Insh Marshes is an internationally important example of a near-natural floodplain with exceptional wildlife. Given the area's conservation importance, we have major concerns about the potential environmental harm that the dualling project through Insh Marshes could cause.
We have had several meetings with Transport Scotland, their consultants and other public bodies including Scottish Natural Heritage and the Cairngorms National Park Authority to try to minimise negative impacts on the reserve, and maximise potential environmental benefits of the dualling project.
Transport Scotland considered several possible routes for the new dual carriageway, and all of the options presented cut across part of the Insh Marshes nature reserve, just as the existing A9 does. The geography and topography of the area means it is unrealistic to create a brand new route for the new dual carriageway that does not cross part of the reserve. So the dualling of this section of the A9 will inevitably cause some damage to the reserve. We believe that the most realistic and appropriate solution is to design the dual carriageway in a way that minimises such damage. This would involve widening to the immediate west of the existing single carriageway A9, and incorporating a bridge much longer than the existing bridge so that it forms a 'green and blue underpass' (similar to the 'green bridge' concept seen elsewhere). This option would affect less important wader habitat, reconnect floodplain habitats, have multiple benefits for the river and its wildlife, and reduce upstream flooding in Kingussie.
Despite the clear advantages of our suggestions, Transport Scotland have opted for a cheaper option which is to have an 'offline' dualling route with a relatively short bridge and with the new carriageway east of the existing road, on a separate embankment. This will be constructed on existing wetland on the reserve and would result in the loss of important habitats for waders such as lapwings, curlews, oystercatchers, redshanks and snipe, and for wildfowl. The reserve is currently a stronghold for these birds, many of which have suffered from massive population declines. For instance, survey results indicate that the lapwing population in the wider Badenoch and Strathspey area plummeted by more than half between 2000 and 2015 – only 492 pairs were recorded in the last survey. Redshank numbers declined by 45% to 199 pairs over the same period.
Transport Scotland have now published their detailed designs for this section of new dual carriageway, along with maps showing the land which they intend to acquire using their compulsory purchase powers for the road works. The road proposals are accompanied by an Environmental Statement prepared by Transport Scotland on the predicted environmental impacts and the measures Transport Scotland are proposing to address those impacts.
According to Transport Scotland’s calculations, the proposed road scheme would result in the permanent loss of the equivalent of five professional football pitches of habitat from the National Nature Reserve, or 143 tennis courts, lost mainly underneath the footprint of the new road and its embankments. Added to this, a further 4 football pitches worth of the reserve would be temporarily lost – covered by temporary tracks and the massive machinery required for the roadworks. This land would not be available for the waders to nest and feed on for a long period.
However, the effects of the dualling scheme will extend far beyond the footprint of the new road and the roadworks activities. Waders need large areas of undisturbed, open and relatively flat wetland, so that they know that predators such as foxes are not hiding nearby, ready to pounce on their vulnerable eggs or chicks. All of the noise and human activity associated with the road construction will cause the waders to keep well away from the construction site. Once the roadworks are complete and the dual carriageway opens for traffic, the increased traffic flows and the imposing road structure will deter many waders, which will avoid nesting and feeding within a much larger 'zone of avoidance' equivalent to the area of more than 50 football pitches. Many of the waders would not be able to simply move to other parts of the reserve, as the parts that are suitable habitat are already occupied by others.
Overall therefore, the dualling across Insh Marshes will significantly reduce the number of waders and other wildlife on the reserve and on other nearby areas of wetland.
The road construction may well affect a lot of other wildlife on the reserve and local area, including osprey, otters, whooper swan, water voles, wigeon, goldeneye and various rare invertebrates, and will cause loss of wetland plants such as ragged robin, greater butterfly orchid and marsh marigold. It would also be very noticeable to visitors to the reserve, from two of our hides.
We have continually made the case for protecting the exceptional wildlife of Insh Marshes and the surrounding area, minimising harmful impacts, and maximising environmental benefits (such as enhancing or providing new habitat nearby) that the dualling project brings with it. We have identified several ways in which Transport Scotland could do this, within the existing reserve and elsewhere. These include creating new nesting 'islands' on the reserve where the ground is currently too wet for ground nesting waders (the birds need just the right balance of wet and dry areas, for nesting and feeding); reprofiling old defunct embankments to create a more natural landform and open landscape favoured by the waders; and excavating 'scrapes' (shallow ponds with muddy edges) to provide extra feeding habitat. These measures would all create extra wildlife habitat, and study work that we have commissioned shows that they would not cause flood risk issues off the reserve, in fact they are expected to reduce flood risk upstream of the River Spey bridge. We have been encouraging Transport Scotland to explore these and other measures, but so far our suggestions have largely been disregarded.
Transport Scotland has bought an area of land (the 'Dellmore site') near Insh Marshes. It proposes to convert a large part of this land (plus a few small areas of nearby land elsewhere) to wet and marshy grassland habitat to rehome the waders that will be 'displaced' from Insh Marshes. Whilst we welcome this intention, it will be challenging to successfully convert this land to suitable wetland habitat for the waders, and maintain it as such over the long-term. It is therefore far from guaranteed that it will provide suitable habitat, and even if it does, the new habitat will not be big enough to rehome all of the birds that are predicted to be displaced as a result of the dualling. Transport Scotland also proposes to remove some of the existing A9 embankment and restore this land to wetland, but its closeness to the new dual carriageway severely limits its suitability as new bird habitat.
Transport Scotland are mostly relying on their proposals for the Dellmore site to provide new habitat to rehome the wildlife affected by the dualling. In doing so they are basically 'placing all their eggs in one basket' which is inappropriate given the challenges they will face to make this site suitable habitat. We believe that Transport Scotland’s proposals for replacement wildlife habitat are insufficient, and there is a real risk that the road scheme will result in long-term harm to a variety of wildlife. Transport Scotland should propose and fund additional habitat improvement measures, above and beyond what they currently propose, to guarantee that nature does not lose out in the long term.