David Lintern lifts the lid on the new wild camping byelaws.
On March 1st 2017, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park introduced a byelaw which prohibits free and informal camping within new ‘management zones’, which includes around 150km of the most popular loch shores. Camping is allowed in predetermined places and the Park is selling permits for £3 a time, but camping elsewhere in these zones carries the immediate threat of having your details taken for further use by the Park and ultimately, a criminal record and a fine.
On March 10th, some friends and I chose to consciously infringe the byelaw by camping in a non-permitted area, to better understand if and how the new rules were being implemented. The following is an account of our conversation that evening, taken from audio recording at the time, and an approach by the Ranger Service the morning after, from my audio notes made immediately after the Rangers left the scene.
As absurd as it might sound, because of the threat of legal action arising from our small act of civil disobedience, all names have been anonymised. I have also chosen not to share the location, or the identity of the rangers, so as not to put them or their local beat under pressure.
We walked in at dusk and found a suitable spot on the lochshore. It was a damp and misty night so we sheltered under one roof. Over dinner, I began the conversation by asking…
Why have you decided to deliberately break the byelaw on this occasion?
“Initially I thought a byelaw was common sense, because there are undoubtedly problems… but the laws to deal with those problems already exist. The effect of the byelaw is to discourage access. Particularly this close to the Central Belt, where there’s a problem with nature deficit, it just puts more barriers in the way. The Park is behaving like an old fashioned landowner; rather than promoting access and helping people to learn to camp responsibly, it’s shutting people out.”
“My first memories are sausage sizzling as a 6 or 7 year old with my mum and sister – this was on Dartmoor – it’s just that love of being out, that’s my connection, what I remember. One day a Ranger came along and told us that the fire wasn’t a good thing. After that we were much more careful – we learnt our lesson. My point is everyone makes mistakes; we all have to start somewhere and people can be educated about the rights and wrongs. You need to give people the freedom to make the odd mistake without it being a crime if they do.
I publicly supported the initial byelaw in 2011 because the Park promised us it wouldn’t be a permanent thing, it wouldn’t be extended elsewhere and because I knew lots of locals who flagged up the vandalism, litter and partying. But those things were and still are illegal, even without the byelaw.”
“The policing program that ran alongside the original byelaw on East Lomondside (Operation Ironworks) is not in place this time around, but there’s a strong argument to be made that it was their regular police patrols, plus the alcohol ban – not the byelaw itself – that improved littering and antisocial behaviour on the loch back then.
One of the things that I find most frustrating about this is that the Park has refused to do things they could have done to reduce the problem since then. They’ve not provided toilet facilities and litterbins, or rubbish collection for hotspots like Venachar. And as we’ve seen ourselves on the way this evening, many permit campsites aren’t ready, even though the new byelaw was delayed for a year. If you want folk to be responsible, then the Park needs to set a good example and provide infrastructure that allows them to be.
Apparently, the guidance advice if you infringe is that you have to move out of the park. Aside from this being fairly impossible on foot, surely if there is cause to move someone on – i.e, anti social behaviour – isn’t this grossly irresponsible of the Park Authority? They are just shunting the problem on to another local authority. That in turn raises the issue of displacement, and just how much more land is covered under the new byelaw as compared to the old one.”
“I think it’s really important to remember that thousands of people in Scotland wild camp responsibly, but for a majority of those people, their first wild camp would have been in the Loch Lomond National Park. Certainly, for me as a student at Glasgow Uni, being able to come out here cheaply, on my own or with friends, was a real lifeline. We really need to educate the public better to help them get through the early stages, or else you’re going to cut off these activities at root.”
Me: What about the argument that this only affects 200m of roadside, and that ‘real’ wild campers can and will go elsewhere?
“We’re a lot further than 200ms from a road here, and yet we’re still breaking the rules by being here. And if I was a paddler, this is a perfect spot – a sheltered and shallow bay, flat ground, out of the way. But it’s not just lochsides: The restrictions cover much of the ground where the majority would want to spend some time. To quote a ‘less than 4% affected’ figure makes no sense – a lot of the remainder is crags, cliffs, forestry, gardens and roads, where it’s impossible to set up a tent. The figure is for the total park area, so it even includes the lochs and rivers! It gives a completely false impression.
As for ‘real’ wild campers, that’s a snobbish distinction. Where do we all start? As we’ve already said, we start at the beginning – at low level, on or near the lochside. It’s insulting to argue that all lochside campers are ‘NEDs’. Car camping is also entirely legitimate, especially for young families.”
“Obviously it’s difficult for people running B&B’s and other businesses, because anti social behaviour can affect trade, but those who informal camp when they’re young will be the guest house visitors of the future. If they don’t develop a love of the park early on, they won’t come back with their kids.
