Image: Track constructed on Ledgowan Estate – a track for which Highland Council observed that “no real evidence has been provided which demonstrates that the tracks are reasonably required for the purposes of agriculture” See previous Ledgowan posts here.

Nine of Scotland’s leading environmental charities are calling on the Scottish Government to put an end to the unregulated system for hill track construction which allows landowners to build tracks without any public oversight. Instead, they want hill track construction brought within the planning system.

Working under the umbrella of Scottish Environment LINK, the organisations today published ‘Track Changes’. This report shows evidence of the huge damage caused to landscapes, wildlife and habitats across Scotland by some of these tracks, carved across the landscape for motor vehicles. The aim is to persuade the Scottish Government to remove ‘permitted development rights’ (PDRs) for building such tracks, thus enabling public scrutiny of all proposed track construction.

Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland and co-convener of the campaign group said:
“We asked Scottish hill walkers to send us photos of tracks which have damaged our countryside. The report gives compelling photographic evidence of the degradation being caused by this planning-free-for-all. In some cases it amounts to nothing short of environmental vandalism.

“Our organisations have been concerned about the unrestrained development of hill tracks over many decades, but the situation has become much more serious in recent years with the increasing use of diggers, bulldozers and other vehicles that can better cope with Scotland’s mountainous terrain. We are seeing tracks going into areas of wild land, gouging large trenches out of landforms which were laid down in the last Ice Age. Tracks are dug deep into peat, destroying fragile and sensitive habitats and disturbing wildlife – and they are proliferating across our hills, seriously scarring the landscape.”

Beryl Leatherland of Scottish Wild Land Group and co-convenor of the campaign group said: “We are not trying to stop the development of all tracks, but the current system is unfair to the public interest. It does not allow for any public consultation or proper consideration of the value of landscapes and wildlife. In our report we show evidence of tracks being bulldozed across some of the country’s most iconic landscapes, even parts of our national parks, without any care for their design or impact.

“It is hard to believe that if you want to build a conservatory on a house in any street in Scotland you have to go through a rigorous planning process and yet a track can be bulldozed through even a designated nature conservation site without any scrutiny at all. We think that regulation is essential and should be welcomed by all concerned.”

In December 2012 the Scottish Government dropped its proposal to bring tracks with purported ‘agricultural or forestry purposes’ into the planning system, but said that it would keep the situation under review. It is hoped that the evidence gathered by the LINK campaign will persuade Ministers to reconsider this decision. The Planning Minister, Derek Mackay MSP, visited the site of one of the tracks highlighted in the report with members of LINK and has been sent a copy of the report.

Scottish Environment Link Parliamentary Briefing on Hill tracks

Full Report ‘Track Changes

Campaign website

Image: Jarle Vines

The debate between aquaculture interests and wild salmon interests continues to generate strong feelings. In this Guest blog, Fiona Cameron reflects on how the interests of Scotland’s wild salmon are being represented. Fiona is a writer and journalist.  Her second novel (writing as Nancy McKnight) is due to be published within the next few months; one of its principal themes is the conflict between salmon farmers and fishery owners on the fictitious Hebridean island where the Balvaig Trilogy is set.

THE INTERESTS OF SCOTLAND’S WILD SALMON

Fiona Cameron

Over the past decade, I have worked as a lobbyist and a public relations, marketing and communication consultant for Scottish wild salmon and sea trout interests. During that period, I also spent some time working for a salmon farming company which was, at the time, the most enlightened in Scotland in its attitudes to environmental stewardship – mainly, I suspect, because it was not at that point listed on any stock exchange.

The experience of working for both “sides” has left me decidedly cynical about both, but also deeply convinced that the current system of riparian ownership does not serve the best interests of Scotland’s wild salmon and sea trout. Riparian owners appear to be primarily interested in conserving the value of their landholdings and fishing rights rather than the fish – though I admit there are some honourable exceptions to this.

Unfortunately, those same riparian owners tend to be the people controlling the various charities which exist to promote the conservation of our country’s wild salmonids. I don’t claim that they are consciously using their privileged position in terms of access to politicians and regulators to pursue their own interests but I believe that they simply do not perceive the conflicts of interest which arise. (1)

For instance, the manager of one such charity has used his prominent role to publicly call for the closure of a commercial salmon netting station whose primary impact is on the South Esk, a river where this same gentleman is a major riparian owner. Such an appeal could easily be construed as one owner of a valuable heritable interest using his position to attempt to close down the business of another owner of a valuable heritable interest.

