Earlier this week, a coalition of environmental and animal welfare organisations together with the think-tank Commonspace, launched the Revive Coalition. Its mission it to secure fundamental reform of the way in which up to 20% of the land area of Scotland is currently managed for grouse shooting. In a report co-authored by Dr Ruth Tingay and myself, we set out the range of negative environmental impacts associated with the increased intensification of grouse moor management over recent years. This includes not only high profile crimes of raptor persecution but lead pollution, lethal control of predators and the indiscriminate use of medicines left in the open air. All of this is designed to increase the numbers of red grouse that can then be killed for the enjoyment of hunters.
One of the long-running impacts associated with grouse moors and other hunting estates is the proliferation of bulldozed hilltracks often constructed with crude methods at high altitude and causing highly visible scars on the landscape. In recent years, Scottish Environment LINK through its Hilltracks campaign has sought to document the extensive damage caused and the inadequate regulation of these developments. Last month, LINK produced yet another report highlighting the ongoing damage and the failure of the minimal reforms introduced in 2014 to do anything substantive about the problem.
The core issue is that tracks built for the purposes of agriculture and forestry do not have to apply for full planning permission. They are, in the jargon, permitted developments and cannot ultimately be refused. Tracks built for hunting are meant to secure full planning approval but are all too often built under the guise of agricultural purposes. A few sheep on the hill is enough to prevent planning authorities being able to challenge such obvious fabrications.
As far back as 2010, Peter Peacock MSP and Sarah Boyack MSP were campaigning for reform. A government review in 2012 recommended removing these permitted development rights but the Scottish Government instead introduced a minor tweak to the process instead.
One of the most prominent examples of this abuse took place on Ledgowan Estate at Achnasheen in Wester Ross. In 2013, an ugly and extensive track was constructed up a hillside “for agricultural purposes”. As a result no planning approval was required.
In 2017 the estate was on the market for £4.5 million with the sales particulars boasting that “accessibility to the majority of the hill ground has been transformed by the construction of a network of hill tracks. This significantly expands the scope of the stalking to enable those of all levels of physical fitness to stalk the hill for stags or hinds. This in turn has enabled the estate to attract a premium rental income for stalking lettings - particularly for European clients”.
This kind of opportunistic flouting of what is already a very permissive system has become endemic and is why last week I lodged an amendment to the Planning Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament. It sought to do two things. The first was to strengthen the law to make sure tracks for hunting could not exploit the agricultural loophole. The second was to extend the existing law that requires all tracks (no matter the purpose) in National Scenic Areas to apply for full planning consent. The extension was to apply this same requirement to National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and historic battlefields.
Despite widespread support and the painstaking and diligent work of environmental campaigners, the amendment fell. The three SNP and two Tory members voted no whilst myself and the Labour member of the Committee, Monica Lennon voted yes.
I am determined to carry on and work to secure this reform at the final Stage of the Bill in the New Year. The reforms sought are manifestly modest. They do not even interfere with the existing agricultural and forestry exemptions (except in protected areas). They merely seek to make the existing law work properly and give better scrutiny and protection to National Parks and our most valuable wildlife habitats.
For far too long a small number of very wealthy and well connected individuals have sought to secure exclusive control over a vast area of land for a “sport” that depends on an unacceptable level of environmental destruction of wildlife and natural beauty.
It is long past time to make sure that those who wish to scar some our most treasured landscapes are subject to the same degree of scrutiny that applies to the average homeowner who wishes to add a modest extension to their house.
If you care about our hills and mountains and want to see more effective regulation of such damaging activity please do write to your MSPs and ask them what they are doing to save Scotland’s hills from the ravages of hilltracks. We have time to fix this.