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Land and Estates (SLE) claim that Track Changes contained ‘fundamental misconceptions’, ‘incorrect information’, ‘out of date photographs’ and ‘misleading’ points.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.

On 15 October last year, I was preparing to leave home and travel to the Isle of Skye to visit my parents for the weekend. Shortly before I left, an email arrived from John Clegg & Co. advertising for sale 6,356 acres of land owned by Scottish Ministers in Strathnaver, Sutherland at offers over £1,850,000.

Aware that 2014 is the bicentenary of the infamous Strathnaver Clearances, I was surprised to see that the sales particulars not only included one of the best-preserved Clearance Villages at Rosal but described the land as “one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland”. (1) In further banal witterings, the sales brochure went on to opine that “ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land”

So, before leaving the house, I wrote a quick blog to express my doubts about the wisdom of this sale and the vacuousness and offensiveness  of the blurb. Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market. The Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse had asked Forestry Commission Scotland to halt the sale and a FCS spokesperson said that “We are no reviewing options.” (see Herald report).

Today, Rosal Forest is back on the market (5.9Mb pdf brochure here and 3.7Mb plan here).

Rosal Village in 2013 sale

Rosal Village excluded from 2014 sale

Rosal Clearance village has been removed from the sale and the nonsense about “wilderness” and “fascinating insights” has also now thankfully been omitted. A total of 5,962 acres of land is offered for sale at offers over £1.750,000. The sale forms part of the Forestry Commission’s “re-positioning” programme whereby, “subject to the approval of Ministers” land is sold and the proceeds used to invest in projects that “increase the contribution of the national forest estate to the delivery of Forestry Commission Scotland and wider Government objectives.”

Whilst this development is welcome, wider questions remain about the elite interests that continue to dominate private forestry in Scotland (see e.g.  here and here plus a research report from Feb 2012). For now at least, Scottish Ministers appear to have taken account of the historic significance of one of Scotland’s most important historical sites relating to the “ongoing struggle for ownership of this land.”

UPDATE 1 1512hrs 7 April 2014

Forestry Commission Scotland issued the following Media release today.

7 APRIL 2014 NEWS RELEASE No: 16241

Rosal clearance village secure for future

In recognition of the cultural and historic significance of Rosal clearance village, Forestry Commission Scotland is to continue managing the historically significant site as part of the National Forest Estate.

After consulting local community groups, the Commission will retain the historic village and 100 hectares surrounding it.

Working with local community groups, this will ensure the village is accessible and well interpreted as part of the wider Strathnaver Heritage Trail.

There had been plans previously to sell the whole of Rosal Forest but this was halted after concerns were raised over the future of the historic village.

The Rosal village is the remains of a once thriving Highland township, which was cleared of its inhabitants to make way for sheep back in the early 1800s.

Tim Cockerill, Forestry Commission Scotland’s manager in the North Highland’s said:

“We have fully consulted local groups again and have now taken positive action to ensure Rosal Village is protected as part of Scotland’s National Forest Estate.

“We are now exploring ways with the local community on how we can work closer together over the promotion and management of Rosal village in the future.”

The rest of the woodland area is due to be sold as part of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘re-positioning programme’. Under this programme, land delivering relatively low public benefits is sold to fund the purchase of new land which can bring about wider benefits.

In this case, some of the money raised will be invested in the creation of new woodland and recreation facilities at Sibster in Caithness and the recently announced starter-farm for new farmers at Achnamoine near Halkirk.

The sale of the rest of the woodland could also provide buyers with a secure supply of timber in the north of Scotland. This could be especially attractive to companies wishing to develop bio-energy projects in the area.

Lotting of the land for sale is not practical in this case, although it is the Commission’s preferred option as a way of offering more opportunities for woodland purchase to a wider range of people.

Communities can acquire land for sale through the National Forest Land Scheme, but there has been no interest in this case following ongoing discussions with local stakeholders.