Where the waters get distinctly muddy is with claims that the argument is based solely on grounds of conservation of fish. Have no fish at all have been killed by angling interests on the particular river mentioned above? Is this not a case of “do as I say, not as I do” in relation to the commercial netsman’s right to kill fish? If the argument is a scientific one based solely on conservation, then riparian owners with direct financial interests in the rivers under question are not the people to be doing the lobbying.

We should bear in mind throughout that Scotland’s wild salmon are part of our national heritage, both culturally and legally. In Scots law the fish are res nullius (wild things belonging to no-one) until they are caught.  What is owned is the right to fish and there is a clear case for management of salmon and sea trout stocks to be overseen by government, on behalf of the people of Scotland.

In a similar vein, we have the many tirades against salmon farming which are led and supported by riparian owners. This is a more complex scenario because salmon farming undoubtedly has adverse impacts on wild salmonids (particularly on sea trout) if it’s carried out in the wrong locations. However, the monocausal argument which riparian owners have advanced or supported to account for declines in wild salmon and sea trout stocks everywhere from the Solway Firth to the Pentland Firth simply doesn’t hold water.

There are many, many causes for the decline of wild salmonids. The presence of salmon farms in certain locations is simply one of them and it may not be the most significant one. Monocausal rants simply damage the cause of wild salmon conservation since any argument against expansion of what is one of Scotland’s few successful industries in terms of export earnings will only succeed if it sticks rigidly to the facts. Hyperbole won’t cut it with politicians whose interest is in protecting national income. Headlines such as “Fish farms blamed as salmon river shares dive” (Scotsman 15 July 2013) above an article in which the main complainant was a banker who owns a share of fisheries in the River Lochy for which he’d paid a cool half-million are not calculated to promote political action to save wild salmon! In essence, I believe that riparian owners have to face up to their own role in promoting the decline of wild salmonids.

In his excellent book Saving Scotland’s Salmon, Derek Mills points out that in the years of salmon abundance through to the 1970s, anglers had no complaints about the number of fish being taken by coastal nets. But of course,

Salmon angling was a more relaxed pursuit then and many of the well-known beats were fished mainly by the proprietors and their friends, and sometimes not fished at all if conditions were such that fish were unlikely to be caught.. (for example, when the river was low).”

Mills perceived a change in the angling scene from the early 1980s onwards, as fishery proprietors realised that salmon fishing could earn them big money. Some riparian owners began leasing their fishings to syndicates, while others sold time-share for high sums (vide the poor banker who squandered his half-million on a share of the Lochy).

There was some concern,” writes Mills, “over the way this would effectively take away the availability of some salmon fishing for a considerable time and reduce public access.”

I’d say there should be equal concern over the way it has increased fishing pressure, as those who have paid high sums for a week’s fishing will want to fish come hell or high water (no pun intended).

We are continually told (mainly by riparian owners and their spokesmen) that salmon angling is not “a rich man’s sport”. A glance at the guide prices in the annual auctions run by such stalwarts of conservation as the Salmon & Trout Association and the Atlantic Salmon Trust is enlightening. Such auctions will also include some offers of fishing at prices less than £200 to show just how egalitarian they are. It’s always the exceptions which prove the rule…..

I fully agree with the spirit of Derek Mills’ book title. Something needs to be done to save Scotland’s salmon (and indeed, sea trout). But are riparian owners (whose vested financial interests can be considerable) fit persons to oversee this?

At this moment when there could be an excellent opportunity to reform land law in Scotland, we have the best chance since pre-Victorian times to reform the laws relating to riparian ownership too.

NOTES

(1) For example, the Atlantic Salmon Trust membership comprises the following, at least five of whom have proprietorial interests in salmon fisheries. The Trust spent a total of £187,444 on “direct charitable expenditure on promotion of salmon conservation”. Despite the Trust’s emphasis on scientific research, a mere £12,098 was spent on this in 2013. In comparison, the Chief Executive’s salary amounted to £53,216, the travel and subsistence budget for two Directors was £16,732 and the PR budget was £26,711. Source: AST Accounts 31 March 2013.

