Reforming Scotland’s outdoor economy

blue dome tent on green grass field near mountain under white clouds during daytime

Last Wednesday I spoke in a debate on ‘dirty camping’. Over the summer, we have seen some careless, reckless, and anti-social behaviour by people visiting scenic areas of Scotland. This is a matter of great concern to many people, especially those who live in the Highlands and Islands, Perthshire, the Borders and local beauty spots across the country.

I unequivocally condemn that kind of behaviour.

However, disturbing as these incidents have been for local residents, they have not been – as media reports might have led to you to suppose – a widespread occurrence. For example, the Cairngorms National Park Board considered a paper last Friday that looked at the summer visitor experience. It observes that:

“Early August was very busy with large numbers of visitors to the park… Despite a noticeable increase in irresponsible behaviour the vast majority of visitors have been reacting favourably to information offered by the Rangers with few, but significant, occasions of difficult behaviour.”

A more detailed analysis of Badenoch and Strathspey, Deeside and the Atholl and Angus Glens says that the data “shows a relatively small… but noticeable increase in irresponsible behaviour.”

Punitive action against anti-social behaviour and littering – involving police, permits and permissions – might be appropriate in particular cases, in the short term and in specific locations, but is not an appropriate response in the medium and long term. I know from conversations with rangers and outdoor activities instructors, many of whom have engaged with so-called dirty campers, that many are cutting live wood and leaving litter out of genuine ignorance. Who is responsible for that ignorance?

For centuries the law has sought to punish those who camp, who travel and who use land for recreation. Luckily we now have some of best access legislation in Europe: it is a statutory right to camp responsibly in Scotland. During the debate, some MSPs questioned whether the laws in this area are adequate. There were suggestions that the law as it stands is not working. One suggested route forward was expanding permit zones – areas where campers must buy a permit in order to camp.

Rather than responding by reacting solely to the most extreme examples, we should ask ourselves how we can encourage people to act responsibly. We need to focus on education and on inspiring a love of outdoors amongst a generation more used to Mediterranean beaches and music festivals.

Scotland has woeful outdoor infrastructure – basic camping facilities, a woeful lack of public toilets, and so on. I have cycled in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark – these countries take outdoor recreation seriously and provide the appropriate facilities. Outdoor recreation should not be only for those who can afford a car or expensive equipment.

Outdoor recreation is also concentrated in a small number of over-visited hotspots, which have borne the brunt of recent incidents. We have a statutory right to roam, but often the land over which it is most pleasant to roam is far away from the cities where most people live.

A great deal of the accessible information online relating to outdoor activities in Scotland is ‘hitlist’ style. It focuses on must-visit spots, such as the Fairy Pools on Skye, Glencoe and Loch Lomond. As a consequence, these spots receive a disproportionate number of visitors.

We need to democratise the countryside.

That means supporting outdoor education centres, many of which are facing serious financial challenges. The Scottish Government have now said that no domestic residential school trips can go ahead in the Autumn 2020 term, leaving these centres bereft of income.

It also means ensuring ranger services have sufficient funding to protect fragile landscapes and educate visitors. The Scottish Countryside Rangers’ Association estimate that over 140 ranger posts have been lost since 2008. Rangers

Land around cities should be managed primarily for recreation, community food projects and recreational hutting rather than low output publicly subsidised agriculture so that the public have easy access to leisure opportunities.

Hutting provides a valuable opportunity to change the shape of domestic tourism and the relationship people have with the outdoors. It would also mean affordable, low-impact holidays.

Diversifying ownership of land is also part of this. I hope that where communities take over the management of the land around them, they also take the opportunity to improve access and to provide the kind of basic facilities that would allow so much more responsible enjoyment of the countryside.

More information about attractions and paths would also help issues of crowding. Path mapping projects like that currently being carried out by the Ramblers are vital in spreading visitor numbers across many areas. Information about walkable paths would also open up the countryside for many without specialist knowledge.

Finally, it means communication. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to increased campaigns around littering. However, tackling litter is just one piece of the puzzle. We need a grand reset of people’s relationship with the countryside.

None of this requires legislation. It requires funding and communication. Money spent on improved outdoor infrastructure and education saves public money – it means less money spent on cleaning up litter and policing camping hotspots. As the blogger Nick Kempe has suggested, it would be a good idea to focus the £43 million that Visit Scotland spent on marketing last year on improving infrastructure and promoting responsible enjoyment of the outdoors.

No rural community should have to feel besieged or threatened by a surge in visitors. However, this is not a problem that can be solved by punishing individuals. For decades, the services that support people to interact with the land around them have been cut. It should not surprise us when some people act out of ignorance.