The head of the Scottish Gamekeeper's Association, Alex Hogg, has mooted the idea of seasonal closures on Scottish hills, for conservation purposes, and pondered whether some glens should be restricted to organised vehicle safaris, 'as happens in South Africa'.
His comments, reported in his blog, came from a talk he gave recently to a group of Edinburgh Uni students on wild land as a concept and policy issue in Scotland.
'Wild land in Scotland is a misconception. SNH, for example, would have gained respect if they had called their consultation “managed wild land” as every where is managed by man, to some degree or another' blogs Hogg.
'We touched on hill tracks and how, with an expert digger driver and a wee bit more expenditure, you would never know a new road had been put in.'
Given his position, a critic might suggest that he would say that, wouldn't he. So far, so predictable. But here's when things turned a bit surreal - and do note it's no longer April 1st:
'In the talk, we touched upon the sheer number of people accessing our Scottish hills and making it very difficult for the thing they were coming to experience - the wildlife - to co-exist. Should some of our mountains be closed down, periodically, to allow some recovery? Some leading ecologists believe so. Should some glens be restricted to organized vehicular access only to give our wildlife peace, as happens in South Africa?'
But Hogg's line in rhetorical questioning just seems to lead to more questions. Who, it might be asked, actually makes it more difficult for wildlife to co-exist - a walker armed with a stick, or a stalker toting a rifle? Who are these 'leading ecologists'? How might he envisage his access proposal playing out, on the ground, among the hundreds of thousands of people now so attached to their legally guaranteed right to roam?
'As with all these things, the students are nobody’s fool and they quickly recognize when somebody is trying to pull the wool over their eyes' writes Hogg.
Some might point to an irony there. After all, a number of Scotland's land managers still routinely kill protected raptors, and most preside over a system of sporting land management that stands in the way of woodland regeneration and biodiversity. It might be suggested, before they seek to lecture others on conservation, or to moot the radical and divisive idea of access restrictions, that Scottish gamekeepers should first get their own conservation house in order.
The MCofS response to Hogg's comments strikes a conciliatory tone, but leaves no room for compromise on access. That boat, after all, has already sailed:
'The Mountaineering Council of Scotland is pleased to work in partnership with many organisations involved in conservation, deer management, the management of wild land and land-owning representatives, for the benefit of all' they said in a statement.
'Comments such as this, made by Alex Hogg, go against the spirit of cooperation that is now well established in Scotland and only seek to perpetuate the historic divisions between those enjoying responsible access for recreational purposes and land managers – an attitude that prevailed years ago. Scotland has moved on from this position and the MCofS would welcome further dialogue with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.'
Meanwhile, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) point to the contribution that walkers make to rural economies, and suggest that through 'positive' management most visitors can be steered away from wildlife without the need for access restrictions:
'Scotland’s hills are a big part of what makes our landscapes attractive to walkers from both home and abroad' says Fiona Cuninghame of SNH.
'Recent surveys do not show a significant increase in the numbers of walkers visiting Scotland’s hills. More than half (56%) of hill walks by people living in Scotland include expenditure, with food and drink purchased on 43% of trips and fuel purchased on 26% of trips [...] which contributes to the local economy. In addition walkers themselves enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of being out on Scotland’s spectacular hills.'
'We do not believe that our hills and mountains should be periodically closed to walkers; the vast majority of walkers enjoy access to these areas responsibly and adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. We think that positive management should continue to be encouraged. By managing access positively, such as maintaining paths, or providing signs, most walkers will tend to follow the same routes, leaving the wildlife in peace on most of the estate.'