Gemma Cooper, head of the policy team with NFU Scotland said that last year saw huge issues with public access taking on an unprecedented scale:
“Organisations such as NFUS were inundated with a high number of calls from concerned members looking for help, logging problems with out-of-control dogs, livestock worrying, wild camping, access to farm buildings and private gardens.”
She said that the legislation which underlines access rights in Scotland was often held up as an example of a flagship piece of law which resulted in Scotland having some of the most open access rights in the world.
Cooper stressed that the rights provided in the Act were underpinned by the creation of a network of Local Access Forums, staffed by Local Access Officers whose role was to uphold the rights of both the public and landowner, an arrangement which provided a conduit for dealing with local issues.
"Overarching this was the creation of a National Access Forum, made up of stakeholder organisations able to contribute on specific issues of national importance. Local issues, dealt with at a local level, with the potential to feed into a national group.”
But while she said that on the face of things this had been an ideal arrangement, the reality was very different, and since 2003, the vital role played by access officers in promoting responsible access had been eroded due to what she termed a chronic lack of resource allocation at local authority level.
A freedom of information request submitted by NFUS had shown that many access officer roles had been reduced to part time, enveloped by other duties relating to sustainable transport:
“It also showed that Local Access Forums had become dysfunctional, they were underfunded, some met very rarely, and some were no longer meeting at all. For farmers and crofters, this can mean that where there are chronic issues, there is little help,” said Cooper.
She said the pandemic had shone a spotlight on visitor management of the public in Scotland – and on its major weaknesses:
“The result of this is that land managers are left to carry significant costs and that is a source of great frustration to NFU Scotland members.”
But she also noted that on the positive side, the pandemic had resulted in a multi-agency partnership approach being taken to address problems in ‘hot spot’ areas.
“It cannot be denied that properly managed outdoor access has huge potential to benefit rural Scotland and the wider economy, but this cannot be at the expense of farmers and crofters who are trying to run a business,” said Cooper. “Access to our fantastic countryside in Scotland must be better resourced and a long-term strategic approach is a critical part of this conversation.”