Patron
The Prince of Wales

President
The Duke of Westminster

Vice Presidents
John Mackenzie
Bill Bewsher

Directors
Melfort Campbell (Chair)
Tony Andrews
James HC Hamilton, Marquess of Hamilton
Charles Llewelyn
Hon. Sarah Lopes or Astor
Alexandra Pettifer or Legge-Bourke
Oliver Reeve (Oliver Reeve & Partners)
Robert Scott-Dempster (Gillespie McAndrew)
Dr Andrew Walker
Kenneth Whelan

IMAGE: Loch Garry 2010. Source: walkhighlands

I am particularly pleased to publish this article by Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell. In light of the ongoing problems with landslips on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful and further west in Glen Kinglas, Ron and Derek remind us that they were advocating substantial ecological restoration over 30 years ago. They pioneered, from first principles and scientific observations, an approach that would restore the ecology of much of Upland Scotland. But official Scotland and vested interests blocked their plans. 

Ron Greer is, by profession, a freshwater biologist with a 40 years specific interest in Arctic Charr, Ferox Trout and the management of the large glacial ribbon lakes/hydro-electric reservoirs that are their primary habitat. He is co-author of several seminal papers on Scottish Arctic Charr and author of the book ‘Ferox Trout and Arctic Charr’.  He is one of the Scottish representatives in the International Society of Arctic Charr and has been a participant in and co-organiser, of their international conferences over the last 25 years

As a corollary of the above, he has developed a parallel interest in strategic land use/tenure reform, riparian silvicultural management  and Boreal biogeography. He initiated the Loch Garry riparian woodland project in 1974 and was co-founder with Derek Pretswell, and others, of the Loch Garry Tree Group in 1986. He was a member of the Highland Forum team who helped organise the 1987 Land and Community conference at Drumossie and considers the outcomes from it as a work still in progress. He was co-founder and initial Convenor of Scottish Native Woods and worked with Derek in its formative years.

He is widely travelled in  North America, Fennoscandia and Northern Europe, both in relation to study trips pertinent to  freshwater  and land use issues and as a guest lecturer in these subject areas at various universities/colleges, NGO institutes and sporting organisations.

Derek Pretswell is a zoology graduate of Aberdeen and started working on forestry and landuse with Ron in 1982/3 while both of them were fishery biologists with the Department of Agriculture for Scotland.  A founder member of the Loch Garry Tree Group and Perth Bat Group, he served on the management committee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Loch of the Lowes and was a Trustee of Scottish Native Woods for 10 years. In addition, he was a member of the Cairngorm Community Circle and a member of the SNP environmental policy group which, along with Ron and under Roger Mullin’s leadership, formulated the SNP’s main policy document.  

Together with Ron, Derek founded Natural Resources Scotland in 1992 and developed the New Caledonia Project which is a holistic long term project that encapsulates the three tenets of sustainable development to bring about the ‘blossoming’ of our biological, social and economic landscape. Derek now teaches environmental education to schoolchildren from North Lanarkshire at an outdoor centre in Oban and during the summer takes to the lochs with Ron to research Arctic Charr populations.

ERODING THE MOUNTAINS OF INERTIA

Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell

Sitkasaurs and Contortasaurs still stalked the Earth.  There had been no substantive land tenure reform for 900 years.  A tribal confederation of the ‘Negataibh’, more especially the clans of McCannae, MacShouldnae and their even more dangerous comrades, the Clan MacWulnae, managed the landscape on behalf of the Moorland Myth Brigade, The Cellulose Factory Managers, The Starbirders and other sectional vested interest groups with a finger in the subsidy pie and a ticket for the gravy train.  Aye, such was the state of Highland Scotland in the early seventies of the last century.  A region variously described as a ‘wet desert’, a ‘wasteland ripe for development’ or ‘the last great unspoiled wilderness in Europe’.  Would anyone out there recognise this picture today?

Into this world of private and State sectional vested interests, replete with a compartmentalised bureaucratic administration (bunkered in intellectual fall-out shelters), a young freshwater biologist, blissfully unaware of the atavistic nature of most of the above, initiated a pioneering study of Arctic Charr and Brown Trout in Loch Garry, a long established hydro-electric reservoir, lying at 400 metres altitude and a cat’s spit away from Perthshire’s Drumochter Pass (of winter notoriety).  Details of this fisheries study have been published in the relevant peer-reviewed literature but even more important wider strategic issues and conclusions arose from it that not only challenged established shibboleths and perspectives in terms of freshwater ecology in Scotland, but also in a much broader, regional and national environmental sense.  Charr, previously considered a rare fish in Scotland, turned out to be very common here and indeed in many other lochs in the Highlands which begged the question – why?  Was there perhaps something wrong with the received wisdom on the perspective of Scotland’s bio-geographical realities?  A question which kept arising as the follow on from the fisheries study developed.

