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Wild land and its critics

The very idea of protecting Scotland’s “wild land” can provoke some heated debate on social media and elsewhere. Many people see wild land as something vital under threat, whilst others claim it simply doesn’t exist. Paul Webster takes a look at the debate around wild land and why we need it.

What do people mean when they refer to ‘wild land’?

Is it ‘wilderness’ over which there has never been any human influence?


There is no such land in the UK. Arguably human influence is so pervasive that there is no such thing anywhere in the world. Even Antarctica – the wildest place on Earth – is experiencing rapid change though human-caused climate change.

So, does this mean Scotland’s landscapes are ‘man-made’?

Similarly, no. To describe any of our landscapes as being ‘man-made’ is simply the polar opposite of describing any of them as ‘wilderness’, and is equally untrue.

So what exactly does it mean when so many people claim loudly on social media that Scotland’s landscapes are ‘entirely man-made’? The ecosystems and the native species living there are not things that have been created by some company or civil service department.

Even a city is home to natural species which are not created by us; even in a concreted car park you can find lichen growing on the surface, and birds flying overhead.

The fact is, of course, that wildness is relative. All we can really say is that some landscapes show more human influence, and others show much less – and are wilder.

Scotland has official wild land areas, mapped by the government agency Scottish Natural Heritage. Our national planning policy states that planners should “identify and safeguard” the wild land character of these areas. Having a wild land policy in the planning system is a recognition that there is value in protecting those landscapes which are perceived as being closer to their ‘natural state’.

So how does Scottish Natural Heritage define our wild land? It’s land that exhibits:

– a high degree of perceived naturalness in the setting (especially in its vegetation cover and wildlife) and in the natural processes affecting the land, as well as little evidence of contemporary human uses of the land

– The lack of any modern artefacts or structures

– Landform which is rugged or otherwise physically challenging; and

– Remoteness and/or inaccessibility

“These physical attributes can be recorded and assessed to give a measure of the degree to which wildness is likely to be experienced. Wild land requires these four physical attributes being present across an extent of area that is of a sufficient scale to evoke the full range of perceptual responses”

This approach eventually led to the official map of Scotland’s wild land areas, which was adopted in 2014. Note that wild land does not include communities – by definition it is not the land where people live.

SNH Wild Land map – click to enlarge

So that’s what Scotland’s wild land is. But why should we protect it? Wherein lies the value?

It’s worth bringing in a few more quotes:

“The appreciation of wildness is a matter of an individual’s experience, and their perceptions of and preferences for landscapes of this kind. Wildness cannot be captured and measured, but it can be experienced and interpreted by people in many different ways.”

“ there are parts of Scotland where the wild character of the landscape, its related recreational value and potential for nature are such that these areas should be safeguarded against inappropriate development or land-use change.”

SNH Policy Statement: Wildness in Scotland’s Countryside

“Some of Scotland’s remoter mountain and coastal areas possess an elemental quality from which many people derive psychological and spiritual benefits. Such areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and great care should be taken to safeguard their wild land character.”
National Planning Framework for Scotland

“The most sensitive landscapes may have little or no capacity to accept new development. Areas of wild land character in some of Scotland’s remoter upland, mountain and coastal areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and planning authorities should safeguard the character of these areas in the development plan.“
Scottish Planning Policy 2010

What are these quotes telling us?

Wildness as a quality is something that is valued by people.

Whilst animals, plants and ecosystems are likely to benefit from the protection of wild areas, ‘perceived naturalness’ and the other SNH criteria for wildness are not directly intended to benefit nature. There are, rightly, other designations that aim to do that. Wild land itself concentrates on recreation.

Many people seek to get ‘closer to nature’ in places with higher ‘perceived naturalness’; can this really be disputed? In our cities we provide parks, with grass, lochs and trees, and very few people would dispute that people choose to visit them, they are valuable and make a contribution to improving people’s lives.

Wild land is a step beyond this. Unspoilt rugged and mountainous landscapes are a key part of Scotland’s cultural identity; if you ask a foreigner to imagine Scotland then such places are often what they first bring to mind.

Three quarters of Scots have made a trip to the great outdoors specifically to go walking in a given year; 18% to go hillwalking, 12% to go wildlife watching, 11% birdwatching, 15% to go camping…

Hikers aim to reach remote objectives, preferring to head away from roads and tracks. Trips to the ‘Great Outdoors’ benefit both our physical and mental health as a nation. A review paper in 2007 concluded that:

“Overall, there is a significant quantity of work that is mutually supportive and suggests, as a minimum, that contact with many aspects of nature benefits mental health, sometimes in quite dramatic and unexpected ways.”

Evidence for the the link was particularly strong for those experiencing “wild nature” or “wilderness activities”.

