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

25 Comments

  1. It seems completely crazy that both public and private landowners can spend large sums of money on restoring/maintaining footpaths in the hills of this beautiful country to protect the environment as best we can whilst others can carve a rough track over virgin territory without any oversight or system of redress.

    I’m not a complete fan of paved hill paths but given the number of recreational walkers now using the hills in their leisure time it seems a necessary evil but tracks ripped across the moorland for shooting parties or potential wind farm sites are not justified in light of what legislation attempts to protect.

    The framework of laws need to be seriously bolstered in light of cases like this.

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  2. I urge everyone to read Dr Brown’s report ‘Track Changes’. It is a smoking gun. With such damning evidence of the misuse of permitted development rights the government must surely act this time.

    Particularly disappointing are the attempts to defend the indefensible. It is claimed these bulldozed channels are ‘upgrading of existing pony tracks’ when most have been built de novo. It is claimed they will be useful to mountain rescue but the mountaineering community is bitterly opposed to them. It is claimed they are for agriculture – but some tracks end at a line of grouse butts.

    Regulation is desperately required. Bringing hill tracks into the planning system will be a minor burden on responsible landowners, and will stop the vandal landowners in their tracks. Literally.

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  3. Surely the questions should be:

    How many members of the public actually contribute to a public consultation or are even aware of or interested in it?

    Does the planning system really protect the Highlands?

    Aren’t designated sites protected under the W&CA, 1981?

    Shouldn’t the Highlands be re-classified as a semi-industrial landscape given our Governments clear commitment to renewable energy?

    I am sure others will comment.

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    • Even when the public do contribute to planning consultations the planners seem often to be programed to ignore what they say.

      We had an example of that in our village with a consultation on changes to the main road through it; 99% opposed the changes 100% of the council suits contemplated their navels throughout the evenings meeting then went away and ignored everything that had been said!

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  4. An excellent report which must surely lead to a change in the Planning process. However, the damage is done and changes to the Planning system cannot to be applied retrospectively so how can we get these estates to repair the damage done without handing out grants from the public purse. There are sadly many more examples of poorly constructed tracks which could have been added to the report.

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  5. I note the SLE response:
    ‘Following the publication of a report by the environmental alliance, LINK, Tim Baynes of Scottish Land & Estates, said: The central allegation in today’s report that landowners build hill tracks without any public oversight is simply not true.’

    At the top of this blog is the picture of the Ledgowan track, arguably the one of the worst examples of environmental damage from hill tracks, which was built without any public oversight or planning permission. Therefore, the claims simply are true. The evidence is there, and empty denials are pointless.

    It greatly saddens me that SLE do not recognise this issue as a problem. Knowing a number of responsible landowners, I used to be fairly neutral about SLE but their response to this issue has changed my view.

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    • Peter
      I many cases there will be oversight either because the track forms part of a wider scheme which requires planning or other permission, is in a designated area etc. We need to construct a short track for a hydro scheme and it requires ZTVs in support of its permission so hardly without oversight.
      I agree some won’t require permission based on use but that was considered by government as an issue recently and I imagine these issues were taken into account.
      What your doing is selecting the worst possible example, which no one believes is an acceptable scheme, and suggesting to stop such a transgression the rest of the industry (agriculture and forestry) should be burdened with further regs. My understanding of this case is that the scheme did receive some scrutiny or oversight but that the regulatory authorities took no action. I do not know why this was. It may be that in fact this scheme is not in compliance with the current framework in which case lets look at why that might have happened before creating new rules.
      SLE are trying to find that balance not defend a track like the above. For info I am a Director of SLE.

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  6. How can anyone who loves Scottish wild land even THINK of voting YES? There has been more destruction of wild land under Alex Salmond than all the other politicians combined. Send him homewards to think again. And to think the MC of S used to call cairns the “thin end of the wedge”.

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  7. I would suggest that few landowners would be concerned by bringing access roads under the planning policy given that the Scottish Government have clearly set the precedent and now readily permit, either through local authorities or on appeal, the development of access roads across the same environment to windfarm sites.

    Given that we are only 20% of the way to meeting the Governments renewable energy commitments, there may be little need for land users to incur the cost of construction in the near future given that they will probably be able to easily access many hills with an artic lorry if they so wish.

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  8. Many thanks for replying, Andrew. I am glad to hear you believe the Ledgowan track is unacceptable, but the fact is it happened, and it happened under the current broken system. If we do not change the system we will see more tracks like this.

    I believe in the Ledgowan case the estate claimed an agricultural purpose for the track and built it under Permitted Development Rights. The council found no evidence to the contrary, so accepted the estate’s claim. Looking at previous posts, it seems there was no oversight by SEPA of the track itself either.

    I do not think the council can be blamed for not acting. Under the current system, the council is powerless. It is difficult to prove a negative, and all an estate has to do is to claim they plan to put sheep up there at some unspecified point in the future. It is completely impossible to disprove, and any attempt at enforcement action would be vulnerable to legal challenge, particularly as agriculture is not defined for PDRs.

    Nor is Ledgowan an isolated case. I think there were 63 other tracks reported in a short timescale, varying from borderline acceptable to sheer vandalism.

    I agree there needs to be a balance. I do not wish to see a heavy burden on genuine farmers, and I consider that lowland farm tracks are seldom an issue. Similarly forestry tracks are less of a concern as often they are naturally screened and sometimes (not always) they are subject to separate forestry regs (and landowners should not have to have the same road regulated twice). My main concern is that we have seen a readiness by some estates to bend the current rules, knowing that the council will find it impossible to prove wrongdoing. Hence the tracks developed under agricultural PDRs that end at meteorological masts or grouse butts. Exemptions for forestry could be retained but would have to be worded carefully to avoid this sort of abuse.