Image 1 – Loch Garry truncated morraine 1990

A core outcome of the study was that hydro-electric regulation causes profound and negative impacts (largely through destroying littoral zone aquatic plants) on the ecology of the lake concerned.  In similar Scandinavian lakes  classic ‘before and after’ studies revealed  that up to 70% of the aquatic invertebrate that supports higher animals can be lost (with important depressive effects on subsistence and commercial fisheries).  We are without the great detail of these studies, but recent work indicates that the barren stony shores of reservoirs like Ericht, Cluanie and Quaich are every bit the aquatic desert they appear to be.  Further background research however revealed that a massive potential (up to 90%) source of plant material to support the aquatic food-chain could be derived from riparian deciduous woodland.  The main fisheries management problem turned out to be what was happening on the land.  What was happening on the land was derived from its land tenure system and the aims and management of its owners, historically and extant. Why was that land treeless?  The then ‘orthodoxy’ was that it was because of the harsh climate and the poor soil; perhaps scrubby birch and willow?  Challenging that orthodoxy were the basic bioclimatic facts, ecological history and empirical experience in other montane ‘Arctic Charr countries.’  The challenge of re-establishing deciduous riparian woodland was taken up.  In so doing it opened up even bigger challenges in realising a wider strategic potential.

Image 2 – Loch Garry truncated morraine revegetating

The first inklings of the potential were stimulated by both a literature review related to the physical habitat requirements of Arctic Charr and site visits to Norway in 1971, 1973 and 1974. But the biggest single advances in this area, both in respect of the specifics of tree species/origin/provenance selection and the wider national strategic overview we were developing (in parallel to other initiatives we were involved in) were study visits to Iceland in 1981 and Vestlandet in Norway in 1984. In respect of the former we were lucky indeed, before his death not long after, to draw on the extensive knowledge of Hakon Bjarnasson, the father figure of Icelandic forestry who, apart from his silvicultural expertise in a country where the most favourable tree growing conditions were climatically closely akin to Drumochter Pass, had a profound interest and experience of soil conservation and environmental protection issues in challenging boreal and austral conditions.  Proud as he was of his country’s culture and living standards, Hakon was fully open about the shocking devastation that comprised much of the Icelandic environment, perhaps the most eroded country in Northern Europe and had spent much of his professional life trying to redress it.

George Monbiot has described the Scottish and British uplands as ‘sheep-wrecked’ (see for example this article in relation to the A83 Rest and Be Thankful slope failures).  In comparison, Iceland has had a thousand years of ovine-wrecking, (compared to our  mere 300 years), where a land once 40% covered in mixed broadleaved forest (of species also once common in Scotland), had been reduced to looking like a movie set from a desert world in Star Wars.  Though the cessation of headage payments may have helped us a little, nonetheless, Iceland gives a stark warning of what might occur if we don’t change our perception of what the uplands can biologically sustain. Indeed, Hakon, on seeing photographs of erosion gullies in the Grampians, opined that unless restorative, protective forestry took place, that we would, in two or three generations, perhaps 100 years at the most, have no vegetation left on the hills.  He would not be surprised to see the repeated landslips on the A83 (the Rest and Be Thankful) or the A85 at Glen Ogle, and neither very sadly, are we.

IMAGE: Slopes to north of A83, Glen Kinglas, the site of a recent landslip of 100 tonnes of soil. The red circles indicate existing slope failures on this overgrazed terrain. Click on picture for a larger image.

More prosaically, was the comment proffered without sarcastic irony, of another Icelandic forester on being presented with a fairly comprehensive bioclimatic profile of Loch Garry ‘oh you have a very good place to grow trees then’.  Which then begs the question of what else it and much of the Grampians as a whole, might be capable of more than we currently believe.  The advice on tree species and origin provided by the Icelandic foresters has been invaluable over the years as was their introduction to the potential of Nootka Lupin as a soil improvement and erosion control agent.  The future might be more blue, but not necessarily more sad.  Unless of course, we continue to go down (or rather up) the exponential Humpty Dumpty curve of deforested erodability, with the politicians shouting out ‘so far so good’ before we all pay for the splat, as the mountain comes down to the A83 and other roads like it.

