We must care for our countryside, writes Diarmid Hearns
Readers of The Scotsman will be well aware that hardly a day goes by without a report of anguished communities and campaigners taking on a new threat to their local countryside. Usually the focus is on wind farms, proliferating suburban development or ugly power lines.
There is another threat which has received far less attention but is real nonetheless.
More and more of the stunning landscapes that have become Scotland’s global iconography are being scarred by hill tracks. At first thought this seems to be of minimal concern as, after all, humans have been working and shaping our landscape since the last ice age, and tracks and pathways are a necessary part of agriculture, forestry and land management.
The problem is that what were entirely proportional and lightly travelled points of access have mutated on an almost industrial scale over the last few years. Scottish Natural Heritage estimates that the percentage of Scottish wild land unaffected by visual intrusion had fallen from 41 per cent in 2002 to 28 per cent in 2009. The position is undoubtedly worse now.
One of the reasons for this is a failure to bring hill tracks within the planning system. Creation of tracks on farms and estates is allowed under Permitted Development Rights – but these were intended only to allow minor developments by farmers without the rigmarole of going through the planning system.
Scotland’s most fragile landscapes
Instead, what is now recognised as a loop-hole, has allowed the unplanned development of roads bulldozed through some of Scotland’s most fragile landscapes. This appears to be to support commercial interests rather than farming per se.
We and others have argued that hill tracks should be brought fully within the planning system in order to curb the excesses and ensure that the best, most ecologically sensitive practices in design and siting would be applied. Last year, the Scottish Government gave signals that it was going to do this, but it appears to have backed off in the face of intensive lobbying from various land-owning interests.
Why does this matter? Surely people should make a living out of the landscape?
There is no argument with this but there is a wider economic dimension. The Scottish Government itself estimated that, in 2011, £420 million of national income was generated by visitors specifically attracted by Scotland’s incomparable landscapes and scenery. Only last week, travel guide publisher Lonely Planet announced that Scotland was one of the best places to visit in 2014 and encouraged the world to “take the high road to Loch Lomond, Loch Ness and Cairngorms National Park and fall in love with the landscape that inspired poet Robert Burns.”
If the economic value of caring for our landscape wasn’t a convincing enough argument for taking action, there are also the environmental obligations we all carry. There are many fragile habitats that are affected by unsympathetically placed hill tracks and the further erosion they can create.
There are alternatives. As a conservation charity, the National Trust for Scotland is putting its money where its mouth is and applying land management solutions that do not degrade the landscape.
At Mar Lodge Estate, near Braemar, we have removed badly sited and visually intrusive tracks, and restored others to an appropriate condition. We are also trialling the use of horses to carry out logging in order to remove the need for heavy vehicles.
Now, the latter may not work in other places, but we must find ways to minimise the impact of hill tracks and stop excessive and irretrievable damage for short-term gain.
If we fail, the world may no longer see Scotland’s iconography as hill and glen teaming with flora and fauna but a landscape scarred by unsurfaced roads, builder’s rubble and eroding soil.
You must ask yourself the questions, who would want to visit that and would you want to live there?
• Diarmid Hearns is head of policy, National Trust for Scotland