Notes to news editors
1. Forestry Commission Scotland is part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

2. For news, events and recreation information log on to www.facebook.com/enjoyscotlandsforests For Twitter: www.twitter.com/fcscotlandnews

3. Tha FCS ag obair mar bhuidheann-stiùiridh coilltearachd Riaghaltas na h-Alba agus a’ riaghladh nan 660,000 heactairean ann an Oighreachd na Coille Nàiseanta, a’ dìonadh, a’ cumail smachd air agus a’ leudachadh nan coilltean gus buannachdan a thoirt dha coimhearsnachdan, an eaconamaidh agus, ag obair an aghaidh atharrachadh gnàth-shìde. www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

4. Media enquiries to Steve Williams, Forestry Commission Scotland press office 0131 314 6508.

(1) For further information on the historic sites in Strathnaver, see Strathnaver Museum page.

UPDATE 2 2100hrs 26 October 2015

Royal Forest was sold in June 2015 to Simon Brooke Mackay (Lord Tanlaw) and Rina Siew Yong, both of Queenstown Road, London, for £1,500,000

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).”

UPDATE 24 JANUARY 2014
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.

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: 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!

FOR SALE

Rosal Forest 6356 acres

Offers over £1,850,000

“A unique opportunity to acquire a large commercial forest situated in one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland surrounded by stunning scenery. Offering a significant volume of commercial conifer timber, areas for replanting and excellent deer stalking potential, all set within a unique landscape in the North of Scotland. Sporting rights included.

Rosal Forest is located within one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland. The area is known as Strathnaver and Naver Forest, renowned for its excellent salmon and trout fishing and deer stalking. 

Human settlement in this area dates back at least 6,000 years, but Strathnaver is known more for the Sutherland Clearances of the 1800’s when the locals were displaced from their lands to re-settle on the coast or travel by sea to the eastern seaboard of America and New Zealand to make way for a new era of sheep farming. Indeed, within Rosal Forest there are many historical features dating back to this period and beyond. The ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Scottish Ministers are selling Rosal Forest in Strathnaver, Sutherland. Included in the sale are numerous clearance villages including one of the best preserved at Rosal itself (see sales brochure 6.5Mb and  sale plan 3.9Mb pdf).

This forest will probably be sold to an absentee investor from England, or a Russian oligarch, or a multinational timber corporation. Scottish forestry will remain in the hands of elites as it currently is and as highlighted in this report from last year.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Strathnaver Clearances.

“..one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland

A fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Indeed.

UPDATE 16 October

At 1530 today, a Scottish Government spokesperson said “Rosal has been removed from selling agent’s website.”

The story so far…….

Dr Kenneth Brown wrote a guest blog (here) discussing the harassment he faced going about his lawful business at Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen, Ross-shire. This led to quite a few comments and emails recounting similar such incidents at Ledgowan over the past few year since Andrew Simpson took over ownership of the estate.

This in turn led to the revelation (to me) of the 18 km track that has been crudely bulldozed across the hills under Class 18 Permitted Development Rights whereby developments for agricultural use are exempted from the need for planning consent. Despite recommendations from Scottish Government officials in 2012 that such tracks be subject to normal planning rules, Derek Mackay (Minister for Local Government & Planning) under pressure from farming, landowning and forestry interests, refused.

Since publishing these blogs, more information and insight has come to light and I thank all those who have been in touch.

Agricultural Use

It is now confirmed that the road was built for agricultural activities. A number of hill farmers have been in touch with me. None can see any conceivable use for a road of this length, routing, construction or quality in this particular place. So what is it for? Simpson’s own website implies it is for trout and salmon fishing and wildlife safaris.

A previous application for a windfarm was refused on landscape grounds. A second application for a smaller development of two turbines was submitted and then withdrawn. Andrew Simpson currently has a live application for one 50kw turbine (Ref 12/03182/FUL). How convenient it is that there is already a road built to service it. How convenient also that any opposition to an application for a bigger scheme on landscape grounds is now much weakened by the fact that the road has now inflicted significant damage to the landscape.

Interestingly, SNH concede this fact in their comments in the current application where they point out that “the proposed turbine is located on terrace 2 within the SSSI. We agree that a turbine located here, with no need for additional tracks minimises damage to the main features of the site.” This  remember is a track that has smashed right through Terrace 1 and 2.

