Getting Scotland’s outdoors ready for busyness

Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland, takes a look at efforts to ensure Scotland will be better prepared than last summer to cope with the pent-up demand for the great outdoors when lockdown is eased.

Last summer, outdoor recreation in Scotland hit the headlines, but not always for the right reasons.

After all the pain of the first Covid lockdown, it was uplifting to see so many people – especially beginners – enjoying the outdoors.

In fact, a major independent survey published this month by the David Hume Institute (DHI) showed 36% of people in Scotland spent more time outside in nature last year than before. This will have had a fantastic impact on their health and wellbeing.

However, photos of abandoned tents, parking mayhem, human waste and piles of litter prompted justified complaints from outdoors fans and rural communities. That even resulted in calls from some quarters for a ban on ‘wild camping’ at hotspots – although often these actually referred to motorhomes in laybys, rather than tents covered by access rights.

That same DHI survey found 58% people in Scotland intend to spend more time outside in future, so the conundrum of how best to manage visitors isn’t going away soon.

Wild camping

This increased demand equals a huge opportunity to boost rural economies and the nation’s health. But with summer 2021 fast approaching and the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions, there are likely to be some visitor management challenges.

Here is a quick-fire run-down of how we ended up here, what’s been going on behind the scenes to prepare for the busy summer and what we can all do as individuals to help.

The opportunity ahead

If you’re reading this Walkhighlands article, you won’t need reminding how great it is to get active outdoors. It keeps you fit, reduces stress and it’s fun. The impact of the pandemic has highlighted these benefits even more, especially for people stuck far from our beloved wild places.

But as well as being good for our health, outdoor activities and trips significantly boost the economy. In February, NatureScot reported that walkers and cyclists on Scotland’s long distance paths, canal network and National Cycle Network together contribute £1.91 billion of economic value.

The dream of holidaying in the Highlands and Islands – but do we have the facilities?

That’s not an outlier.

All those cups of tea, overnight stays, hiring of guides and last-minute purchases of waterproof trousers you forgot to bring add up to a staggering £2.6 billion from Scottish residents alone. Recreation is also a massive sector in Scotland’s tourism industry, with walking tourism contributing £1.26 billion each year according to VisitScotland.

So you’d assume that having such a valuable industry, which benefits the whole country, boosts health and sustains thousands of small businesses would be seen as a national asset.

Sadly, that’s not been the case. Scottish Government’s funding for access has flatlined for more than a decade at £8.1million a year.

We’ve been great at marketing our amazing scenery and outdoor activities. Unfortunately this hasn’t been matched by supportive investment, leaving our infrastructure creaking at the seams.

We’ve seen the loss of ranger services and access officers, the closure of toilets, the reduction in low-cost campsites and the lack of facilities like car parks and well-maintained path networks which help to manage visitors at popular areas like the Old Man of Storr in Skye.

Vital public services: toilets at the Ben Lomond car park

The Covid challenge

This all came to a head last summer when the nation was released from lockdown, often unable to travel abroad or go to the usual festivals and events.

At the same time, many of us found it hard to book a cottage, hostel or hotel room in Scotland due to many places not being fully open. Instead, people did the obvious thing and rented a campervan or got a tent. Although the majority acted responsibly, the visitor pressures were so great that all sorts of problems arose, especially caused by those who lacked education in how behave in the outdoors.

For years Ramblers Scotland and others have been calling for more support for the outdoor sector. In our view, this amounted to three elements:

  • education on responsible access through ranger services on the ground, outdoor education at school or signage, leaflets and other local information;
  • investment in facilities like toilets, litter bins and informal campsites with fire pits so that it’s easy for people to do the right thing; and
  • enforcement of existing legislation to deal with truly criminal activity like vandalism, anti-social behaviour and littering, rather than punitive measures like camping byelaws which target both the responsible and irresponsible.

Government action

We’re now in danger of killing the golden goose, damaging Scotland’s reputation and putting extreme strain on our rural communities – but is the Scottish Government listening?

Well, it looks like they are! Last summer the inboxes of councillors and MSPs were overflowing with complaints, which made the government sit up and pay attention.

In September Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, called a summit of government agencies, NGOs, land managers and tourism bodies to discuss how to address the issues and this led to a series of working groups being set up. Before this parliamentary session ends, Mr Ewing is going to update MSPs on progress to date.

In terms of funding, we’ve seen that the Scottish Government has allocated £6.2 million in its budget to the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund to tackle some of these problems. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Clearly, it’s going to be hard to make a noticeable change on the ground before this summer. One issue is that many of these organisations involved, like local authorities, have had capacity issues themselves with staff home-schooling.

It also takes a while to get plans drawn up and consented for any building to take place. But people have learned good lessons from last year and let’s hope that many temporary measures can be put in place, like overflow car parks in fields, portaloos and taking on more rangers to engage the public.

Hikers on the West Highland Way

At Ramblers Scotland we’re also hoping that other actions can be started more easily, especially around communication. We’ve been calling for more promotion of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code for years. It’s important to get the right messages out to those who are genuinely not aware of their responsibilities, whether that’s camping, parking, walking dogs in farmland or having a lochside fire.

Reports suggests that much irresponsible behaviour last year was due to ignorance rather than malice. If we can encourage and support these newcomers to behave well, that could even spark in them a lifelong love of Scotland’s great outdoors.

On the political front, with Holyrood elections looming we have teamed up with other outdoor recreation bodies to produce a Manifesto for the Outdoors. We’ve had discussions already with all parties and found them receptive.

As soon as the campaign begins, we’ll be asking our members to send the manifesto to their candidates and put pressure on them to show how important this sector is to our health and economy, and how much long term support is needed.

What we can all do

First, you need to be aware of what responsible behaviour is in the outdoors. This means:

  • • following local guidance on fires,
  • • not pitching your tent in places which are getting trashed through popularity,
  • • picking up litter you find lying around,
  • • and thinking about where to go – spreading the love, rather than adding to the problems in popular areas.

On that last point, experienced hillwalkers can really help. Could you perhaps swap another weekend jaunt up The Cobbler for an adventure to the Galloway Corbetts? Or if you have the option, go during the week rather than at the weekend? Could you even leave the car behind? A cycle touring trip is low impact and avoids adding to parking chaos.

The pandemic has shone a light on the sector – and while nobody would have wanted Covid to come along, it has provided an important opportunity to show what needs to be done to make Scotland the best destination for outdoor recreation it can be.

We have world-class access rights, stunning scenery and wildlife and now we need to make sure it’s a sustainable and well-managed place for everyone to value and enjoy.

Let’s not kill that golden goose.

The Ramblers is a charity whose goal is to protect the ability of people to enjoy the sense of freedom and benefits that come from being outdoors on foot. If you share their aims, you can support their work by joining at https://www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland.aspx

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