A crackdown on hill tracks which scar the Scottish landscape appears to be under way. 

They carve a deep scar across some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery, scoring hillsides with lines that can be seen for miles, creating blemishes on pristine landscapes, disfiguring hillside meadows.

That, at least, is the view of some.

Lined up on the other side of Scotland’s many hill tracks are estate owners, farmers and countryside businesses. To them, the tracks are a crucial route for vehicles across otherwise challenging territory – a vital artery to help them reach outer edges of their land, sculpted with due care and attention.

Now the two sides have come face to face in a debate over soaring numbers of hill tracks appearing in some of Scotland’s most sensitive areas, played out against suggestions that some are less to do with giving farmers access to their hillside flocks or woodland, and more about serving the demands of the well-heeled hunting and shooting brigade.

Meanwhile, keeping watch as each new scar emerges across Scotland’s hills and mountains – and which could eventually help bring those who flout the rules to task – is the all-seeing eye of Google Earth.

Last week, the issue of hill tracks took a fresh turn when a landowner in the Cairngorms National Park area was ordered to remove a vehicle track visible for miles around in scenic Glen Clova, Angus.

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Potato farmer and estate owner Hugh Niven has been given until October 2020 to restore the upper part of the track to its original condition.

The 1.5km-long track behind the Glen Clova Hotel – which advertises itself as “an ideal base for a wide variety of activities, including Shooting & Stalking” – sits within a special protection area, yet is said to have created spoil mounds up to 10 metres wide.

Cairngorm National Park Authority has also ordered he seek retrospective permission by December 23 for changes to a separate section of track lower down the hillside.

None of which has gone down well with Niven. “My response is hardly printable,” he says. “I feel as strongly as I think it’s possible to feel. These people are so far out of touch with reality. I employ 20 to 30 people. If that track goes, then those jobs go.”

However, the move is being seen as particularly significant. One of the first enforcement actions of its kind in the area, it has raised hopes among weary campaigners of a crackdown on hillside roads, some of them built over narrow, low-impact trails and historical routes.

At the heart of the issue is a planning loophole which means landowners simply need to notify authorities of plans for tracks which support “forestry and agriculture”.

Without a requirement for full planning permission, campaigners say the chance to scrutinise and object is lost.

Added to the mix is a concern that many tracks have little to do with agriculture or forestry. Instead, they are said to support shooting activities, either to transport guests or to take gamekeepers to pheasant feeders and breeding pens.

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Even when planning authorities discover the tracks, campaigners point out they must then prove they are less than three years old before they can take enforcement action.

That, combined with the vast areas which organisations such as the Cairngorm National Park Authority covers, is said to have made it almost impossible for tracks to be monitored and rogue estate owners brought to task.

While the Glen Clova tracks are now in the crosshairs of the national park authority, Nick Kempe of ParksWatchScotland says they are a problem across countless other estates.

“This issue has been going on for 30 years,” he says. “You’ll go to a place and suddenly realise there’s a track. They appear at a very steady rate.

“The proliferation of tracks at the Drumochter Pass over the last 10 or 12 years, for example, is incredible. The whole area is covered with tracks.

“It’s so obviously in your face, and that’s a great concern.”

Kempe, who has photographed the Glen Clova hill tracks for the ParkWatchScotland blog, claims many estate tracks meant to be for forestry and agriculture use are instead aiding sporting estate activities.

“Often these tracks are really about game management. They’re used for raptor persecution and wildlife management as opposed to getting people up a hill on a comfortable ride to go grouse shooting.

“They make it much easier to control predators of grouse.

“I’ve seen traps on either side of tracks. If you spot an eagle or hen harrier, these tracks make it easier to get to where they are and then, I suppose, to kill them.My belief is that many of these tracks play a key role in terms of trapping.”

While campaigners’ boots on the ground have traditionally helped identify new hill tracks, Cairngorms National Park Authority is now looking to a higher force to help crack down on landowners who flout the rules.

Google Earth satellite images are being used to help map current tracks and create a “baseline” to measure against future developments.

Gavin Miles, head of planning and communities at the CNPA, said: “We have been carrying out a national park-wide exercise mapping hill tracks to provide an accurate baseline. We are doing this through a variety of methods including using the most up-to-date aerial photography.

“We are also grateful for reports of potential unauthorised works that are reported to us by members of the public.”

While it suggests a crackdown, landowners’ representatives and Niven claim that could create problems of its own.

“Without it, we can’t safely get to our sheep, we can’t remove deer, we can’t run our tourism business,” says Niven. “I have a hydro scheme I have to service twice a week – I can’t pay someone to walk up there.

“Take the attitude that the national park is taking and there will be no tracks. Then what are you going to do with the hills?

“Hillwalking doesn’t generate money or jobs. Money pays for jobs, it buys people houses and cars. You have to maintain these areas or you end up with a complete wilderness. What is the motivation behind this? It’s that they don’t like shooting,” he says, adding: “I’ll fight this because I am 100% within my rights. I’ve done nothing untoward.”

Gavin Mowat, of landowners’ group Scottish Land and Estates, adds: “Hill tracks are very important for a business to continue to be viable in remote and rural areas. They normally provide access for tenants and workers, but local communities also use them.

“Having a hill track can prevent damage – if there isn’t an obvious track for a vehicle or people to use, it can lead to people going where they should not, near to ground-nesting birds or near other areas of significant biodiversity that people should not be walking or driving near.”

What the parties do agree on is a need for clarification surrounding planning requirements. Scottish Government confirmation that hill tracks will be a priority in its review of “permitted development rights” as part of a reform of Scottish planning has been welcomed. John Muir Trust policy officer Hebe Carus says: “It is an anachronism that a householder who wants to build a modest extension must get planning consent, yet landowners have free rein to build unsightly and ecologically destructive tracks visible for miles around without permission.”

Stuart Younie, chief executive of Mountaineering Scotland, meanwhile, says there is concern at the “unconstrained proliferation of intrusive and often poorly constructed tracks in wild areas”.

He adds: “Current Scottish Government action to bring tracks into the planning system is too weak and fails to ensure democratic oversight.

“All hill tracks should require planning permission and far more attention should be placed on monitoring and enforcement to ensure compliance and the highest standards of construction and mitigation of their visual impact.”

At Ramblers Scotland there are concerns over a number of tracks, including one at Ledgowan, easily viewed from the A832 at Achnasheen, which cuts through part of a SSI. Built under permitted development rights as “agricultural use”, estate particulars indicate its real purpose was deer stalking.

Others include a former stalkers’ path at West Monar near Achnashellach, and a proliferation of tracks at Glen Banchor and Pitmain estates near Newtonmore and at Glen Etive Allt a’Chaorainn.

The organisation’s Helen Todd says: “We implore ministers to take urgent action to finally get a grip on this issue – and change the law so authorities and the public can weigh up the pros and cons of track applications before there is further lasting damage.

“The clock is ticking as – despite damning evidence, years of campaigning from environmentalists and thousands of letters from outdoors lovers – these controversial tracks continue to creep further and further into Scotland’s special mountain landscapes.”