    Even in upland areas, I accept that there is occasionally a need for a new track – I have extricated red deer carcasses by hand myself, which does give you a certain appreciation of the difficulties. I note in the previous consultation the association of Deer Management Groups considered the current tracks to be generally adequate, but new tracks could be required if significant numbers of deer moved to new areas. But the planning system can deal with uncontroversial developments swiftly, particularly if the decision is made by officers rather than elected members.

    I was glad to hear the Minister saying he would be looking at this issue again.

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  9. Indeed.

    Which makes the sudden need for an 18km track all the more curious.

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    • Any Estate which participates in the recreational killing of our wild animals should strictly be prohibited from any construction of hill tracks. It is bad enough that animals are shot for pleasure and even worse to scar their wild environment in the process. Game keepers and many unfit guests which they take into the hill, shoot directly from their vehicles. Lets face it there is no real need for these tracks, it just looks impressive when the keeper drives the Laird or factor along the track and deep into the hill. “oh yes, what a splendid track, jolly useful”

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  10. How did the mass walk over Ledgowan go? Was that not scheduled for today?

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  11. I understand there were around 30 people peacefully exercising their access rights, but the landowners were conspicuous by their absence.

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  12. Probably 30, maybe 50 at a stretch, on the hill over the course of the day. It is not easy to access the track from the house due a locked gate with a freshly printed sign (private yard please keep out)and shiny new padlock.

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  13. nice one! you got a mention on radio Scotland this morning.

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  14. It has been reported locally (Lochcarron) that – Officers of The Highland Council have met with representatives of the Ledgowan Estate (Friday 29 November). The Council is pleased to report that its suggestions to ensure that responsible public access and estate management practices can co-exist have been positively received by the Estate.

    Measures to encourage access and inform the public of Estate activities were discussed and are being considered by the Estate.

    Dialogue between the Estate and the Access Authority will continue to explore ways of enabling responsible access whilst respecting the operational needs of the Estate.

    In the meantime, as is the case when taking access at any sporting estate, for their own personal safety members of the public are advised to be mindful of Estate activities and to follow all reasonable instructions from Estate staff.

    – It would appear that the issues relating to the three Ledagowan Estate hill tracks were not discussed. They may not have been on the agenda of this meeting. What has SEPA had to say about the effluent drainage from the water courses they cross?

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  15. Whilst the main purpose of our walk last Saturday related to access issues, we were not prepared for the scale of irreparable damage and scarring across the hillside caused by these poorly designed and constructed tracks. It shocked and angered even those used to witnessing the worst of hill track construction. In some areas they had excavated through more than 2 metres of peat and created what could only be described as 6 metre wide trenches for several kilometres along the 450m contour (approx). The cynical might say these trenches were designed to allow vehicles to covertly approach deer and ensure the minimum of effort for the stalkers and clients.

    One of our party did confirm that sheep graze the hill in summer (and have done for generations before the current owner without the need for a track) but are taken off to the lowlands for the winter so this track is not required for feeding sheep and in any case the design of track and gradient would ensure that drifting snow will quickly fill the trenches and make it impassable.

    As one writer previously stated, the damage is done and reinstatement almost impossible. It is my intention to send the photos from our walk to MSP’s and Derek MacKay, the Minister for Local Government and Planning who in a previous reply informed me that the “the Scottish Government are committed the protecting the environment”.
    This purpose of this track is quite clearly for stalking and fishing on Lochan Sgeireach neither of which are classed as agricultural purposes. How much evidence does the Local Authority require?

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  16. Angus,

    How does it compare to a windfarm access road?

    Is the Scottish Government really committed to protecting the environment?

    How’s it compare to the widespread damage on Cairngorm from walkers and skiers?

    Ledgowan is small scale compared to some of the industrial development proposals currently promoted by SG for SAWL & CAWL.

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    • RR. for the greater good of the energy needs of the people. As compared to the desire to kill a wild animal with maximum convenience! How is that for a comparison?

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  17. Rural Rascal or Devils advocate – Built for different purposes. I am not in favour of the proliferation of wind farms and I believe they have already reached saturation point in our landscape but if you wish to make a comparison – wind farm roads are constructed to much higher standards, better drainage and gradients. Windfarms have to undertake environmental and landscape impact assessments and meet other strict controls from planning, SEPA, SNH etc. A windfarm serves a greater purpose in contributing to our energy needs and ultimately reducing carbon emissions. I’m not saying I agree with these statements but you asked how it compares – it doesn’t! A hill track under ‘permitted development’ does not appear to require any of the above or to meet any standards. The Ledgowan hill track serves one purpose – stalking. The choice of route is left to the landowner and the skill or otherwise of the machine operator.
    As for Cairngorm, that’s an historic argument now. I doubt that a similar ski development would get approval in 2013 and as for the paths, many mountain paths are being reconstructed to a very high standard with local materials and in some areas are very discrete.
    I suggest you walk the Ledgowan track and make up your own mind.

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  18. Would anyone seriously equate an eroded Cairngorm footpath with 18 kilometers of six meter wide highway excavated to a depth of 2 meters?

    They say peat accumulates at 1mm per year. Locally we have Roman roads still visible after two thousand years. Even if restoration of the Ledgowan track were attempted, I can still see our great great grandchildren shaking their heads at the scar that remains, and the folly of the man who did it.

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  19. Has anyone ever enquired of SNH what their position was on the (short) stretch of these tracks which ran through the SSSI?

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