Month: August 2016

IMG_3647 Hen Harrier Jane Meek
Female hen harrier Atholl 2016 –  Photo Credit Jane Meek

It turns out that my failure to see hen harriers in Glen Bruar (see here), despite the abundance of red grouse, is not because they are not there,  as this photo demonstrates – thanks Jane!  I have also discovered that hen harriers are mentioned in the Environment Impact Assessment for the Glen Bruar hydro-scheme which was produced back in 2012.  Mea culpa, but its not easy to find out if an apparent absence of a species like hen harrier from  moorland  is a sign of persecution or is because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time or is simply because, as in my case, your birdwatching skills are at the amateur end of the spectrum.

 

This has got me thinking about the longstanding policy of RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and others to keep reports of certain raptor species secret.  I try and record my bird sightings on the hills tops on Birdtrack, the BTO’s recording system, but when I have seen and recorded eagles, for example, they disappear into the ether.   I have no way of finding out whether my sighting is exceptional or whether other people may have seen the species there.    By contrast, when I spotted a ptarmigan on the summit path of Ben Vane, in the LLTNP, earlier this year I could search and find the last record was back in 2012.

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Ptarmigan on path just below summit Ben Vane

This secrecy policy made sense when the main threat to our raptors were egg thieves but as Raptor Persecution Scotland and others have demonstrated, the main threat now is the way our grouse moors are managed.   Gamekeepers know better than anyone where raptors are likely to be found or when they move into an area and, for any that wish to persecute raptors, this is much easier to do if you are the only person who knows this.  What’s more, where proof of illegal persecution has been discovered, its often hillwalkers – members of the general public – who come across it.  A recent example was the black headed gull found in an illegal trap on the Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorm National Park.   So, instead of trying to keep knowledge about raptors whereabouts from the public, who generally do them no harm, how about trying to publicise the presence of raptors in order to offer them some protection from irresponsible gamekeepers?

 

Knowing a bird like a hen harrier is likely to be present in a place is worth a lot – much more than simply knowing it might occur.   If I had had Jane’s photo, it would have been worth stopping, 15 minutes or half an hour dedicated to scanning the moor for hen harrier.   If I had been successful it would have made my day.    It could also help protect the bird.   Hen harrier sighted on one of those estates in the eastern Cairngorms with terrible records of raptor persecution, publicise it and get people out there  – knowing that other people could be watching might just make irresponsible gamekeepers keep twice.

 

I would take this further.  I believe the Cairngorms National Park should promote hen harrier, like they do in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park.  The best protection the osprey has is that so many people have seen them.  Most estates fear the public repercussions of being found to have persecuted them so much that they don’t even think about it. Conversely, the biggest challenge for the hen harrier is so few people have seen them and estates know that whatever the evidence of persecution, there has never to date been sufficient public outrage to force our  politicians to act.

 

I started my run from House of Bruar and a packed car park.  Five minutes up the Falls path and there was no-one present, despite the magnificent gorge.   Even fewer people take the forest track beyond the gorge through the woods and out onto the moor.  A lost tourist and educational opportunity.

 

So how about a video link next year to three or four hen harrier nests in the Cairngorms National Park?    There would be no need to give the exact location of nests but the Park could also promote walks to places you might see harriers.   In Atholl, for example,  House of Bruar would be a great location for a video link and you could promote a walk to the edge of the woods to a place – and maybe a hide -where people would have a good chance of seeing a harrier if they watched and waited a bit.   Take it further, and give people the challenge of spotting a harrier.

 

Our National Parks should be places where we can try out different ways of doing things.  I am not saying we should publicise the presence of hen harrier across the country yet but keeping hen harriers and other rare raptors secret has not prevented their decline, so why not try the reverse in our National Parks and see what impact it has?

 

 

Badaguish

Peter Argyle, the convener of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, published a thoughtful blog piece on 19th August promoting the consultation on the new draft Park Partnership Plan and more specifically the need to work “partnership”.    While I do not doubt Peter’s good intentions, the reality is that many landowners and some businesses in the National Park at present are doing anything but working in partnership.  One example of this is their ability to flout planning regulations, apparently at will.

 

Recent planning failures

  • The failure of the Speyside Trust to observe or implement conditions attached to its developments at Badaguish in Glenmore.   The convener of the Park’s Planning Committee Eleanor Macintosh summarised all that was wrong in an excellent letter to the applicant back in March yet the Planning Committee at their last meeting  gave retrospective planning permission to all the unlawful developments that have taken place.
  • The failure of the Dinnet estate to observe planning rules on hill tracks north of Ballater as evidenced by the July committee report:
    • “Members are aware that the planning application is in part retrospective and it has taken a considerable amount of time to secure the necessary details to demonstrate compliance with adopted policy.  Whilst the approval of planning permission for the track works provides certainty, the delivery of the identified
      standards will rely heavily on the co-operation of the applicant, and it is prudent for the works to be implemented as soon as possible to avoid any further degradation of the track conditions and worsening of the landscape and visual,
      and environmental impacts.

       

    The minute of the meeting again records that the Planning Committee Convener is to write to Applicant to express the “Committee’s disappointment over the retrospective nature of the application.

  • The flouting of the planning requirements for the Sheiling rope tow at Cairngorm by Natural Retreats see here which is currently subjective to a retrospective planning application
  • The bulldozing of a new track onto the Monadhliath by the Cluny estate

Unfortunately, the CNPA at present is giving very mixed messages about planning rules.  On the one hand it is deploring what is going on – and rightly so – but then not only lets people get away with breaching planning requirements but suggests that all is well and everyone is working in partnership.  So,  after the Committee meeting which granted retrospective planning permission to all those unlawful developments at Badaguish the CNPA put out a press release headed “Approvals all round at the Planning Committee”:

 

“There is often the perception that the CNPA says no more often that yes, but in fact this is not the case as demonstrated today. By working with applicants early in the process we can help ensure that their projects can be realised.”

 

This is simply not true and totally divorced from reality as the evidence from the above planning applications shows.

 

The way forward for partnership working?

 

It is worth considering Peter Argyle’s statement in his blog piece against the evidence cited above:

 

“The legislation that established National Parks in Scotland did not give significant powers to the Authorities established to manage and direct them. It could be argued that beyond Planning and Access powers, National Park Authorities have almost no ‘powers’ at all.

We cannot ‘give orders’ or ‘issue instructions’; instead we work through co-operation and in (an over-used word these days) partnership. Which is a good thing as I believe this makes the CNPA a more effective organisation and helps foster better working relationships throughout the Park.

The CNPA works with others, be that local authorities, other agencies, the Scottish Government or, importantly, the communities within the Park; without forgetting the ‘communities of interest’ outwith the Park which can keep a very close watch on what happens here. It is a National Park”

 

  • Its true that our National Parks were not given significant powers, particularly in relation  land-use and ensuring landowners support the statutory objectives of the National Park.  This helps explain why landowners can flout those statutory objectives both by ignoring planning rules but in the way that the land is managed (wildlife persecution etc).  The CNPA could be calling for more powers instead of maintaining, against the evidence, that partnership are working.  I agree with Peter that “partnership” is an over-used word.   For partnership to work there has to be a clear framework for what is and what is not acceptable.  Unfortunately, there are NO ground rules at present – this needs to change.
  • Our National Parks however do have planning enforcement powers – the problem is there does not appear to be the will to use them.  The CNPA also has more powers than Peter suggests – it could for example create bye-laws to license hunting.  The new Partnership Plan should include an unequivocal commitment by the CNPA to re-establish the credibility of the planning system but also how it will use its existing powers more effectively to achieve its objectives.
  • I think it is significant that Peter’s list of “partners” makes no mention of landowners.  Yes of course the public authorities in the National Park should be working together – that is meant to be happening throughout Scotland through community planning – and  its good to see the reference to “communities of interest” (such as recreational organisations).   The problem is though you cannot work in partnership with people who simply ignore everything the National Park is supposed to be about except when it suits them.   This is mainly landowners but also businesses such at Natural Retreats and the Speyside Trust.   The new Partnership Plan needs to set some ground rules for these interests otherwise it will not to be worth the paper its written on.

 

 

 

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Muirburn by Bruar Lodge, Atholl

I have been meaning to give a plug for the post, http://cairngorms.co.uk/guest-blog-time-to-move-with-the-times/, from Will Boyd Wallis, Head of Land Management at the Cairngorms National Park, on grouse moor management.  He was encouraging people to respond to the current consultation on the CNPA’s new Partnership Plan and I think was suggesting, as far as someone in his position can, that its time for change.  This is welcome but I believe if change is going to happen people need to respond to the Park’s consultation and say that the stated objectives in their current form are totally inadequate.

 

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The northern edge of the Bruar plantation forest, looking across Glen Bruar to the new native woodland on Creag Bhagailteach

You only need to spend a day on the hill to see why.   I was out on Saturday and did a loop up Glen Bruar, over Beinn Dearg, then headed north for a couple of kilometres before dropping down to the Allt a Chuil, which runs through a wild, remote and unspoilt glen, and then back round to the northern end of Glen Bruar.   I took the track out over Creag Bhagailteach to Calvine.   Apart from the woodland along the A9 corridor and the summit slopes, almost the entire route was over moorland.

 

In over 20 miles of moorland habitat I saw several hundred red grouse – as soon as you step off track you appreciate they are everywhere –  but very little else:   1 buzzard, 1 carrion crow, a few meadow pipit, 1 dipper and, on the summit slopes of Beinn Dearg, two mountain hare and 7 ptarmigan.  That was it.    Now, I am sure I missed some wildlife as I was jogging and my eyesight is not what it as, but I think this was a pretty accurate reflection of the wildlife “balance” on the Bruar grouse moors.   Grouse and not much else.  A land of plenty mainly for grouse shooters and the hen harrier.  Despite stopping, scanning the moorland and hoping against hope, there were no harriers to be seen.  I am sure Glen Bruar has more than enough red grouse to support a pair but maybe I just missed them.

 

All the slopes along the glen had been subject to muirburn and there was evidence of this to altitudes of c850m.

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Muirburn below the red granite boulder strewn summit slopes of Beinn Dearg

There was other evidence too of intensive grouse moor management from the track high onto Beinn A Chait  (yes there were wildcats here once) to medicated grit.

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Medicated grit by track north end Glen Bruar

I think moorland is a misleading term for this country, its not natural at all, “game reserve” or “grouse farm” would be more accurate.

Commentary on the CNPA’s “Targets/Preferred Direction” for grouse moors in the draft Partnership Plan

CNPA Plan “Continue to improve and enhance the quality of moorland and montane habitats, particularly those in unfavourable condition”.  COMMENTARY our montane and moorland habitats generally are not improving, they are getting worse, because – as Will Boyd Wallis indicated in the CNPA blog – the farming of grouse has been intensified.
CNPA Plan “Manage muirburn to enable habitat enhancement”.  COMMENTARY– the only way we are going to enhance habitats is by stopping muirburn.  I would prefer a complete ban in the National Park but as a compromise how about an altitudinal limit to muirburn and designating some large muirburn free areas (say 50% of land under 600m altititude).
CNPA Plan “Improve the integration of grouse moor  management with wider habitat and species diversity” COMMENTARY I don’t understand what this means, you cannot integrate current grouse moor management with other objectives, you need to change it.  This won’t happen unless moorland managers are brought under control or the ownership of the land is transferred to people who do support diversity.
CNPA Plan “Improve raptor population conservation”.  COMMENTARY  raptors don’t need conservation, its the persecution that needs to stop.  Parkswatch has published several ideas of what the CNPA could do to stop this from using its planning powers (just stop consenting to new hill tracks) to licensing hunting.

