Countryside: We can’t afford to leave Scotland’s natural jewels under the control of landowners

Fiona Bruce made a slip on the Antiques Roadshow claiming the title belongs to the Lake District not the Cairngorms – which is almost twice the size. But since Scotland’s parks were established half a century behind England thanks to the blocking efforts of landowners in the House of Lords, the BBC presenter might be forgiven for the mistake.

Thirteen National Parks were created in England and Wales by legislation passed in 1949. Scotland had to wait for the Scottish Parliament to deliver Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) in 2002 and the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)in 2003.

Now campaigners want a further seven – including the Outer Hebrides, Wester Ross, the Borders, Glen Affric, Ben Nevis/Glencoe and the waters around Mull. A proposal for a Galloway National Park – backed by most conservation, outdoor and wildlife groups and all opposition parties – was debated at Holyrood in February. But the Scottish Government says it won’t designate any new National Parks and the SNP’s manifesto commitment to a Parks review remains unfulfilled.

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So, does this mean all conservation objectives have been fulfilled, or are the substantial costs attached to the National Parks sinking them below the waterline?

Does Scotland need more Parks, or a 20th anniversary rethink?

Certainly, Scotland’s two NPs have provided jobs and clear destinations for visitors. But how have they managed the competing demands of conservation, public amenity and economic development? Not so well.

Quite apart from the long-running row over a proposed Flamingo Land development on the shores of Loch Lomond, the Park stands accused of secretive behaviour and controlling visitors by camping restrictions, that may breach 2003 access legislation, instead of improving the supply of toilets, car parks, water and other basic necessities. Compost toilets in camping areas would provide low-cost loos – as it is locals have taken the initiative to provide Portaloos at Duck Bay and Arrochar.

Meanwhile in the Cairngorms, the long-running funicular debacle masks the fact that the whole mountain is underperforming because ownership is split between Highlands and Islands Enterprise (which owns the top slopes) and Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) which owns the bottom. They don’t speak or co-operate effectively – and that’s why there are (uniquely) no footpath, ski or mountain bike trails to link the top and lower slopes or beginners ski lifts to reach viable bits of snow between the corries. The summit is managed by the RSPB as a conservation zone.

By contrast, the Nevis Range at Aonach Mor and Wolftrax, further west have helped propel Scotland to the fore in European mountain bike provision.

One obvious solution is to shift ownership of the whole mountain to FLS – the old Forestry Commission Scotland – which has extensive experience of developing ski facilities, biking trails and managing the public within protected natural environments.

As it is, a century of public ownership split between FLS & HIE (formerly the HIDB) has only resulted in substandard facilities at a world-class, visitor and sporting honeypot – something that would embarrass any other mountain nation.

Has the Cairngorms Park Authority managed to knock heads together? Has it tried? Is a better solution in the offing?

Who knows?

Meanwhile in other areas of the Park, notably Balmoral and neighbouring estates, deer numbers remain stubbornly high which limits the regeneration of natural vegetation and poisoned birds of prey have been found on land bordering the royal estates. But there’s been no discernible CNPA action to control deer numbers or combat bird poisoning. Meanwhile in the field of human ecology, the Park authority lacks the planning powers to control the relentless spread of second homes and short-term lets. So, it stands accused of being in the pocket of landowners or at least outmanoeuvred by their wily lawyers.

Which way to go? Keep the Parks but take their management in-house, within the Scottish Government whilst transferring park staff (and more planning powers) to local councils? Or maintain the current structures but deliver a new management approach via a different cohort of Scottish Government appointees?

The majority of board members are local councillors or elected locals. But Scottish Government appointees have failed to include committed outdoor experts like Cameron McNeish, Dick Balharry, former MSP Dennis Canavan, Nick Kempe and Dave Morris. All applied to become board members, but none reached the interview stage.

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Why not? Doubtless they are too likely to rock the boat by highlighting the real elephant in the room of Scottish conservation – the feudal pattern of land ownership.

What distinguishes Scotland’s National Parks from Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon is not really remoteness or scale – it’s the extent of private land ownership.

Scotland’s parks own virtually no land but must spend time and energy trying to negotiate with a plethora of powerful, sometimes eco-resistant and often absentee landowners. This adds to their cost and bureaucracy whilst leaving “stuck” problems aplenty and deterring the Scottish Government and many local communities from wanting new National Park designations.

Instead of being exemplars of best practice, large tracts of Cairngorms National Park are basically blasted heaths, containing ravaged land, endlessly burned as driven grouse moors. And the Park Authority can do next to nothing about it.

No other National Park in the world is being forced to remedy historic land shortages to produce affordable housing or sacrifice conservation objectives to mediate the desires of a rich, shooting fraternity.

Some private landowners like Anders Povlsen take a different approach, which is fine. But their conservation management could change in a generation and Scotland remains a relatively unregulated Wild West – uniquely attractive to speculators on world property markets.

Charities like the John Muir Trust and RSPB have tried to fill the gap. But the most powerful and sustainable combination of forces would be community land ownership with National Park designation, so that Scotland’s natural jewels are set on better developed and truly democratic core muscles.

But community ownership in Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms? That’s currently an impossible dream.

So hamstrung park authorities will continue to battle politely with landowners, while visitors are made to feel like unwanted intruders.

Scotland’s loved and valued natural landscapes deserve so much more.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992