SCATHING criticism of Scotland’s existing national parks has been made by leading environmentalists as a consultation ends over a proposal for a new one.

Although the move to create a new park by the end of 2026 has been broadly welcomed, there are calls for both it and the existing parks to be made “fit for purpose”.

So far Scotland has only two ­national parks while Denmark, with a similar population to Scotland but just over half its size, has six. Austria, the same size as Scotland but with double the population, also has six while ­Slovakia, with a similar ­population and with a landmass slightly bigger than Denmark, has nine.

And despite sometimes “Herculean” efforts by staff and volunteers, the two existing national parks – the Cairngorms, and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs – are still “notional” parks when it comes to protecting nature.

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That’s the view of Steve ­Micklewright, convenor of the ­Scottish Rewilding Alliance, who is calling for large-scale nature ­restoration – or rewilding – to be made the core purpose of Scotland’s national parks.

Writing for the Sunday National, he claims the landscape of ­Cairngorm National Park remains much the same as it was before it was set up nearly 20 years ago, with “seemingly endless acres” of “intensively ­managed and ecologically impoverished” grouse moors.

“This is a place where trees are not allowed to thrive,” he said. “Where globally precious peat bogs are now emitting rather than soaking up carbon dioxide because they have been deliberately burnt and drained. Where humans have wiped out or forced out wildlife from birds of prey to mountain hares to pollinating ­insects.”

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Meanwhile, although Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park has 143 areas designated for nature, around one in five is “not in a favourable condition”.

In an era of climate breakdown, Micklewright argues that Scotland’s national parks urgently need to ­become “jewels in the crown” of ­nature recovery.

“Given that Scotland is already one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, and given that our national parks are not even holding the line when it comes to halting the loss of nature, we need to be bold and ­ambitious,” said Micklewright.

Making large scale nature restoration the core purpose of the parks would result in them becoming places where the benefits of ­nature ­restoration serve everyone – ­especially those who live and work in them – rather than serving the needs of a “select few”.

“There is no longer any time to waste,” he said. “Our new national park must have nature as its priority from day one.

“Right now, the Scottish Government is consulting on how we want our national parks to be. We have ­until 30 November to speak out and be heard.”

Nick Kempe, of ­parkswatchscotland and former executive on the ­committee of Scotland’s Campaign for National Parks, said the existing parks were in a “terrible” state.

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“The National Park authorities have really been very ineffective,” he said, adding that the Lomond and Trossachs National Parks Authority had been approving “basically every planning application there is unless there’s a massive outcry”.

He said sheep grazing was a big ­issue within both parks while deer levels are “far too high”.

“And then there’s industrial scale forestry in the Lomond park,” he said. “There’s been a thing about trying to get different, restructuring woodland but instead we just keep getting more and more Sitka plantations, basically.

“And, of course, in eastern Cairngorms National Park and a little bit in the Lomond Park there’s grouse shooting and muirburn. Things that national parks have really made no inroads in.”

Matthew Hay, director of Reforesting Scotland, pointed out that on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s scale of ecological integrity of national parks both of Scotland’s are at Grade 5 – the lowest level.

“It’s important to acknowledge that we still don’t have within our ­national parks areas that are formally designated for ecological restoration or even just plainly for nature,” he said.

He agreed there should be a stronger emphasis on nature ­recovery at the parks, but added it was more important to reform a whole host of “legislative black holes” that are hampering nature recovery and efforts to reach net zero.

“I’d far rather see those deficiencies being addressed than a new national park ­being designated,” he said.

These include allowing scallop dredging and trawling to degrade the marine habitat, thereby ­releasing “huge amounts” of carbon from the seabed, open-net sea pens and ­“unsustainable” aquaculture.

“I think if you scrutinise that ­industry – and I recognise that it’s an incredibly important industry for coastal communities – the environmental harms are not being ­acknowledged or communicated by the Scottish Government,” said Hay.

“Unsustainably” high ­grazing and browsing pressure from wild deer populations across large swathes of rural Scotland is also inhibiting ­sequestration of carbon and nature recovery, according to Hay.

The National: Red deer stag. Picture: Llewelyn Thorold

He added: “Some of our policies on keeping sheep extensively on hills and moorlands throughout the year is also not in keeping with the latest ­science around how we build soil health and biodiversity with grazing livestock,” he added.

“We know what livestock systems are brilliant at increasing sequestration and soil health. And at the ­moment our subsidy regime is not in line with that knowledge.”

Grant Moir, chief executive of Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “Working with our partners here in the Cairngorms National Park, through the National Park Partnership Plan, we are committed to creating a minimum of 35,000ha of new woodland cover by 2045 as we are delivering a minimum of 38,000ha of peatland restoration.

“We are working with farmers and other land managers to encourage sustainable land management, and we aim to ensure that at least 50% of the national park is managed principally for ecological restoration by 2045.

“Furthermore, according to a newly published study, the Cairngorms National Park looks set to achieve net zero as early as 2025 following the targets set out in the Partnership Plan with the park having far more capacity for carbon storage compared to some other areas of the UK.”

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was approached for comment.