CNPA Hilltracks Working Group

Probably as a result of the publicity generated by Peter Peacock MSP and Sarah Boyack MSP's hill tracks petition, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) has decided to review its existing policy on hill tracks. We fully support the need for a review. The existing policy is, in our opinion, poor. It focuses on building new tracks correctly, in accordance with good practice. Our view, expressed when we commented on the draft policy, is that it should be aimed at stopping the current proliferation of new track building. Even when well-constructed, a new hilltrack damages the landscape and erodes the feeling of wild land. The estates justify them as needed for agricultural purposes but, in fact, they run to butts and are there merely to save some walking.

The approach adopted by CNPA is interesting. It decided to hold two separate workshops. The first was held for land managers, at Braemar, on 10th May and the second was held for representatives of conservation and recreational groups, at Aviemore, on 24th June. They were co-hosted by CNPA, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA). Presumably, the choice of two separate workshops was made in the belief that getting any agreement was going to be too difficult and that it would be better to stop inevitable mudslinging. Both groups commented on this approach, suspecting that it might reinforce existing differences rather than accentuate possible areas of common ground.

NEMT was invited to the second event, but, regrettably, nobody was available. This has meant that we have lost our chance to have a representative on the working group. However, our views will have been well-represented by the other representatives, who are listed below.

Hebe Carus, Mountaineering Council of Scotland
Mike Daniels, John Muir Trust
Helen McDade, John Muir Trust
Rob McMorran, Scottish Wild Land Group
Calum Brown, Scottish Wild Land Group
Peter Holden, National Trust for Scotland
Nic Bullivant, Cairngorm Mountain & Local Access Forum
Bill Wright, Association for Protection of Rural Scotland

A comprehensive report has been produced giving great detail about what was said, although some form of summary document would be very useful. This report will now be used to support the discussions of a small policy group, convened by CNPA, and comprising volunteer representatives of those participating in each of the events held in May and June.

This group will assist CNPA in reaching conclusions on the most appropriate policy to be adopted on hill tracks, and on the most useful forms of guidance for land owners, managers and agents as well as contractors and users.

The two groups unsurprisingly expressed views along two separate lines; we need to build more hilltracks to get access onto our land to manage it effectively and there are enough hilltracks already which are damaging the landscape. Finding common ground between the two won't be easy. We await the outcome with interest! As noted above, the report lacks a good summary. However, it does give Key Messages from both events and these are as follows.


  1. Land owners and managers are clear about the need for hill tracks and justify their position on economic, operational and safety grounds. They believe there are few credible, effective or affordable alternatives. They accept that hill tracks do influence the way in which people experience the hill environment while arguing that a balance has to be struck between an unavoidable degree of visual intrusion and the operational and economic needs of well managed modern estate businesses, which result in local employment benefits.
  2. There is much evidence of good, as well as indifferent, or poor, practice 'on the ground'. Equally, there is an appetite to learn from one another, sharing good practice. There is now scope to build on this provided someone, either an individual or organization, is prepared to take on a leadership role.
  3. Land owners and managers are, in general, well aware of and sensitive to environmental issues. The most thoughtful take their stewardship of the natural environment very seriously. They are sensitive to the suggestion that responsibility for securing a high quality environmental legacy lies principally in the public sector. However, the aspirations, efforts and achievement of the best of the private sector play an equal or, some think, even greater role which deserves acknowledgement. Successful progression on this project and a worthwhile outcome will depend on an equal partnership between the public and private sectors.
  4. Clarity is required in the areas of good practice, legislation and the implementation of regulation. It is agreed that effort must be targeted now by the public and private sectors working together to resolve these issues. The current lack of clarity on this area by the public sector is a matter of particular concern.
  5. The collective intelligence that collaboration would bring to these tasks would produce widespread benefits. There are useful lessons to be learnt from the process of preparing and publishing SNH's 1996 publication Constructed tracks in the Scottish Uplands. There is also a formidable amount of knowledge 'out there'. Everyone agrees that what is now required is a well-managed and collaborative process to bring it together in a 'fit for purpose' form. A similarly collaborative and constructive process should be applied to the preparation of CNPA's policy on hill tracks. The involvement of land owners and managers in this is essential.
  6. The overall view of land owners and managers participating in the event is captured in the following quote. "Hill tracks are a required management access tool and allow estates easier access to the hill for management purposes. Practical and design aspects are the main aspects to be considered before construction / upgrade. Without hill tracks, sporting, and its associated economic benefits, habitat management will deteriorate."
  7. There are 4 main land management requirements that are most likely to trigger a proposal for a new or upgraded track. These are deer management (highly significant), the intensification of grouse management, supporting energy and telecoms projects and managing public access. Other important requirements include provision for emergency access, e.g. fire-fighting, and health and safety considerations, e.g. lone working or working time directive.
  8. Overall, there are few alternatives other than multi-use tracks. Those that are identifiable are either questioned or rejected as being ineffective, impractical or unaffordable, e.g. in most instances, helicopters, or un-commercial, e.g. leaving carcasses to rot, or too labour-intensive, e.g. use of ponies, or are limited by health and safety considerations, e.g. safe extraction of injured people.
  9. Although land owners and managers are not implacably opposed to finding alternatives, at present, there appear to be few alternatives.
  10. There is a very long list of issues to be taken into consideration during the process of preparing a planning application. Two key questions remain as a source of concern to land managers: 'where do you go for advice on best practice' and how can you get advice 'about the need for planning permission' without being compromised?
  11. The central issue, and source of most concern, is the absence of benchmark standards of good practice accompanied by clear guidance on policy and regulation. The continuing absence of these fundamental elements will continue to frustrate land managers who, based on evidence of the event, appear both eager and committed to try and do 'the right thing.'
  12. SNH's failure to publicise its 1996 publication, Constructed tracks in the Scottish Uplands, is something of an 'own goal' as many had been unaware of its existence until copies were issued at the event. This was welcomed as a 'good first attempt.' The general mood of participants was to encourage development and publication of a revised and updated version, by the public and private sectors working in partnership, involving a higher level of consultation than had apparently been the case with the present version.
  13. Encouragingly, conflict is not considered to be an inevitable part of the planning process. Most take the view that it can be avoided by early and informed discussions with relevant planning authorities and by adopting a pragmatic approach. Contractors are viewed as a good source of best practice information and employing a good site manager who can 'see a potential roadline' is a critical factor to achieving the best possible outcome.
  14. Aside from technical recommendations, amongst which issues related to managing water feature prominently, the following observations were highlighted.
    - Consultation, first
    - Detailed survey
    - Get the right contractor with the right machines (emphasis on 'right'; big plant is not necessarily more damaging)
    - Walk the line with the contractor
    - Agree a clear specification with the contractor before work begins
    - Agree every detail of how the work should be done
    - Be an accessible client


