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Wild land conservation – taking a new tack

viewpoint“CELEBRATING achievement in Scottish conservation.” That’s what the recent RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards are all about, but please excuse my obvious cynicism when I ask the obvious question – what achievements?

Now it may be that someone has done a fantastic job in protecting some Natterjack toads, or perhaps a school group somewhere has built a really impressive bug-house in the playground.

That’s all great, and I’m all for protecting Natterjack toads, but what’s been done to halt the current swathes of high-level bulldozed tracks that are appearing all over the highlands; who is sorting out the access problems at places like Glen Lyon and Ledgowan; what is being done to halt the loss of wild land in Scotland and why is a National Park Board being allowed to create bye-laws to control a few litter louts while removing the legal rights of the majority of decent law-abiding outdoor enthusiasts?

And who can have failed to witness the horrendous mess being created across some of our finest landscapes by the replacement Beauly-Denny power line? And why has Scottish Police singularly failed to prosecute whoever has been killing Black Isle raptors?

Bulldozed track for Beauly-Denny construction

Bulldozed track for Beauly-Denny construction

For me one of the biggest disappointments of the recent independence referendum was the complete lack of reference to the environment.

I’m not referring to those environmental issues like fishing and agriculture and climate change but to those things many of us hold dear to our hearts – access, landscape protection, wildlife conservation and land reform.

The Scottish Government’s white paper contained virtually nothing on any of these issues and the Better Together campaign was distinctly cavalier in its disregard for the subject.

At one point someone from the Yes Campaign headquarters contacted me to ask if I would prepare a press briefing on why a Yes vote would be good for the environment but to be honest I couldn’t – I couldn’t find any solid proposals from either side.

Although I’m a fully paid-up member of the SNP I admit the party’s environmental credentials are pretty slim, although ex-First Minister Alex Salmond should get some credit for recognising the importance of wild land in our national planning policy. It was also Alex Salmond who came up with the idea of protecting our 46 National Scenic Areas. Some suggest that was too little too late, but at least it offers full protection for our most treasured mountain areas.

I’m well aware that the SNP has an ambitious policy on climate change and climate justice, and indeed the whole Scottish Parliament voted positively on these measures a few years ago, but what’s the point in trying to save the world if you can’t protect your own little part of it?

Labour, the Tories and the Lib/Dems don’t appear to be any more interested than the SNP. Even the Greens fail to show much interest in landscape conservation and access issues.

It appears our politicians’ view of the environment is driven by the likes of WWF and Friends of the Earth – both organisations tend to think globally, and I don’t have a problem with that, but there doesn’t appear to be very much positive action going on at a local level, and that concerns me.

We are losing wild land faster than at any time in our history. Seabird numbers are shrinking rapidly and the number of popular song birds have shrunk drastically.

Raptors are being killed on a regular basis and some landowners run their estates like private fiefdoms, building miles upon miles of bulldozed tracks with little regard for the law.


So where is Scottish Natural Heritage in all of this? I’ve heard the quango described as our “countryside watchdog” but it seems to be a pretty toothless hound. Has there been a fundamental change in the role of SNH over the past several years? At one time they were there to advise the government of the day on countryside matters. Nowadays they appear to be there to do what the government tells them to do.

Indeed, to the general public SNH is completely invisible. When the quango was created its first chairman Magnus Magnusson was well known and respected. He kept SNH in the public eye but ever since the chair and the organisation itself has become anonymous. I haven’t the slightest idea who the current chairman is or what he represents, and yet we, the public, pay for his time.

The problem as I see it is this. We climbers, hillwalkers, paddlers, mountain bikers etc are too small a lobby for politicians to care. The total membership of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Ramblers Scotland and the John Muir Trust is tiny – probably less than 25,000, and in terms of lobbying power that’s pathetic.

The RSPB tends to gets the ear of the Government but they have a membership of over a million, and can afford to organize glitzy nature conservation award ceremonies that give the impression that nature conservation efforts in Scotland are making a difference.

So what can we do about the lack of political interest in issues like access, high level bulldozed tracks and windfarm developments? We have a new political landscape appearing in Scotland, a new First Minister and a revitalized and re-energized voting public. Will Nicola be more conservation-minded than Alex?

I suspect not. Conservation is not high on the political agenda so it’s up to us to try and operate in what could be a more enlightened way than we have in the past.

Bulldozed track, Monadhliath

Bulldozed track, Monadhliath

Scottish politics tends to be a bruising, confrontational affair, and for better or worse our conservation NGOs have tended to act in the same manner. Whenever a problem arises we go into battle mode, send out some press releases and protest vociferously, each ploughing a separate and lonely furrow. The bloggers blog and the rest of us have a whinge.

We do have a Scottish Environment Link, an amalgamation of conservation organisations but it is dominated by the turbine-promoting WWF and Friends of the Earth to the detriment of the recreational NGOs.

Essentially what I’m building up to is this. Before we had SNH we had the Nature Conservancy Council (Scotland) and the Countryside Commission for Scotland. The NCC looked after the nature conservation side of things while the CCS looked after the recreation side of the countryside.

The two quangos were then merged into one and it was called Scottish Natural Heritage. It seems to me the CCS part of it was then completely submerged by the scientific ecological side of SNH.

I believe we need to see the resurrection of the CCS in a new and modern form to represent the interests of walkers, climbers, mountaineers, paddlers, skiers, mountain bikers, horse riders and all those who take an interest in outdoor recreation in Scotland.

We may have small member numbers in our recreational NGOs but there are many more of us than membership lists would suggest – we actually contribute a huge amount of money to the Scottish economy.

According to Scottish Environment Link, nature-based tourism, which relies on Scotland’s wildlife, landscape, habitats and natural beauty, is worth £1.4bn per year to the economy (SNH, 2010). Of this, walking tourism is worth £533m, wildlife tourism brings £127m to the economy, and adventurous activities such as mountain biking, snowsports and kayaking are worth £178m.

That’s an enormous amount of dosh and it should surely guarantee better protection for those landscapes and habitats in which we enjoy our recreation, but we’re currently not seeing very much interest from Scottish politicians.

Morning at the foot of Loch Arkaig - not a "National Scenic Area"

Morning at the foot of Loch Arkaig – not a “National Scenic Area”

I would like to see a new quango set up in Scotland, a body that represents outdoor recreation and protects those areas where outdoor recreation is taken, an organisation that can discuss and debate potential developments on our behalf and advise the Scottish government of the day. At the moment that role tends to be split between SNH and SportScotland.

The old Countryside Commission for Scotland was far from perfect, but it had recreational interest at heart. I’m not sure that’s the case with SNH, and I’m not being critical of them.

For better or worse the role of SNH has become much more wildlife conservation based, although they have been responsible for Scotland’s Great Trails and one or two new long distance walking routes in recent years, including the excellent John Muir Way.

And what about SportScotland? Well, I’ve never been convinced they really understand us. What is sport if it doesn’t have winners and losers.

Under the present system all those who love the wild places of Scotland, and want to enjoy quiet recreation amongst such places, are the losers. We badly need to take a new tack, one that reflects the growing diversity of those who enjoy outdoor recreation in Scotland.

My fear is that if things are left as they are, if the status quo prevails, we soon won’t have very much wild land left to enjoy.

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