Hill tracks in Scotland

Hill tracks can cause huge damage to our fragile upland areas, especially if they’re badly built.  

We’re campaigning to bring these developments fully into the planning system to improve construction standards and bring about a measure of democratic oversight.

The issue

Poorly-constructed hill tracks cause landscape and environmental damage, and have been a concern to environmental and recreation bodies for decades. No planning permission is required if they are for agricultural or forestry purposes and yet we believe the main reason why many tracks are being built is for shooting and stalking purposes. This is not permitted development and would require a full planning application to be made with the opportunity for the public to comment – and for the application to be refused.  

Following a campaign by Ramblers Scotland and other organisations as part of the LINK Hilltracks group, all landowners must now give prior notification to local authorities of their intention to construct new hill tracks for agricultural or forestry purposes. Full planning permission is still not required, but the need for prior notification should at least improve construction standards and help show us where new tracks are being built across Scotland.  

Our position

As part of the LINK Hilltracks group, we’re now monitoring planning authority websites to help ensure the new legislation is as effective as possible. We recognise that prior notification brings a measure of public oversight to new tracks, but it’s not ideal – there is a complicated process for landowners to follow, and there’s no requirement for consultation with neighbours or with organisations like ourselves, for example. It’s still our belief that if landowners were required to make a full planning application this would help to address the almost unrestricted spread of new tracks, improve construction standards and also give certainty to landowners over what is required from them.

Government action

The prior notification process was introduced in December 2014. If we are to persuade ministers that the new system isn’t working and full planning permission should be required, we need to have up-to-date evidence of the issue. We’re gathering this evidence through our members’ photos and by monitoring planning authority websites and will return to the government when our case is clearly made, with the publication of a report in May 2018.

Background to the issue

The  campaign grew from the growing concerns felt by environmental and recreation organisations in Scotland since the 1970s over the proliferation of new tracks in fragile upland locations built under permitted development rights. Many of these had been badly constructed and were responsible for poor drainage, peat damage, biodiversity loss and adverse landscape impacts including scarring obvious from many miles distant. Without the need for a planning application there was no democratic scrutiny of the need for the track or its construction standards and yet we were aware that many landowners were abusing this privilege and the primary purpose for many of these tracks was in fact for shooting and stalking activities.

As a result of the efforts of the Scottish Environment LINK Hilltracks campaign and our Track Changes report, landowners must now give prior notification to planning authorities of any new or improved tracks built in Scotland. This change in legislation was welcome but was not the full planning consent which we had sought.  We have therefore been monitoring the change in the planning process since 2015, and are building an evidence base with which to return to government to make a further case for full planning applications to be required for all tracks. From our observations to date we consider that this is the only solution to reduce the level of damage that is being encountered in the Scottish hills and to enable democratic accountability of estates. Our monitoring effort has been carried out mainly by volunteers, coordinated by the LINK group, and we are then screening the prior notifications and making efforts to make comments to local authorities although they have no statutory requirement to accept comments for prior notifications. We have appointed a consultant to coordinate this work until May 2018.

How you can help

All walkers are invited to send a photo of any new upland tracks you come across which are badly constructed, or have caused what you consider to be a significant impact on the landscape or environment. It helps if you can include an item in the photo to give scale – a person or walking poles. Note that tracks for windfarm or hydro schemes already have planning permission, but we are also concerned that the standards of construction can be inadequate. If you come across such tracks, we’re interested!

Learn more about hydro tracks here.

Please email photos with their location to hilltracks@scotlink.org or tweet a photo using the hashtag #hilltracks or #NoMotorsUpMountains and we will look out for it.

LINK Hilltracks campaign group members are: Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Cairngorms Campaign, National Trust for Scotland, North East Mountain Trust, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Campaign for National Parks, Scottish Wild Land Group. We have also been supported by the John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland who are not members of LINK.

More information:

Press release - Study to assess damage to Scotland's hills from bulldozed tracks

Track Changes report

Press Release – Progress on hill tracks, but more action needed (Aug 2014)

Last updated June 2017

Read about the background to hill tracks in Scotland

New vehicle hill tracks are proliferating and can currently be built without planning permission if they're claimed to be for agricultural or forestry purposes.

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