Hill tracks in Scotland

Vehicle tracks in the hills 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 should require a full planning application to be made with the opportunity for the public to comment – and for the application to be refused.  

A campaign in 2013 by Ramblers Scotland and other organisations as part of the LINK Hilltracks group gathered evidence from members of the public about the spread of upland tracks. This led to the publication of the Track Changes report and some partial success in addressing the issue. Since 2014 all landowners must give prior notification to local authorities of their intention to construct or alter new hill tracks for agricultural or forestry purposes. But full planning permission is still not required.

The LINK Hilltracks group then monitored planning authority websites for three years to help ensure the new legislation was as effective as possible. The findings were set out in the Changing Tracks report in September 2018.

Evidence showed that prior notification did bring a measure of public oversight to new tracks, but there was a complicated process for landowners to follow and still no requirement to consult with neighbours or organisations like ourselves.

Given the difficulty in proving the main use of a track, there were still instances of many new or upgraded tracks being built without seeking full planning approval, even if primarily used for field sports, and the underlying issues relating to the lack of local democracy had not improved.

Our position
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.

It would also help to uphold the public interest in the way land is managed, by enabling individuals and organisations to respond to planning applications.

While awaiting further action by the Scottish Government, we continue to monitor local authority planning pages to keep ensure we are aware of any new or upgraded track developments.

Government action
We used the passing of the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 to raise the issue of hilltracks with Scottish Ministers. Despite the best efforts of Andy Wightman MSP, we were not successful in getting an amendment included in the Act to remove permitted development rights from tracks. However, the Planning Minister did commit to holding a further consultation on the issue as part of a major review of permitted development rights.

This was due to be published in March 2020 but has been delayed for a year because of the Coronavirus crisis.

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 therefore monitored the change in the planning process for three years  to build an evidence base with which to return to government to make a further case for full planning applications to be required for all tracks. This was presented in our Changing Tracks report.

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 very grateful for this commitment. 

How you can help
While we await the promised consultation in 2021, walkers are invited to send a photo of any new or upgraded upland tracks they come across which are badly constructed, or have caused what you consider to be a significant impact on the landscape or environment. It helps to 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  and we will look out for it.

LINK Hilltracks campaign group members are: Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group, Cairngorms Campaign, John Muir Trust, 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 Mountaineering Scotland who are not members of LINK.

More information: 
Track Changes report
Changing Tracks report 2018
Cairngorms National Park Authority wins case against Glen Clova landowner in track appeal March 2020

Last updated May 2020

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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