HOUSEHOLDERS know that if they want to build an extension or otherwise modify their homes, they need to seek planning permission first.
This ensures that neighbours are properly consulted and the public interest is protected.
How, then, is it possible that a landowner can decide to build a vehicular track up the side of a mountain with no apparent consideration given to the erosion and visual impact this may cause, or the wider public interest? Why is no planning application needed? Why is the Scottish Government appearing to do nothing about this assault on our wild places?
Outdoor organisations have been complaining about the uncontrolled proliferation of hill tracks in Scotland since the 1960s. That did not stop Lord Dulverton, in the early 1970s, taking his bulldozer up from Glen Feshie and putting a massive scar across the Cairngorms plateau.
Since then little has changed. New vehicular tracks have been spreading across our upland areas, pushing into places where there has never been a vehicle before, and slicing into landforms which were laid down in the last Ice Age.
Many tracks are even visible from our major highland roads: you don’t need to get out of your car to see the horrendous zig-zag scar up the hillside by the A832 at Achnasheen, or the whole network of tracks that have been appearing on the west side of the Drumochter pass over recent years.
Unobtrusive stalker’s paths, which once threaded their way up to a distant corrie, have been “improved” with the help of a bulldozer or digger into wide tracks capable of taking vehicles. Once vehicles gain access to this wild hinterland, further long-term damage can be caused as they roam over adjacent land.
These tracks leave a permanent scar. The re-wilding of tracks is difficult, costly and time-consuming and it is no surprise that the only estates which make concerted efforts to grub up unused hill tracks are those owned by organisations such as the National Trust for Scotland and RSPB.
Landowners will say that these tracks are required for legitimate land management purposes, and in some cases this may be so. Tracks that are built for agricultural or forestry purposes are known as “permitted development” and as such no planning permission is required.
But many tracks are simply used for the ferrying of shooting and stalking clients up to the top of a hill more easily. Even our National Parks are not exempt from these tracks since the permitted development rights predate their establishment.
Such “rights” have no place today in a Scotland committed to land reform and where decisions are supposed to take place on democratic principles. Long gone are the days when the way in which you managed your Scottish estate depended on who you knew in the House of Lords.
Ramblers Scotland has been monitoring the spread of these tracks for decades and calling for their construction to be brought under planning control. Yet successive governments have ignored the problem and refused to act. Last year, however, Holyrood issued a consultation in which it proposed that these tracks be subject to planning control. Despite overwhelming support from outdoor organisations, the Scottish Government decided not to take action. Planning minister Derek Mackay said he had not seen enough evidence to justify the change but he would keep his decision under review. One wonders how much more evidence he needs.
Nevertheless, we have taken up his challenge and are now coordinating a Scottish Environment LINK campaign to gather more photographic evidence. We are asking walkers to take photos of these hill tracks and send them to us at www.scotlink.org/hilltracks by 1 September so we can put them before the minister. Photos received so far have shown tracks being constructed across some of our most iconic landscapes, dug through deep peat, carved straight up steep hillsides and even over the summits. This is vandalism, on a massive scale.
We are not trying to stop all hill track development. We are simply asking for proper public scrutiny of all such proposals, through the existing planning system. If landowners think the tracks are vital for their management and an asset to public enjoyment of the hills, they should have nothing to fear.
• Helen Todd is campaigns & policy manager, Ramblers Scotland www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland