With the lockdown still in effect, many top visitor sites are unusually quiet, but for woodland tracks and river trails closer to our homes it is boom time.

Scots are flocking to beauty spots near houses and staying away from areas that would typically be popular, according to results from a national footfall experiment.

Environmental technology company Wilderness Sensors placed internetconnected counters at locations including paths not far from its headquarters in Stewarton, East Ayrshire, and a number of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) unmanned properties.

Among them was a section of the Antonine Wall near Bonnybridge.

The technology is designed to provide information on levels of use and demand, and help communities plan services for visitors.

But it has also shone a light on striking shifts in leisure habits since the start of the pandemic.

Before lockdown, the counter in Stewarton picked up an average of about 30 people per day taking in a local river stroll.

The same device has since detected a four-fold increase in walkers, with up to 120 each day.

Similarly, sensors at the Antonine Wall have registered a steady increase in visits following the introduction of Covid-19 travel restrictions and amid concern over health risks posed by crowded places.

In January and February, they picked up around 1,300 people, rising to nearly 2,500 in March.

However, by April, the figure had jumped to 3,500, with the total for May projected to be more than 4,000.

The surge has prompted HES experts to stress that monitoring visitor pressure at some sites will be of crucial importance during lockdown.

Alistair Carty, technical director at Wilderness Sensors, said: “We have had a counter on the Stewarton river walk for a long time, counting the number of people who take a walk along the river.

“Normally, it picks up a few dozen people every day – but we have seen a real usage pattern shift.

“Stewarton is a commuter town and, as a result of lockdown, there are probably a lot of people who are re-discovering what their local area has to offer, making the walk part of their daily routine.”

Mr Carty said data changes at the Antonine Wall – a turf fortification built by the Romans across what later became Scotland’s Central Belt – were also dramatic.

“The counters... are part of an ongoing programme of deployments across Historic Environment Scotland’s unmanned sites,” he said.

“They are designed to help the organisation understand how these places are being used and where interventions may be required – for example, if there are a lot of visitors at the site, a member of staff might need to be there too.

“The Antonine Wall site at Rough Castle is a big open space, so it can handle the increasing number of people walking there while social distancing guidelines are in place.

“Interestingly, footfall has become more pronounced at the weekend, rather than evenly spread across the week.

“We interpret that as the reduced numbers of professional dog walkers that would use the site on weekdays.

“But, overall, the site is considerably busier and now follows a more traditional ‘visitor’ pattern.

“Inevitably, there is an element of seasonality to the numbers; but that only explains part of it.

“The change in visitors has been stark and the fact it is not only the weekends shows lockdown has had a significant effect on people’s habits.

“It is making people look to their local area and heritage sites, perhaps re-discovering these places or taking them in for the first time.”

However, the trend, while indicating broad levels of compliance with Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, is likely to create challenges given the possible impact on historic locations.

Nick Thomas, head of commercial performance & systems at HES, said: “Monitoring our unstaffed properties will be of particular importance during this current period of restricted movement and beyond.

“With visitors likely to favour less populated and open sites in the coming months we will need to be aware of the potential pressures that this generates.

“The Wilderness Sensors are an important tool in this remote monitoring process across our diverse estate.”

Counters have also been deployed on the West Highland Way in partnership with Stirling Council, Gartness Community Group and CENSIS – Scotland’s centre of excellence for sensor and imaging systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Although the devices have only just been installed, they are expected to show relatively low footfall compared to what would normally be anticipated at this time of year, in a sign that many people are avoiding popular visitor sites.

The initiative follows a recent FutureTech seminar held by CENSIS at Loch Lomond and The Trossachs Country Park headquarters in Balloch.

This was part of a wider programme of business support commissioned by the Scottish Government to explore the use of IoT, which refers to the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive information.

Rachael Wakefield, business development manager at CENSIS, said: “One of the main aims of the [West Highland Way] project is to provide a boost to the local economy, by helping businesses plan ahead for staffing, stock, and opening hours using visitor data.

“However, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has brought an unexpected element, in which we are observing just how quiet the route is in late spring – normally one of the most popular times of the year to attempt the walk.

“Alongside the footfall counters, we plan to install other sensor systems to monitor variables such as weather conditions and river levels, and so we still expect to see some interesting data from this stage of the project.

“It is a great example of how sensors and IoT technologies can be used to better understand how visitors are interacting with Scotland’s heritage and help local businesses, which depend on tourists, to more efficiently plan.”

Evidence that increasing numbers of people in Scotland are being drawn to sites and landmarks close to their homes comes as ministers prepare for an expected surge in staycations once lockdown is eased.

Last week, Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “With the unlikely event of aviation as we knew it resuming soon or possibly even by next spring, staycations, I think, will be extremely popular.

“We have to consider and we have to manage the foreseeable scenario where the first weekend, the road from east Loch Lomond, from Drymen to Ben Lomond, is jam-packed because everybody goes to the most popular area. We have to think about that as well, and these practical issues – the provision of public toilets and lavatories and other services – all these things we need to plan in advance.”