CNPA Plan “Expand peatland restoration projects”.  COMMENTARY this sounds good but in Glen Bruar significant areas of peatland have been destroyed by the new hydro scheme consented to by the CNPA!   It would be interesting to know how much peatland has been lost in the National Park because of new hill tracks and other developments consented to under the planning system compared to the amount that has been restored.

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Destruction of moorland along the buried hydro scheme pipeline in Glen Bruar. There has been no attempt to preserve the peat/topsoil and instead boulders/minerals have been left on the surface creating new soils

 

New tracks continue to be bulldozed into the hills at an alarming rate for access to forestry, livestock, shooting, windfarms, hydro dams, pylons & masts. Designation of the area as a National Park appears to make no difference, for new tracks have now recently been bulldozed into most of the side glens of Glens Falloch and Dochart within the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. These are for the construction of, and subsequent access to, run-of-river hydro schemes (see previous post  by Nick Kempe)

 

Building such a track means breaking through the soil layers and disturbing the soil stratification which has built up over the previous millennia. It has been raining in Scotland since the end of the Ice Age which has caused the stratification and the leaching out of nutrients from the surface layers, and often also the development of an impermeable iron pan.

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Photo credit James Fenton

The above picture show two adjacent soil types exposed by recently bulldozed track in the LLTNP: a drier soil on the left (podsol) with bracken, showing brown layers rich in oxidised iron below; a wetter soil on the right (gley) with bog myrtle, showing grey layers of reduced iron. Both have a surface layer of organic humus.

Track ‘restoration’ can rarely recreate this soil detail so that any post-construction landscaping cannot recreate in full the original soil profile: some mixing of the different layers inevitable. Hence the restored ground represents a new habitat type in the locality, able to be colonised by plants which would not naturally be found in the locality. In effect they act as corridors for invasive species.

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Photo credit James Fenton

An example of the ‘restored’ ground associated with a hydro scheme within the LLTNP (Glen Falloch), showing a mix of the organic and mineral soil layers – and also showing a ditch liable to gully eroson. How not to do it!

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Photo credit James Fenton

Better quality track-side restoration above Glen Falloch within the LLTNP, showing how the organic layer has been reapplied over a mineral layer. However the track-bed itself will continue to be mineral soil, providing a habitat type new to the locality.

Tracks as corridors for invasive species

 

The new habitat created along tracks allows plants not native to the locality to colonise the area. The pictures below, while not taken within National Parks, illustrate what could happen to many of the new National Park tracks.

 

One of the plants which most commonly invades new tracks at lower altitudes is gorse. It also uses roadsides to colonise, for example along the full length of the road from Drumrunie to Achiltibuie in Wester Ross.

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Photo credit James Fenton

Gorse entering a new locality using a forestry track for colonisation (above picture).

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Photo credit James Fenton

Spruce colonising a track edge, illustrating how soil disturbance provides ideal conditions for tree colonisation. Tracks provide ideal seedbeds for self-seeded trees from forestry plantations. Most upgraded roads in the Highlands, including those within both the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Parks, now have a corridor of trees beside them owing to the ground disturbance from road construction – meaning you can no longer see the view from many roads. This will also occur along the A9 once dualled.

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Photo credit James Fenton

Scots pine colonising a track, seeded from the nearby plantation. Note that the old growth heather is relatively resistant to tree colonisation, indicating how soil disturbance from track construction creates new habitat, akin to the postglacial soil conditions in Scotland before centuries of rainfall had leached out the nutrients from the surface layers. This illustrates one reason why the landscape was more suited to tree colonisation millennia ago.

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Photo credit James Fenton

A windfarm access track built through blanket peat in the Monadhliath, the ‘restored’ area seeded with grass and being colonised by soft rush. This represents a new habitat type in this area, introducing species not found on blanket peat, and providing a route for additional species to enter.

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Photo credit James Fenton

Two plants of broom (centre) colonising a new hydro track within the Wester Ross National Scenic Area. Broom was previously unknown in this locality. It could have been brought in on contractor’s vehicles. Biosecurity of contractor’s vehicles should be a key condition of any new hill track construction.

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Photo credit James Fenton

A brassica species (yellow) colonising a new hydro track. Such brassicas would previously have been unknown in this glen.

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Photo credit James Fenton

A hydro track up the Boor Burn within the Wester Ross National Scenic Area showing very poor restoration. Note a shoot of mullein in the foreground, abundant foxgloves, and the extent of disturbed ground.

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Photo credit James Fenton

Gorse colonising the old construction site for this scheme – again introducing gorse into a new locality.

 

Other native plants which can enter ecosystems along access tracks include butterbur, coltsfoot, ragwort, thistles, rosebay willowherb and a variety of trees and shrubs.

 

Long-term threats to our National Parks

 

This whole issue of tracks acting as corridors for invasive species is rarely discussed, although it is realised in other parts of the world that habitat destruction begins with the building of roads. The long-term ecological impact of all the new tracks being built within National Parks and elsewhere remains to be seen but we should be aware of the potential issues raised here. Additionally many non-native invasive plants are currently colonising roadsides, including Indian (Himalayan) balsam, Himalayan knotweed, Japanese knotweed, montbretia, cotoneasters, garden variety lady’s mantle, rhododendron … Virtually no action is being taken on these, and we are creating suitable habitat for them also to colonise into the heart of our National Parks.

 

Note though, that vegetation colonisation can be a slow process, sometimes taking decades or centuries. Hence we will need to monitor these tracks for a long time. If nature conservation is about conserving naturalness, then tracks have the potential to compromise this. If anything, we are accelerating the rate of new track construction in our National Parks and other sensitive landscapes.

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The quarry site at the bottom of new Ben Glas track

Following James Fenton’s fine post “Just Say No ” and earlier posts on the destruction in Glen Falloch (see here and here) I wanted to write a bit more about the permanent impact that the construction of these schemes is having on the landscape.     This is not just about hydro schemes of course, and issues surrounding the creation of hilltracks for example apply to windfarms, the new unlawful hilltrack created at Cairngorm by Natural Retreats and the hundreds of kilometers of new tracks being bulldozed across our moorland both in our National Parks and outside (do please report these to the LINK hilltracks campaign – see post by George Allan).  However, in the last few years hydro-power has been generally seen as a “good thing” and its impacts benign.   I assumed this too, but having looked at the evidence of the Glen Falloch schemes, which the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have claimed as exemplars of sustainable development, have lost that faith.

 

In order to function, run of river hydro schemes need to channel water downhill through a pipe to the turbines that generate the electricity.    In the small burns found in the Scottish Hills this requires the construction of an intake dam as well as installation of a pipeline and the current and cheapest method to do this is to construct a track up the hill from the hydro power house to the intake.    While the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Supplementary Planning Guidance Renewables-finalstates such tracks should take the line of an existing tracks where these occur, the reality is because of the size of the “earth” moving machinery  a much wider track is required.   While the LLTNPA Guidance also suggests that “On soft ground, consider techniques such as temporary floating or rafted tracks to avoid habitat destruction, erosion and flooding” there is no evidence of such techniques being used in Glen Falloch.  Instead, tracks up to 7m wide have been created up the hillsides.   These tracks need a firm base to support the heavy machinery which requires large amounts of aggregate material.   While some of this has been taken from the hillside, particularly from moraine, this is often not possible because of the nature of the ground and so new quarries are created (as illustrated in the first photo).   The construction of the access tracks required to install these schemes has therefore generally required the transportation of large amounts of new material up the hill.

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Part of the lower section of the access track to Ben Glas hydro scheme Glen Falloch illustrating the large amount of aggregate used in its construction

The LLTNPA’s Guidance says the following about this:

 

“It is expected that any new access tracks required for the construction will be fully restored [my emphasis] unless there is overwhelming reason why they should be retained for the operational phase of the development”.

To fully restore this track would require the materials that have been imported to be returned to the appropriate quarry or “borrow pit”.   There is no evidence of this happening.

 

Instead, the new  material imported to construct the track is, once the construction has finished,  flattened out, reprofiled and then covered up .   This has a permanent impact both on the landscape and on the ecology (the ecological impacts will be subject of a forthcoming blog from James Fenton).

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Example of track “restoration” from the upper Falloch hydro scheme. You can  see evidence of the aggregate that has been imported on the right of the photo.  The imported aggregrate results in a track that has been raised above the previous contours in the landscape. In the centre of the photo you can see the imported aggregate has hardly been reprofiled and simply covered up with a thin layer of turf.

 

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Moraine can be used as a source of aggregate for building tracks, as here approaching the Ben Glas intake dams, but no restoration will be able to restore this to its former shape. Landscape features that have persisted since the end of the ice age, and would have been well known to the drovers who brought their cattle along this route, have been changed out of all recognition.
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Large amounts of material to build the track have been obtained from this moraine, the contours of which have been changed for ever.

Further surplus material is created from the digging of the trench for the water pipes.  Full restoration would require the removal from the hill of the material displaced by the installation of the pipe (to be used for example in road construction).   Instead this material is added to the material that is imported and taken from the moraines and then reprofiled.

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The laying of the water pipe brings material that was once well buried to the surface – it may be relatively small quantities compared to what is imported but it all adds up.

 

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One of the better examples of “restoration” where some turf has been re-used. The reprofiled slope however, while not entirely uniform, is still in the form of an embankment and is out of place with the natural shape of the hillside above.  Its very hard to restore slopes over a certain angle, hence the embankment look is replicated across what was once a wild landscape..

Its not just the track that creates destruction.  I had assumed that the intake dams would be built between natural features and indeed the LLTNPA renewable guidance suggests this: “Choose a weir location which is naturally well screened and where a weir structure can be readily introduced.”    The Ben Glas pipeline has two intake dams because it has to cross a slight rise between the Ben Glas burn and the powerhouse in Glen Falloch and for the water to flow through this the intake/s had to be located above where the main burn splits.    While one is situated between natural features,  the other has required extensive grounds excavations there was nowhere “natural” to locate it. The intake pool has literally been dug out of the ground.   More than double the damage to the land, which raises further questions about why this scheme was ever approved.

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Photo illustrating how the second Ben Glas intake has been excavated out of the ground. The burn has been diverted temporarily to allow the dam to be constructed. The first intake is hidden behind the moraine to the left of the track.
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Second Ben Glas intake from below- significant amounts of concrete and other materials have been imported into what was once wild land

 

 

 

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The first Ben Glas intake dam is located between natural features (moraine out of sight on left) but nevertheless has required significant amounts of material to be shifted and relandscaped.
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What will become the intake pool at the first dam. A large amount of concrete has been introduced to the landscape.

While bridges would not normally be required high up on run of river schemes, because there are two intakes, the pipe from and track to the first dam needs to cross the burn which currently flows down from the second dam.

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The “need” for a bridge introduces a further new structure into what was previously an almost pristine landscape (there are electricity pylons to the south).

 

These photos show that any talk of restoration of the damage cause by hydro schemes as currently constructed is misleading.  They create permanent change to the landscape.   There can be no restoration, only amelioration of the impacts (the subject of my next post).    This is important for the debate on wild land, land that should be free from development and where natural processes should be the dominant influence on the landscape.

 

While the construction of hydro schemes brings alien materials into the landscape, their operation diverts water from the burns that run through it.   I had previously questioned how the LLTNPA could possibly have recommended approval for this scheme when it would remove water from the Eagle Falls, waterfalls being so important to tourism and for many people where natural beauty starts.  I have since discovered that the Glen Falloch Estate is intending that the scheme will not operate in the day in order to maintain the flow of water down the Falls.    It speaks volumes that it is the  Estate, rather than the LLTNPA, which has taken this initiative though whether  it happens in practice, because it will lead to a considerable loss of income, remains to be seen.  The reduced flow in other burns though, will be noticeable to walkers.

