RSPB Insh Marshes Nature Reserve
RSPB Insh Marshes Nature Reserve is a 1,000-hectare floodplain of the River Spey in the Cairngorms. It is part of Cairngorms Connect: a partnership of neighbouring land managers, committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species, and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.
At RSPB Insh Marshes, the floodplain has undergone numerous modifications. This was part of an attempt 200 years ago to drain the land for agriculture whereby the river Spey and its tributaries were straightened and embanked and drains created to aid the drying out of the land. These modifications have an impact on the species and habitats found on the reserve. The drainage channels mean the wetland is drier during the drier summer months, whilst the embankments disconnect the river and floodplain reducing the number of flood inundations which will benefit the wetland plant communities. The floodplain now requires constant work to maintain important habitats and changes that are occurring to the modified rivers and embankments could lead to impacts on surrounding communities.
A long-term vision is being developed to transform RSPB Insh Marshes into a prime example of a better-connected floodplain and less modified river system. The project will make the reserve more climate resilient whilst helping to reduce flood risks in communities surrounding the reserve and keep ongoing management requirements sustainable.
The project hopes to apply for some time limited funding for improvements to the floodplain. The proposals for changes to the way the Marsh is managed are complex, with numerous options and sub-options, not necessarily exclusive of each other.
The partnership committed to engaging with the local community at as early a stage as possible, to shape proposals well before any planning application is made. But to do that meant starting their engagement in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During some of the period, limited meetings were permitted, but traditional presentations or meetings in public halls were off-limits throughout. The team therefore had to think creatively about how to reach the community.
Contact was made with existing land users and with the local community councils first to explain the issues on site, to outline some of the potential solutions and to discuss how best to involve the wider community. A dedicated project page was set up on the main Cairngorms Connect website with all the key information and links to more detailed reports for anybody who wanted to see the details. A leaflet summarising the issues and providing details of the website was delivered to everyone living next to the marsh and to key stakeholders with an extended online survey.
A pop-up exhibition in an empty shop provided an opportunity for direct question and answer sessions between managed visitor numbers and staff over a period of several days. Pre-booked ‘Covid-safe’ guided visits on-site were arranged for small groups, and a zoom webinar presentation with live Q&A session was also widely promoted. There was surprisingly little overlap in feedback being received through these different engagement channels, with each bringing in responses from different parts of the community.
The engagement presents a range of early options for discussion with no clear preferred route and asking opinions in a very open manner. That has not been without its challenges for both community and staff.
“Most people understood why some options had been ruled out on technical grounds but were generally unused to being engaged in such an open way and at such an early stage.” explained Karen Birkby, Site Manager for RSPB Insh Marshes. “Some members of the community are more used to ‘consultation’ on a pre-conceived plan and were unsure why views were being sought at this stage. Some also had very negative experience of ‘tokenistic’ engagement by other organisations in the past. It will therefore take time to build up trust as part of progressive engagement.”
However, Karen believes the community and the landscape partnership members will all be much better informed as the project progresses. “This is the start of a longer-term conversation. The information on the website will stay there and be updated as feedback informs next steps. Some in the community will need to be persuaded that their ‘non-expert’ views will count, and feedback needs to be clear about this as the project progresses proposals for a formal planning application. But others are very engaged, and we have identified scope for them to remain involved as a ‘reference group’ as the conversation evolves, building expertise and link points within the community.
If we had just gone straight to planning, we may not have got the same response, and may not have been able to react quickly enough. We now have a conduit to go back and explain changes – a route for ongoing conversation and an understanding of the possibility for change as the project develops.”
Find Out More
Communications and Involvement Manager
Project website - cairngormsconnect.org.uk/projects/insh