Scotland's wild land

The debate over what constitutes wild land in Scotland is certainly creating a bit of a stooshie (stir), as they say in these parts.  If you’re keen to make your voice heard, the consultation by Scottish Natural Heritage on its mapping of Scotland’s core areas of wild land ends on the 20th December.

Debates such as these are often chacteristed by entrenched positions and this one is no different.   In one corner there’s the shrill alarmism of pressure groups and in the other, the veiled threats commerical self-interest.  I’ve watched this debate unfold from a distance, largely since any rational, balanced perspectives seem to have been drowned out by the noise of the lobbyists on both sides.

But this really matters.  So allow me to summarise where I think we are and where this debate might go.

Mainstream public opinion, together with that of visitors to Scotland, widely acknowledges the value and quality of wild land to Scotland.  According to the SNH consultation paper: ” Scotland’s extensive natural and semi-natural areas – often rugged, relatively remote and showing limited obvious management or development – are an important part of the nation’s identity that sets it apart from the rest of the UK.  These areas provide significant economic benefits, especially by attracting visitors to Scotland, and are often promoted in the marketing of products and services.  Significant health and social benefits accrue from their use as many people derive both physical and mental benefit from recreating in these areas.  The habitats found within them are also an important resource for biodiversity and carbon management“.

SNH, given its role as providing advice to the Scottish Government on such matters, has developed a GIS-based methodology for mapping ‘core areas of wild land’ and this was included in the consultation in April 2013 on the Scottish Government’s own ‘Main Issues Report’ for the third National Planning Framework.  NPF3 provides the overarching spatial planning policy framework that informs both national and local planning policies and decisions.  Given the comments received on the map and its methodology, SNH has now been asked to provide further advice to Ministers and this is the subject of the current consultation to which responses are required by 20th December.  The three consultation questions are very broad and open.

SNH’s approach to defining ‘wildness’ is based on a number of physical attributes which stimulate a range of perceptions that people experience as a ‘sense of wildness’ (such as a sense of solitude, risk and of fulfilment from physical challenge):

i. A high degree of perceived naturalness in the setting (especially in its vegetation cover and wildlife) and in the natural processes affecting the land, as well as little evidence of contemporary human uses of the land;

ii. The lack of any modern artefacts or structures;

iii. Landform which is rugged or otherwise physically challenging; and

iv. Remoteness and/or inaccessibility.

The methodology involved GIS mapping of Scotland, weighting the four attributes equally to produce a map of relative wildness.  The largest areas with the highest scores were then validated through informed judgement to produce the final map.

Given the centrality of spatial planning in informing land use decisions it makes logical sense to map Scotland’s core areas of wild land, and I commend SNH for carrying out such a significant and, frankly, difficult exercise.

However, it is not without some legitimate criticisms.  Some have argued very elegantly that the exercise is inherently flawed since the four attributes are physical and describe aesthetic qualities.  Instead of viewing wild land through a lens of largely aesthetic qualities we should instead acknowledge the cultural aspects of how humans have shaped and inhabited the landscape over the years.  The resulting map is therefore based on proxy measures that illustrate how we should manage the land rather than how we experience it.

I have some sympathies with this view; very little of Scotland’s current landscape is entirely devoid of human interference over the last few centuries.  To make a distinction between ‘modern’ and older artefacts and structures seems arbitrary.  Fraser MacDonald puts this far more eloquently than I could:  “Imagine if SNH had used evidence of placenames from the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps from the 19th century, newly digitized by the National Library of Scotland.  A very different picture of Scotland would emerge of an intimately known, named and storied landscape that runs quite against the grain of its apparent ‘wildness’“.  Walking through remote glens and hills in Scotland, there are many examples of human activity whether it be ruined cottages, stone walls, fencing, planted forests, and grazing sheep and deer.

Of course, the key aspect of current human activity I haven’t mentioned is our energy infrastructure, notably hydro dams/pipes and onshore windfarms.  The concept of wildness is constructed on the notion that – while acknowledging that no areas of genuine wilderness exist in Scotland – we should preserve those areas where evidence of “contemporary” or “modern” human interference is relatively light.  This is the crux of the issue: the wild land map is a direct response to the current pressures by developers and landowners to site windfarms across Scotland.

So, I hear you say, this should be a good thing.  We should support moves to protect our wild land from any future blight by nasty wind turbines.

While I dare say the majority of people would agree, much hinges on how the map of wild land is actually used (should Ministers agree that it should indeed be used …):

  • policies and plans are used in our planning system to inform decisions – they don’t determine them.  New developments will presumably still take place within the core areas (following public consultation and most likely, planning enquiries) but it is assumed that there will be a presumption against them.  NPF3 has already proposed that there be a ban on wind turbines within the boundaries of National Parks and National Scenic Areas;
  • the boundaries of each area of wild land are necessarily subjective.  Will buffer zones be recognised surrounding these core areas (which could be very large if the core contains mountain and upland areas) ?  To what extent will the visual impact of a windfarm 30 miles from the boundary of an area of wild land be taken into account, for example ?
  • whose views take precedence, those of local communities living in or adjacent to core areas of wild land, or national pressure groups ?  The differences in views between these two stakeholder groups in the survey of perceptions of wildness undertaken by the National Parks in 2010 was quite stark, particularly around the importance of economic development in rural areas.  Do those living in rural communities have a lesser right to expect access to jobs and income from local developments ?

Personally,  I have nothing against wind farms and even think those sited senstively at Whitelees, Soutra and Doune, for example, are beautiful things to look at.  However, we can never achieve our renewable energy targets through onshore wind alone, even if we carpeted the whole of upland Scotland with turbines.  We therefore need to look to offshore wind together with wave and tidal generation to do the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to meeting Government targets, progressively coming onstream over the next 10-15 years.

There seems to be a growing feeling that we’re nearing saturation point with the scale of onshore developments currently taking place.  Together with this week’s announcement by the UK Government that subsidies with been withdrawn and instead diverted to offshore renewables, could it be that we’ve reached the high water mark in relation to onshore developments ?  Is the legacy of the SNH wild land map is to have raised public consciousness of wild land and defined the point at which the tide turned away from onshore wind developments ?

Related articles

Can new planning proposals protect Scotland’s finest landscapes ?

Hill Tracks, Plantations & Wind Farms: the slow decline in Scottish wild land

3 Comments on “Mapping the Wild Land Debate

  1. I hope you are/have responded to the consultation yourself since as you rightly say, “any rational, balanced perspectives seem to have been drowned out by the noise of the lobbyists on both sides.”

  2. Pingback: Scotland’s wild land map | Wild about Scotland

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