Image 3 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Trees well-established.

It is almost de rigueur these days for those promulgating land tenure and land use reform in Scotland to compare our situation with Norway.  As major promulgators of that comparison since 1984, after a ‘culture  shock’ study trip with Angus McHattie  of the Scottish Crofters Union, participants in several media documentaries on the subject and providing technical support to the later Reforesting Scotland Norway Study Tour, we can hardly decry that comparison.  However please nota bene, we do not consider simply copying Norway as the final destination, but rather that it helps point the way to a ‘better place’ than we are in now.  The geobotanical, phytogeographical and bioclimatic similarities to the Vestlandet of Norway and the vibrant cultural landscape obtained within it, give the lie to accusations of the ‘McCannaes’ that there is no other end point of tenure and use possible for upland Scotland, than the current indulgence of a landed minority in what for many of the rest of us is a quasi feudal, Victorian-Edwardian nightmare-world supported by public subsidy.

In over three decades of establishing and managing grass roots organisations, e.g. Scottish Native Woods, Highland Forum, Loch Garry Tree Group, or developing the New Caledonia project or cooperating with other established organisations and individuals that arose in the euphoria of the environmental movement in 1975-1995, we have seen, shared and experienced, shattered hopes, plagiarism and sheer outright betrayal on the attempted road to a resolution of environmental degradation and conflict.  For example we were in at the grass roots level with the Millennium Forest Project and were part of a small committee to look at locations.  We originally thought committees were platforms for compromise, but our experience makes us believe that they are cul de sacs up which good ideas are lured, then silently strangled.

The agendas of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will always prevail when individuals are outnumbered by such organisations. Our argument was based on generating a momentum that would carry past 2000 and create a platform of reforestation that everyone could be part of, based on 5 major forest centres; Glen Affric (Trees for Life), Cairngorms, Central Belt and one each in the Southwest and Southeast Borders, with a target of joining them all up creating one contiguous forest linked by forest corridors, allowing communities, local forest groups and  FC plantations and their grannies to take part and have ownership of the process.  Had we gone down this road there would have been no better way to say that we all live in the environment and it is not something that ‘happens over there’ and that we all inclusively contributed towards it.

Image 4 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Forest ecosystem restored.

We have always been centred round the idea of revitalising the soil/vegetation complex and using this landscape, when functioning as the best it can be biologically, as a platform for social and economic development.  Two things shocked us in the development of this philosophy; the complete underestimation of what is possible due to the lack of perception of where we are bio-climatically, coupled to the habitual mismanagement by generations of landowners and land managers; and the conservatism, generated by the vested interests of the resource holders and policy makers.  This includes NGOs, though there are as always exceptions at all levels.  The mismanagement is not obligate, it is facultative, and the managers choose their endpoint, having inherited their start point, for the bulk of our rural landscapes. We need rurality built into the urban environment and not urbanity into the rural one, as is happening.

Patrick Geddes talked of work people and place, sustainability models talk of environmental, social and economic factors, most of the ‘environmentalist movement’ and politicians use the word sustainable, but how many have read the Brundtland Commission Report or the earlier World Conservation Strategy that coined and defined the phrase and intend to implement the recommendations. In many cases it is a bit like the bank that likes to say yes but doesn’t understand the question. We are driven to solve problems, Loch Garry being a case in point, but our solution is to focus on the problem and this in turn exerts an enormous influence on our thinking.  What was initially perceived as an aquatic problem at Loch Garry was in fact a land problem and likewise the A83 events are not a road problem, but a land one.  Well for forestry’s sake there are too many problems for us!  If we go back to the basics of the soil vegetation complex then we need to make it the best it can be, so plant the trees that originally created the organic layers that are there and held it all in place.

Let’s work towards goals – you know, ideal situations that could make these problems disappear.  At one point in relation to the A83, there was talk of tunnels and a budget of £90 million, well for that money we can buy the land, reforest it, give it to the people to manage and still have money left over to build a better road!

We live in the world’s most beautiful ecological slum but we have the advantage that this slum is not on the northern edge of the Mediterranean it is on the southern edge of the Arctic and it has an amazing northern potential.  Our challenge is to bring about the realisation of that potential and so finally, a recommendation to politicians. If you want ideas that are outside of the box don’t go into the box to look for them!