Hilltrack on Ledgowan Estate

Last year, in a series of blogs, I highlighted a number of issues relating to Ledgowan Estate – in particular the controversy over the construction of an ugly bulldozed track.

The story was promoted by an incident over public access which arose during an inspection of the track by Dr Kenneth Brown who was investigating the track as part of a research project by Scottish Environment Link. Its report – Track Changes – was published in October 2013 and called for hilltracks to be subject to full planning control rather than the existing system of Permitted Development Orders. A Parliamentary Briefing can be found here and the full report here (5.3Mb pdf).

Last month, Scottish Land and Estates published a response to this report – The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks – which challenged many of the findings of the Link report and asserted that the Track Changes report “has not been helpful in the debate” and “should have been more closely scrutinised, especially as it makes allegations about specific estates and was written with public funding.”

Scottish Environment Link has refuted these and other allegations made against its report in a further report published today in which it argues that,

“We find Scottish Land and Estates’ statements in their report about scrutiny and LINK’s charitable status strange and inappropriate. The issues raised in the Track Changes report fully comply with LINK’s charitable purposes and funding for the report was received from member contributions and charitable trusts. It is entirely proper that LINK uses its funds for this purpose.

The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks makes a number of specific criticisms of our report, and we respond to these below. Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) claim that Track Changes contained ‘fundamental misconceptions’, ‘incorrect information’, ‘out of date photographs’ and ‘misleading’ points. These claims are baseless, and are not supported by anything in The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks. It is unfortunate that Scottish Land and Estates have simply sought to discredit Track Changes without engaging with its main arguments, and while ignoring much of the evidence it contains. The basis for our campaign remains unaltered by their response..”

In the Spring edition of the SLE’s magazine, it argues that voluntary guidelines are adequate and urges its members to follow them.

The debate continues.

Meanwhile, a wee bit of history. One of the tracks that attracted a deal of criticism over the years was the one up Beinn a Bhuird in the Cairngorms. It has now been restored by the National Trust for Scotland but here’s an article from the January 1968 edition of Scottish Field explaining the background and purpose of its construction in 1966.

The latest news from Ledgowan Estate is that the owner has distributed an access policy to residents of Achnasheen. According to this report (online here and pdf here)in the West Highland Free Press from 27 December 2013,

“The access policy states that all walkers met on Ledgowan will be asked for contact details, adding: ‘If this is not forthcoming or staff consider there is any reason for doubt they will take a photograph of the individuals and or their vehicle.’

The following points are also listed.

No-one is denied access – we abide by the law.

No-one is allowed to walk in the curtilage of our property.

gates will remain locked due to security reasons (citing thefts and keeping poachers out).”

A copy of the letter written by Richard Simpson is now available here (507kb pdf). In one comment on this blog, John (24 January) writes that he is unaware, nobody has actually received this letter. I can confirm that at least one person has. The letter contains an alternative account of the incident which began this story (see original blog here). Dr Brown rebuts this account in this report in the West Highland Free Press. Further developments can be read by clickign on the “Ledgowan” category on right.

Image: Courtesy of To Hatch a Crow

I have not had time to publish many blogs in the past 2 months or so and hope to get back to a regular weekly or twice-weekly schedule as soon as possible. I would also like to stress that this blog reflects my own personal views on the matters under discussion. A statement to that effect is now in the page header.

In light of the widespread interest, I am publishing this quick update on the Ledgowan story (previous blogs can be seen by selecting “Ledgowan” in the Category menu on the right). This is also an opportunity to wish all the readers and contributors to the blog a very happy christmas and best wishes for the new year.

Mass Walk

On 30 November, around 30-40 walkers visited Ledgowan. Here is one account of the day from David “Heavy” Whalley.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)

SNH replied to my enquiry about the hill-track crossing the SSSI. Here is the response from Steve North.

Hi Andy – you may already be aware that my colleague Nicola Tallach has recently responded to a query on this track fromCalum Brown who is writing a report on tracks built under ‘permitted development rights’ for Scottish Environment LINK. She advised him:

“As you have identified, the first section of the track from Ledgowan Lodge, crosses Achnasheen Terraces SSSI therefore on the 18 March 2011 I had a site visit with the owner, Steve North (South Highland’s Operations Manager) and John Gordon (one of SNH’s geological advisors). During this visit it was established that the line of the track crossing the SSSI had not caused serious damage to the landforms. Continuation of the track route along the foot of the lower slope above the main terrace was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. At this time the only track being discussed was the one which led to the loch edge and the route to this, across the SSSI had already been constructed.

 The track which you are no doubt referring to, going up the hill, branches off the original track which was discussed on site however access to this branching off point is across the track which SNH saw on site and agreed was acceptable/ did not cause serious damage to the land form. 

Any track work out with the designated site would be a matter for the planners and as such I was in touch with the Highland Council planners on several occasions to inform them of track progress. The track is not within the Wester Ross NSA therefore permitted development rights are in place and the owner claimed the track was for agricultural purposes therefore he did not need planning permission. The Highland Council were not therefore able to do anything to prevent the construction of the track within existing planning regs”.

So, to answer your specific question, because the track was considered to fall within permitted development rights, SNH were not consulted on any planning application for the tracks and made no response to Highland Council (objection or otherwise).

However, the SSSI status of part of the estate did result in us meeting Andrew Simpson on site with our expert geomorphologist to assess the implications of the tracks for the nationally important features. As Nicola says, our conclusion and advice to Mr Simpson was that the track that was being developed within the SSSI had not caused any serious damage to the landforms and continuation along the foot of the steeper slopes (above the main terrace) was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. We identified how the kettle holes could be safeguarded and highlighted the benefits of following SNH’s published best practice guidance on track construction in upland areas. We also reminded Mr Simpson of the requirement of the legislation behind the SSSI that land managers contact SNH before they carry out works which may affect the special features of a site.

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Following the reported breach of EU regulations in relation to the lochside track (see this previous blog), I asked SEPA to confirm whether the main hilltrack had been built in accordance with the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011. Here is the reply received from Alastair Duff.

SEPA have visited the Ledgowan Estate and driven the length of the hill track in the company of estate staff.

There are several crossings that are of a size that should have required a Registration from SEPA in order to permit their construction, but these were not applied for. However, upon inspecting these crossings, the works undertaken would almost certainly have been licenced by SEPA.

SEPA has made a few minor recommendations in relation to some of the crossings, but is not taking any further action in relation to the works undertaken in the construction of the hill access track.

Highland Council

Highland Council was asked to release material released under the FoI request made by the estate employee (see previous blog). Here are the various communications (10Mb pdf download)

Ledgowan Estate

Finally, Ledgowan estate owner Mr Simpson, has compiled an “incident report” which has been given to a resident of Achnasheen. An account of this is given in the West Highland Free Press today. (see copy of story here).

I and others have, on a number of occasions attempted to contact Mr Simpson during the course of this story. He has never returned any calls to me or to media outlets. It turns out, however, that Andrew Simpson is a subscriber to my www.whoownsscotland.org.uk website. His subscription was due to expire this month and so an automated email was sent to him thanking him for his subscription and inviting him to renew it. As a consequence, he made the only contact he has ever made with me and replied to the email simply,

What an arsehole you are goodby” (sic)

Merry Christmas.