Pollution

The unauthorised construction of this track raises questions about pollution. A prominent expert in such matters has highlighted to me the possible issues with drainage, run-off and sediment loading. The road has been hastily constructed in an inexpert manner across numerous watercourses. It is clear that substantial works have been carried out on the loch shore. Have these works ever been approved by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)?

UPDATE 25 OCTOBER 2013

I wrote to SEPA on 14 October 2013 and asked them,

Could you provide me please with any information that SEPA holds in relation to activities on Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen.In particular I am interested in the road that has been constructed and, for example, whether the estate has a CAR licence under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011 for the water crossings and works by Loch a Chroisg.”

SEPA replied today and told me that they held no information in relation to the track, pointing out that if the watercourse crossings had been “done in accordance with General Binding Rule 6, then SEPA would not need to be involved”. We do not know, of course, whether such rules were followed.

More interestingly, in relation to the works on the shore of Loch a Chroisg, SEPA refused to release the relevant information.

Please note that SEPA is aware of engineering activities in Loch a Chroisg undertaken by Ledgowan Estate in June 2011 which resulted in the alteration of the watercourse. The work was carried out without a licence. SEPA holds information relating to this however the information has been withheld from release at this time under Regulation 10(5)(b) of EIR which states:

’10(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially … (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature.’

The Public Interest Test was carried out in relation to the information to be withheld under regulation 10(5)(b). To disclose evidence in a case prior to it being considered by the Procurator Fiscal, thus putting it in the public domain means the accused may not receive a fair trial.”

It therefore seems clear than an alleged offence has been committed under Section 44 of the Regulations and that criminal proceedings may follow.

The full reply from SEPA is here.

I have written to SEPA inviting them to investigate whether or not the 2011 Regulations have been followed in the construction of the new track.

UPDATE 29 OCTOBER 2013
SEPA has responded:-

SEPA will arrange to visit the site and look into your complaint. Once we have done so, we will get back to you and let you know the outcome of our findings.

 

It appears that the new landowner takes quite a hostile approach to the local community as is evident from this Community Council minute of February 2012 regarding a dispute over pedestrian access along a now disused public road.

The Chairman read out a letter from Helen Christie raising issues about access to Ledgowan Estate, threatening behaviour, construction of hill roads and the access across the bridge. Dave Mackenzie (an employee of Ledgowan Estate) stated he hadn’t stopped anyone and that the estate will abide by the law.”

Highland Council has now issued a Traffic Regulation Order permitting pedestrian and cycle traffic to continue to use this short stretch of the former A890 (council paper and minute).

During 2011, there was considerable disquiet among residents of Achnasheen about the construction of the new track and numerous complaints were made to Highland Council. On 5 August 2011, Dave MacKenzie submitted a Freedom of Information request to Highland Council asking for details of complaints that the Council had received. The Council complied with the request but redacted the personal details of those who had made the complaints. Mr MacKenzie asked for a review of the decision and subsequently appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner who, in her decision, stated that,

Mr MacKenzie is an employee of the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. He has explained that his request was motivated by the harassment and disruption to the progress of work that he was feeling as a result of the Council’s response to complaints, which he considered to be made by individuals or organisations that appeared to be either ill-informed or motivated by malice. He explained that he wanted to know the identities of those making complaints in order to inform them of the reason why work was being carried out.”

Creepy.

As is clear from Mr MacKenzie’s attendance at the Community Council meeting, he had (and continues to have) ample opportunity to “inform” people of “the reason why work was being carried out“. As for the harassment, disruption and malice which he refers to, let’s note one incident that took place just before Christmas 2011.

A number of residents noticed that their oil-fired heating systems stopped working. Upon inspection, an engineer found that holes had been drilled in their oil tanks, with the the contents seeping into the ground all over their gardens. The police investigated these criminal acts but found insufficient evidence to take further action.

In another incident, a person closely connected with the estate was caught digging a badger sett. Again the police were called but insufficient evidence was available and the perpetrators claimed that they had been looking for foxes.

