May 18, 2008

Majority of Scots values Scotland’s wild places and wants action to protect them

It’s wild, it’s out there and it matters to almost everybody, even if they hardly ever see it. Scotland’s remote and untamed mountains, moors and glens have been given overwhelming backing in a major new poll for the conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Over 90% of people interviewed said they thought it important for Scotland to have wild places. Of the 1304 who were questioned, only six suggested wild land was not important.

More than 60% of Scottish residents said that action was needed to protect wild areas from being damaged by modern buildings, bulldozed tracks, mobile phone masts, electricity pylons or wind turbines. About 50% thought that wild places were under threat.

The strength of support for wild land has surprised SNH, and delighted campaigners. “In the past people who were interested in wild land have been called elitist, and it has been seen as a specialist interest of a minority of people,” said James Fenton, SNH’s landscape policy officer.

But that idea had now been firmly knocked on the head because the survey showed that wild land was vital to the vast majority of people, including those living in the central belt. “It’s part of the cultural identity of Scotland,” argued Fenton.

However, there was a danger that it was being lost by attrition. “A bulldozed track here, a mast there, a building there and a wind turbine there – there are little things eating away at the edge,” he said.

Those questioned said that wild land was important for wildlife, for tourism and for the local economy. People also suggested that it “contributed to their own health and wellbeing, enabling them, when visiting, to be relaxed, calm, content and at peace.”

According to SNH, up to a fifth of the Highlands and Islands could be regarded as wild land, though this depends on how it is defined (see map above). The presence of footpaths, forestry plantations and old stone buildings don’t necessarily prevent land from being perceived as wild.

For Davie Black, the wild land campaign officer with Ramblers’ Association Scotland, the survey confirmed what he had long believed.

“Whether people have actually been there or not, the fact that there are areas of land that have been only lightly touched by human hand resonates strongly in the Scottish psyche,” he said.

“The challenge is how to develop policies which value not just the remote aspect of wild land, but our perceptions of it. Just turning a hillside corner with a wide, open view, or a secluded stretch of coastline, can give one that elemental feel of wildness.”

Wild land was a “scarce and diminishing resource” which needed better protection, Black argued. “The current public inquiry for a wind farm at Eisgen in Lewis, which is wild land and a National Scenic Area, will be a test of how these landscape qualities are valued.”

The survey was conducted by Market Research Partners in August and September 2007, and a report on it is due to be published by SNH in the next few weeks. It involved face-to-face interviews with 1004 people across Scotland plus 300 residents in the Cairngorms National Park.

The park authority, which commissioned the research alongside SNH, was similarly pleased with the outcome. “We often refer to the Cairngorms National Park as a living and working landscape with wild land at its heart,” said Will Boyd-Wallis, the authority’s senior land management officer.

“The public perceptions survey confirms the fact that many, many people enjoy and value the wildness that can be found in our beautiful native forests, moors and mountains. Our job now is to ensure that all agencies, non-governmental organisations, land managers and the public work together to ensure this great asset is protected and enhanced for future generations.”

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Sunday Herald

18 May 2008

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