Tourism rangers hailed a success but committee told ‘council must follow through’

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Human waste, fly-tipping, blocked lay-bys, felled trees and abandoned campfires were just some of the offences highlighted in a ‘rogue’s gallery’ presentation at the Highland Council’s recent tourism committee meeting.

The presentation from the new seasonal access rangers team hailed the scheme ‘an undoubted success’ but urged members to commit to following through.

It was a frank exchange, with senior ranger Timothy Francis telling members infrastructure shortages must be addressed.

In just under four months, the 17 rangers visited 11,500 sites during 1,100 weekend patrols. The tourism hotspots are mostly concentrated around the south and west areas of Highland.

In that four-month period, rangers saw around 35,000 visitors, with more than half having to be reminded to behave responsibly.

Nearly 20,000 motorhomes were observed, with the highest numbers in Skye, West Lochaber and the far north-west Highlands. There were 7,800 tents found camping ‘informally’ outside of designated campsites.

Blocked lay-bys were a major source of tension for communities. Rangers reported that in some areas, car parks quickly filled up and by a certain time of night, every layby was also full of campervans.

The committee discussed the need to create capacity by converting more areas of land to carparks, providing better signs and improved enforcement.

Officers also highlighted the economic opportunity for the council. An opportunity it may be, but Mr Francis presented a ‘rogue’s gallery’ of photographs which showed the issues that have plagued some communities.

Irresponsible campfires were a big problem. More than 3,000 fire marks were logged not only in high camping areas, but also at the side of the road. In the hunt for firewood, some campers had felled trees and even hacked up fences with a saw.

Other slides in the gallery showed several examples of fly tipping at the side of the road – by visitors and locals, overflowing bins and rubbish strewn across hillsides and beaches.

The ranger team picked up 1,000 bags of litter, despite this not being their core job.  Litter is bad enough, but human toileting was also found to be widespread, particularly around west Sutherland and Lochalsh.

Thankfully, the ‘rogues’ represent the minority of visitors. The ranger team said that most visitors did not deliberately break the rules and that ignorance was the real culprit. They highlighted the role of education in changing visitor behaviour.

To that end, the service has contacted 86 community councils and trusts across Highland, 83 land managers and 57 businesses and residents.

Simple signs such as ‘no open fires’ has had a profound effect and rangers have even given out information packs with ‘poo bags’ included to encourage responsible waste disposal.

Mr Francis said the perception of tourists and the council was slowly changing for the better, and the team felt great pride when communities referred to ‘our ranger’ and built their relationship as human beings.

Councillor Denis Rixson, Caol and Mallaig Ward, was one of several members to endorse this approach, stating: ‘I commend your decision to engage positively, because in my experience the vast majority of tourists want to do the right thing. In most cases it’s ignorance of the etiquette.’

However, Mr Rixson also highlighted his worry about the availability of funding. The council has only committed enough money to fund 10 of the 17 ranger posts currently in place. The remaining posts hang in the balance while council progresses an application to NatureScot.