On Tuesday 12th May, I set off for Spean Bridge on the first of 3 days walk to Blair Atholl. The rain started as I walked up the Lairig Leachach and I was glad of the wee bothy for lunch. I followed the path to the head of Loch Treig where I read a notice about the development of three run-of-the-river hydro schemes in the area. Then it got horrible. Not the weather – it started to improve – but the track which turned into a roughly constructed access road for the schemes which followed the This was a blot on the landscape and dreadful to walk on – ungraded in many places, dirty and muddy and generally uncomfortable. Sadly, this wasn’t the only example of landscape despoliation that I came across on this year’s Challenge. New estate roads criss-cross the hills east of Mount Keen and I camped close to the Mid Hill wind farm in the Fetteresso forest.
As I was negotiating this dreadful hill road and looking for somewhere to pitch for the night south of Loch Ossian, I started thinking about the landscape despoliation around me and more general changes in the Highlands – hydro schemes, wind farms and estate infrastructure to support these and the so-called ‘sport’ of killing birds and animals.
Like most hill-goers, I really don’t like these developments and and I wish the hills hadn’t changed so much since I started hill walking and climbing as a teenager in the late 1960s. But falling into old-fartism is too easy and the reality is that people live in the Highlands and they have as much right to a comfortable life as those who visit from urban areas. When considering the impact of development, we need to find a balance between benefits to local people, benefits to the broader community and preserving and maintaining the landscape for future residents and visitors.
For example, the development of major hydro schemes in the 1950s (which caused immense landscape despoliation with the flooding of beautiful glens), was, I think, justifiable. Few people in the Highlands had electricity and the population was in serious decline. These schemes facilitated the electrification of the Highlands and meant that people who lived there could have the same kind of facilities as those in urban areas. Developments then benefited local people and the broader community and the dams created a different but sometimes no less beautiful landscape.
A starting point of ‘there shall be no development’ is not a viable one. I am no fan of Highland landowners but the reality is that the Highlands are not going to be taken into public ownership. Estate owners do provide jobs and the more responsible also care about maintaining the landscape. So, estates are here to stay and, in today’s economic climate we either allow some development or accept that the Highlands will simply become the plaything of the super-rich. But we need to take control of development so that the needs of all interested parties and not just estates and large companies are taken into account.
I have not been particularly impressed so far by bodies such as the John Muir Trust campaigning against developments such as wind farms. They are well-intentioned but strike me as vague and politically naive. Making statements such as ‘Wild land helps to sustain human life as well as plant, bird and animal life’ is simply vacuous and I think there is a need for the JMT and other conservation bodies to think much more rigorously about the economic as well as the emotional value of wild land. I don’t know how much they collaborate with local people (I get the impression not much) but it seems to me that producing properly argued cases that take all factors into account is likely to be a more effective strategy than vague statements about tourism impact.
One of the problems, of course, is that we don’t have joined up economic models or data that allow us to understand the real financial effects of developments that change the Highland landscape. We know that tourism is critically important to many Highland communities and we know that developments such as wind farms will affect how tourists feel about an area and will probably reduce the number of visitors staying in a community. So, it is easy to calculate the community ‘benefits’ of a wind farm as a small percentage of the income generated but much harder to calculate the losses that might ensue. It’s also the case the community benefits pay for infrastructure – a fabulous village hall say – but that doesn’t compensate for population loss as bed and breakfast businesses close because of lower visitor numbers. Perhaps conservation bodies should come together to fund the development of economic models so that we can fight developments with real numbers instead of hand-waving?
A different issue from energy developments is the issue of infrastructure development to support hunting. This is now a money-spinner for estates and, unlike in the old days, their clients are reluctant to walk but require to be driven to their targets. I admit to some ambivalence about energy developments. If local communities are genuinely supportive and the visual impact is not great (as can be the case with hydro schemes) then the landscape damage from infrastructure is maybe justifiable, especially if old historic rights of way are not ripped up to create ugly new roads.
But I see no significant local or broader community benefits from bulldozed roads for hunting. Unfortunately, the current Scottish Government, in spite of their self-proclaimed leftist credentials, seem to equate the benefits of the broader community with the benefits to landowners and rarely challenge landscape-damaging developments. They make no attempt to change the outdated planning laws that somehow classes killing wild animals as ‘agricultural’ so that estate roads can be bulldozed without planning permission.
Here is an area where I think bodies such as the JMT should be taking action. There is a commitment in the Scottish Government to a Land Reform bill and, as part of that bill, I think we need to review the planning laws that are applied to development to allow the unfettered development of ‘sporting’ infrastructure to be controlled. Again, a better economic model that allows the contribution of outdoor activities to the local economy would help strengthen this case.
The Highland landscape is changing. But it has always changed and, however much we’d like it to remain the same, this will not happen. There will be development and ‘despoliation’ although future generations might see things differently from us. The Highlands are not just a play area and and seems to me that the key to development is to create economic opportunities with high-quality permanent jobs for local people. If development does this, then the landscape price may be one that we should pay; but we have to unremittingly oppose landscape-damaging developments that are simply geared to enriching estates or which have very dubious economic and social benefits (such as most Highland wind farms).