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'Outsider' charities accused of ignoring rural communities

RURAL groups are at loggerheads with "outsider" charity and quango chiefs amid claims the voices of those who live and work on Scotland's wild lands are being ignored.

land RIGHTS: A dispute over areas deemed to be wild has escalated between community owners and conservationists. Picture: Mike Reid
land RIGHTS: A dispute over areas deemed to be wild has escalated between community owners and conservationists. Picture: Mike Reid

A prominent community landowner has become the latest to step into the increaingly heated debate on how best to defend the country's open spaces against modern incursions.

Storas Uibhist, which manages the 93,000 acre South Uist Estate on behalf of the 4000-strong community, has atatcked bodies such as the John Muir Trust (JMT) during discussions over the future of areas identified as wild lands.

The war of words has erupted after The Core Wild Land Map was published last year by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). It sets out 43 areas of rugged, remote and challenging terrain, the majority of which are in the Highlands and islands, many in crofting areas.

It was put out to consultation and Stuart Brooks, JMT chief executive said recently the scale of public support (73%) for the map showed people "care passionately about wild land and want to see it better protected".

Primarily JMT has wind farm developers in its sights, but the comments have annoyed Storas Uibhist's directors, whose remit takes in the bulk of the islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist.

They say the interim report on the "Wild Land Consultation" submissions released by the Scottish Government "has been seized on by some organisations to claim there is overwhelming support from the public to extend the deemed areas of wild land".

But the islanders say close inspection of the submissions reveals the main representative organisations of the people who live and work in most of the areas deemed to be wild land had serious concerns about the proposals and indeed the areas "that SNH has identified in a desk exercise".

Storas Uibhist points to the Highland Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), Community Energy Scotland, Community Land Scotland, Scottish Crofting Federation and the Crofting Commission, as all having serious misgivings about the map.

A Storas Uibhist spokesman said: "These organisations represent the many thousands of people who live within, or adjacent to, the supposed 'wild land' and their views should not be ignored or disparaged by single-interest lobby groups, the majority of whose membership almost certainly live nowhere near the "wild land". Much of the supposed wild land has been inhabited, cultivated, altered and managed for centuries."

Storas Uibhist and other ­crofting and community-led bodies are concerned the map will lead to a Wild Land environmental designation that would prevent future development.

Western Isles Council has already said it "believes local authorities are best placed to determine the final areas that should be included in development plans taking account of specific local circumstances, and the policy on wild land should be set locally".

In its submission, the Crofting Commission said people like crofters, who have worked Scotland's remote rural landscapes for generations were "rendered invisible by the wild land map".

John Hutchison, JMT chairman, who also chairs the community-led Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, said the wild land map was not a designation. He said: "It is about offering a degree of protection to precious landscapes that sustain thousands of livelihoods in remote communities, and ending the unregulated free-for-all that allows multinational energy companies and big private landowners - who own the vast bulk of Scotland's wild land - to ravage a valuable national asset for profit."

SNH also insists such fears are unfounded. A spokesman said: "The wild land map does not propose a designation nor does it suggest creating no-go areas. It maps areas with strong wild land character so those making decisions about how these areas are managed in future are aware and can take account of the wild land."

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