From her kitchen window near Grantownon- Spey, Jane Hope regularly sees wildlife that elsewhere would have people leaping for their binoculars.
Red squirrels, for example, a rarity in other parts of Scotland, are a common occurrence in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, where she has been chief executive since it was created in 2003.
Hard to believe then that until devolution, there were no National Parks. Massive areas across England were assigned such a remit from as far back as 1951, but in Scotland it was not felt necessary to designate sections of the country, which had an abundance of mountains, rivers, woodlands and coastline. Perhaps it was difficult to know where to start.
All that changed after 1999. One of the first pieces of legislation to go through set in motion the creation of, first, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs in 2002, with the Cairngorms following the next year.
Jane Hope, who is standing down at the start of next year, has been a key player in the creation of both those parks. First she was involved with drawing up the initial legislation on the new National Parks while at the Scotland Office. She then moved to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs as an interim chief executive for nine months to see it through from an idea to a reality, then moved on to Cairngorms, where she has stayed ever since.
National Parks in Scotland, though, are unlike others elsewhere. Far from being just a protected wilderness, the focus is on promoting three things – the environment, economy and society.
“If we go back to the legislation and what was different about the model we wanted for National Parks in Scotland,” Hope says, “it was about doing away with that old, rather sterile, argument of conservation versus the economy and a recognition that in the 21st century we had to be looking at ways of delivering sustainable development.
“These are obviously places of great beauty and fantastic wildlife and therefore they are places that people love to visit and are great places for outdoor recreation.
“It’s perfectly common sense on one level, but in the past the environment and economy were seen as polar opposites.” Originally from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, she read Natural Sciences at Cambridge before going into the pharmacology industry.
This changed when she married Donald Hope, a farmer, and she moved to Northumberland, where she saw the practical side of farming and rural life, such as milking cows, lambing sheep and ploughing fields, as well as running a business on a tight budget.
Following the tragic death of her husband who was killed in a car accident in 1988 and after undertaking a PhD in agricultural economics in Newcastle, she returned south to London to work as a civil servant in the Department of Environment.
When it was announced there would be a Scottish Parliament, she volunteered to move north of the border.
“To me, the idea of something new was very attractive. The move to Scotland was great, there was a new Scottish Parliament and a sense of being innovative about things, it wasn’t just ‘how have we done things before?’ it was this new beginning.
“Indeed that was very much the case with the National Parks – a new beginning.” She quotes John Muir, the Dunbarborn naturalist who is considered by many to be the father of the National Parks system in the US, who said: “When you try and pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” She said this ethos is reflected in how the Scottish National Parks are run: “I’d done a PhD in agricultural economics, so I’d seen the academic side,” she says. “That’s all very interesting but I didn’t stay in academia because as far as I’m concerned what’s interesting is the way the world works in practice.
“You can’t divorce looking at the landscape with people making a living. They are like the trustees of this being a fantastic place to come and visit.” Although she admits there were some suspicions when the National Parks were first set up, it is now starting to bear fruit. People are willing to buy into the ‘brand’ of the Cairngorms, and the park’s logo of a swooping eagle, which is used by businesses and groups across the park’s borders – which includes Ballater, Braemar, Aviemore and Tomintoul and is home to 17,000 people.
“Saying on day one that this area is now called a National Park doesn’t in itself change anything.
I don’t think anybody would claim that now you call it a National Park changes the mountain and the landscape. In a sense, that’s why you designated it in the first place.
“In a sense, what we’d like to do and we’re doing in a small way, is capture some of that spirit that we saw coming through in the Olympics. Once people sense there’s a real opportunity, a goal, they do work together and it’s very satisfying.
“It’s a pretty slow process and I don’t think we really saw that with the Olympics until it all came together and that had been many years in the making. The two National Parks have only been here for ten years.” She adds: “There’s a long way to go, but if you live here you can start to see some of that happening. The prize is the pride in this really special area.” Last year National Geographic rated the area as one of the 20 best trips worldwide and that tourist pull is a big boost for the region’s economy.
“If you have a thriving economy and thriving communities, you are much better placed to look after the things that make the area special.
There is some very special and rare wildlife here – capercaillie, red squirrel, dotterel, eagles, all of those things that we love and want to keep.
If your economy is thriving, you’re much better placed to do that.” She is expecting to leave her post at the start of next year as chief executive, once a replacement has been found.
“It’s been a great privilege. To be part of the legislation that enshrined this idea – that we have to look at the economy, society and the environment all together – was very satisfying.
To be then given the job of making it work in practice was challenging but also exciting and enjoyable.
“The job is never finished but I think it makes sense to move on and give somebody else the opportunity to inject new ideas.
“It’s very tempting to cling to something you’ve built up, but I think it’s a mistake. You have to be big enough to let go and pass the baton on to somebody else.” Whoever succeeds her will face big challenges.
The financial climate means money is tight for both the park and the businesses that work in it. It receives a grant of £4.5m a year and makes that go a long way, but she says there still needs to be work to help rural communities, particularly on the issue of broadband connectivity.
“If your rural communities can’t thrive, if they can’t grow they will die. We see it already, if people can’t find a job or somewhere to live, the heart goes out of the community and eventually it will wither and die.
“This is a national park and it’s quite remote, it’s wild, but it still has communities and we need those communities to look after the place and you need them to thrive.”