In one scientific opinion poll, 91% of Scots say they support “conservation of wild land in Scotland” – with 70% rating it as very important to retain our wild lands. In another that looked specifically at the Wild Land map, 75% of Scots say they support special protection from development for these identified areas.

Wild land is an important national recreational resource, but some critics have tried to claim that support for it comes only from our cities. In fact the polls point to the opposite – support for protecting wild land is at its highest in the Highlands, amongst the people living closest to these areas.

Why might this be?

Many environmental policy conflicts are between conservation values – the need to protect the environment – and economic ones, the need for economic development.

The wild land debate is different. Protecting wild land is actually also the best way to strengthen and safeguard economic development in our remotest rural areas.

The wild land areas are – by definition – in the remotest parts of Scotland, largely in the Highlands. Economically, remote areas have many disadvantages. They are far from markets, much of the land is inhospitable and transport is time consuming and often expensive.

These areas once had a subsistence agriculture – which was decimated during the Clearances before a partial recovery – but such an agriculture alone cannot satisfy the standards of living we expect today.

In spite of these obstacles, the population of the Highlands has actually been rapidly increasing in recent decades.


It is because these areas also have strengths. One of their greatest strengths – economically – is from the wild land to which communities in these areas have easy access.

“[Wildness] is enjoyed by visitors as they tour Scotland and view scenery from the roadside which is markedly different from what they experience at home, and which may appear to them to be highly natural. Wildness is often experienced through the active outdoor pursuits – not just walking and climbing, but fishing, sailing, hunting, riding, canoeing, or wildlife watching – indeed, any recreation or pastime which draws people into the remoter and more challenging areas of land or coast. And for many people, the enjoyment of wildness is an inspirational experience, rewarding for its own sake.”
from SNH Policy Statement: Wildness in Scotland’s Countryside

But is this just a matter of personal preference? Does wild land matter to tourism?

For the variety of tourism that dominates the economy of the remoter communities in Scotland, wild land DOES matter – it is that very ruggedness, remoteness and relative naturalness described in the SNH criteria that people make the extra effort to come to see or experience.

“People don’t travel from across the world to visit Strathclyde Country Park. But they do come to the Highlands to climb the mountains, walk the hills, breathe the clean air, photograph the landscape. And they sustain thousands of small business in the tourist sector – which is by far the biggest employer in the Highlands today, with a workforce eight times larger than the entire onshore energy sector and nine times bigger than agriculture, forestry and fishing combined.”

Alan McCombes

Tourism is one of Scotland’s largest industries, employing 200,000 people. In 2012 the economic value of tourist trips involving overnight stay was £4.4 billion. There are also 188 million day visits in a year to outdoors, spending another £3.95 billion.

Tourist spending on nature-based activities accounts for 40% of the total – and obviously much higher if you exclude tourism in our cities.

It’s impossible to truly separate out that relating to wild land. If we include forest and woodland, there are 112.3 million visits and £2.36 billion spend. If counting only mountain and moorland, 19.9 million visits and £411-£751 million spend – even on the narrowest definition, that supports 20,600 jobs.

Not only is tourism the largest part of the economy in the remote Highlands, many of the other major (though smaller) sectors such as forestry and agriculture are largely reliant on state subsidy to be economic.

Without the visitor economy, the population increase in the Highlands over recent decades could not have occurred – instead the exoduses of the past from these remote communities would be continuing today.

Nature-based tourism and outdoor recreation continue to grow – but they depend on a finite resource. Protection for our wild land is needed to secure the economic future for communities in the Highlands too.

A final criticism often made is that supporters of wild land want to preserve the current state of the land in aspic. Isn’t much of it damaged and denuded by centuries of misuse, especially overgrazing and deforestation? But this isn’t what they want to do at all. There’s a burgeoning re-wilding movement which aims to improve the ecological health of land (not just wild land) and restore natural processes.

Our wild land is often the perfect candidate for rewilding projects; if there’s recreational value in wild land, depending on its ‘perceived naturalness’, it follows that this value can be increased by making it wilder. We should support efforts to reduce overgrazing of our uplands, to restore our native forests, fauna and flora – and work towards a healthy, thriving natural world.

In summary, no-one is trying to set up wild land as some sort of ideal for every landscape. By definition wild land areas exclude homes, communities and fertile farmland.

Our remaining areas of wild land have massive value – both cultural and economic – both to people living in the remote parts of the Highlands and Islands and to the wider population as a whole.

Whilst some people may not personally appreciate or value wildness – the fact is that a great many others do.

Our planning policies seek to protect and enhance cultural values, they seek to protect our economy, they seek to protect historic sites and buildings, they seek to protect our ecology.

They can and should protect our wild land too.

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