Visitor Management in the Countryside
Visitor Management in The Countryside
The Role of National, Regional and Country Parks
One of the few welcome consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland has been the increase in leisure activity in the countryside and in holidays and short breaks being taken in Scotland by people from across the UK. Many local economies have benefited significantly at a time when they badly needed a boost. So too have public health and well-being: it is now widely recognised, including by Public Health Scotland, that both physical and mental health are improved by contact with nature. If there was ever any doubt about the value to society of encouraging, facilitating and managing access to Scotland’s countryside, there can be absolutely none now.
Scotland has historically had a proud record on this front. In the 1970s the Countryside Commission for Scotland’s “A Park System for Scotland” established a framework of provision for outdoor recreation, catering for demand at all levels from the local to the national and setting out the organisational structure to plan and provide for it and to manage its impacts on the ground. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 then put in place some of the best arrangements in the world for responsible access to the countryside, based on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
Increasing visitor pressures have highlighted the need for effective visitor management to protect the quality of the landscape and the country’s wildlife and ecosystems, as well as the experience enjoyed by the visitors themselves. This requires the physical and staffing infrastructure to manage visitors effectively, specifically countryside ranger services, campsites, toilets and car parks. Such investment in infrastructure and services was what was needed, and expected, to give full effect – especially on lower ground and in the more accessible countryside near towns – to the huge advance that the Land Reform Act represented. Yet over the past decade, and especially since the start of the crisis, we have witnessed scores of rangers losing their jobs and campsites, toilets and car parks being closed at the very time when they are needed more than ever.
The negative impacts of visitors in the Scottish countryside vary from place to place and in their intensity. Unwanted impacts include:
- Excessive traffic and parking problems, often on narrow rural roads
- Litter, fly tipping and human waste
- Irresponsible camping and abandoned camping equipment
- Dogs disturbing wildlife and livestock
- Fires getting out of control
- Overcrowding at popular spots, which can be ecologically damaging and which some feel detracts from the visitor experience
These types of problem do not occur everywhere in the Scottish countryside and their impact has sometimes been exaggerated, but they are sufficiently common to have caused concern and to require attention in many places. For example, as lockdown was released there were severe pressures at particular popular sites such as Glen Muick and Glen More in the Cairngorms, lochsides in Highland Perthshire, the shores of Loch Lomond, the fringes of the Pentland Hills and places in the far north, along or near to the North Coast 500 route. The effectiveness with which they have been addressed has varied widely, even within the two National Parks. Overall, however, they have exposed deep inadequacies in current arrangements.
Three Regional Parks and some forty Country Parks were established in Scotland during the 1970s and ‘80s and our two National Parks added in the early 2000s – partly with the aim of pre-empting and tackling such problems. However, they have faced a steady decline in their funding and staff numbers in recent years and the wider network of National Parks envisaged when the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 was passed has not materialised. Our three Regional Parks are suffering almost terminal decline and yet provide some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities within easy reach of Scotland’s major towns and cities.
Effective visitor management depends on the existence of appropriate infrastructure and has three main components:
- An organisational framework which brings together the different stakeholders and interests in a particular area, making it possible to prepare plans to provide for visitors, to decide on the location and scale of visitor infrastructure and to get things done, whilst respecting the interests of local landowners and managers
- Appropriate communication and interpretation with the public so that people know where they are welcome, where there is appropriate infrastructure and provision for them and what the value and significance of the area is that they are visiting
- On the ground services provided by countryside rangers who can spot problems as they emerge, act as a link between landowners, visitors and the managing authority, provide information and interpretation services, organise volunteers and carry out practical construction and maintenance work on the ground.
Given its acknowledged benefits, the increased outdoor activity stimulated by the Covid-19 pandemic is to be welcomed. But if, as is surely desirable, it is to be sustained and indeed expanded to encompass more of the population, it must be adequately prepared for and serviced. Even before Covid-19, the staycation trend amongst UK residents was already putting more pressure on remoter countryside in areas such as the Western Isles, Skye and the North-West Highlands, whilst traditional rural hotspots – for example parts of the Cairngorms and sites around Loch Lomond – were struggling to cope with the numbers visiting them.
High quality countryside and visitor infrastructure and management of the kind for which Scotland was once renowned is key to meeting this challenge – and capitalising upon the opportunities that it presents. The country already has some of the organisational framework required in the form of its existing Country, Regional and National Parks. These bodies employ the planners, land managers and rangers who at their best work together to provide an effective visitor management service. But they are a dwindling band just when, as recent experience starkly demonstrates, we need more of them, not fewer.
In sum, a post Covid-19 Scotland needs:
- A renewed recognition that the varied and substantial benefits of increased countryside recreation will only be fully realised if adequate visitor infrastructure and management is in place
- An increase in the number of rangers on the ground, both in our existing Country, Regional and National Parks and in the wider countryside
- Better funding of all these Parks and the designation of more National and Regional Parks
- Investment in additional infrastructure including campsites, aires, toilets, chemical disposal points, car parks and waste disposal/recycling facilities
Only the Scottish Government can provide the leadership and investment required to address these issues, and we call upon it to do so.
Scottish Campaign for National Parks