Hill tracks – why is the SNP Government blocking progress?

viewpointPOLITICS is a strange business. Much of it is carried out in committee rooms where elected representatives of the people make decisions on subjects they often know very little about.

About four years ago Helen Todd of Scottish Environment Link and I had a meeting with the erstwhile Planning Minister Derek Mackay on the subject of bulldozed tracks in the hills. I had been encouraged to have a chat with Mackay by Alex Salmond who was First Minister at the time.

I had been meeting with Alex to discuss various issues about landscape protection and generally he was very helpful. Sadly his Planning Minister wasn’t.

Our concern, as detailed extensively in the 2013 Track Changes report from Environment Link, was of the widespread damage being done across Scotland’s hills by poorly made hill tracks, many of them constructed illegally.

Under current legislation tracks built for the purposes of agriculture and forestry do not have to apply for full planning permission. They are deemed to be ‘permitted developments.’ On the contrary, tracks bulldozed for the use of field sportsmen, ie hunting, are supposed to secure full planning approval.

As it happens many of our landowning chums can’t be bothered with all that palaver about planning permission. They put a few sheep on some remote hill and then claim the track they have bulldozed is for genuine agricultural use, to enable poor, overworked shepherds to have vehicular access to the sheep. It’s fascinating to see how many of these new tracks stop at grouse butts!

In other cases the landowners or managers don’t even bother with the illusion of staying within the law – they simply bulldoze and be damned. And other than a few hill-walkers who is going to object?

In conversation with various keepers and stalkers I’ve met over the years it’s fairly obvious than many shooting ‘clients’ don’t care to walk very far to access their prey, especially those from abroad. They would rather they were driven there.

Take for example the infamous example of Ledgowan Estate in Wester Ross where a 2017 sales document actually boasted of the extensive hill track system they had gouged out of the hillsides to:“significantly expand the scope of the stalking to enable those of all levels of physical fitness to stalk the hill for stags or hinds. This in turn has enabled the estate to attract a premium rental income for stalking lettings – particularly for European clients.”

Derek Mackay, an ambitious and certainly very bright urban politician, obviously had little knowledge about the Scottish mountain environment, but he did make a minor tweak to the rules on permitted development, (he introduced a system of prior notification as part of the continuing regime of permitted development rights). This was despite a 2012 Government Review recommending removal of the permitted development rights. Mackay’s tweak certainly hasn’t helped stop the recent proliferation of new tracks throughout the highlands and islands.

There has been an enormous increase in the number of hill tracks appearing in recent years. Many of these are connected with wind or hydro power and will have been subject to planning approval but most hillwalkers will be familiar with new tracks that are not connected to power generation or indeed forestry or agricultural needs. They have been created, illegally, for game shooting purposes.

In recent weeks the Green Party MSP Andy Wightman, in reference to the tracks on Ledgowan Estate, said: “This kind of opportunistic flouting of what is already a very permissive system has become endemic and is why I have lodged an amendment to the Planning Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament.

Curiously, Andy’s amendment was rejected by two Tory MSP’s and three SNP members.

I find this very strange. I can understand the Tories reluctance in making life a little more awkward for their land-owning pals but the lack of support for many landscape and environmental issues by the SNP Government continues to make me question my membership of the party.

Andy Wightman MSP
Photo Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

The long, long delay in approving the reintroduction of beavers; the approval of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park bylaws; the heel-dragging over the licensing of grouse moors and the relative silence and inaction on the question of the increasing slaughter of raptors really makes me wonder who is pulling the environmental strings in the Scottish Government. Why is a supposedly left-of-centre political party so protective of Scotland’s landowners and shooting interests?

It’s common knowledge that the rural affairs champion Fergus Ewing, often referred to as the ‘right-wing of the SNP’ and the Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham don’t get on, or is the problem deeper than that? Is the SNP essentially a Central Scotland urban party, with little interest in what happens north of Perth? Perhaps this is an issue that Nicola Sturgeon has to examine carefully before the next Scottish elections.

Meanwhile, not all is lost in the battle to protect Scotland from illegal hill tracks. In an article in The National Andy says: “I am determined to carry on and work to secure this reform at the final Stage of the (Planning) Bill in the new year.

“For far too long a small number of very wealthy and well-connected individuals have sought to secure exclusive control over a vast area of land for a ‘sport’ that depends on an unacceptable level of environmental destruction of wildlife and natural beauty.

“It is long past time to make sure that those who wish to scar some of our most treasured landscapes are subject to the same degree of scrutiny that applies to the average homeowner who wishes to add a modest extension to their house.

“If you care about our hills and mountains and want to see more effective regulation of such damaging activity please do write to your MSPs and ask them what they are doing to save Scotland’s hills from the ravages of hill tracks. We have time to fix this.”

Which leads me back to my first paragraph. It’s quite likely that your MSP hasn’t the slightest idea of what is happening on our wild land, areas that have given Scotland the sobriquet of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and less likely he or she will know what ‘permitted development’ is all about. We need to tell them, educate them, and let them know why we care enough about these issues to influence how we vote.

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