Earlier this year a black-throated diver was found dead having been “shot by a high velocity projectile”.

The above incidents may have nothing to do with the estate. They may (although it appears unlikely) have entirely innocent explanations.

What’s going on?

In the previous Guest Blog, I published a piece by Dr Kenneth Brown about the hostile reception he received when walking on Ledgowan Estate. I now know one of the reasons why this might have happened – the unbelievable vandalism that has been perpetrated by the owner, Andrew Simpson. Zoom in on the map above (or preferably open it in a larger window) and see for yourself the incredible bulldozed track that has been ripped across the face of the hills for over eleven miles.
It is awesome.
There are two other photographs in the previous blog post.
Here is what Eoghain Maclean said in a comment under the piece.
He has taken advantage of his right to construct a track on his land for agricultural reasons. Laughable as it eventually arrives at a hill loch where you can catch arctic charr. I was brought up on the neighbouring estate but I like others would rather walk to a hill loch instead of being transported by an ATV (all terrain vehicle).
I am informed that there was a planning application for a wind farm but it was refused. Another one was submitted but withdrawn. There is a live planning application for one 50kw turbine just behind the Ledgowan Hotel. So has the owner of this estate built an incredible road without planning consent simply so that he (and one presumes others) don’t have to exert themselves to catch some arctic char? What is clear beyond any reasonable doubt is this is NOT an agricultural track.
Why on earth is someone allowed to build such a road for recreational purposes?
A number of environmental bodies are campaigning for such roads to be subject to planning permission. Sarah Boyack MPS and Peter Peacock MSP tried (and failed) to secure this in in 2010 (here is their campaign website). Earlier this summer, Scottish Environment Link re-launched the campaign. There is more info on the Ramblers’ Scotland website including the Scottish Link press release.
Maybe it’s time we asked Mr Simpson what exactly the point of all of this is. He can be contacted here.
UPDATE 2214 10 October
An informant has told me that the track was built under Permitted Development Rights. In other words the track does not need planning permission because it is for “agricultural purposes”. Highland Council found no evidence to the contrary (which is next to impossible to do) and thus had no grounds for refusal. Note that sport fishing is NOT an agricultural purpose. What makes the case even more astonishing is that the track runs through a geomorphological SSSI – the Achnashee Terraces SSSI – map here.
UPDATE 2323 10 October
A bit off topic, but some insight into the attitude of the current owner can be gleaned from his opposition to allow cyclists and walkers to use the old public road. Highland Council over-rode his objection. Committee paper here. Minutes here (Item 20)
UPDATE 1030 11 October Edits to paragraph about the wind-turbine development and link to the current application.
UPDATE 1433 11 October Interesting comment by Colin L in comments. On Mr Simpson’s own website it states that,
The includes 18 kilometres of track so that you can explore the local wildlife and area with a local safari company (cost on request). There is also trout fishing on the estate and salmon fishing may be available by arrangement.”
And on the Sporting Lets website run by CKDFinlayson Hughes (under sport tab),
there is now 18km of track on the estate, providing excellent access for sporting parties, sightseeing or an estate safari.”
As far as I can tell from the legislation (Class 18 exemption) this is not a track for agricultural purposes at all. Will Highland Council now demand reinstatement?

Public access to land has been a source of conflict in Scotland for a long time but matters have improved in recent years following the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which provides a right of responsible access to land. Every so often, however, stories appear that suggest there is still some way to go before Scotland can be anything like a normal country in which its citizens can enjoy the great outdoors in peace and quiet. Today, this account was sent to me by Dr Kenneth Brown from Glenmoriston. It details an encounter with the new owner of Ledgowan Estate in Wester Ross last weekend. The estate was bought in 2011 by a company called Rainheath Ltd. from Yorkshire. Members of the Simpson family are Directors of the company (though Richard Simpson who is named in the piece is not listed as a Director). Andrew Simpson owns 96.09% of the shares in Rainheath and he and Rainheath Ltd. also own the Rossie Ochil shooting estate in Perthshire.

