Should some of Scotland's mountains be closed down periodically to visitors to allow wildlife to recover?

On what basis should action be taken?

Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, talks of "the sheer number of people accessing our Scottish hills and making it very difficult for the thing they were coming to experience, the wildlife, to co-exist". If that were true, it would be a very serious matter and there would need to be some thought given to ways of mitigating the problem.

Loading article content

Yet, first it must be asked: where is the evidence? It is certainly true that heavily used routes through the hills are often subject to a degree of erosion. Walkers and climbers can also sometimes inadvertently disturb animals such as ground-nesting birds like grouse, though on the other hand, they do not tend to shoot them.

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code exists to minimise the impact walkers have on wildlife and the environment, and most visitors take it seriously. The claim that wildlife finds it "very difficult" to coexist with walkers must therefore be corroborated.

Landowners and gamekeepers do not always see eye to eye with groups representing ramblers and conservation interests.

This development comes against the backdrop of a dispute about the construction of unsightly hill tracks, at present unregulated. Conservation charities wish ministers to bring the construction of the tracks by landowners into the planning system.

At the same time, conflicting opinions have been expressed about a planned official wild land map of Scotland, drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage. The map, which sets out 43 areas of remote and often challenging terrain mainly in the Highlands and Islands, is designed to inform planners and political decision-makers about which areas are considered the most environmentally valued, and does not constitute a formal environmental designation.

It has been welcomed by conservation organisations, but has drawn criticism from crofters and other groups representing those working in rural areas of the Highlands and Islands, who fear it could stop all development of such land, and mean that any sign of human management would be frowned upon, though SNH insists this is not the case.

To some extent, the tension at the heart of these disputes can be seen as being between those who work on the land and those who visit it. Ultimately the natural heritage has to be managed, not just for some, but for all, with wildlife given special status.

Clearly the impact on Scotland's wildlife from humans - be it visitors, gamekeepers or anyone else - has to be kept in check and a balance struck.

News that a new operator has been found for the Cairngorm Funicular Railway, a company pledging to make Cairngorm one of the leading leisure and adventure resorts in Europe, will raise anxieties about the impact higher visitor numbers might have on the area's precious ecosystem.

The impact of visitors on Scotland's wildlife should certainly be carefully monitored, but any moves to restrict access must be evidence-based.