YEARS ago, in jest, I bought my husband a litter picker. He had been fulminating, as ever, about the mess left by “revellers” on the park where we lived. On a Sunday morning his clock was set not by the ringing of church bells but by the smatter of rubbish these litterers left the night before. Putting this flimsy tool to work, he used it so assiduously that last year, having winkled out its last wheel hub from the undergrowth, it finally snapped. Fortunately, we have a spare.

His efforts are as nothing, however, compared to the crack squad in our village. Armed to the teeth, this pair head out of an early morning like the cleansing department’s answer to Starsky and Hutch. With high-viz jackets, litter-claws and pockets stuffed with bin bags, they work each side of the roads, clearing them of detritus flung from car windows. Without them, the verges – and wildlife and livestock – would be choked.

This past year Covid has inflicted many miseries, but one unexpected blight has been the surge in garbage strewn on beaches and beauty spots. When the sun comes out, so the litter sprouts. I remember outrage a few summers ago when an epidemic of wild toileting by Loch Lomond caused more consternation than when Vikings were spotted sailing up the Clyde. Sadly, what was assumed to be a scandalous aberration is now commonplace, as is the concern and distress it causes.

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In recent weeks, stories have abounded of pillaging by day-trippers. Scenes from river banks and forest clearings more resemble the aftermath of a hurricane that’s ripped through a recycling centre than the wake of a bank holiday weekend. No need to go into detail. Suffice to say, used nappies are the least of it, as are barbecue kits, broken bottles and discarded tents.

At the same time there has been an escalation in fly-tipping, as chancers offload their garbage onto someone else’s land. All across the countryside remote lay-bys and woodlands are turned into graveyards for cast-off fridges, mattresses and trampolines. I heard a farmer on the radio grudgingly admire the navigational skills of one rogue who had manoeuvred a 20-foot boat up a narrow track on his land before pitching it down the hillside. Needless to say, it was the farmer who footed the bill to remove it.

Although all litter louts leave unsightly and hazardous mess in their wake, fly-tipping and casual littering occupy opposite ends of the throwaway scale. A Venn diagram might show some degree of overlap, but to my mind they are separate and distinct issues. The act of loading a trailer with junk someone doesn’t want to pay to dispose of and stealthily dumping it – where it might moulder until Doomsday – is not merely antisocial but actively criminal.

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Far from being thoughtless, it is a calculated breach of the law. Most of us wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Whereas at some point, pretty much everyone has been guilty of dropping litter, even if accidentally.

The scourge of fly-tipping is solvable primarily by finding the culprits and making them pay with a criminal record. The source of this offence is not a lack of understanding, but the determination to make their refuse someone else’s headache.

The fouling of beaches and countryside by passing visitors, however, is more complex. Some have suggested it comes from city folk not realising that there are far fewer refuse bins or public toilets (assuming they are even open during lockdown) beyond their urban habitat. Perhaps they assume there are squads of midnight rural refuse collectors who remove all trace of their visit. More probably, I suspect they just don’t give a damn.

As is increasingly obvious, preparing for a day out should include planning how to carry off everything – and I mean everything – you take with you, no matter if it hasn’t entirely been digested when you or your dog set out.

Adventurers visiting the remotest regions of the world are under strict orders to leave nothing whatsoever behind. Toileting in the tundra might sound less offensive than in the more populated Trossachs, but in a fragile environment it can unbalance the ecosystem. Whatever a traveller brings into the Arctic wilderness must be taken away with them. The same should become a mantra for Scotland’s great outdoors.

Yet the trash that visitors leave behind is not simply the symptom of a cultural divide. Call it ignorance or arrogance, but it applies to town and country folk alike. And that is what needs to change. Stricter law enforcement would help, starting with wardens patrolling hot-spots. So too would fining offenders. Yet since the everyday nuisance of dog-fouling is rarely penalised, I don’t hold out much hope of that. The statute books might be filled with good intentions, but either we don’t have the resources to follow through, or the authorities lack the resolve.

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Volunteers provide an invaluable rapid response for chronic or emergency situations, and I doubt they will ever be made redundant. Indeed, more of us might get involved in regular clean-ups if councils could better publicise the free bags and uplift they are willing to provide.

Yet deterrents, policing and community activity can only go so far. And no, this isn’t a plea to name and shame litterers, which would be my husband’s preference. By far the most obvious and enduring answer is education. However, given people’s shocking carelessness about the impact their filthy habits are having, these lessons need to be much harder-hitting than any so far taught. Because only by drastically adjusting our outlook will the problem be solved.

This means starting by explaining to children at primary school the devastating damage litter can cause, for the landscape and its creatures. It’s a message that needs to be reinforced every year until they leave school recognising that anyone who breaks these rules is completely out of line.

Since the essence of the human condition is to be self-centred, I doubt there’s a solution that will ever be entirely fouler-proof. The biggest hurdle is recognising that in order for nature to remain undisturbed and unpolluted, we need to curb our basic instincts.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.