 

Should run of river hydro schemes be allowed in our National Parks?

 

I would have liked the LLTNPA to have taken a far more critical view than it has on run of river hydro schemes.   Unfortunately, it has been driven by Government targets and only too ready to classify hydro schemes as sustainable development (hence the pat on the back it has given itself for its Guidance) without any proper consideration of the conservation impacts, which in case of conflict should be put first.  This, I believe, is in no small part because the LLTNPA has been too ready to accept the myth that all the damage created in the construction of these schemes can be restored.  It can’t and that means there are some places where these schemes should not be allowed, where the National Park should, as James Fenton put it, “Just Say No”.

 

If our National Parks were functioning properly they would have been leading the debate on this.  As it is, the only thing that I can see that separates the LLTNPA from other Planning Authorities is its best practice guidance which is about how the damage caused by these schemes can be ameliorated (and subject of my next post on Glen Falloch).

 

Photo taken 22nd August Ben Lawers Car Park Photo Credit Liza Downie
Photo taken 22nd August Ben Lawers Car Park Photo Credit Liza Downie

 

 

 

 

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New Inveruglas pay and display

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Liza Downie for sending me this photo from Ben Lawers after my last post.  I had questioned why the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park had just tendered for an automated number plate charging system when it had just installed new Pay and Display machines at Inveruglas – but perhaps they have already been stolen?!   Or has the LLTNPA realised their plan for Pay and Display machines at the three carparks was too risky and they are now trying to shift the costs of providing equipment onto external providers?

 

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The new car parking meters at Inveruglas carpark – it appears these are about to be scrapped in favour of a new automated number plate recognition system

At the end of last week, while the National had an excellent article by Lesley Riddoch and follow up letter by James Cassidy on access to the countryside, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority was advertising its latest plans to charge for access.    The contrast between what is needed and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is doing could not be greater.

 

I would urge you to read the Lesley Riddoch article in full if you have not already done so – and don’t be put off about it starting on the Olympics, its all about why access to the countryside is more important.

 

“Norway has sorted two big structural problems Scots have yet to really address; access to the Great Outdoors and access to excellent, affordable outdoor early years care. Looking first at outdoor access, the two countries have had very different sporting histories. Norway has 43 national parks – the first established in 1962. Scotland has two national parks – the first established in 2002 and neither is a wilderness area owned by the government as national parks are in Norway. Indeed, across the piece, formal rights of access to the outdoors in Scotland have typically occurred half a century later than Norway, have been less far-reaching and have not changed or challenged the dominance of private, sporting estates. Outdoor experience begins almost at birth in Norway – informally in near universally available family weekend cabins (hytter) and formally in kindergarten. Children in Norway not only have the right to affordable childcare between the ages of one and six, they also have the right to be outdoors at least one day per week.”

 

James Cassidy’s response, headed “Privatisation by Stealth, is equally good and makes the link with how the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority have been undermining access rights.

 

What we are seeing in LLTNP is the privatisation by stealth of a healthy and growing outdoors lifestyle, and if there’s anything more likely to deter ordinary people from accessing the outdoors it’s by pricing it out of their reach, and all under the threat of a £500 fine if you so much as camp where you shouldn’t. In the 1920s and 30s many people from the industrial heartlands of Scotland, such as the iconic outdoorsman Tom Weir, would take to the hills of Loch Lomond and Arrochar, camping by loch-sides, sheltering in caves and under old army capes, trying to escape the horrendous conditions and grinding poverty of the cities.

 

 

The LLTNPA’s privatisation by stealth

 

At the end of last week the LLTNPA advertised a tender for an Automated Number Plate Recognition system for three car parks it owns, Millarochy, Tarbert and Inveruglas. So what, you might ask?  Well the tender document tells you a little  about where commercialisation in the National Park  is going.

 

The idea is not just to charge for carparking but to raise the maximum amount of money possible:

 

“2.17.1    The proposed system must:

2.17.1.2 Maximise the revenue achieved via all car parks across stated NPA sites

2.17.1.3 Minimise any restriction to the flow of traffic on NPA sites.

2.17.1.4 Maximise overall parking occupancy”

and,

“The service must be able to operate 24 hours per day per year on a planned and adhoc basis. The NPA however will determine at what times charges will apply. For example charges might not be made on Christmas Day.”

 

It will be hard for any contractor to influence occupancy, as the LLTNPA sets the charges but its clear the LLTNPA is determined that no-one will escape without paying.

 

It is also clear this is intended as only the start of a process of introducing carparking charges across the National Park – I suspect how far this goes will depend on how much they can get away with:

 

“The NPA plans to enter into an agreement with the successful contractor, offering exclusive rights to introduce and operate an ANPR car park management system at sites of the NPA choosing, subject to agreement.

The contract will initially be for the three NPA’s sites quoted herein with the possibility of further sites being added or subtracted during the duration of the contract subject to suitability.”

 

Not for the first time, poorly thought out proposals by the LLTNPA will result in the squandering of public money.   The tender makes clear this includes provision of Payment machines – which will replace the Pay and Display machines the LLTNPA has just installed at Inveruglas!   (see photo above) :

 

“The successful contractor will be responsible, at their cost, to purchase, install and maintain all necessary equipment required to fulfil the contract.”

2.20       The contractor if required must ensure any car park is adequately covered with ticket issuing machines to ensure minimal walking distance from any car parking space to ticket machine.

2.21       The contractor if required must also provide an alternative machine immediately available in case of breakdown within a minimal walking distance. Proposed number and location of machines will be agreed with the NPA.”

 

What’s wrong with the proposed car parking charges

 

  • They appear to have been developed in secret just like the camping byelaws.  There have been no papers in public board meetings about this.
  •  There has been no open public consultation about whether the LLTNPA should try to make as much money as possible out of the assets it owns nor whether this is right in our National Parks.  There are plenty of other ways to fund out National Parks.    This is commercialisation by stealth,  motivated by neo-liberal thinking.
  • The LLTNPA has made clear in its tender that charging has nothing to do with encouraging people to stop coming to the National Park by car or adopt sustainable transport- its about maximising the number of cars and therefore its own income.
  • Encouraging people to visit a place – as has happened at Inveruglas where a new viewing tower to look out over Loch Lomond was built as part of the new Scenic Routes initiative – and then 18 months later to sting them for the privilege strikes me as being both immoral and maladroit.  Is the Park trying to destroy tourism?
  • Forcing people to pay car parking charges at important places for outdoor recreation – Inveruglas is the most popular starting point for Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich while Millarochy has long been an important launching point for canoes and dinghies – is basically a charge for access.   The LLTNPA has a statutory duty to promote enjoyment of the countryside and is tasked by Ministers with encouraging  physical activity but is proposing car parking charges which will penalise the people who want to get out and into the countryside and be active most.   If the LLTNPA want to know why this is plain stupid, they should just read Lesley Riddoch.
  •  The proposal is clearly linked to the proposed camping byelaws.  The tender document which states the successful bidder will “If required report on any NPA byelaw violations.” (para 2.30.6).  The proposed camping byelaws would make it an offence to sleep in a vehicle overnight – almost impossible to enforce when Ranger Patrols stop at 10pm but if you have video cameras in carparks this becomes much easier to enforce.   No wonder the tender says the successful bidder may be asked to extend the system to other carparks in future.  Where will this stop?
  • The charges are likely to destroy local tourism or create problems elsewhere because they will  deter people from using the carparks.  They will either go elsewhere or find other places to park.   This could be on verges, forcing the Park to cordon off even more areas, or in settlements like Tarbert people will find other places to park, to the inconvenience of local residents.  Where people go elsewhere this will be to the detriment of the local economy, directly in some cases such as the cafe situated in the Inveruglas car park and the hotel at Tarbert.
  • The introduction of car parking charges at Milarrochy will remove the last signficant free stopping off point along east Loch Lomond between Balmaha and Rowardennan.  James Cassidy in his letter wrote eloquently about the impact of the existing camping byelaws on walkers of the West Highland Way, but day visitors are now being squeezed out.  There is no bus and the creation of an urban clearway reduced the number of potential stopping off points.  The Rowardennan hotel offered free parking on its land along the shore – because it knew this was good for business – but the LLTNPA’s response to this has been to try and extend the clearway to the FCS carpark forcing people to use this.   In this context, charging for cars at Millarochy seems like part of a plan to deter people from visiting east Loch Lomond completely.  Was this what we created National Parks for?

 

The claims

NR photo
“Image showing reinstatement of turf on new ground contours prior to lift installation Oct 2015. Track on left of work site retained to move materials and ski lift components avoiding tracking on reinstated vegetation”.

Natural Retreats provided this photo in their supporting statement to the Cairngorms National Park Authority for retrospective planning application for the new track they created at Cairngorm.  If the ground had been restored as well as this photo suggests, the heather would now be in bloom – the reality is rather different.

The evidence from yesterday

While Parkswatch has a large bank of photos of the “restoration” of the reprofiled slope, its hard to demonstrate the extent of the damage from ground level.  The funicular however provides an excellent vantage point.

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No sign of blooming heather, in fact most of it is dead.                      Photo credit Alan Brattey
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Why, if the restoration was as effective as appears to be shown in the Natural Retreats photo, has such extensive re-seeding (the bright green is the newly sown grass) been required? Photo credit Alan Brattey.
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And how did this tree end up on its side and dying? You can see evidence on the ground that suggests it was knocked over by an earth moving machine – perhaps someone got a bit careless when scattering these boulders?   Photo Credit Alan Brattey
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The machinery has turned the bottom of the rope slow into a quagmire. It might now turn into a bog but the whole reason for the CNPA granting planning permssion to reprofile was to make it better for skiing and remove the old bulldozed tow line.           Photo Credit Alan Brattey
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Part of the problem is Natural Retreats has simply failed to empty the silt traps required by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Unfortunately SEPA appears to believe Natural Retreats’ claims that these are emptied on a daily basis.  Photo Credit Alan Brattey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural Retreats further claims about car park ski tow

“This experience [of restoration] is being applied to this project and adjacent areas of ground disturbed in underground cable renewal and ski -tow remediation works next to the site at the car park tow and other lifts as part of a three year ski lift upgrade”   (Supporting Statement)

The evidence from the ground

Parkswatch has already published photographic evidence of vehicles driving down the line of the carpark tow damaging the ground which Natural Retreats claim has been “restored”.  These were taken at a distance so here are some from closer up which show what has happened.CIMG8508

It was easier for Natural Retreats to dump a couple of planks to help their vehicles get across boggy ground rather than use the new track which they claim was needed to prevent this happening! Photo Credit Alan Brattey

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Photo credit Alan Brattey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo credit Alan Brattey

CNPA and HIE need to bring Natural Retreats under control at Cairngorm

These photos provide yet more evidence that Highlands and Islands Enterprise, as landowner, and CNPA, who are responsible for what happens in our National Parks, need to bring Natural Retreats under control in order to protect the environment at Cairngorm.  Things they could and should do include:

  • stop all off-road use of vehicles in the ski area without consent
  • stop all further earth works at Cairngorms, whether requiring planning permission or not, until a proper plan is produced for the area.   Any future works should be subject to outside and independent scrutiny/supervision
  • CNPA should require Natural Retreats and HIE to pay for a fully independent ecological survey on the extent of the damage and options for restoration and meantime reject the current planning application for a track.