  1. These 3 statements summarise the overall conclusions of this event:

'There has emerged a pretty uniform view about hill tracks in wild land amongst environmentally focused organisations, i.e. there is not a good case for new hill tracks at higher altitude in general, and in CNPA especially, and the proliferation of tracks is impacting on our landscape and visual quality which has an economic effect counter to the one identified in favour of hill tracks. Naturally, there are some exceptions, but these should need special dispensation.'

'There is still a strong difference of opinion between traditional land managers and others. Thinking about wild land or even just landscape today is at the stage that biodiversity was 20 years ago. The time has come for much more attention to be paid to landscape at national and international level.'

'A collective conclusion from what I have seen and heard is that a strategic, map based approach to zoning wildness / wild land across the park (which zones the park based on varying wild character) is crucial to providing planning guidance on hill tracks in the future, eg recognizing core wild areas to minimize track development in these areas.'

  1. In relation to the impact of hill tracks on biodiversity, disturbance is the main issue, compounded by the proliferation of tracks, bulldozed tracks and the inappropriate use of tracks, e.g. taking a Landrover up a footpath. The main impacts, which are considered to produce widespread damage, are loss of habitat, erosion and peat/carbon loss. There is lack of clear evidence of any environmental benefit from having tracks.
  2. Suggested solutions include a commitment to consideration of alternatives to tracks ('with a will, it is possible to access areas for management) supported by a policy to limit proliferation and planning to steer people away from the most sensitive areas. The reintroduction of walked up shooting for deer and grouse was proposed. The formal adoption of zonation is thought to be the single most influential and potentially effective solution.
  3. Diminishing natural landscape and wild land, seen as one of Scotland's greatest assets is the central issue resulting in loss of a distinctive quality of landscape and an adverse aesthetic impact. The loss of old tracks (as a result of upgrades and damage) which have ameliorated into the landscape has a detrimental impact on cultural heritage. It is claimed that there is an economic impact (on tourism) resulting from the reduction of scenic quality as a consequence of visually intrusive hill tracks.
  4. Suggested solutions propose a mix of advocacy and practical measure. CNPA should take a leading role in promoting values as well as controls and encouraging society to recognize the value of un-spoilt landscape. Protection of areas through stronger controls on zoning, refusing permission for the upgrading of heritage tracks, a requirement for an environmental assessment for all new tracks and removal of the Permitted Development Right were among the measures suggested to support advocacy. At a practical level, adoption of improved practice in design and drainage would be helped by best practice guidance.
  5. Access is not a justification for building new tracks; an almost unequivocal assertion by conservation and recreation group representatives. The grounds of emergency access and safety are insufficient. The availability of hill tracks makes remote areas more accessible to the ill-equipped and ill-prepared thereby increasing risk. It is claimed that no mountain rescue team has ever asked for improved vehicular access for rescue.
  6. Equality of access is recognized as an issue, for walkers and cyclists as well as estate users, and can create demands for new connecting paths between hill tracks all of which have damaging impacts on the environment. The poor/irresponsible promotion of bike routes, for example, tempts users into sensitive areas.
  7. Suggested solutions again fall broadly into the categories of advocacy and practical measure. Responsible promotion and a code of usage balanced by guidance on good practice in footpath construction, and, where possible, downgrading a hill track to a footpath. At a fundamental level, a requirement for planning permission will enable the case for each proposed track to be tested.

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