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February 26, 2014

Wild land must be protected

In the last edition of Local People Leading, we reported that plans by Scottish Natural Heritage to produce a map delineating Scotland’s wild land had angered several communities because of the potential constraints such a map would impose on local development.  But there are clearly two sides to this debate with equally strong views being expressed.  John Hutchieson, Chair of John Muir Trust, the charity dedicated to protecting Scotland’s wild land, offers a perspective that suggests the majority view on the ground is firmly on the side of SNH.



John Hutchieson

John Hutchison plays a key role in some of Scotland’s most high profile community organisations, and is also the chair of the wild land charity, the John Muir Trust. Here he argues why communities should support the core wild land map published by SNH. 

The previous email briefing of the Scottish Community Alliance highlighted some of the reservations expressed by some community groups towards the wild land map. 

To redress the balance, however, we should acknowledge that many community organisations and individuals living in rural Scotland are strongly in favour of the map. 

Of the more than 400 responses to the consultation over the map, 80 per cent were in favour, with just 14 per cent opposed and the remaining 6 per cent neutral. 

Even more striking is the fact that most of the opposition to the wild land map comes not from communities, nor from the voluntary sector, but from big business. 

Of the 59 submissions opposing the map, no fewer than 40 are from UK and international, energy corporations, property developers, landowners and their representative organisations such as Scottish Land and Estates. 

On the other side, those supporting the map are overwhelmingly from the non-commercial sector, and include community groups, environmental charities, outdoors organisations, local authorities, as well as individuals. 

A map that helps protect our wild land from exploitation from external forces is more likely to benefit rather than damage local communities, as has been recognised from some of the submissions. 

Communities in the southern uplands and central belt, for example, have enthusiastically welcomed the prospect that local wild land areas, such as Merrick and Clyde Muirshiel Country Park will receive official recognition and protection. 

Indeed a number of community groups argue for the wild land map to be extended into their own area. 

Kilmorack Community Council in Inverness-shire, which is currently involved in a community buy-out of the Aigas Forest, with the aim of “returning it a more natural state and include paths or tracks for community and visitor use” calls for the map to be extended into this “truly wild and natural environment”. 

Similarly, Cabrach Community Association say: “We would like to see the Cabrach included in the Core Areas of Wild Land 2013. The Cabrach is a very remote and beautiful area of Scotland which marches with the Cairngorms National Park.” 

For years, a group of crofters in Laid on the shores of Loch Eriboll in north west Sutherland fought to save their community from social and economic destruction when a Liechtenstein-registered company and a Belgium landowner tried to turn their area into a superquarry.

In their submission, the Laid Grazings Committee say the wild land map “would have clearly helped us in our fight against the Eriboll superquarry which would have devastated Laid and Loch Eriboll”. 

The grazings committee also approvingly quotes John Muir Trust chief executive Stuart Brooks stating in the Northern Times that the wild land map is “not about preventing small scale development by local people and communities”.

Some organisations have either misunderstood or have been misinformed about the purpose of a wild land map. It is essential to remember that it is not a designation, but an integral part of the revised Scottish Planning Policy upon which the Scottish Government consulted last summer. It therefore offers planning guidance. 

It will offer less protection than, for example, National Scenic Areas and National Parks –  both of which have towns, villages, major roads, bridges, businesses and tourist facilities within their designated land areas.

Because of its rugged, mainly mountainous nature, and lack of existing infrastructure, wild land is unsuitable for any large scale development other than major wind farms, and the kind of superquarry that threatened such havoc in Sutherland.  

These types of developments are driven by multinational corporations and private landowners, and invariably have a divisive and damaging impact on local communities, as well as on the landscape and ecology. 

Wild land is not pristine wilderness. The core wild land map already includes within its boundaries many structures – houses, lodges, bothies, farm buildings, lighthouses, even small business premises. 

No-one has ever suggested that mapping wild land should lead to ‘a blanket prohibition on any development’. 

The John Muir Trust, one of the most foremost advocates of the wild land map, works with a number of community trusts and supports sustainable community regeneration.  

The North Harris Trust, for example, signed an agreement last month for a three turbine wind farm on an area of wild land north of Tarbert. The John Muir Trust backed the scheme all the way through from its inception. 

The Trust also recently helped fund a feasibility study for a hydro scheme on one of our wild land properties in Strathaird in Skye, which should soon come to fruition. 

Far from being an economic threat, the strong promotion of Scotland’s wild land can benefit some of our most remote communities by creating a renewed surge of interest in the Highlands.

That in turn will generate a greater awareness not just of the landscape, but also of the culture, history, patterns of landownership and social issues that affect these areas.