Early in August Scotgold announced it had produced the first gold from its bulk ore processing trial at Cononish goldmine (see Herald).    This involves the crushing of ore that has already been extracted from the old mine to see how much gold it contains.   The original planning approval for the goldmine did not allow this.  It only became possible because of two alterations to the original planning application approved by the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority.  The latest was in February 2016 (to allow a shed to be used for this crushing ore) but the more important one was the application which the full Board considered at a special Board Meeting in January 2015 which agreed that processing could take place 24 hours a day except Sundays 2014_0285_DET-Committee_Report_Final-100126516. 

 

“The consented processing hours are 7am to 11pm Monday to Saturdays. The current application is also to extend processing to allow for a 24 hours working pattern starting at midnight on Monday through to Saturday midnight, allowing processing (condition 13(c)) to more closely match production (condition 13(b))”

 

While the justification for this change was to link mining production with processing, without it the current trial would have had to be considerably extended and might not have been financially viable.

 

The change in operating hours  was first mooted by Scotgold during Owen McKee’s convenorship of the planning committee.  The production of the first gold at Cononish brings into focus the strong financial interest he had in the application being approved having bought thousands of shares. When it became known, probably in November 2014, that Owen McKee had been  buying Scotgold shares  the LLTNPA then tried to cover this up and it only became public as a result of Freedom of Information requests I submitted http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/05/owen-mckee-hearing-standards-commission/.    What is still not known,  because the Park’s investigation never covered this, is the extent to which (if any) Owen McKee may have paved the way for the application being approved outside of Board Meetings before he resigned as convener.

 

I have previously revealed on Parkswatch that civil servants were informed about the Owen McKee case in December 2014 and were apparently content that the Park conduct a secret investigation into what had happened and that no referral was made to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life.   I have contrasted this with the findings of the Standards Commission http://parkswatchscotland.co.uk/2016/04/20/owen-mckee-hearing-standards-commission-2/ which re-inforced the importance of such interests being declared and which would have suspended Owen McKee had he not resigned.

 

I have since being trying to find out when Scottish Ministers were informed about the Owen McKee case using Freedom of Information requests and whether they were involved in the cover-up.  I have now had an answer in an email sent on 12th August by a civil servant who has been very polite and helpful and whose identity I will protect because he is only the messenger:

 

” Dear Mr Kempe

I refer to your email of 1 July.  Unfortunately I am unable to add to the information provided in my letter of 16 June, but would reiterate that Ministers were made fully aware of the situation regarding a directly elected Board member and shares in Scotgold.  I’m sure that you will appreciate that senior level discussions with Ministers take place regularly and on a wide variety of subjects.  Details of the timing and content of such discussions as part of routine sponsorship arrangements are not formally recorded.”

 

My email asking for this information was as follows:

 

From: Nick Kempe
Sent: 01 July 2016 00:59
To: (civil servant Scottish Government
Subject: Re: FOI of 18 May 2016 ref no. FoI 16/00761

Dear Mr (I have blanked out),

Thankyou very much for this response.   I appreciate you hold no written communications to the Minister about Owen McKee’s shareholding and I appreciate even more therefore you giving me an indication of what the Minister was told.  I appreciate too its difficult for people to recall content of discussions, but I think it would be in the public interest to know if the Minister was made aware of the Park’s internal investigation and also approximately when the Minister was made aware of Mr McKee’s shareholding.  From your response it appears that could be any time between when Keith Connal was informed about this in December until just before Owen McKee resigned, a period of approximately seven months”

 

What this tells us is the Scottish Government has no record of when  Aileen McLeod, the Environment Minister  at the time with responsibility for National Parks,  was told about the Owen McKee case or what her views were.   I am sure a senior civil servant will remembers thi but because nothing is in writing the public have no right to know.  We will probably therefore never know whether the decision by the Scottish Government to let the LLTNPA conduct a secret internal investigation without any referral to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards or other external investigation was taken by civil servants or the Minister.  Either way there has been a serious failure in governance.

 

If senior civil servants and Government Ministers are incapable of assessing when there has been a breach of the Code for Ethical Standards in Public Life and fail to act on information that is provided to them,   what does this say about the ethical standards at the heart of government?  What level of corruption would be need to be uncovered before someone in Government decided action was needed?    In my experience if someone in a Local Authority tried to cover something like this up, all hell would break loose.  There are though it seems different rules for our National Parks and central government.

 

The  Scottish Civil Service Code  contains a number of provisions in respect to transparency, integrity and honesty which appear to have been breached by senior officials in the Owen McKee case. Unfortunately, it appears that members of the public have no redress in cases where the civil service code is breached. But maybe its not the civil servants fault because Linda McKay, the Convener of the LLTNPA who led the cover-up, sits on the Strategic Board for the Scottish Civil Service.    She is the civil servants ultimate boss.

 

Its well past time that the serious failures in governance by both the LLTNPA and Scottish Government were raised in the Scottish Parliament.

 

 

 

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Photo credit Ron Greer

 

Natural Retreats have finally submitted a valid planning application to the Cairngorms National Park Authority for the new track they constructed and the bank they destroyed (see here) and photo above.  Neither had planning permission.  As the Cairngorm ski area is part of the Cairngorm National Scenic Area  all new tracks there require full planning permission.  While the application will be decided by the Cairngorms National Park Authority the documents supporting the application are currently on the Highland Council website (see here). 

 

The most important document is the supporting statement from Natural Retreats.  I am afraid it bears little resemblance to reality.  The CNPA should reject it for the following reasons:

  • Neither Glencoe nor Nevis Range have access roads – and the development of Coire na Ciste at Cairngorm was done without access roads.  In fact most of the lifts at Cairngorm still don’t have access roads.  If maintenance on lifts is needed and materials need to be brought in, this can be done by attaching hangers to the tows or lifts.   If other ski operators can do this, why can’t Natural Retreats?    There is nothing to justify their claim that “It makes operational sense that CML wish to retain the track as it has been an investment which will allow routine maintenance and minimise ground disturbance to the surrounding ski pistes in the future.”
  • The real issue at Cairngorm is that Natural Retreats are driving their vehicles willy nilly without any consideration of the impact of this on vegetation or soils and what’s more often fail to use the tracks that already exist.  Parkswatch has published several photos to substantiate this including the failure of their staff to use the new shieling tow track just last week (see here).  This makes a mockery of their claim that “The opportunity to retain this as a permanent maintenance track will thereforer serve this tow and others nearby, thus reducing the long-term need for vehicle access over undisturbed ground in the surrounding area”.  Instead of granting planning permission for the unlawful track CNPA should require Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Natural Retreats to reach a binding agreement which will keep vehicle use on the hill to a minimum.  This should include requirements on the use of existing uplift facilities to move materials and require
  • The original method statement, approved by CNPA,  made no reference to the need of a track for construction purposes.  If the vegetation had been removed in the manner specified from the top down, vehicles could have driven over the ground without destroying vegetation.  What  what happened was vehicles simply drove over the vegetation at will as photos below show.
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Route by which vehicles accessed shieling ski tow area – no attempt was made to protect this vegetation and the track here appears to have been created AFTER the work on the shieling had finished. Photo Credit Alan Brattey
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Construction vehicle bogged down in peat between the new track and the funicular   Photo Credit George Paton
  • Natural Retreats provide a single photo purporting to show re-instatement of the turf without any explanation for how this was actually done.   In fact if you look at the slope concerned now a lot of the heather in the photo appears to be missing and there is extensive use of grass seed.   Why?
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    The photo from Natural Retreats Supporting Statement simply raises more questions

     

Questions Natural Retreats need to answer before the planning application is considered further include:

Where are all the terram mats on which the spoiled and vegetation was supposed to be stored?

Where did the red material in the foreground come from?  (There was no mention in the original planning application of either removing ground material from the area or importing material and where this would come from).

If this really does show restoration, why then did Natural Retreats allow diggers to drive all over the restored ground to dig up vegetation from outside the area granted planning permission as in photo below?

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Digger ripping out vegetation (funicular support rail across top) having crossed ground that had been allegedly restored Photo credit George Paton
  • The real reason I believe the track was created was  because Natural Retreats had not stored turf and other materials in the required manner, were short of materials and a new track was a way of covering this up.   If this is right,  were the CNPA to approve the track they would in effect be endorsing Natural Retreats failure to abide by the Method Statement and undermining the credibility of the planning system.
  • The track has already eroded twice but Natural Retreats  is now proposing to fix this by installing 6 galvanised steel drainage channels.  While a knowledgeable source has told me that these look remarkably like the crash barriers which formerly lined the public road through the council carpark in Coire na Ciste,  the bigger issue is that the track, with or without drainage channels, is simply going to speed up the rate at which water runs off the hill.  The bottom of the shieling slope is already a boggy quagmire – you can see this clearly in the photos Natural Retreats provide – and the track will make it worse.  Everytime a track is created in the hills the speed of water run-off increases and flooding in the glens and straths increases.   The CNPA stated after the Deeside floods at the end of last year it wanted to prevent the causes of flooding which start upstream.   The track may only be 400m in total but every bit of additional track counts.
  • The surface of the new track comprises pink granitic material.  If it had come from the shieling slope it is hard to see how it could appear so clean – it would have been mixed with peat and fragments of vegetation judging by the photos of how the work on the slope was actually conducted.    It would appear to have been brought in from elsewhere and  Natural Retreats need to explain where it has come from so that it can be returned to that place.
  • Natural Retreats fail to explain that the reason the base of the lift had to be raised  was their own incompetence (see here).  They use this as justification for the destruction of the bank below the lift without asking anyone if they could do this and then claim  “The ground levels across the site and along the regraded bank now have a far more natural contour” is rubbish.   The track might have been bulldozed, but the bank this created had recovered and the vegetation on it was indistinguishable from the ground above.  The bank followed the line  of the burn so anyone not knowing might reasonably think that it was the result of water erosion – indeed the original bank probably was.  The new bank by contrast is smooth and at a constant angle and its very hard to see how such a feature could have been created by natural processes.   Its more like a typical motorway embankment.   The CNPA should not allow Natural Retreats to re-landscape the slopes at Cairngorm at will – where will this ever end?.

 

As the truth emerges, there are likely to be even more reasons for the CNPA to reject the planning application from Natural Retreats.    I rather fear though that the CNPA may take Natural Retreats supporting statement  at face value because of what appears in the draft minute of the Planning Committee of 8th July:

 

“38. Gavin [Miles, Head of Planning] provided a brief update on the planning consents and developments at Cairngorm Mountain. He confirmed that site restoration works around the replacement Shieling tow were being carried out in a satisfactory way and that the planning team would continue to monitor the site and work with Natural Retreats to achieve the restoration following construction.”

 

What needs to happen

The CNPA should  reject the current planning application and require Natural Retreats to pay for an independent ecology survey of the damage and its implications, including the impact on drainage and flood risk.    It should then require Natural Retreats to come up with proposals to reinstate the track, and compensate for the loss of the bank and other damage that has happened outwith the area granted planning permission.   I have already suggested this could include restoration of montane scrub, which is slowly colonising the lower ski slopes, and which would reduce the adverse landscape impacts of the ski infrastructure, improve the skiing, reduce flood risk and provide more habitat for birds like the ring ouzel.

 

While one would hope that Highlands and Islands Enterprise, as the landowner, will state publicly whether they support the planning application or not and why, it will be interesting to see if they do so.

 

If you wish to object to the planning application, you can do so via the comment button on the web page appears or by email to planning@cairngorms.co.uk.  I suggest people should ask the CNPA to require Natural Retreats to pay for an independent ecological report into the damage that has been created at Cairngorm and options to mitigate this.

 

 

James Fenton Ben GlasI was shocked recently to see what is happening in the wild areas of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Every side glen in the Glens Dochart and Falloch area now has a hydro scheme. This necessitates the construction of tracks high into the hills and the addition of dams into previously wild burns.

