Mel Nicoll: Protecting wild landscapes for future generations is worth fighting for

Some of the strongest support from all age groups for wild land protection was found in the Highlands and Islands
Some of the strongest support from all age groups for wild land protection was found in the Highlands and Islands
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Scotland may not have qualified for the World Cup finals, but in one field at least we are up there near the top of the global league table. In a recent worldwide poll of readers of the famous Rough Guides, we won the accolade of the Most Beautiful Country in the World, beating Canada, New Zealand and Italy into second, third and fourth place respectively.

Closer to home, a recent BBC poll found a clear majority in every region of Scotland identified landscape as the strongest reason people identify with their local area, ahead of nine other characteristics such as history, cultural traditions, dialect, sporting teams etc. This was particularly notable in the Highlands, where 87 per cent said they feel strongly about the importance of the landscape, as opposed to 11 per cent who don’t.

Mel Nicoll, John Muir Trust Campaigns Coordinator

Mel Nicoll, John Muir Trust Campaigns Coordinator

Ask people to sum up the essence of Scotland’s most scenic places and the word ‘wild’ is likely to figure prominently. Wildness is not a scientific definition, but it is a useful short-hand description for land that is neither pristine wilderness unaltered by human hand nor land that is intensively managed for agriculture, recreation or human habitation.

Four years ago this week (23 June, 2014), the Scottish Government approved a map of 42 wild land areas, covering around 20 per cent of our total land mass, based on qualities such as ruggedness and lack of modern built structures. The vast mass of that land is mountainous terrain that excludes, for example, the glens of the Highlands which were once heavily populated. Some wild land areas include isolated lodges and bothies, or the ruins of shielings where people once lived in the summer months when they took their cattle to higher pastures.

Publication of the wild land areas map in 2014, with associated Scottish Government planning policy making a commitment to safeguard their character, marked a historic breakthrough in the long-term campaign by the John Muir Trust and other organisations to have Scotland’s wild land recognised and protected.

Lines on maps, whether to delineate national parks, national scenic areas, marine protected areas or wild land areas, can be controversial. Some see them as a threat to economic progress and people’s livelihoods. But those at the forefront of campaigning for wild land protection are not arguing for Scotland’s wild landscapes to be frozen in time.

The John Muir Trust recognises that there is a spectrum of wildness. At one end are places like the Cuillin Ridge where only hard-core hillwalkers and mountaineers dare to venture. At the other end are landscapes where we could see an abundance of wildlife, trees, trails, and small-scale local woodland-based enterprises.

Our landscape and ecology, and ultimately some of our local economies, will pay a heavy price if Scotland’s wild places are merely treated as commodities to be exploited for private gain by developers and landowners. There is no question where the majority stand. In poll after poll, the people of Scotland consistently express resounding support for wild land protection.

According to the most recent YouGov poll that measured public attitudes on this issue, 80 per cent agree that wild land areas should be kept free of major development, while only 5 per cent disagree. Support for wild land protection was found to be overwhelming among all age groups and geographical regions with the strongest support in the Highlands and Islands, where most of Scotland’s wild land is located.

For these reasons, we should celebrate the anniversary of the ground-breaking wild land areas map in Scotland. From the standpoint of landscape protection, the results so far have been heartening, with ten major energy developments refused because of their impact on wild land. However, one application, for a 22-turbine development – including five inside the boundaries of a wild land area – was approved in 2016.

So, the wild land areas map has provided stronger landscape protection. Nonetheless, planning decisions are still in the hands of Ministers and can appear contradictory, which leaves uncertainty hanging in the air.

Each of the ten developments that were rejected consumed large of amounts of time and money along the way for developers, local authorities, communities, the Scottish Government, Scottish Natural Heritage and environmental organisations such as the John Muir Trust. Had there been clarity in planning from the start, we would have been spared much of the lengthy and complex procedures that seem to be an inevitable part of any major development proposal.

Government ministers come and go and political priorities change. There is growing pressure to reverse centuries of ecological damage in Scotland’s uplands and to create richer, more diverse, more natural landscapes. That is a long-term project that will extend into the future for generations to come. In the meantime, we can help that process along by preventing further damage to our wilder landscapes through robust statutory protection.

Mel Nicoll, John Muir Trust campaigns co-ordinator