Sunday 1 December 2013

Hill Tracks, Plantations & Wind Farms: the slow decline in Scottish wild land

Last week a report on hill tracks in Scotland was published by Scottish Environment LINK on behalf of nine conservation organisations. Track Changes by Dr Calum Brown shows how current legislation is insufficient to prevent damaging roads being built in the Scottish hills. The report is detailed but it's enough to look at the pictures to see that there is a big problem. The report stirred up debate on social media and blogs, with an especially good piece from Cameron McNeish on the Walk Highlands website.

Reading the report and the response had me thinking about my Scottish Watershed walk last summer and the environmental damage I had seen. A walk the length of Scotland, almost all of it in wild land, was an excellent way to gain a snapshot of what is happening. Firstly, let me say that most of the damage I saw was long-standing and not that obvious, namely over-grazing by sheep and deer. To be truly wild the Scottish hills need far more natural forest. Overall the potential for this is excellent. It just requires the will to carry it out, a will that is being exercised in an increasing number of places.

Whilst my walk showed that most wild country has not been damaged by developments, despite what some commentators say, there are problems, and they are increasing, leading to a slow nibbling away of wild land. Wind farms are the main concern of many people and in some areas, especially in the Southern Uplands, they have had a real detrimental effect on wild land. However my observations on the Watershed put them third after forestry plantations and vehicle tracks in terms of both visual and physical impact.

The hard, straight edges of plantations look unnatural from a distance and draw the eye, breaking hillsides up into rigid blocks. Where there is clear-cutting hillsides look awful, a blasted mess of tangled dead tree remnants. Of course the forest will return to cleared areas and if left alone for many decades a plantation will slowly revert to a more natural state. However, although forest owners are mitigating the effects of plantations in some areas by softening the edges with deciduous trees, overall forest policy is still for blocks of trees and clear-cutting. Inside a plantation it can seem quite natural - I walked through many on the Watershed and much preferred being inside them rather than looking at them from outside. Animal, bird and plant life inside the lines of closely packed conifers is greatly reduced from that found in a natural forest though. Rather than plantations the regeneration of the natural forest (which would now include Sitka spruce, larch and other 'non-native' trees) is the way to increase wildness. 

Vehicle tracks, whether bulldozed roads or ones formed by repeated driving over vulnerable areas, are the fastest spreading developments in the hills, hence the need for the Track Changes report. Estates are mostly building these roads in order to get shooting clients in and out of the hills fast. The idea of walking and using ponies seems to have been forgotten. Estates claim the tracks are for 'agricultural purposes' and so don't need planning permission. Some roads are wide enough for two big lorries to pass each other and have huge spoil heaps on either side. The damage they do physically is enormous and they also look hideous. Control of such tracks - and the removal of many of them - is very important for the survival of wild land.

Wind farms also require many tracks but these are included in the permission for the turbines. They do the same damage as any other tracks of course. Wind farms themselves are a problem in some areas and a potential problem in many others. However for most of the Watershed walk I didn't see any so they have not yet had the impact many people believe they've had.

The worst damage I saw was the work along the Beauly-Denny power line, which the Watershed touches at one point. Huge bulldozed roads and massive pylons turn the areas it passes through into industrial landscapes. The roads are supposed to be removed once the pylons are in place (which will be a huge job in itself) but some estates are saying they wish to keep them as they will be 'useful'.

What can be done about all this? Hopefully, the planning proposals to protect SNH's core wild land plus designated National Scenic Areas that I wrote about back in April will go ahead, and will include regulations on tracks. On this there is a Consultationon Core Areas of Wild Land 2013 Map taking place and I would urge everyone concerned about the protection of wild land in Scotland to comment.

All the photographs were taken during my Scottish Watershed walk last June and July.


  1. A beautiful piece. If I hadn't already been weeping about the same subject (windfarms first, in my list) I would have been moved to tears.

  2. My two big concerns for wild land in Britain and Ireland:

    Firstly, the type of industrial developments you have shown in these graphic images and secondly, over regulation from well meaning conservationists - backcountry campsites, permits, managed trails and regulation. I have just written to TGO about this very subject - I hope they look at my letter inspired by the proposed "rewilding" of Ireland's Nephin Beg range covered in the last issue.

    Clearly, the biggest threat to the integrity of wild land is the first category. Over regulation is a much more subjective issue. It seems to be accepted in many North American Wilderness Areas and National Parks.

    Dave Porter

    1. Dave, over-regulation is not a problem in Scotland. The access legislation gives a right to roam and a right to wild camp. There are no proposals for backcountry campsites or permits.

      The situation in North America, where I have hiked over 10,000 miles, is very different. In most areas permits aren't required and backcountry campsites don't exist (except for ones that have grown up due to regular use). In very popular areas permits are required and backcountry campsites must be used. This is to meet the requirements of the US Wilderness Act and limit numbers in any one area at any one time. It's also sometimes done to provide facilities to protect food from bears, as in Glacier National Park where there are grizzly bears. I agree the restrictions are limiting and can be off-putting but there are many areas where there are none.

  3. Some of the images shown here are nothing less than environmental vandalism - on a grand scale. Powers to regulate hill tracks are woefully inadequate and attempts by landowners to 'keep' tracks that scar the line of the Beauly - Denny link and have been engineered to industrial strength standards must be resisted. There were clear environmental reasons to insist on restoration initially - the reasons are just as relevant now.

  4. Back in August I did a 2-day trip around Ben Avon. The tracks around Big Garvoun are being enlarged and added to almost every year. An absolute disgrace. After spending night by the Avon tors, I came back along the track from Inchrory to Loch Builg. For the most part, that section of the track is still all right, old drovers roads style. Then, as I went past the loch and turned into Glen Gairg to follow the river and then up the old track past Culardoch. Well, the size of the track was again a disgrace. You could run two lorries side by side there. I just couldn't believe it. And it's not clear to me why they had widened it as much as that. When the track starts climbing the hill it gets a little narrower but still wider than it needs to be. I mean, a land rover ain't that big. Why make them so wide? Sadly, as you probably know, the track goes all the way past Culardoch and down to the back of Invercauld. It disfigures one of the finest stands of Scots pines. It's a national shame, if you ask me.

    Another bee under my bonnet is the trail bikes being allowed to use the tracks past Ben Alder and the Mamores for the 6-day trial or whatever it's called. I hear that last year they allowed trail bikes up Meall Buidhe in Glen Lyon. The list just goes on and on.