A move to impose tougher controls on landowners scarring hillsides by bulldozing tracks for deer stalking and grouse shooting has been launched in the Scottish Parliament.
The Green MSP and land expert, Andy Wightman, has lodged an amendment to the planning bill under consideration at Holyrood to prevent tracks from being built on land used for field sports without planning permission.
He also aims to change the law so that any hill tracks planned in national parks or wildlife sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) would require full permission from local authorities. Landowners currently have “permitted development rights” for hill tracks.
Wightman’s move is backed by countryside campaign groups. But it is strongly opposed by landowners, who warn that new controls would cause delay and “considerable cost”.
Prolonged protests over landowners’ freedom to bulldoze highly visible hill tracks caused the Scottish Government to tighten controls a little in 2014. Landowners were required to give councils prior notification of their intentions, but didn’t have to make detailed planning applications.
But now campaigners say that the system of prior notification is failing, and are demanding more reforms. They point to a series of places in the Cairngorms, Wester Ross and Glen Etive where hill tracks have run into criticism.
“For too long, roads have been constructed in sensitive landscapes with little or no regard for their impact on the environment and with no effective democratic oversight through the planning system,” said Wightman.
“Whilst roads built for agriculture and forestry do not require full planning consent, those for field sports should always be the subject of full planning applications. Too often, however, tracks are built by landowners claiming that they are for agricultural use when in fact they are for field sports.”
Wightman said he had lodged an amendment at Holyrood to remove permitted development rights from all tracks built on land used for field sports and on all land within national parks and SSSIs. “If passed, this amendment will ensure that tracks built on such land will require to have full planning permission before work can begin,” he said.
An umbrella group of nine voluntary agencies concerned about access, the outdoors and wildlife under the banner of Scottish Environment Link has been investigating hill tracks. It is planning to publish a report in the autumn.
The group’s co-convenor is Helen Todd, the campaigns manager for Ramblers Scotland. She praised Wightman for “shining a spotlight on this issue” at the Scottish Parliament.
“For far too long, many landowners have been building ugly, damaging vehicle tracks in some of our most precious landscapes – including across important habitats and even to the summits of Munros,” she said.
“Shockingly, they don’t even need to apply for full planning permission, provided they claim their tracks will be used for agricultural or forestry purposes. Outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists have been concerned about the proliferation of these tracks for decades.”
Dr Gus Jones, convener of the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, urged MSPs to support Wightman’s amendments. “Tighter controls for tracks in national parks and SSSIs would be a real help in safeguarding these outstanding areas,” he said.
“They could go a long way towards addressing serious and longstanding problems associated with the proliferation of ill-considered tracks in our countryside.”
But Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, defended the existing system and urged a “pragmatic” approach. “We believe the current process is generally working well,” said the organisation’s policy officer, Gavin Mowat.
“Requiring full planning permission would add considerable cost to an already expensive undertaking and also add delay where flexibility to work with changing conditions is vital, thereby affecting businesses of every shape and size in rural Scotland.”
Mowat argued that hill tracks were a vital component of many rural businesses without which many jobs and therefore communities could not be sustained. He agreed that tracks should be constructed “in a manner that befits their surroundings” in line with official guidance.
“Land managers work hard to ensure that high standards of hill track construction are being met through the prior notification and approval process which was implemented in 2014,” he added.
“Not only do hill tracks provide access to remote hillsides for agriculture and forestry purposes, they also provide access for many ramblers, mountain climbers and mountain rescue services. Well-constructed and maintained tracks also provide a conservation function by ensuring that people using the hills stick to the tracks and do not disturb fragile flora and fauna.”
The Scottish Government promised to consider “in due course” any amendments put forward to the planning bill. “Permitted development rights are set out in secondary legislation under existing powers and we have already committed to further reviewing these following the planning bill,” said a spokesperson.
Hill tracks under fire
Ledgowan, Wester Ross
This bulldozed track, easily seen from the A832 at Achnasheen, has been one of the most controversial in Scotland, attracting a protest march in 2013. It was constructed under permitted development rights for agricultural use, without the need to apply for full planning permission.
When Ledgowan estate was put on the market last year, the sales blurb boasted that access for shooting deer had been “transformed” by the construction of a ten-mile network of hill tracks. “This significantly expands the scope of the stalking to enable those of all levels of physical fitness to stalk the hill for stags or hinds,” it said.
“This in turn has enabled the estate to attract a premium rental income for stalking lettings particularly from European clients.” The estate was reportedly sold for £4.5 million to the Danish Lego billionaire, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, in October 2017.
Glen Banchor, Cairngorms National Park
This recently widened track above Newtonmore has been criticised by the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group for being “intrusive” and highly visible. “It reduces the quality of experience for people seeking enjoyment of the outdoors in relatively unspoilt surroundings,” the group said.
The landowner applied for retrospective planning permission “for both agricultural and sporting purposes”. On 17 August the Cairngorms National Park Authority ruled that the widened track could stay.
But authority members criticised what had happened. They imposed a series of conditions aimed at permanently improving the track’s appearance and reducing its environmental impact.
West Monar, Wester Ross
This former stalkers’ path near Achnashellach was being widened earlier this summer but, according to Ramblers Scotland, there was no record of a planning application or any prior notification.
After complaints from walkers, the site was inspected by Highland Council and the government’s countryside agency, Scottish Natural Heritage. The ground by the track has since been restored, and the landowner has applied for retrospective planning permission.
Glen Clova, Cairngorms National Park
New tracks in Glen Glova have been fiercely criticised by the parkswatchscotland blog, which alleges they were built without prior notification or planning permission.
“Whatever the legal position, in my view an extremely fine area of landscape within a national park has been trashed in a very short period of time without any public debate and without the consent of the Cairngorms National Park Authority,” said the blog’s author, Nick Kempe.
Allt a’Chaorainn, Glen Etive
This track in Glen Etive near Glencoe in the western Highlands has been condemned as “very poorly constructed” by Ramblers Scotland. The group found no evidence of prior notification, and has tried to persuade Highland Council to take action.
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 19 August 2018.