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Two pictures of the upper reaches of the Ben Glas burn above Glen Falloch. Photo Credits James Fenton

It makes you wonder why we have National Parks.

 

And it is not just in National Parks that these ‘run-of-river’ hydro schemes are being built. I was even more shocked to see a track being bulldozed in the heart of the Torridon mountains up the River Grudie towards the back of Coire Mhic Fhearchair (Beinn Eighe). This was once a National Park Direction Area, and has always been seen as being of National Park quality. It also lies within a National Scenic Area and a core area of wild land.

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A new track snaking up the River Grudie from Loch Maree, Beinn Eighe & Liathach behind. Photo Credit James Fenton

 

There was an outcry from the mountaineering fraternity about earlier planned hydro schemes in the Torridon area: why so silent now?

 

Why cannot the various government agencies just say “No” to these injudicious schemes? Why does the government not care about the Scottish landscape? Is nowhere sacrosanct?

 

If you realise that the huge hydro schemes of the 1950s/60s produce less than 10% of all Scotland’s electricity, is it worth sacrificing the remaining wild areas for a just few more megawatts?

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The countryside around Loch Chon – the Park’s plans don’t support large developments in the countryside

I have been asking the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority what criteria it would use to decide the planning application it is making to itself for a campsite at Loch Chon.  Among the issues is that the Your Park proposals to develop new campsites is not consistent with  the Park’s proposed Development Plan (see here)   Just over two weeks ago I received this reply which is far from clear:

 

“With regards to your request for advice regarding the determination of the planning application for Loch Chon, this will be determined in accordance with the development plan, taking relevant material considerations into account, as is the case when determining any planning application. The Adopted Local Plan and the Proposed Local Development Plan, which will eventually replace the current adopted plan (following the outcome of the current examination and including any modifications required by the Reporter) can both be found on our website.”

 

My guess is that in saying any planning application “will be determined in accordance with the development plan” the LLTNPA are referring to the Adopted Local Plan NOT the Proposed Local Development Plan and I have asked the Park to confirm this.   If so they have wasted money preparing an application which uses terminology from the proposed Local Development Plan (£100k spent last financial year with nothing to show as yet).

 

Now I can find NOTHING at all about campsites or camping in the current Adopted Local Plan.  This is a historic omission which has enabled the LLTNPA, since its creation, to grant planning permission to one former campsite after another to convert to caravan parks or “luxury tourist lodges”.  At least the proposed Local Development Plan mentions camping, although its provisions are so unclear and so muddled that it is unlikely it will do anything to help remedy the lack of campsites in the National Park.

 

The Adopted Plan though  does contain policies about developments in the countryside, which are relevant to the Loch Chon Planning application, including:

a) ” Proposals for medium to larger scale tourism development within the countryside will generally be resisted unless there is demonstrable evidence of:

(h) Strong market demand for the development that is currently not being met, and

(i) the benefits that development would bring to the local economy.”

b) A map which shows Loch Chon  in an area designated suitable for  “moderate increases in outdoor recreation”

 

The LLTNPA is proposing over 30 places in the Loch Chon campsite – if this is not a medium to large scale development what is?  Moreover, the Park’s Ranger records show there is very little camping in the area at present.  This suggests there is no market demand for such a large campsiten so it should “generally be resisted”.  Moreover if it were to be approved and did create new demand this would breach the Park’s policy on this being an area that is only suitable for moderate increases in recreation.

 

What’s as  interesting is that the policies in the proposed Local Development Plan, as they apply to Strathard and Loch Chon, are very similar to the current Adopted Plan.  Its designated an area of “smaller scale tourism potential”.  The proposed plan states that recreational developments should be where existing demand is – in other words the Park should only develop larger campsites such as that at Loch Chon where they are needed – and generally says quieter areas of the countryside should be conserved as such.   So, the Loch Chon campsite planning application contravenes both the current Adopted Local Plan and the proposed Local Development Plan.

 

Gordon Watson, the Chief Executive, as the former Director of Planning should have known this but the LLTNPA was desperate to announce it had some plans for campsites when the Minister approved the camping byelaws.  The only place the Park and Forestry Commission Scotland – the key partner who was supposed to deliver new campsites – had agreed on was Loch Chon.  My suspicion is that the original proposal here was for a much smaller campsite but Gordon Watson was either told or decided to increase the numbers to 30 to make the Park look better.  This was despite him knowing it contravened the Park’s own planning policies.   The whole proposal has been unravelling ever since and I trust that if it ever goes to the Planning Committee – and their meetings for July and August have been cancelled – members of that Committee will take an objective look at their own policies and do the right thing.

 

What needs to happen

The sooner the Park abandons the proposal for such a large campsite at Loch Chon the better.   The proposed site is great for camping – I was walking with someone at the weekend who had camped there and just seen a couple of other tents – and no-one would object to installation of a toilet and litter bin (for day visitors as much as campers).  But the mad ideas of using shipping containers for toilet blocks, trying to get people to camp on wooden platforms and forcing people to camp in designated places away from the lochside just need to be dropped.  The LLTNPA needs to go back to basics.

 

What the LLTNPA should do  is create a network of small campsites through the Trossachs.  In Strathard there could be small sites (just toilet and tap) at Loch Ard (e.g in the area being considered for camping permits) Loch Chon and Loch Arklet.   This would enable cyclists and walkers to make far better use of the path network that was created a few years ago and is sadly underused.  Such a network would be totally compatible with the vision of small scale tourism developments in the area which is contained in the Park’s plans.

 

The £345k allocated to the Loch Chon campsite this year should be easily enough to achieve this.   For £10k you could buy and install very high quality composting toilets and if the rest of the money and money current spent on ranger patrols was given to the local community they could invest it to maintain both campsites and manage the impacts of day visitors.

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The new damage created alongside the car park t-bar on Sunday – photo Alan Brattey

One might have thought after all the recent publicity about destruction at Cairngorm that Natural Retreats would have started to take just a little more care.   The latest evidence show nothing has changed and the spin from Natural Retreats bears no resemblance to what is happening on the gound.

 

Having claimed on their website what a great restoration job they had done on the trench where new cable was laid alongside the Carpark T-Bar, on Sunday Alan Brattey and George Paton witnessed the skiers uptrack being badly damaged by a vehicle.   People had been working to erect new steel structures to the top of the tow towers (nothing wrong with that) but when they had finished, they then drove an all terrain vehicle downthe uptrack to get back to the Day Lodge.   The photos shows the damage and the vehicle that caused it.

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Photo credit George Paton

Ironically, the towers they were working on were close to the unlawful track to the Shieling rope tow that Natural Retreats and HIE are now claiming is needed to prevent damage to vegetation.  However, instead of using this new track, which would have been a longer way round, the vehicle simply drove downhill and through the soft ground which is an almost permanent feature of the lower part of the tow track due to a spring which emerges there.  A complete lack of care and proof that were the Cairngorms National Park Authority to approve a retrospective planning application for the Shieling Rope Tow track it will do nothing to stop the damage at Cairngorm.  Natural Retreats allow their staff to drive anywhere.  This makes a mockery of the whole planning process.  Its also completely undermines the Visitor Management Plan at Cairngorm where Natural Retreats are legally bound to educate visitors about their impacts on the environment – with messages about treading lightly – while they allow their own staff and vehicles to plough furrows willy nilly across the hill.

 

Yesterday I received from HIE a copy of the Environment Management Plan referred to in their lease with Natural Retreats 160805_ Environmental Management System – Cairngorm Mountain Limited (A2247756) (A2674921).   Compare the photos above with this extract from their Environment Policy:

“To minimise environmental impacts concerning our activities, products and services, we shall:………..
* Educate, train and motivate employees to carry out tasks in an environmentally responsible manner”.
Has Natural Retreats carried out any education or training?   They clearly have not motivated their  their employees to carry out tasks in an environmentally sensitive manner but this would probably take too much money, including paying them a decent wage in return for high standards of work.   The Environment Management system is not worth the paper it is written on.
I am afraid that Natural Retreats appears to be one of those companies that engages expensive external consultants to write up policies and procedures so they can tick boxes and win contracts and then just simply ignores them in practice.    HIE needs to hold them to account.

 

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Hill Track Glen Ey, Mar Estate 1991, now in Cairngorms National Park         Photo Credit Adam Watson/NEMT

Poorly constructed and often illegal hill tracks have visually blighted many parts of the Highlands over the past decades. Recent changes in legislation have brought some measure of control to these but ongoing vigilance is needed. Although this is a Scotland wide issue, it is highly relevant to the National Parks.

 

Scottish Environment LINK hill tracks  campaign is keen for people to continue to submit photos and information about new tracks. Details of what is need and how to submit material is at- http://www.scotlink.org/work-areas/link-hill-tracks-campaign/

Photo of track Beinn a'Chait, Atholl, submitted June 2016 Photo Credit Jane Meek/ LINK
Photo of track Beinn a’Chait, Atholl, Cairngorms NP submitted June 2016 Photo Credit Jane Meek/ LINK

Legislation, in force for over a year, requires developers considering constructing tracks for agriculture or forestry purposes to notify the relevant planning authorities (Prior Notification procedures). Before the legislation, developers could construct such tracks without notifying anyone. LINK still considers that full planning consent should be required for all hill tracks but that the new system does allow a measure of democratic accountability and will lead to better constructed tracks.

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Poorly constructed hill track, Lynwilg, Cairngorms National Park Photo Credit Helen Todd

LINK volunteers have been monitoring all new planning applications for such tracks over the past year and comments have been made to the planning authorities in a number of cases. The following are the key issues which have emerged:

  • few problems have been identified regarding forestry tracks.
  • it is likely that some tracks claimed to be for agriculture continue to be primarily for sporting purposes with agricultural activity being limited to sheep being put on the hill as tick mops. Proving this is problematic and it is an issue which would exist even if full planning consent were required.
  • the new arrangements mean that planning authorities can now try to ensure that tracks are built to a good standard and follow the best line on the hill.
  • the new system allows third parties to comment.

LINK is continuing to monitor, hence the need for people to provide more information/photos.

LINK is also concerned that reinstatement/remedial work on the tracks created to facilitate the construction of small scale hydro projects is not being carried out well in some instances and it intends to keep an eye on the situation regarding these too.

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Hydro track, Glen Falloch, Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park – can such destruction ever be restored successfully?                                                                                                 Photo Credit Isla Kempe

 

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The earthworks a the Coire Cas T-bar started last year, not this as implied by Natural Retreats on their blog – Photo Credit George Paton

In a sign that they are feeling the media pressure (e.g here) Natural Retreats’  post on 11th August headed “Reinstatement of Embankment” tried to portray a positive picture of what they are doing at Cairngorm.

 

Natural Retreats claim that the work on the Coire Cas gantry work “was required in order to make the structure safer following a comprehensive engineer’s inspection. As we needed to ensure that the tow would be able to run at the beginning of last season, we put a short-term solution in place.”   The truth is the gantry was shut on Health and Safety grounds last year after years of neglect which Highlands and Islands Enterprise as landlords should have picked up but which Natural Retreats had done nothing to fix this since signing the lease.  In order to prevent the tow closing Highland Council agreed Natural Retreats could bulldoze earth, apparently on a de minimis basis, without planning permission to create a ramp for skiers to access the tow.

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Coire Cas t-bar Photo Credit George Paton

Natural Retreats claim that “since the start of the summer we have been working on completing a longer term solution including the necessary groundworks.”.  The truth is that some of the groundworks started last year, as evidenced by the top photo and the work on the rest of the embankment did not start till July, i.e 7-8 months later, far too late in the growing season to allow vegetation to get re-established.

