(Editorial note: When this article was first presented for our Mountain Views I immediately felt a bit nervous about what photos we had selected for this edition !. In the hope that we do pass muster with the authors, we welcome this direct and thought provoking critique of one of SNHs latest publications.)
CONSTRUCTED TRACKS IN SCOTTISH UPLANDS (2006).
ISBN 1 85397 468 4.
Scottish Natural Heritage, Battleby, Perth.
First impressions of this good practice guide are favourable, because of its attractive layout, aided by colour-coded sections, a glossary, and fine photographs. However, it is too awkward for field use, the pages occupy less than half the space in the large ring-binder, and many photographs are irrelevant, being devoid of tracks.
Section 7 provides a useful summary of the legislation, though the information has long been available publicly. The regulations include the General Permitted Development Order, a euphemism for allowing potentially damaging developments without planning control. For example, Class 18 allows for the formation, alteration or maintenance of private ways on agricultural land where this is required for the purposes of agriculture, and Forest Enterprise Scotland is legally exempt from planning controls, and there is no consultation on .tracks. Neither comment nor criticism follows of these anomalies or their possible consequences in damage to landscape, wildlife and amenity.
The guide has 116 pages on making, maintaining and enhancing tracks, 4 on questioning the need for tracks, and 1 on removing tracks. Such overwhelming emphasis seems inappropriate for SNH. Another over-emphasis involves the 98 photographs, only 53 of which are of tracks, and so almost half are of other subjects. The authors do mention the need for a prior survey, but not that this requires someone experienced in soils, hydrology, vegetation and reinstatement. The value of aerial photographs and soil maps for a survey is another surprising omission.
It is apparently a frequent unstated assumption that engineering is necessary for making tracks. Yet none is normally required for travel by small vehicles on freely drained soils. Hence the guide could lead to greater impact and expense than need be.
It does not warn sufficiently that imported material for surfacing can be obtrusive and unnecessary. For example the covers main photograph depicts a conspicuous ribbon of imported gravel, blotting a fine landscape. Recommendations on tracks are befogged within an over-emphasis of landscape and wildlife. This, along with the incongruous inclusion of footpaths, may frustrate and confuse practical folk who are considering vehicle tracks. Even the main cover photograph shows a narrow footpath with two walkers. The jargon-ridden text exacerbates confusion, being peppered with such terms and phrases as geodiversity and Valuing those habitats and species likely to be affected by a development (known in the trade as ecological receptors) allows avoidance measures to be prioritised on the most valuable biodiversity features.
The list of bodies consulted is revealing in noting no soil science department in a university or other institution. In addition only one contractor is listed, unfairly to others. The potential for using cargo helicopters for lifting turbine components and cement for wind-farms and other construction projects on hill land should be considered. It could greatly reduce impacts.
A cut-off ditch is asserted to be as required. In freely drained soil it is unnecessary, and may cause extra runoff and erosion, especially where it penetrates an indurated soil horizon. It is claimed that a smooth base to a ditch minimises erosion, though the opposite is usually the case. The guide is deficient on many practical issues such as culverts, and readers are left unclear about the best reinstatement method. Many are the words on avoiding short-term disturbance of individual breeding animals, yet firm guidance is lacking on the best season for reducing long-term impacts on habitats and for maximising reinstatement.
It would appear that the authors and supervisory staff had an inadequate grasp of the relevant technical expertise. Because SNH is the statutory body, owners and planners may regard this misleading guide as authoritative. Hence a good opportunity has been missed. The guide could have been so much better, had the knowledge available been properly utilised. A revised edition could, however, redress the defects.
Adam Watson, Sandy Walker and Rodney Heslop
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