John Mayhew: Outdoors would not be so great without our famed countryside rangers
What is this popular feature? Well, you may well have met them, heard them on the radio and TV, been to events and activities they organise and possibly have been inspired by them in your own life-long interest in nature. Scotland’s countryside rangers are becoming an endangered species in their own right. Created by the Countryside (Scotland) Act of 1967, countryside ranger services have been an important feature as our network of country parks, regional parks, nature reserves and more recently national parks were developed. Rangers look after these special places and their wildlife and help visitors to learn about and enjoy them.
A recent survey by the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association (SCRA) revealed an alarming decline in the number of rangers in Scotland. From 2008 to 2017, the survey found that there had been a 34 per cent reduction (141) in posts with only 279 remaining, many of those facing a very uncertain future. This is a relatively small sector, but it punches way above its weight in terms of delivery. This same survey showed that in 2017 there were 43 million visitors to sites managed by countryside rangers – a conservative total. The same year almost 70,000 learners from nursery age to university were engaged in activities with countryside rangers.
Sharing their knowledge, stewardship and ambition for the sites they work on, rangers are uniquely placed to contribute to a flourishing Scotland in health, education, community and environment and working across these priorities in a way not replicated by any other occupation.
For example, public health and wellbeing priorities have the need to increase activity levels, easily served by safe outdoor spaces, environmental volunteering opportunities, path networks with signage, guidance and support in using our parks and green spaces. Rangers deliver across all of these priorities. The Curriculum for Excellence states that children have a right to outdoor learning experiences. Rangers deliver these too.
SCRA’s survey results were a key motivation in submitting a petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee. SCRA, representing around 300 members, sought to have a national strategic framework for Scotland’s ranger services, first developed in 2008, revisited. The petition attracted a significant level of public support and comment and was accepted for a hearing in February last year. Giving evidence , George Potts, chair of SCRA, described the loss of posts as “random, unstructured and ill-considered”.
The loss of ring-fenced funding to local authority ranger services was identified as a key factor in almost half of the posts that had been lost. Crucially, there had been no monitoring of the effect of this.
The main funding agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), was called to a hearing in October 2018. This hearing highlighted the absence of national reporting on outcomes delivered by services both historically and currently funded through SNH. The Petitions Committee resolved to invite comment from the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment describing the work of countryside rangers as “of national significance”.
What is at stake here? Scotland has a national network of ranger services many of which are identified by use of our national badge. This acts as a charter mark for the quality of service customers should expect. This model has attracted international attention and been copied by other nations. Through SCRA, Scotland had a role in creating the International Ranger Federation (92 member countries) and the European Ranger Federation. This national network and international profile for Scotland is at risk.
Employment opportunities for the many capable and motivated young people in this popular sector are at an all-time low. Non-filling of vacant posts and undesirable redeployment tactics continue; the resultant absence of career opportunities seriously impairs ranger services and threatens future viability.
Scotland has created something very special, and it is as worthy of conservation as any red list species. Your voice as a council tax payer, as a paying member of a Trust, as a teacher who values educational opportunities, as someone who appreciates the environment we are privileged to enjoy in Scotland, needs to be heard in support of countryside rangers.
John Mayhew, president, Scottish Countryside Rangers Association.