 

Natural Retreats claim that “stored turfs were relaid”.  The top photo above shows that the earth moving closest to the tow took place in the snow.  Its impossible to remove and store turfs in such conditions.  Moreover, looking at the photos on their blog its hard to discern any evidence of stored turf – there is none at all on the widened track and only sparse vegetation on the bank which is why the reseeding pellets are so extensive.IMG_6707

There is no evidence of stored turf for work on the first part of the embankment because there wasn’t any – the digging took place in snowy conditions – or on the widened track

 

Natural Retreats claim “This reshaped area has smoothed previously bulldozed banks, that were created during the construction of the original hill road during the 1960’s”.   It is unclear what “smoothed” means but the truth is that the bulldozing that took place in the 1960s is well and truly back.

 

Natural Retreats claim, after what appears a reasonably accurate description of what Seed Aide does, that “We have used this technique for many past projects where it has been proven to enable regrowth and seeding by stabilising soils on steep banks”.  The truth is that  the Cairngorm Mountain company used to use this technique before Natural Retreats took it over, but Natural Retreats appear to have only started doing so very late in the year and following the outcry at the damage at Cairngorm.   If they dispute this, they should be able to provide proof of when the Seed Aide was ordered and delivered.

 

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Destruction of re-seeded area near bottom of Shieling rope tow where a large pit was dug to dump boulders – outwith planning permission

 

What Natural Retreats also don’t say on their blog is that in the areas where they have been re-seeding, there is still no control over vehicles and some of the recent restoration work has already been destroyed through a complete lack of care.   This must be very frustrating for the people who are trying to do the restoration work.

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How does this fit with claims to be protecting vegetation by storing turfs? Photo Credit George Paton

There is plenty of other evidence in Coire Cas that Natural Retreats is using vehicles inappropriately without any attempt to protect vegetation.

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When is a track not a track? Rather than use the existing tracks Natural Retreats is taking shortcuts Photo Credit George Paton

I am afraid nature simply doesn’t feature in the ethos of Natural Retreats

 

What needs to happen?

It seems to me that on grounds of environment management that Natural Retreats are simply unfit to manage Cairngorm.   HIE should have all the evidence they need now to terminate the lease.  I am afraid they won’t, not just because of the embarrassment this would cause, or because the environmental clauses in the lease are deficient (I am awaiting a copy of their Environmental Management Plan under FOI) but because they do not care about the environment.  If they did, they would have taken action long ago.     There therefore needs to be a community and public campaign to remove the land from their ownership and work towards a new vision for the ski area which results in high quality ski facilities, care for the environment and an attractive place for non-mountaineers to walk and experience the mountain.

 

We also of course need, as this post has demonstrated, a consistent planning framework for Cairngorm so we avoid the situation where for one set of works, the Shieling Rope tow, there is a requirement from CNPA for a detailed design statement to protect the ground but then just above this Highland Council allows a piste to be widened without any design statement at all.  This then needs to be backed up by effective and consistent enforcement of planning requirements.   There is no point in the CNPA requiring detailed good practice statements, such as those required for the works on the Sheiling Rope tow, if it then allows the applicant (in this case Natural Retreats) to simply ignore it.

 

 

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Remains of fire Loch Drunkie

Following the inflammatory facebook post from Rothiemurchus estate on campers here and here I had not appreciated the Cairngorms National Park Authority had issued a short new release please tread lightly.    Its tone is highly commendable, highlighting just how inflammatory the Rothiemurchus was, and the message  a positive one:  “We want people to enjoy the Cairngorms National Park and have a great holiday but not at the expense of our wildlife and the important habitats that support them”.

 

The one part of the message I would question is the “never light a fire in woodland or peaty soil” – the issue being what is meant by woodland or peaty soils?”.   Yes, lighting fires against the base of trees, as is claimed to have happened with the granny pine, is something that I don’t think is ever justifiable  but what about in woodland clearings?IMG_5954

Remains of fire in former camping place off Forest Drive, Trossachs – does this count as woodland in CNPA’s thinking?

 

 

The challenge here is about how to convey messages about behaviour without presenting everything as black and white.   So, there may be little risk in anyone lighting a fire in the clearing pictured above, so long as it was not so big that sparks flew into the trees or  the wind was blowing sparks or……….(there are a number of possible other “ors”).   The point is that decisions on these things require personal judgement and need to consider a number of factors.   I would like to see messages about “responsible” behaviour becoming more educative.  To give them further credit the CNPA in their News Release have mainly taken that approach.

 

The contrast with our other National Park is stark.  Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority has a complete downer about fires and in the Your Park consultation published photos of remains of old camp fires as proof that fires were a problem.  I have previously pointed out that the area of vegetation impacted is miniscule – and of no ecological significance – while the woodland the LLTNPA claims to be so concerned about is mainly a product of coppicing for charcoal.

 

What I have just realised though is what the “evidence” on fires from the Keep Scotland Beautiful Litter Audit used by the LLTNPA in their bye-law submission to Ministers tells us:

 

“During the audit 709 fire sites were recorded. The fires tended to appear in the same areas throughout the 8 week period.
– In some cases sites were recorded as having 13,14 and up to 17 fire sites on one occasion. On average 88 fire sites were found per week whilst carrying out the surveys.”

 

  • First, assuming each fire site is 1m square, the area of claimed damage to ground is 709 square or a patch of ground less than 30m x 30m in the area surveyed.
  • Second, that because these fires sites are spread out, if having a fire was really damaging, one might have predicted the whole of the National Park would have burned down by now.   It hasn’t.

This point is of crucial importance because of the wording of the proposed LLTNPA byelaws as they apply to fires:

No person shall without lawful authority:
(a) light or cause a fire within a Management Zone causing damage or likely to cause
damage to a Management Zone; or
(b) collect or use wood from within a Management Zone that causes damage or is likely to
cause damage to a Management Zone.

Its will not be an offence to light a fire in itself, its only when this causes damage or is likely to cause damage to a Management Zone.  So what is damage?

The same issues arise, I would suggest, as trying to define what is irresponsible behaviour, its rarely black and white and is often about judgement and indeed ones own prejudices.

So, some questions for the LLTNPA.

  • In what way would the fire in the top photo count as damage?
  • Is leaving a partially burned log in place to count as damage?
  • How close to a tree and in what circumstances would a fire need to be to count as being “likely to cause damage”?
  • When does collection of dead wood for use in fires count as damage?
  • How large do the damaged areas need to come to in total before they count as damage to the management zone?    

 

Ground works November 2015 Photo Credit Alan Brattey
Ground works November 2015                                                         Photo Credit Alan Brattey

On Monday, the lead letter in the Herald was about the destruction going on at Cairngorm under the aegis of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and calling for the Scottish Government to remove ownership of the ski area from HIE.

Herald Letter DM 160808001I have been looking out for a response from HIE.  There has been none.  The Herald usually publishes responses from public authorities to criticism in their columns immediately after receiving them.   It seems likely therefore HIE has decided they cannot defend the indefensible and are just hoping this will all blow over.

 

One reason it won’t are the concerns being expressed by people in the local community about how Cairngorm is being managed.   The Our Land festival, which is about giving people power over the use of land, includes an event  event being held in Aviemore on 17th September part of which is about the potential for the local community to takeover the running of the ski area:

 

“A community lead business model that reinvests money in staff and infrastructure, a resort that is run by boarders and skiers for boarders and skiers”.

 

Now  I believe a community business model should also be about summer use – Cairngorm is our fifth highest mountain and the main access is through the ski area – but the point here is that people in the local community have no faith in HIE’s appointment of Natural Retreats.  In addition to skiers and boarders, there are many other people don’t have any faith in either HIE’s or Natural Retreats’ ability to make the ski area a good place to visit in summer and there is extensive photographic evidence to show that they are unfit to protect the environment there.    There is a fantastic opportunity therefore for various interests to come together and realise these objectives.

 

I would not expect HIE to support this.  Indeed, by stipulating prior experience of running facilities was required for the tender process that led to the appointment of Natural Retreats they excluded local community interests from bidding.    I believe the pnly way that change can happen is if the land is transferred from HIE as Dave Morris called for in his letter to the Herald but the Scottish Government could use their powers, which are explicitly referred to in HIE’s title to the land, to direct HIE to take effective action to prevent any further damage at Cairngorm and to terminate its lease with HIE

HIE lease extract 1

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Work in progress on the Sheiling Poma 29th August 2015. Photo credit Alan Brattey

The planning permission that was granted to replace the shieling t-bar with a new lift, the sheiling rope tow, and to reprofile the slope was conditional on Natural Retreats keeping to the plans it had submitted, most of which were contained in the Method Statement.     The photo above provides proof that this was simply ignored:permission should have been clearly demarcated – it wasn’t

  • the works were supposed to be restricted to the area in the site plans (30m wide) – there is clear evidence of vehicles being driven over other vegetation which was supposed to be protected
  • there is no sign of the terram mats on which the soil and aggregates were to be stored
  • there is no sign of the turf having been removed and stored for re-use

To make matters worse, the contractors removed the boulders from the ski slope – there is no mention of what should happen to them in the Method Statement – and buried them in a big hole that they dug outside the area granted planning permission.Ab Sheiling Pit Back-Filled

The backfilled hole – Car Park t-bar in background                                   Photo Credit Alan Brattey

 

 

They then discovered they had not read the instructions properly and that the Sun Kid rope tow they were installing required a slope of consistent gradient.   Having removed boulders and soil which could have been used to re-profile the slope further, it was easier simply to take soil from somewhere nearer at hand.  The result was the destruction of the bank below the bottom of the poma, which again was clearly outwith the area granted planning permission.

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Destruction of the bank – photo credit Cairngorm Mountain webcam

 

 

 

Having failed to retain all the turf as set out in the Method Statement, Natural Retreats and their contractors were faced with the problem of how to restore vegetation to the slopes.   They simply didn’t have enough.  So what happened next, as best as I have been able to work out, was they decided to help themselves to some more IMG_6664vegetation outwith the area granted planning permission, plonk this down on the slopes and hope that nobody would notice.

 

There is clear evidence of vegetation and peat being scooped out of the ground by the diggers, including areas which had been protected from machinery during the construction of the funicular.  What was worthy of protection 1999-2001 is now apparently held to be of no account.    There is also extensive evidence of slopes outwith the area granted planning permission being re-seeded.  This would never have been required if turf and vegetation had not been removed outwith the planning permission that was granted.

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Evidence of extensive re-seeding of areas outwith that granted planning permission

There was, however, still insufficient vegetation to cover the slopes and the constant and unnecessary movement of large vehicles had in any case eroded a trackline so what better solution to turn this into a new track and again hope no-one would notice?

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The top part of the new track created by the constant passage of vehicles – photo credit Alan Brattey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The straight lower section of the new track – in the far distance you can see where the middle of the track has been lined with a thin layer of soil and reseeded

After the media coverage of this track eroding away – water simply washes down it – Natural Retreats smoothed it out again and possibly added more material.  It was already eroding again when I visited a week ago and the heavy rain since will have caused further damage.

 

What will happen next?

The Cairngorms National Park Authority admitted in public, as a result of Rob Edwards article in the Sunday Herald that there had been two breaches of planning permission, the creation of a new  track  bank and the destruction of the bank below the bottom of the lift.     What they have not so far admitted is that there were extensive breaches of the Method Statement and these resulted in the area worked being far broader than the 30m strip granted planning permission (in some places the damage extends at least 60m across the slope), materials being dumped and buried outwith the area granted planning permission and contrary to it and vegetation being scooped up from anywhere handy to make up the loss.   The CNPA’s approach at present appears to be to wait for a retrospective planning application from Natural Retreats for the unlawful track and…………….not much else.