What worries me is the Park seems to want to prevent a certain class of people camping. If they were genuinely interested in providing the provision they say they are, then why allow the big campsite at Ardgarten to be redeveloped, with all the tent space removed and replaced by expensive luxury lodges? They had to apply for planning permission to do that, twice. It’s not an accident. I’m afraid this is about ‘who do we want in the National Park?’”
“I’m sorry to say I agree. They want the ‘right sort’ of visitor – those that pay. They don’t even seem to welcome camper vans. Only two permits are available at Inveruglas… and yet nobody lives there, and most campervans don’t even require the toilet facilities. It’s a sizable car park – what harm would it do if there were more permits? It would certainly improve passing trade for Tarbet and Ardlui.
But as well as the social justice side of things, this is also just a plain justice issue. This byelaw restricts the freedoms of all because of the behaviour of a tiny number. Not only that, but the penalty is disproportionate as well – a fine of £500 means it’s taken more seriously in legal terms than fly tipping and using a mobile in a moving vehicle… and yet we’re talking about criminalising what used to be called ‘quiet enjoyment’! It’s the park that has allowed this to happen – nobody else.”
“A fee also changes your relationship with the outdoors, it removes your responsibility. If you’re paying for a service and it doesn’t meet your expectations, it’s someone else’s problem – surely we have enough of a passive, complaints culture already? The Park Authority are setting themselves up for a fall.
This also sets a precedent where we are paying for access. Since there are no facilities at most of these permit campsites, that’s what we’re paying for – access. And once we get used to that, it will be extended elsewhere – the islands on Loch Lomond, then Glen Etive, and on and on. It might be a small fee, but its opens the way for more and more control. We’ll become like other countries where paying for access is a given.”
“That’s so true – the thing to remember for Scotland specifically is that we had the Land Reform Act in 2003, but that only formalised a tradition of wild camping and the freedom to move across the land under your own free will which is much, much older. People visit the park from Europe and all over the world because of that distinctive feel and flavour. It’s a unique and beautiful place, but it’s as much about culture as landscape. When I’ve travelled to other parts of the world, there are handrails on the cliff edges and lots of signage. In Scotland, we say ‘G’aun yersel’. We don’t treat people like babies, we encourage them to be their better selves, to be autonomous… free. The byelaw is an affront to that tradition and an attack on something that is culturally quite distinct.
I actually wonder if we’re the front line for our close neighbours too. If we rescind our right of access up here, it may well become easier for landowners south of the border to make the case for rolling back the CROW act in England and Wales.”
Me: What’s your view of how this might affect those on the West Highland Way (visited by 80,000 a year, the entire length walked by over 15,000)?
“People associate Scotland with a freedom to camp where they like, and less prescribed trails. Of course the West Highland Way is waymarked, but it’s seen as a good starting point, and parts of it do feel quite remote compared to what many are used to. I think people will be put off to hear that their freedom to camp is being permanently restricted – there are plenty of other places to visit.”
“The problem the park has is how to communicate the level of detail involved – international visitors still don’t know about it, even though the restrictions on East Lomondside have been in place for a few years now. I’ve already seen new reports of people not being able to get permits on the day, or not understanding where the zones begin and end.”
“This is one of the problems with the ‘discretionary’ powers of the Rangers. The nature of the West Highland Way means a lot of fairly inexperienced walkers who may tire early, carry too much kit, and not be aware of the new rules… some may not even speak much English. What are the guidelines – would one ranger let them off, and another react differently?”
Me: I questioned whether we should do something like this. The Park does some great work – education, woodland regeneration and so on. Is it not fair to say that there are more important things to worry about?
Yes, it’s a real shame they’ve let this become the dominant story. That’s their choice though – they could have tackled the problems in another way.”
“The connection to nature is just so, so important for people’s mental and physical health. How many times have you heard ‘I’m just going for a walk to clear my head’…? Yes there are wars in the world, but we’re not living there. We can afford to police the issues properly without removing the liberty of everyone to access those health benefits. And as we’ve discussed, even with the new byelaw, the problems won’t go away, so what exactly is the point of them?”
Some of my companions left early, leaving myself and one other. We ate a leisurely breakfast and waited for the weather to lift, planning a later hillwalk. As we packed to leave, we noticed two members of the Ranger Service studying something near the track. We discovered later they were inspecting fallen signage (no, nothing to do with us). At about 10.20am they approached our camp.
They introduced themselves politely and asked if we knew that new byelaws were in place here. I responded that I did know and that I was a journalist investigating how the byelaws were being implemented. They agreed to answer my questions but said they would prefer not to be recorded. I didn’t press the point, instead introducing myself by first name. We all shook hands – despite this being a strange situation for everyone we were all still outdoors people in a lovely place.
