De­bate on hill tracks

The Oban Times - - Heritage - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

I WAS pleased to see The Oban Times a few weeks ago high­light­ing the work be­ing done by the Scot­tish En­vi­ron­ment LINK Hill­tracks Cam­paign about the ris­ing num­ber of tracks ap­pear­ing on the sides of moun­tains as­so­ci­ated with new hy­dro schemes.

In many cases, says the group, these are a blot on the land­scape and can lead to se­ri­ous ero­sion and dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment.

Since De­cem­ber 2014, all landown­ers have had to give prior no­ti­fi­ca­tion to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties of their in­ten­tion to con­struct new hill tracks or carry out im­prove­ments of ex­ist­ing tracks where they are re­quired for agri­cul­tural and forestry pur­poses. They still don’t need to ap­ply for full plan­ning per­mis­sion.

How­ever, LINK Hill­tracks is mon­i­tor­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of the ad­vance no­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem in the hope it will lead to im­proved con­struc­tion stan­dards and the en­force­ment of restora­tion con­di­tions which, in some parts of Scot­land, has brought a raft of com­plaints from con­cerned mem­bers of the pub­lic.

There are, of course, ex­am­ples of good prac­tice as well as bad. Of­ten it is only at the con­struc­tion phase that peo­ple be­come aware of the scale of such schemes as it tends only to be larger de­vel­op­ments that re­sult in lo­cal ex­hi­bi­tions at the early plan­ning stages.

This needs to change. Once schemes have been given per­mis­sion and are un­der way, LINK Hill­tracks can­not in­flu­ence the process though, of course, it is pos­si­ble for in­ter­ested par­ties to flag up to the plan­ning au­thor­i­ties con­cerns about ad­her­ence to plan­ning con­di­tions.

Be­yond that, long-term mon­i­tor­ing is needed to see how schemes even­tu­ally sit in their set­tings and how well re­in­state­ment has been done. Lo­cal peo­ple can play a role in that. Other or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as Moun­taineer­ing Scot­land, are also tak­ing an in­ter­est in this is­sue.

I have not met many peo­ple who are against small hy­dro elec­tric schemes; the wa­ter is free and for sure there has been no short­age of the stuff this year, so why not take ad­van­tage of it?

Com­mon sense should also come into play in the build­ing of hill tracks by farm­ers, crofters, shep­herds and stalk­ers who re­quire safe ac­cess to higher ground in all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles to carry out their daily and sea­sonal work.

So, a big tick for ‘green’ en­ergy but it should not come at any price no mat­ter how much Holy­rood wants to use it to gen­er­ate 100 per cent of Scot­land’s gross an­nual elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion by 2020.

Judg­ing by some of the re­cent schemes in the area, it is al­most as though the plan­ners have been in­structed to pass ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion with­out in­sist­ing on too much de­tail. The lat­est is a track which punches its way from sea-level up the west side of Rois-Bheinn through a mag­nif­i­cent, ma­ture birch wood, over a high ridge and into a cor­rie be­yond.

Rois-Bheinn (2,875 ft) has been de­scribed to me as one of the most beau­ti­ful hills in Lochaber and a mas­ter­piece of its kind. It is so well po­si­tioned above Loch Ailort that it can be seen by the naked eye from Mull, Ari­saig, Scarba, Jura, Ben Cru­achan, Ben Hiant, lochs Su­nart, Shiel and Moidart, Eigg, Muck, Canna, Rum and Soay, Tal­lisker on Skye and the far away hills of North Uist and Ap­ple­cross.

It does not say much for SNH that it failed to recog­nise the im­por­tance of Rois-Bheinn in the broader cul­tural land­scape. It says even less for the High­land Coun­cil’s plan­ning staff and its elected mem­bers for not tak­ing more of an in­ter­est.

More im­por­tantly, it says noth­ing at all for the ap­pli­cant. The ap­proval seeks to lessen the vis­ual im­pact at the end of the con­struc­tion phase by some form of restora­tion but, given the steep­ness of the vir­gin slope, and the over­ly­ing soil, it will in­evitably be­come a drainage chan­nel for all to see 100 years from now.

A van­dal go­ing on the ram­page in the Lou­vre and draw­ing a knife blade across the face of the Mona Lisa could hardly do more dam­age.

There is, how­ever, one track in Lochaber which no- one would com­plain about, re­gard­less of what the High­land Coun­cil did to it, and that is the A884 from Carnoch Bridge to Locha­line. The sur­face of this sin­gle car­riage­way, which is now ser­vic­ing a bur­geon­ing Morvern penin­sula and much of Mull, has had no se­ri­ous money spent on it for decades. It has reached the stage where even patches are be­ing patched and holes, as near bot­tom­less as mine shafts, ap­pear al­most daily.

If any read­ers are con­sid­er­ing a jaunt to Morvern, think care­fully and make sure your break­down cover is up to date. The good news is that the A884 is re­ceiv­ing fund­ing from the Scot­tish Tim­ber Trans­port Scheme to help fi­nance a short stretch of over­lay work through the White Glen in two phases. The High­land Coun­cil’s roads cap­i­tal bud­get is fund­ing one sec­tion with STTS cov­er­ing the other.

The bad news is only one and three- quar­ter miles of this 18-mile stretch is to be re­paired. As an old Morvern min­is­ter once wrote: ‘Of the Morvern roads, lit­tle can be said.’


The Rois-Bheinn hy­dro track runs through ma­ture woods and over a ridge.

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