 

This is a missed opportunity.   With Highlands and Islands Enterprise as landowner showing no signs of taking any responsibility for what has happened and Natural Retreats clearly ignoring not just the CNPA but the aspirations of all the stakeholders at Cairngorm (from the local community to skiers to conservationists)  the CNPA has the chance to show that being a National Park means something.   It could start by making full use of its enforcement powers and demand new measures to compensate for what has happened.   If HIE and Natural Retreats do not co-operate it could join calls for the land to be transferred from HIE to the Forestry Commission and for the lease with Natural Retreats to be terminated.

 

 

 

I was in Glen Lyon yesterday, enjoying the weather window in the earlier part of the day, to run over a few hills but must confess to thinking a few times about my last post.  I was worried if I had got the wording right so it  was re-assuring to return and see there has been a mini-twitter flurry based on Bob Reid’s tweet that it had provided a sense of perspective – thanks Bob!

 

I had had a few more thoughts though – not about ecology –  but about why the Rothiemurchus post should be seen as an incitement to undermine access rights.

 

Our access legislation includes rights to undertake an number of activities on land where access rights apply – subject to the law and behaving responsibly.   This includes the rights to camp, walk, bike, horse ride and to light fires.    All these activities are distinct but the Rothiemurchus post was about linking camping to fire lighting – so it was the “selfish” campers who had behaved in a “shockingly irresponsible” way and then “scarpered”.       The reader is left with the impression that it is the camping, not the fire lighting, which is the problem and the predictable result is there are calls to ban camping.

 

A more accurate way to have described the people whose actions led to the destruction of the Granny pine could have been to call them “fire lighters”.   That sounds very stilted!  Part of the problem is that English, that most flexible of languages, does not have an extensive vocabulary to describe the motivations and behaviours of people who light fires.  I can think of “arsonist” at one extreme.  The people who burned the Granny pine were not, I think, arsonists – maybe “fire louts” would get across the idea they were acting at the very irresponsible behaviour end of the spectrum.  But what word do we use for the people who light fires responsibly in places safe to do so?

 

While we need to develop a vocabulary to describe the lighting of fires under access rights, the lack of one does not excuse Rothiemurchus mis-describing irresponsible fire lighters as irresponsible campers.   They could have described the people as “shockingly irresponsible” visitors but that would be to attack the goose that lays the golden egg.  So ignore the fact that fires can be lit by day visitors (anyone from general tourist to people fishing) and just use this as an opportunity to attack campers.  Unfortunately, the way the Scottish Outdoor Access Code has been written at present makes all of this quite respectable as it implicitly links fires to camping http://www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/Practical-guide/public/Lighting-fires suggesting people use a stove rather than light a fire (which is fine for anyone wanting to make a cup of tea) but with a tent in the background.   You would never know most campers don’t light fires and that many people who do light fires never camp.

 

The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority of course used exactly the same associations – particularly by linking litter to campers through a series of photographs – to justify their proposals for the camping byelaws.  The photos and associations were sufficient at the time to convince the then Minister for the Environment, Aileen McLeod, to approve the bye-law proposals.  The LTTNPA has since admitted that litter is a far wider issue than campers but has not written to the new Minister saying it got this completely wrong because that would be to undermine its real agenda which is simply to ban camping.  When Rothiemurchus uses similar techniques, it should make everyone ask that their real agenda is.

 

I believe that  what the burning of the Granny Pine shows is that we need a public discussion about fires and access rights (not camping).  While this should take place within some of the ecological considerations I outlined in my last post it should also extend from provision of infrastructure such as barbecue facilities/fire pits to places, like protected woodland, where there might need to be a ban on visitor fires.     If the debate were framed in this way it might take us to the need for “fire bye-laws” (not a new thing) in areas of our National Park without raising any spectre about camping bans.  The truth is that camping in itself, like walking, is one of the least potentially damaging activities that take place under access rights.

 

In terms of testing out any new approaches to fires, the Glenmore corridor might be a good place to do this and the Cairngorms National Park’s proposed Glenmore/Cairngorm Plan a good starting point.   What most people won’t appreciate however is that the Rothiemurchus Estate is not included in the draft plan, not because Rothiemurchus is geographically distinct from Glenmore, but because the estate did not want to be part of it.  It would prefer to do its own thing including inflaming public opinion against campers – hence why we need to ask what is the real agenda here? – and another sign of the current powerlessness of the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

 

Our two National Parks, which have a legal duty to promote public enjoyment of the countryside and conservation of the natural environment,  should be the places where the relationship between the two  are articulated in a sophisticated manner and best practice demonstrated.  Fires in the countryside is just one example of this but could be a good place to start.   This though is unlikely to happen in the LLTNPA, so long as it remains hijacked by nimbyists, or in the CNPA while it appears to have two hands tied behind its back.

 

“It is not felling or fire that destroys a pine wood, but overgrazing of the ground beneath and beyond, whether by sheep or by deer.”   Chris Smout

 

On Thursday Rothiemurchus made a Facebook post of a burning granny pine and the following comment:

 

“A sad day on Rothiemurchus today. One of our beautiful 250 year old granny pines, beside the Lily Loch, was burnt down by selfish campers. Not only that, they chopped down two old birch trees to provide fuel for their fire! Luckily we had a team out very early moving cattle who saw the smoke, alerted the fire brigade and went straight to the scene. They arrived to find the campers had scarpered and the tree engulfed in flames. Their quick actions prevented the fire spreading further which would have destroyed surrounding woodland and wildlife in this protected area. These campers have not only broken the law, they have behaved in a shockingly irresponsible way. We would ask people to think very carefully before they do anything which could impact upon an environment which takes hundreds of years to recover. It’s only a tiny proportion of visitors who behave stupidly and we are extremely grateful and thank all those who help care for this special place.”

 

While I personally hate to see trees burned in acts of vandalism, the post – whether deliberately or not – has inflamed public opinion in the social media world with over 650 written comments and 3.5k  likes/reactions.    The largest proportion of these express disgust and a desire for retribution for whoever did this with calls to lock the people up and even “burn them” – this is social media after all.   A few, predictably, are asking for camping bans but it is good to see a larger number try and draw a line between responsible campers and vandals.   Indeed a few question how the estate can be sure it was campers who had done this when the people concerned had “scarpered” and the birch trees cut down with a heavy saw that most campers would never carry.  The estate has responded by affirming it was campers (as though to emphasise that this is the important fact) though to be fair it does say only a small minority of people behave like this.

 

The reaction has been focussed on the burning of the tree rather than the wider significance of this.  I find it interesting that there appears more public concern at present about the damage to one tree  than the systematic destruction going on up the road at Cairngorm or the systematic muirburn that takes place on grouse moors.

 

The Rothiemurchus post did not help put matters in perspective by claiming that the environment takes hundreds of years to recover after fire or similar acts.   This is simply not true.  Indeed it says so in their own Forest Plan:

 

“Visitors may be left with the impression that the pinewood of Rothiemurchus is an untouched wild wood, but this is a myth. In fact the Rothiemurchus woodlands exist today because of their ability to regenerate, having probably been clearfelled twice, and not because they were spared by the axe” (Smout & Lambert, 1999)

 

Moreover, fire is one of the most important ways in which the Caledonian pine woods regenerate.     Chris Smout, made the point succintly in the inaugural Royal Scottish Forestry Society “The History and the Myth of Scots Pine”  (see here) which is essential reading for anyone interested in the pinewoods:

 

“Accidental or deliberate fires also sometimes devastated pinewoods, but again they usually caused no lasting damage as pine readily regenerates after a fire.”

 

The ecology of this that older pines are quite resistant to fire (unlike other trees like birch) while pine seedlings do not germinate or grow well under extensive vegetation.   Burn the vegetation and the pine seedlings have a chance to grow.   The problem is not fire itself – it has been actively used by the RSPB at Abernethy (see here) to promote regeneration and indeed the Rothiemurchus Forest Plan has a section on the use of fire in regeneration – but its overuse.   Burn a bit of moorland once, and trees will regenerate, but burn it over and over again as they do on grouse moors and they have no chance.    I find it ironic that Rothiemurchus is claiming that the burning of one tree is a threat to the environment when elsewhere on the estate, beyond an artificial forest boundary, muirburn is practised and is preventing the expansion of the pine wood:

 

“Thanks to the Rothiemurchus Estate who manage the land, we were able to see the heather in different stages of growth due to recent muirburn management. Muirburn is a way of managing the moorland to create patches of heather at all different stages of growth – essential to maintaining a healthy and abundant grouse population.” (http://getoutadventures.co.uk/blog/)

 

The best way to mitigate the consequences of a large fire in a place like Glenmore is to expand the extent of the forest and in that respect Rothiemurchus has been part of the problem because of its muirburn practices.

 

Unfortunately, people do not seem to appreciate that the likelihood of a large fire in Glenmore is almost inevitable as a result of current conservation initiatives.  If you allow a forest to develop with only very limited human intervention, the ground cover will increase and at some stage, in dry weather, there will be an extensive fire.   This could happen naturally through a lightening strike or could be triggered by humans, whether accidentally or deliberately.   This does not make those conservation initiatives a bad thing, rather the contrary, but as Smout notes, in the past human management of the pine forest (clearing areas of timber and so creating fire breaks and removal of ground vegetation for various purposes) reduced these risks.    Allow nature primacy, as we have seen in the US and Australia, and eventually you will get a huge fire.   Such fires of course are much more common in those countries, in part due to the climate, but to think they will not happen here is to put your head in the sand.   At some point, a whole lot of granny pines are going to burn but we should despair or condemn too much, the woodland will regenerate. Personally I believe this outcome to be preferable to what is happening in much of the rest of Scotland where overgrazing has reduced the likely impact of fires to negligible proportions but has been slowly strangling the pinewoods as the granny pines die one by one.

 

None of this means I condone people setting trees alight or that, because a large fire will happen at some point, I believe it would have been okay if the fire had spread in this case.  If we are going to allow natural processes to dominate certain areas – which is what I would like to see – it would be preferable that disasters should happen naturally, rather than being created by human foolishness.   In the case of fire, this means fires caused by lightening strikes rather than chainsaw wielding vandals.

 

We will not though, I believe, ever get rid of human foolishness/irresponsibility entirely and we should not use that foolishness, as some people have in this case – and as Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority are proposing to do with their camping byelaws – as a reason to remove people’s right to enjoy nature or simply an excuse to get people off the land.   Camping should be part of the right to enjoy nature.  To defend that right we need to increase people’s understanding of ecological processes and expose the hypocrisy of those who are only too happy to condemn certain acts of irresponsible behaviour while turning a blind eye the much greater destruction that is going on elsewhere.

I am pleased to see that there is a Hen Harrier day event in the Cairngorm National Park at 1pm on Sunday at Cairngorm  https://www.facebook.com/events/253914288297410/.   I am even more delighted to see that Peter Argyle, convener of the Cairngorms National Park Authority is one of the speakers.   In the last few months I have posted a number of articles about the persistent raptor persecution that has been going on in the National Park, the most recent of which was critical of the draft Park Partnership Plan for being too weak.  I have called for the Cairngorms National Park Authority to take a lead on this issue – if we cannot protect raptors in our National Parks what hope for the rest of Scotland? – and I think that just by agreeing to speak Peter Argyle is sending a message to the owners of our grouse moors.    I hope he will go further than this and express  a willingness by the CNPA to use its powers more effectively to protect raptors and other wildlife (licensing hunting, forbidding all traps etc) but would not underestimate the difficulty of him doing this.  The grouse moor owners are extremely powerful.

