especially the reforestation of the Calendonian woodlands. On those estates, deer numbers are tightly controlled to a density of around two per square kilometer. Others manage the deer population for stalking and game. On these, the deer’s density can be five or six times higher. Mike concluded by explaining – as in nature – all is a balance and it is his role to help maintain that balance for all involved.

Gary Coutts took over for a presentation about Balmoral, his work and the history of the estate. He began by explaining the Royal family’s love of the area – from when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first bought Balmoral in 1853. He showed us photos of carved stones and hilltop cairns that commemorate Victoria, Albert and some who have worked on the estate, including ‘Mr John Brown’ immortalised by the one and only Bill Connolly in the 1997 film Mrs Brown.

Gary told us that Balmoral has seven deer beats – six main ones – where stalking is carried out across some 50,000 acres between Braemar and Ballater, all south of the River Dee to Loch Muick. Each beat is unique in its size, location and make up – some are rocky and open, others wooded with rivers. He explained that Queen Elizabeth’s love of horses led to Balmoral’s unique use of ponies in their stalking. Highland, Fell and Haflinger ponies are all bred and trained on the estate – and are used to help stalkers bring stags and hinds off the hill. Gary told us that ponies begin their training once they reach 2-3 years old and will be used from around four years. They work in pairs and can each carry a stag or two hinds. He explained that other estates tend to use off road vehicles such as Argocats, but that they see the ponies as more traditional and environmentally friendly.

A Q&A session followed after which Gary and Mike took our group on a tour. We visited the cold store where deer are brought once they’re off the hill. Their carcasses are cleaned and prepared at this point – and we got to hold an adult stag’s antlers.

Deer that are killed on the estate are sold from the site to local butchers. There’s no ‘Balmoral’ brand and the estate has no plans to market itself as such, so the venison taken from the estate hills helps to support numerous businesses who sell on to pubs and restaurants and well as direct to visitors – both meat from the butcher as well as in prepared foods such as pies.

We then walked to the castle: we saw the foundation stone from 1853 and the beautiful rose garden. More questions for Gary as we rounded the castle to enter the Balmoral Ballroom, steeped in history.

We then drove to see the stud where the ponies are bred and stabled – a new foal in the field beside us. We also got to visit the estate village where we saw some of the working ponies grazing …

They can live for up to 20 years and are very well cared for in this stunning landscape.

It was a privilege to speak with Gary. He has born on the estate and has worked here for 36 years. His father was a carpenter and worked for the Balmoral Estate for 33 years. Traditions run deep here – and it is easy to see why.

Mike’s talk had explained the scale and complexity of managing not just the landscape at Balmoral but that of an entire National Park … all 4,500 square kilometers of it. Gary had brought everything down to scale, Balmoral, the village and communities in the valley. Our experience of the Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend had been a fascinating one – and now we set off to explore more that the area had to offer …

We visited another castle – in Braemar. A military garrison from the mid 18th to the early 19th century, Braemar Castle then returned to the Farquharson clan who restored it as a family home under the 12th Laird of Invercauld. He entertained Queen Victoria when she first attended the Braemar Gatherings in the Castle grounds. To this day, the reigning monarch is patron of what is now called Braemar Royal Highland Society. For more than a decade, the castle has been run on behalf of the community by local charity, staffed by local volunteers who are overseeing a restoration programme.

We popped in to the butchers in Braemar – inevitably buying local pies, including one Venison & Cranberry. We ate them at a wee picnic spot just off the A93 as we headed back down to the valley to where we were staying for the night – in Ballater.

We’d booked a room at the Ballater Hostel, right in the heart of the town. Owned and run by Dominique & Daniel (who took over the hostel in August 2016), ‘Dom’ welcomed us and gave us the key to our room … ‘Balmoral’!

The hostel sleeps 28 across both traditional dorm rooms and private rooms – we had a family room with a double and a bunk, en suite. It is a five star self-catering hostel and has a large open-plan kitchen, dining and chill out area complete with comfy chairs, a wood burning stove and lots of quirky artifacts that D&D have collected through their years of hosteling. They also have a drying room and cycle storage.

Checked in, we wanted a walk (with dog in tow) and Dominique told us of a circular route from the hostel that passed the golf course, alongside the River Dee and back into the top end of Ballater.

Just under three miles round, it was a lovely walk. We also asked for recommendations of where to eat – there were plenty. We chose The Alexandra Hotel – a few yards from the hostel. We ate in their bar. The service was welcoming and fun – great banter with the kids – and the food was very tasty, especially the fish & chips … and the waffles! Check them out on Facebook.

The blue skies o’er the Dee vanished by the next morning as we woke to a wet one. We headed east down the valley – on the south side – until the rain stopped. We passed the entrance to Ballogie House (where they were having a wedding fair) – also home to The Seedbox, a unique social enterprise based at Ballogie’s walled garden. The windscreen wipers slowed – then stopped – so we parked at the green next to the Potarch Café and Restaurant (near Ballogie) to walk a section of the Deeside Way.

Potarch is one of the hubs on the Deeside Way, a trail that stretches 41 miles all the way from Aberdeen to Ballater. It is a perfect stop for walkers & cyclists and in the grounds of the Café and Restaurant there’s a well-equipped children’s play area. As part of the Ballogie estate, there are also walks and loops to explore through acres of woodland … all beautifully maintained. The Deeside Way took us through part of the Slewdrum Forest and across open farmland. The rain began to fall again. In bucketed … so we called it a day knowing we’d return before too long.

Hats off tho the organisers of the Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend. The event we attended was very worthwhile – educational yet fun and although scheduled as two hours, our hosts made all very welcome and we bade farewell just shy of three hours at the castle. We’ll be keeping a close eye on next year’s events – and will be sharing content via this page as well as on our social media feeds.


Need  more?

Please use any of the links within this Blog to find more information on the topics covered.

If you’re visiting Balmoral, please use this link to their site.

You can find the Ballater Hostel on Facebook via this link. You can read their TripAdvisor reviews here – and bookings are via this link.

Finally, we’ll leave you with a wee video from last year’s Cairngorms Nature BIG Weekend … we’re already looking forward to next year!

Thanks for reading!