Hill tracks

viewpointIn his monthly Viewpoint column, outdoors writer, broadcaster and mountain walker Cameron McNeish looks at the proliferation of hill tracks.

MOST of us thought it was a dead cert. Something the SNP government could easily do to shore up its environmental credentials, credentials that have been badly dented by continued approvals of mis-sited windfarms.

I’m referring to hill tracks and the need for legislation to curb farmers and landowners bulldozing high level tracks so that shooters don’t have to walk too far. Current legislation allows “permitted development” for agricultural or forestry use but few people believe high level tracks for huntin’ and shootin’ clients comes under that description.

There has long been concern about the increasing number of constructed hill tracks that intrude into wild landscapes and damage our natural environment. Three years ago a petition was raised in the Scottish Parliament by Peter Peacock MSP and Sarah Boyack MSP of Scottish Labour with cross-party support, and it was generally believed that the current administration would take positive action.

Currently, the construction of hill tracks do not require planning permission as long as the tracks are claimed to be constructed for land management purposes such as agriculture and forestry.
There are no restrictions of hill track constructions at different altitudes, no clear definition of maintenance i.e., upgrading/change of use from footpaths, no baseline map against which to assess claimed repair as opposed to construction and no penalties if the regulations are not followed.

Hill track near Loch Monar

Track above Monar Lodge

It’s been widely accepted that farmers and crofters have a legitimate need to construct, maintain and develop tracks in lower lying land for their purposes of land management, but minimal regulation of hill tracks has allowed increased development and use of these tracks within the uplands for vehicular use which have harmful impacts on the landscape.

Erosion, poor design and overuse of hill tracks cause further damage to our countryside and with virtually no control over construction or upgrading of hill tracks, the effect on the Scottish environment has been detrimental.
The current planning laws regarding hill tracks are complex. Crudely built bulldozed paths can be constructed without planning consent or notification to the local authority when they are claimed as being for agricultural, forestry or repair purposes under the General Permitted Development (Scotland) Order 1992.

There are restrictions on general permitted development regarding development within particular areas, for example, National Scenic Areas, Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), Special Protected Areas (SPA) or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Permitted development within these designated areas would require prior approval of the planning authority.

But now there appears to be some evidence that a major landowner in the Central Highlands is taking advantage of the plethora of new bulldozed tracks that are being created by Balfour Beatty, contractors for the Beauty to Denny powerline, with new roads being constructed up towards Creag Meagaidh, presumably for ‘sporting’ purposes. If that is the case it certainly doesn’t auger well for other areas in which the Beauly to Denny line will pass through. Incidentally, the original estimate of £300M for the Beauly Denny powerline has now apparently doubled, making it considerably more expensive than the alternative sub-sea route down the East Coast that most conservation NGO’s recommended, the alternative the power companies said would be too expensive!

Beauly - Denny works in Perthshire

Beauly – Denny construction works

But it’s quite incredible that, despite a plethora of new hill tracks appearing in recent years in the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish Planning Minister, Derek Mackay, still refuses to impose a requirement for planning permission on all new hill tracks. I had a face to face meeting with Mr Mackay fairly recently and, much to my surprise, he insisted he needed more evidence. Unfortunately, one or two of the NGO’s hadn’t helped matters by failing to provide photographic evidence, or offering numerous photos of the one single problem hill track.

However, Mr Mackay hasn’t ruled out a change to legislation, and I believe that faced with the necessary photographic evidence he will take steps to change the legislation.

Opposition to legislation change has come from the National Farmer’s Union who claim their members need to be able to make hill tracks in the event of an emergency (?): forestry interests, and inevitably, the so-called ‘sporting’ estates.

I, for one, can’t reasonably think of such a farming emergency that it would require a new high level bulldozed hill track and I don’t believe there is any great problem with new tracks being built within commercial forests for the removal of timber. We’re talking essentially about a visual problem, with associated problems of erosion and soil distribution on the open hill, and not in forest plantations.

Beauly-Denny construction in the Cairngorms National Park

Beauly-Denny construction in the Cairngorms National Park

Given the impact on landscape and the wild land qualities of an area, many believe these “permitted development” tracks should now be brought into the planning system. That way, consultation with the planning authority and national recreation and conservation interests can take place, to the benefit of the environment and everyone’s enjoyment of it. If landowners think the tracks are vital and an asset to the hills, they should have absolutely nothing to fear.

I hope to take the Minister for a wee walk sometime soon and show him the results of badly made hill tracks in the Eastern Grampians. I would also like to show him the miles upon miles of new tracks that have been created down the side of Drumochter Pass and the ugly, visually polluting tracks that have recently been created behind Achnasheen in the West Highlands. If there is time I’d also like to point out one poorly constructed track in the Ochils that actually leads, unashameably, to a grouse butt!

And this is where you can help. If you have any photographs of newly built bulldozed hill tracks please send a copy to

Derek Mackay MSP
Minister for Local Government and Planning
St. Andrew’s House
Regent Road

In a covering letter share your concerns about illegal hill tracks and try and ascertain when your photographed track was constructed.

The minister says he needs evidence of illegal hill tracks – let’s give him that evidence!

Agree with Cameron? Have your say on the Walkhighlands’ forum

Editor’s note: Ramblers Scotland have asked us add that it would be greatly appreciated if walkers can also submit their photos to Scotlink (an umbrella body of environmental groups) using this hilltrack photos submission form.

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