 

Not all grouse moor owners are bad, however, and its very good to see that Peter is appearing with Thomas MacDonell, Director of Conservation & Forestry, Wildland Ltd which runs  Glen Feshie.  Glen Feshie was the place where the Harrier that was illegally killed last year near Newtonmore was born and satellite tagged – which is why the reason for its death is known.   Glen Feshie still makes an income from grouse shooting – on a “walked up” basis – but not by destroying everything else that moves.    It shows what can be done but is however also the exception, not the rule.     The other speakers are: Allan Bantick – former chair of Scottish Wildlife Trust; Jeep Solid – local poet; Brian Etheridge -former RSPB Raptor Monitoring Officer and Ian Thomson – Head of Investigations at RSBP Scotland.

 

I hope those attending this event will take the time afterwards to take a walk round Coire Cas and ponder the connections between the destruction that is going on their and the destruction of raptors and other wildlife on our grouse moors.   To me, they are part of the same mindset, that the land is there to be used in whatever the person in control of it at the time likes.   So, grouse moor owners bulldoze tracks across the moors (to facilitate the destructive habitat management that includes persecution of hen harriers) while Highlands and Islands Enterprise allows its tenant, Natural Retreats, to bulldoze tracks on the mountain without planning permission.   Both drive all terrain vehicles all over the land without any regard for the damage this causes.   Both ignore the opportunity that wildlife could offer to diversify their businesses, grouse moor owners through killing everything that could possible affect numbers of grouse, Natural Retreats by putting all its focus on trying get people to pay for the ride up the funicular when there is huge for good works around the ski area.  In my view neither really care about the natural environment which our National Park was set to protect.

 

If Natural Retreats are in any way sponsoring or supporting this event I hope those present will make the connections and challenge them about what they are doing at Cairngorm.

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An illustration of the extensive “works” at Coire Cas Cairngorm taken mid-July                      Photo credit George Paton

It is good to be able to report that following coverage on Parkswatch, Natural Retreats has been making some effort to clear up Cairngorm. Indeed it has created a new section on the Cairngorm Mountain website to try and convince the wider world that they are doing a good job   http://www.cairngormmountain.org/category/behind-the-scenes/.  Last Sunday I walked around the lower Coire Cas area and there is plenty of evidence to show that what they have done leaves a lot to be desired and the fundamental problems remain.IMG_6645

Much of the rubbish by the start of the Car Park T-bar and Coire Cas path, featured on parkswatch, has been removed but if you look carefully you can see its a job half done – plenty of scrap wood middle left.

 

 

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Bits of old piping left in ground that has been re-seeded (bright green) on the bank where work was done without planning permission.

You don’t have to walk far to find plenty of evidence of lack of care.   Since Natural retreats has conducted such extensive re-landscaping, all apparently with the tacit agreement of Highlands and Island Enterprise but outside the area granted planning permission, why not take the opportunity to clear it up?   Why does not the Cairngorms National Park Authority, as part of its enforcement powers, require Natural Retreats and HIE to clear up all the mess in the areas where work took place outwith planning permission?   Planning staff have apparently walked around the area – have they not seen what is in these photos or is someone preventing them from taking action?

 

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This section of the old pipe is even more obvious but is just outside the “re-landscaped” area

 

 

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Rubbish left by funicular stanchions on the edge of the reprofiled shieling poma slope that was granted planning permission

Compare the spin from Natural Retreats on their restoration work, and the photos on their website, with the evidence posted:

 

The summer season upon us, our mountain teams are well and truly out in full force, rejuvenating and preparing the ground for another year of CairnGorm adventures. From our selection of images below [i.e on their website], you can see that full-scale landscaping is underway, with our teams paying close attention to reseeding the grassy areas, to encourage wildlife and reinject some colour back into the landscape after the snow-laden winter season. (22nd July)

 

Upper part of "restoration" of ditch for new car park tow cable

When Natural Retreats stated they had completed restoration of the car park T bar uplift track – which did not require planning permission – they made no mention of the upper part of the tow where the cable follows the other side of the fence.  The restoration work here is far from impressive but it appears vehicles are using this to access the area of land in the far right lower middle section of the first photo – for a purpose that I have not yet established.  Just what have Natural Retreats and HIE been up to here?

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The “re-instated” ditch at the top of the Car Park t-bar – a very similar photo appears on the Natural Retreats website and which they claim as evidence of re-instatement

Now, I am not an expert on restoration work but I do not understand what good practice this photo is supposed to demonstrate?   Boulders that were once embedded or beneath vegetation are now lying loose above it and some no doubt will soon roll downhill while the drainage has been totally altered with lots of “pockets” for water to accumulate.

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One of two unfinished culvert on the edge of the Sheiling Poma ski slope – there are three culverts in all, only two of which are referred to in the planning application

Yes, Natural Retreats has been re-seeding but not areas which were previously grassy as it claimed in the quote above.  A planning condition for the sheiling poma was that Natural Retreats removed all the vegetation, stored it and then replaced it.   The extensive re-seeding has been required because of their failure to comply with planning conditions and the bright green colour highly artificial, the result of the use of the blue/grey fertiliser you can see in the foreground.   There was nothing about widespread re-seeding in this way in the planning permission but it is now needed because of their complete failure to observe planning conditions.    My belief is that the Cairngorms National Park Authority should as part of enforcement require Natural Retreats to pay for montane scrub planting on the slopes in the background (which are not part of the piste) as a compensatory measure.

 

Another quote

“Another week at CairnGorm Mountain brings another list of improvements and nurturing of our beautiful mountain terrain. Much of our CPT uptrack has been reinstated after maintenance works, alongside some brilliant new fencing being laid along the West Wall Poma and West Wall Uptrack. In the Cas Gantry area, there’s been a focus on re-profiling the old bulldozed banks that

that hail from the 60’s ad 70’s, with great success.” (26th July)

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The new Cas Gantry, replaced last year – planning permission was waived because it was supposed to be an emergency (quite foreseeable because it had not been maintained) and works were supposed to be de minimis – ie so little that planning permission was not required.

Most of the spoil under the gantry previously featured on parkswatch is still there – you can judge for yourself whether this is “de minimis”.    Is the spoil heap  part of the “great success” that Natural Retreats claims to have had in “reprofiling” the old bulldozed tracks.

The track between the Coire Cas Gantry and the pumphouse at the bottom of the zig-zags
The track between the Coire Cas Gantry and the pumphouse at the bottom of the zig-zags.

 

 

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The track as it approaches the gantry with more reprofiled ground. There appears to have been no attempt to save existing vegetation.

The widening of the track at the bottom of the zig zags to the gantry was also allowed without planning permission on a “de minimis” basis.   It is likely to increase the speed of skiers just as they approach the top of the Car Park t-bar where other skiers are dismounting increasing the risk of accidents.  The rationale in skiing terms for broadening this piece of track was highly questionable and is likely to increase the number of accidents.   It raises more questions about Natural Retreats and HIE’s fitness to manage the ski area.   As for Natural Retreats claims that the restoration has been a great success, again you can judge for yourself – at best I think one could say its far too early to tell.

 

What are the solutions to this mess?

  • First, Scottish Ministers should now start considering a transfer of ownership of the land at Cairngorm back to Forestry Commission Scotland.   HIE is not just the landowner, it has funded most of these works (the replacement of the Gantry and the Sheiling Poma).  It therefore bears as much responsibility as Natural Retreats for the mess and indeed is responsible for the historic mess at Cairngorm which preceded the lease with Natural Retreats.   There is ample evidence now that it is not fit to own the land here (and I hope to produce more evidence for this in the weeks to come) and Scottish Ministers should act accordingly.
  • Second, HIE and Natural Retreats should pay for an independent ecological survey to document the extent of the destruction and set out options for restoration of the damaged areas (both the piste areas and the land outside these).  I would like to see the land outside the pistes, including the banks, becoming part of a montane scrub project as a compensatory measure for the damage that has been done.
  • Third, there should be no development allowed at Cairngorm, even on a de minimis basis, without submission of detailed plans which spell out the impact of works on the land and how this will be managed.   This means that both Highland Council and the Cairngorm National Park Authority should stop waiving the need for planning permission on the grounds that works are “de minimis”.  For works that do not formally require planning permission, all that is needed is  that under the forthcoming Glenmore and Cairngorm Plan there is a formal agreement about standards for all work at Cairngorm and the process by which developments should be agreed.

 

Solving the mess at Cairngorm is not difficult, it would just take “political” will.  My next post will cover more about the formal breaches of planning permission at Cairngorm and why the CNPA has so far failed to use its enforcement powers.

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Why do none of the LLTNP’s new landscaped parking areas in the Trossachs have litter bins?

Following my post on the LLTNPA’s unfortunate decision to use National Park’s week to launch its new litter enforcement powers, when other National Parks across the UK were celebrating the theme of adventure, there was an excellent letter in the Herald today from James Fraser, Chair of the Friends of Loch Lomond and Trossachs.   (While I have got to know James over the last year as we now both sit on the Executive of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks my post and his letter were written independently).    He made a number of points that are worth repeating:

  • the contrast between provision of litter bins in laybys on the A82 and A9 (both major arterial routes) is striking.  That the laybys along the A9 have much less litter is not a coincidence.
  • asking visitors at busy attractions to take litter home does not work (this was one of main themes of the Park’s press release covered in my post)
  • there are significant inefficiencies in litter collection with different authorities emptying different bins even with the bounds of one location

Yet more arguments for why the National Park, following its paper to the last Board Meeting on litter, needs a proper litter strategy in which all four constituent local authorities and Forestry Commission Scotland play their part.    The good thing though is that both the Park’s publicity and the public debate has moved on from campers being the source of all litter.

 

38 Degrees and National Parks week

 

Yesterday I received an email from 38 Degrees about National Parks week.  Now I think its great 38 Degrees are trying to support National Park’s week, and I have every sympathy for what is going on in England where the Government is threatening to turn National Parks into fully commercial organisations which have to fully fund themselves.

 

38 Degrees, which have a Scotland team, don’t seem to realise though what is actually going on in the LLTNP and instead put out the type of spin that they should be trying to combat:

 

“It was amazing! From all over Scotland, 38 Degrees members were out enjoying our national parks in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms yesterday”

Well yes they were, as people on every day of the week, but not thanks to National Parks week.  The comment that followed “with events happening in every single national park in England and Wales” said it all.   They could not include Scotland in the message as LLTNPA, unlike CNPA, had not done anything to encourage people out adventuring.

 

I am delighted though that 38 Degrees have set a new challenge for themselves with the following quote:

 

“My parents met during the great trespass of Kinder Scout. So if it wasn’t for the campaign that created national parks, me, my sons and my grandchildren – we wouldn’t have existed!” – Trina, at Loch Lomond & the Trossachs

I don’t know whether 38 Degrees have quoted Trina correctly but the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932 was not about creating National Parks but rather about securing access to open countryside.  It was pressure for access that created the demand in England for National Parks – places where access would be secure.   Its therefore rather ironic that Trina stated this in LLTNP where the National Park Authority has been leading the charge to reverse access rights in Scotland with its proposed camping ban.  But then, perhaps like many other people, she was simply unaware of what the Park has been proposing.   I was reminded of this today when I asked someone at work what they had done at the weekend – I was surprised to hear she had gone camping on Loch Arklet.  There was only one other tent there – quite predictable from the Park’s own data.  She had no idea Loch Arklet was included in the camping ban and her response on hearing this was “that’s rubbish”.

 

The challenge for 38 Degrees I think is help make their members aware of the serious restrictions to access rights being proposed by the LLTNPA and to help mobilise their members to get these reversed.  I hope this includes a mass campaign of civil disobedience as at Kinder Scout if necessary.