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Debating hill tracks
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 of it Holyrood wants to generate 100 per cent of Scotland’s gross annual electricity consumption by 2020.
Judging by some of the recent in-your-face 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.’