Call for hill tracks to be regulated

St Boswells hiker John Thomas on a trail in the Borders
St Boswells hiker John Thomas on a trail in the Borders

A Borders walker is adding his support to calls by environmental charities for hill tracks to come under planning regulations.

Nine organisations under the umbrella of Scottish Environment LINK are urging the Scottish Government to end the unregulated building of tracks after a report last week says some are causing “huge damage” to landscapes, wildlife and habitats.

Lifelong hiker John Thomas from St Boswells is a supporter of National Trust for Scotland, the John Muir Trust and the RSPB, three of the nine campaigners.

He said: “There has been concern over the development of hill tracks for a long time. But the situation has become worse in the last five to 10 years.

“Large diggers and bulldozers are now used to carve their way up hills and over passes, leaving deep scars through remote valleys and hills.

“These are places many people come to enjoy, visiting them and walking in them.

“Their value to fragile rural economies such as those in the Southern Uplands is very considerable but often goes unrecognised.

“These visitors will go elsewhere if we do not care for and protect our scenery and landscapes.”

He described some of the damage done by unregulated hill tracks as “awful”, and said that most of the campaigners were landowners themselves and knew the challenges of managing wild land.

Author of the Track Changes report, Dr Calum Brown highlights 11 case studies, including a former path and likely drove road from Drumelzier to Pikestone Hill in Peeblesshire.

He said: “Before the excavation of the track, it was a relatively unobtrusive grassy track. No attempt has been made to blend the track into landscape. Crudely excavated without sufficient drainage, the track is already eroding and widening. It is in the Upper Tweeddale National Scenic Area and Tweedsmuir Hills Site of Special Scientific Interest notified for assemblages of breeding birds, bryophytes, upland and vascular plants.”

He said the cases he looked at “demonstrate the inability of current planning law” to deal with modern track developments.

“Permitted Development Rights (PDR) established nearly 70 years ago are not an appropriate mechanism for dealing with developments of the scale and consequence shown here,” he said.

“They have failed to keep pace with technological, political, economic or environmental change.”

Scottish Environment LINK hopes to persuade the Scottish Government to remove PDRs and allow public scrutiny of all proposed track construction.

Co-convener of the campaign group, Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland said: “We asked Scottish hill walkers to send us photos of tracks which have damaged our countryside. The report gives compelling photographic evidence of the degradation being caused by this planning-free-for-all. In some cases it amounts to nothing short of environmental vandalism.”

Currently planning permission is only necessary for routes in National Scenic Areas.

Holyrood dropped its proposal to bring tracks for agricultural and forestry tracks into the planning system in December last year, but said it could keep the situation under review.

Planning minister, Derek Mackay MSP, visited one of the tracks highlighted in the report with LINK members.

Local environmental charity and landowner Borders Forest Trust did not wish to comment.