Get off my land!

Dr Kenneth Brown

My wife and I were returning from walking on hills on the Ledgowan Estate to our car that was parked off the main Achnasheen-Lochcarron road (A890). When we arrived at our car, we were accosted by a young man who had parked his vehicle beside ours. We had previously noted the same vehicle parked beside the main road when we were higher up the mountainside and concluded that we were being watched.

He demanded, in an extraordinarily arrogant and ill-mannered way, to know what we were doing, “walking on his hill”. I informed him that we were simply exercising our statutory right of access to the countryside and that that was all he needed to know. However, he persisted in demanding an answer in a most offensive way but I refused to say more than to repeat that all he needed to know was that we were entirely within our legal rights to walk on that property.

He became so persistently offensive that I demanded to know his name and status and he described himself as Richard Simpson, the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. (An online Highland Council planning notice identifies the owner of this estate as Andrew Simpson, so I assume this person is his son or another relative).

He then began to argue that we had been disturbing sheep on the land. In fact, there had been no sheep to be seen anywhere in the landscape for the full duration of our visit. This, however, did not deter him and he claimed that our dog must have frightened them away. Not only was this untrue, but our dog is extremely obedient and is always completely under control. He is used to being out on the hill; during his 13 years he has accompanied me on many Munro climbs and is regularly walked on the hills around our home in Glenmoriston.

Simpson then informed us that deer stalking was in progress and that we could have been in danger from rifle fire. I replied that, in that case, he had a duty to inform members of the public of any potential danger to them and that, if there was any sound reason for restricting public access, notices should have been displayed and proper procedures followed for a temporary restriction of the general right of access to land. In fact there were no notices of any kind to be seen, apart from one that bore the words, ‘Ledgowan Estate, caring for the environment’.
Image © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We decided that nothing was to be gained by arguing with him and began to unlock our car. Simpson then made the absurd accusation that we had been disturbing the environment by walking on it. (There was some irony in this because the estate owner has recently driven an enormously long and wide hill track across the mountainside, through peat, leaving boulders and other detritus strewn across it on both sides). He suggested to my wife, a retired head teacher who was telling him that he needed to learn better manners, that she needed a new pair of glasses then photographed her, photographed our car and stalked off to his own vehicle and we drove away.

Newly constructed hill track on Ledgowan Estate – photo taken from Achnasheen (click image for larger version)

We have since learned that the owners of this estate have previously behaved in an extremely intimidatory way with members of the public who have accessed their land. They obviously hold the legal rights of the public in contempt and are prepared to override them by employing disgraceful tactics of the kind described above and we believe that some action should be taken to deter them.

UPDATE 6 NOVEMBER 2013

In the comments to this blog, Gerry Loose suggested that a mass walk be undertaken on Ledgowan Estate on St Andrews Day. He has asked me to publish the following.

St Andrew’s Day Mass Walk – Ledgowan Estate

My intention for the St Andrew’s Day Mass Walk in and around the Ledgowan Estate would be twofold:

1: to register concerns about hostility to access

2: to inspect the Estate, with a view to determining how the title-holders to this Estate are managing that part of Scotland of which I regard them to be stewards in the name of the folk of Scotland (as indeed many landowners claim to be).

That there is an absolute right of access enshrined in Scots Law is unarguable. That the Estate Managers and Title Holders have the best interests of the people of Scotland at heart, and that the Managers and Title Holders respect their duties to conform to the Planning Regulations of their local authority may be determined by this Mass Walk.

Unfortunately, time and work commitments and personal constraints mean that I can no longer take part in this Mass Walk.

I urge you all, however to be present on the day, in informal groups, as and when you can arrive, spending as much or as little time as you have and inspect the condition of Ledgowan Estate, touching on the two points above; and then make your findings public.
I’ll be there in spirit and will eagerly await all reports.

I also expect this St Andrew’s Day Inspection of (other) Lands & Estates to become an annual event.

I will be working towards this.

Good luck and happy walking
Gerry Loose

Gerry Loose
www.wildandstolen.wordpress.com
www.gerryloose.com