A coalition of nine Scottish environmental organisations is calling for stronger laws to protect the country's mountain and moorland landscapes from the ongoing proliferation of vehicle tracks. After three years spent gathering evidence into whether planning legislation is effectively managing the development of the highly-visible tracks, the Scottish Environment LINK Hilltracks sub-group has today (Tues 18 Sept) published its Changing Tracks report. The findings are unequivocal - stronger legal safeguards are required.
Often built with little or no planning oversight, new hill tracks can increasingly be found across Scotland's uplands, including in National Parks and Wild Land Areas - designations that offer only limited protection from development. Many walkers agree that their impact on the scenery and sense of wildness can be very negative, while poorly built tracks can also alter hydrology and lead to serious erosion scarring.
The group argues that the proliferation of controversial upland tracks is 'out of control' and is calling for permitted development rights for 'agricultural' tracks to be withdrawn as part of the new Planning Bill now being considered at Holyrood.
Helen Todd, co-convenor of LINK Hilltracks group and Ramblers Scotland's campaigns and policy manager, said:
"For too long, landowners have been able to expand tracks further and further into wild landscapes with limited oversight from the public or authorities.
"This major new report makes a compelling case for removing permitted development rights for agricultural tracks – to improve local democracy and help safeguard our most precious landscapes for future generations."
The publication of Changing Tracks coincides with Green MSP Andy Wightman's proposed amendment to the new Planning Bill which would prevent vehicle tracks being built without planning permission on land used for field sports, and would also require full permission for any tracks in national parks, sites of special scientific interest or historic battlefields.
"Right now we've a golden opportunity to tackle this damaging activity" said Helen Todd, "with MSPs considering an amendment that would require full planning permission for any new tracks on land that's used for field sports."
Currently, no planning permission is required if tracks are claimed to be for agricultural purposes, yet anecdotally any regular Scottish hill-goer will have seen new tracks for which the only possible use seems to be servicing the shooting industry. Changing Tracks finds evidence that many upland tracks are almost certainly built to support field sports - such as deer stalking and grouse shooting – which aren't classed as agriculture.
Beryl Leatherland, co-convener of the group and also convener of the Scottish Wild Land Group added: "The Changing Tracks report finds that the current process is confusing, undemocratic and failing to prevent ongoing environmental damage – including within National Parks, Wild Land Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest."
The report also includes evidence showing that:
- Tracks have continued to creep further into wilder landscapes.
- Permitted development rights can lead to badly-sited and designed tracks, with poor construction techniques, causing a range of adverse environmental impacts.
- Some vehicle tracks have been built over the top of existing narrow, low-impact trails, including important historic routes and traditional stalkers' paths.
- Members of the public have little chance to engage with the planning process, despite this being a key focus area for the Scottish Government.
"We're urgently calling on all lovers of Scotland's outdoors to use our online form to ask their MSPs to help change the law to protect our countryside from these ugly, damaging tracks" says Helen Todd.
After decades of campaigning from environment and recreation bodies, the Scottish Government launched a new system in 2014 requiring landowners to tell authorities before building agricultural and forestry tracks. But generally full planning permission is still not required. Changing Tracks found that while forestry track proposals would benefit from much closer scrutiny, there was not conclusive evidence to show that removing permitted development rights in this case would be worthwhile. It recommends further study of forestry tracks in future.
Scottish Environmental LINK's Hilltracks group includes Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, Cairngorms Campaign, North East Mountain Trust, Scottish Campaign for National Parks and Scottish Wild Land Group.