I asked if they knew whose land they were patrolling, and whether they had prior permission to enact the byelaw on that land. They told me who the landowner was, and said that those agreements had been made between the landowner and the Park ‘previously’. They also said that the Scottish Outdoor Access Code was in place here, but they understood it was ‘superseded’ by the byelaw.
I asked what kind of shelter was included in the byelaw and was told that ‘any kind of overnight sleeping’ counted as an infringement if it was not in a permit area.
The Rangers suggested twice over that we should purchase a permit retrospectively. I asked what right they had to claim a fee on land that was outwith a permitted camping area. There was no clear answer to this but they refrained after the second time.
The Rangers expressed surprise that we had chosen this part of the park for our experiment. I explained that since this area was not covered in the original byelaw, our choice was made in order to highlight how the park was extending the camping restrictions into new territory. I also pointed out that we had decided against our original venue, which was chosen by studying the ‘overview map’, because that map differed from the more detailed maps provided in the actual byelaw document, and that this in itself highlighted an issue of communication to the public. They seemed to understand these points.
I asked what would happen next under normal circumstances. The Rangers explained that they were instructed to achieve ‘compliance’ with the byelaw and that if we gave our details and agreed to move on that would be construed as a ‘resolution’. These two words were used repeatedly throughout our conversation. We were told that if refused to acknowledge their ‘authority to enforce’ the byelaw, that this would ‘escalate’ the situation. Not giving details is also a violation of the byelaw and the Ranger might then progress to an official caution, pending prosecution. It was unclear how a caution could be given if a person’s identity is unknown.
We agreed (as decided beforehand) to give our details and explained our immediate plans. I asked whether a prosecution could be brought to bear without a caution on site, and they understood it could not. However, they planned to ring the event in, and check with their team leader… so they might return, they said.
Despite me pressing for a consistent answer, it remained unclear whether a caution had to be issued on site, within the National Park boundary, or even whether it could be issued retrospectively… as long as it was done before prosecution. He explained that the byelaw was new to them also, several times during the conversation.
I asked them about Gordon Watson’s (the Park’s CEO) statement on TV that they were not out to criminalise responsible wild campers and that “our approach is education first – always has been, always will be”. They understood this to mean their role was to educate the public about the new byelaw and achieve compliance with it.
I asked them if they knew that their own governing body, the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, had officially objected to both the 2011 and the 2017 byelaws. They didn’t seem to be aware of this fact, or if they were, avoided admitting so.
I asked what a law abiding visitor should have done, if she had purchased a permit for the camping area close by, and discovered it as we had – totally unusable by any standard. They openly admitted that there were issues with some of the sites and there was work still to do. They explained that part of their discretionary powers meant that they could reallocate visitors to different permit areas, which were more ‘suitable’. There was no explanation of what would happen if these were full.
My companion asked why our lochshore site had not been permitted as a camping zone by the Park Authority, but a boggy place full of tree roots and stumps had. The Ranger said that it was because the Park didn’t want campers ‘blocking out’ day visitors from the lochside views.
Shortly after this, the rangers left us to pack up, which we did… not quite knowing whether we would be apprehended at our vehicle. We weren’t.
If it’s not already clear, I’d like to commend the Rangers on handling a socially awkward situation very well. While they were evasive on some issues, they’d clearly been as well briefed as could be expected on what is untested ground, and were used to dealing with the public and the press. None of the questions arising from our encounter should reflect badly on them at all.
In the weeks prior to our misadventure in bureaucracy, I’d tried to get in touch with the Park’s Visitor Policy and Engagement Officer, and was referred by email to the Park Communications Team. I heard nothing, until a few days after our action, when a member of Big Partnership – the Park Authority’s PR firm – got in touch. I asked for a couple of points of clarification, and delayed submitting this article until they responded.
In their response (and in summary), Gordon Watson was quoted in a statement reiterating his point about education. He also said they would be gathering feedback from all stakeholders during the first season.
I asked about the choice of camp permit zones, and the answer was ‘a range of factors’ including environmental impact and easy access for all visitors.
I asked whether my companion and I still ran the risk of caution, and at what point the caution must be issued on the ground, from a legal perspective. The Park failed to answer this directly also, instead explaining that people would be offered alternate ways of camping and given time to comply.
I asked whether personal data collected by the Rangers could be used to track repeat offenders and the answer was; yes, it could.
This article was amended on 18th March to remove the suggestion that shelters during the daytime were permitted.
Walkhighlands does not advise readers to defy the camping ban. To do so runs the risk of getting a criminal record, which may affect future employment and travel prospects, as well as a £500 fine.