As the potential end of lockdown promises to open up more opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, NatureScot is urging all of us to act responsibly. At the heart of their new communications initiative is the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. By Andrew Collier

The long, dark winter of Covid-19 lockdown is almost over. With the spring weather improving and the temperatures rising daily, there could not be a better time for everyone to enjoy Scotland’s magnificent landscapes.

With access, however, comes responsibility. The Scottish countryside is diverse, compelling and beautiful, but it is also fragile. For many living there, such as farmers, it is also a workplace. It needs to be treated with thought, care and respect.

In their enthusiasm to head for the hills, mountains, forests and lochs, people can sometimes fail to treat the country’s unique environment with the respect and consideration it deserves.

To encourage them to behave appropriately, Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot, is running a national digital campaign to raise awareness of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which was first published in 2005 as a key part of outdoor access rights under the 2003 Land Reform Act.

Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, more than a million visitors were estimated to have visited the country’s national nature reserves in 2020, up from 650,000 in previous years.

Sadly, not all of them behaved as they should. There were accounts of rubbish left behind and dogs allowed off leads around livestock. Fires were lit inappropriately and trees were even chopped down for firewood.

NatureScot is determined to try to discourage this kind of behaviour. “There’s some good evidence that people did discover the outdoors during lockdown and that’s really positive”, says Mark Wrightham, the organisation’s Recreation, Access and Land Reform Manager.

“However, with that discovery came greater pressure on the places people come to enjoy. So, we’ve been working with partners, and particularly VisitScotland, to try to address these as well as we can.

“That includes a communications campaign as well as providing better infrastructure and more visitor services, especially staff on the ground.”

With people now able to travel outside their local areas, a range of outdoor activities will be open to them, from picnicking through to more strenuous activities such as walking, cycling and mountaineering.

Most of these fall under the access code. “In Scotland, we do have a particularly progressive framework for outdoor recreation – it allows people access to most land and inland water,” Mr Wrightham says. “But the crucial proviso is that they behave responsibly. And that’s what we are basing the current campaign around.

“The feedback we had from last year was that most people wanted to do the right thing. However, in some cases they weren’t all that experienced at going into the great outdoors and so they weren’t sure what the correct thing to do was.

“What we are trying to do is to help them with that and to promote the code in order to give them some guidance. A lot of the messages are timeless – so this is really about communicating well-established messages to a new audience.”

Inevitably, he adds, a small minority of people are difficult to influence and do not behave well, but most visitors are well intended and the code is an effective way of reaching them.

The digital campaign will also include simple and straightforward advice to take account of issues caused by COVID-19. They include advising people to plan ahead, to engage in social distancing and to recognise that, if somewhere looks too busy, it is too busy and they should have alternative locations in mind.

“The three key principles  of the Code are respect the interests of other people, care for the environment and take responsibility for your own actions”, Mr Wrightham explains. “There’s also more specific advice for different situations. This covers actions such as remembering to take away litter, not disturbing livestock, keeping dogs under proper control and guarding against the risk of fire.

“Controlling dogs is very much an issue at this time of year as we’re in the lambing season. It’s also important not to linger, if your presence is causing a disturbance to wildlife. A lot of the provisions are really just common sense.”

NatureScot recognises the need to support promotion of the code by providing better infrastructure and services. Key early action includes putting in place temporary facilities and employing more staff on the ground – “something that was clearly highlighted last year as being helpful”.

As lockdown eases, there will be other messages to be deployed. Once overnight stays are allowed, for example, there will be information about responsible camping.

With international travel restrictions still likely to be in place for the foreseeable future, Scotland’s countryside is also likely to be a magnet for staycation tourists from all over the UK this summer. These increased numbers are likely to create more challenges. NatureScot, VisitScotland and partner organisations have put considerable thought into their visitor management strategy and aim to take an approach that's proactive and responsive.

Most of the pressure, Mr Wrightham says, will be on the well known and loved tourist hotspots such as Loch Lomondside and the Cairngorms National Park.

“However, we did notice last year how the issues we faced were actually quite widely distributed.”

The national park authorities have been closely involved in the visitor management process, along with the key councils and Forestry and Land Scotland. Police Scotland are also helping to ensure coordination between the services to make it easier to respond on a dynamic basis.

“We would like people to consider the consequences of their actions and their behaviour. It’s good to see so many people wanting to enjoy the outdoors and connecting with it more. It’s just that responsibility goes hand in hand with that enjoyment.”

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Funding our natural treasures

As Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot plays a vital role in helping promote and protect the country’s green spaces. Its work in raising awareness of the Outdoor Access Code is an important part of this – but it is busy in other areas too.

The organisation leads the Better Places Green recovery Fund, helping to distribute some £3 million in Scottish Government funding.

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This money is disbursed to help communities and local authorities in so-called hot spot locations across the country to help communities and local authorities  take rapid and immediate action, for example by putting in place seasonal staff and small scale infrastructure for the forthcoming summer season.

A total of 35 projects are now nearing completion. Together they have been awarded more than £400,000 to carry out scoping and planning work to improve visitor management.

In addition to this, another funding round is open for applications. This will distribute £2.75 million to projects in order to improve infrastructure and services ready for the influx of visitors this season.

Additional funding of £750,000 provided by the Scottish Government is being invested in visitor management within Scotland’s nature reserves. This will be spent on a range of measures, including improving and maintaining paths, signs, toilets and visitor centres. And in order to welcome people back, promote the Code and provide information, up to 20 additional rangers and other staff are being recruited.

NatureScot is also working with VisitScotland and other partners on the country’s first national visitor management strategy. This will improve infrastructure and services while promoting responsible visitor behaviour. Another initiative is the publication of a policy statement on rangering. This sets out a collective vision for 2030 with the aim of developing a strong, confident and committed ranger workforce that will help to connect people with places.

Once again, they will promote the message that the country’s outdoors should be enjoyed responsibly and people need to take action to address biodiversity loss and climate change.

As NatureScot’s Recreation, Access and Land Reform Manager Mark Wrightham puts it: “The single biggest thing we’re trying to do is to have more people on the ground. 

“That really is crucial in liaising with visitors and helping them to do the right thing.”

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Go wild in the country . . . but on your best behaviour

Scotland has some of the most progressive legislation in the world when it comes to the right to enjoy outdoor pursuits. The Land Reform Act of 2003 established a statutory framework of public access rights to most land and inland water.

These are, however, not unconditional. “The legislation refers to a general right of responsible access, and the key word is responsible”, NatureScot's Recreation, Access and Land Reform Manager Mark Wrightham says. “That means there are responsibilities on the public and also corresponding ones on land managers, who have to manage their property in a way that is sympathetic to access and supports it.”

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The range of access permitted is broad, he points out, and different from the position in England and Wales. “It’s generally inclusive, and it’s not limited to specific areas in quite the same way as it is south of the border, where there are zones of designated access land.”

In Scotland rights apply to hills and moors; forests and woods; beaches and the coast; rivers and lochs; parks; and some types of farmland. However, there are a number of 'common sense exceptions'. These include - not unnaturally - houses and gardens, as well as other buildings and their yards or compounds. Other exceptions are school grounds and places that charge for entry.

The purposes for which access is allowed include pursuits such as walking, cycling, climbing, horse riding, kayaking, swimming and watching wildlife. Activities not allowed include shooting, fishing or the use of motor vehicles.

The Scottish Government indicated at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that access rights would continue to apply and this has remained the case during lockdown.

“As always, though, the need for behaviour to always be responsible was emphasised. The access legislation here is seen as something that is important and  distinctive. I think it’s something that people very much want to safeguard.”

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