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Hill tracks: the crucial need for planning control

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FROM my elevated eyrie by the summit of Morven in Aberdeenshire the world around me lay in two distinct halves – one in glorious light and the other in abject blackness.

In front of me lay a gently rolling landscape, a great patchwork quilt of green and golden fields, dotted with patches of woodland, the earth tones intensified by the bright autumn sunshine. It looked for all the world like a Scottish version of Middle Earth – even the tiny village below me, Logie Coldstone, had a Tolkienesque ring to it.

To further the analogy, the land behind me, a desolation of high, rounded hills, broad ridges and deep glens, was in the black grip of a sudden hail storm. The scene would have been completely set by a sudden eruption of volcanic fire and flame…

The Corbett of Morven, 2860ft/872m, is one of those fringe hills that lies on the margin of low and high land, in this case swelling to its bulky form beyond the Howe of Cromar on Deeside. No doubt it was the inhabitants of lower Deeside who first named it Mor-bheinn – the big hill, even though it’s fairly insignificant compared with the leviathan Cairngorm giants that rise further to the west.

An early guidebook, published in 1931, boasts that in 1923 a motor-car was driven from Morven Lodge to the summit of Morven and back. I’ve no doubt this was seen as a considerable achievement in those early days of the combustion engine but I suspect the guidebook writer would be horrified to discover that just over 90 years later the hills around Morven would be gouged and scarred by a network of bulldozed tracks, built to give those so-called sportsmen who can’t or won’t walk easier access to their prey. There’s even a motorable track all the way to Morven’s summit!

I’d left my own combustion engine down below and used my own twin-leg power to ease my way up on to the bealach between Morven and its southerly neighbour, Culblean. It was here I came across the latest manifestation of the bulldozing frenzy that has blighted these Deeside hills for generations. A 12-foot wide track, gouged out of the hillside, ran north towards the main Morven ridge and while it would have made my ascent a bit easier its crude manufacture was simply an act of vandalism. I couldn’t bear to walk on it. Instead, I took to the grass and heather of the hill’s southern slopes and traversed my way to the summit.

Over the past few years there has been an epidemic of bulldozed tracks appearing on our hills, mostly under the highly questionable planning label of Permitted Development Rights. In short, that means the landowner doesn’t need planning permission to take a bulldozer on the hill and gouge out a track. However, such tracks are supposed to be for agricultural or forestry purposes only, although it’s becoming increasingly evident that many of the most recent tracks have been built for other purposes, namely field sports.

bulldozeThis obviously isn’t a new problem in Scotland, and yet successive political administrations have acknowledged, and yet failed to resolve, the issue.

Some months ago Helen Todd of Ramblers’ Scotland and I went to Holyrood and visited the Planning Minister Derek Mackay. A campaign involving several environmental groups and a large public petition had caused the Scottish Government to consider the issue once again. However, following a public consultation it was decided that PDRs would not immediately be removed from agricultural or forestry tracks but would be kept under review.
It looked like the current Scottish Government, apparently under pressure from landowning organisations and farming and forestry interests, was going to shelve the issue once again.

It was a reasonably good meeting. Derek Mackay appeared to be sympathetic and certainly didn’t rule out a change in planning legislation. He appeared to be minded to maintain Permitted Development Rights unless he could be shown more evidence that such hill tracks were widespread and that the current legislation was being misused.

I think Helen and I eased the pressure on him a little by suggesting that forestry interests didn’t really concern us too much if the tracks were within the cover of a genuine forest area. Our concern was more with the visual impact of such tracks on the open hill. We suggested that if it was evidence of damage done that was required to convince him to change the law, then we would provide it.

Under the aegis of Scottish Environment Link, the umbrella group for environmental organisations in Scotland, Helen went public and asked members of the hillgoing public to send her photographs of some of the worst examples of so-called Permitted Development tracks. I wrote in support of the appeal in my Walkhighlands column back in June. The response was overwhelming and the results were breathtaking…

trackI have to confess that until I saw some of the photographs I had little idea of how widespread the problem was, ranging from the Borders to Sutherland. Some of the tracks were quite horrific, merely gouged gashes across the hillside with no attempts made to maintain drainage or prevent further erosion. In other cases tracks built for field sports meant that developments were often very large indeed, running for many kilometres, to considerable elevations, and requiring the excavation of hundreds or thousands of tonnes of earth, peat or rock.

Interestingly, genuine agricultural tracks are generally less intrusive and less frequently constructed than others. The agricultural need for tracks is relatively stable (and in some areas declining) as management practices have remained similar for some time. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the lack of regulation can lead to substantial and unnecessary damage. The need for some regulation of agricultural buildings (via a requirement for prior notification) has been recognised for some time, and it has previously been – briefly – accepted that tracks should come under the same conditions. It is unlikely that planning permission would be refused for the great majority of agricultural tracks, but it would ensure the minimum standards of construction that are urgently needed.

A report has now been published by Scottish Environment Link, and has been sent to the Planning Minister. I believe the report, Track Changes, by Dr Calum Brown, provides all the evidence Derek Mackay needs to finally take some action on legislation that is well and truly out of date.

The report essentially concentrates on 11 case studies: Ledgowan, Achnasheen; Dinnet, Aberdeenshire; Bealach Horn, Sutherland; Glen Brein, Monadhliath; Glendye, Aberdeenshire; Glensulaig, Kinlocheil; Kyllachy, Highland; Lynwilg, Badenoch; North Esk, Pentlands; Pykestone Hill, Borders and Drumochter, Highland.

The photographs in the report portray a real rogue’s gallery of horrific scars and eroded tracks, the vast majority used to transport shooters on field sports excursions.
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Already land owning organisations such as Scottish Land and Estates have retaliated, suggesting that many of the areas concerned are within National Scenic Areas and in such designated areas full planning permission for hill tracks is essential anyway, but that’s not really the point. If a farmer or landowner had a real and genuine case for creating a hill track then he or she should have no fear of the planning system. And such a planning system will also dictate that the particular track is built properly, ensuring minimum standards of construction that are so sadly lacking in the majority of the tracks highlighted in the Link report.

A change in this legislation is long, long overdue.

You can view the whole report – Track Changes, at www.scotlink.org/hilltracks
Photos reproduced courtesy of Scottish Environment LINK

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