A dispute between a county farmer and the local authority has led to the blocking of a popular footpath that has granted the public access to one of East Lothian’s most treasured landmarks for more than 40 years.
However, the landowner has denied the decision to block off the route, located in a field to the south of Traprain Law, was linked to his attempts to erect large-scale wind turbines in the vicinity of the hill.
A strip of uncultivated land leading to the crags of the Law, in place since at least the early 1960s, has been a favourite access route for members of the public for years.
But visitors trying to access the path have now found the entrance to the route blocked by a large pile of stones and a footpath sign formerly erected there removed.
On Sunday, several motorists who had parked on the roadside near the field claimed they had returned from scaling the Law to find their car tyres had been mysteriously deflated.
More than two dozen complaints have been made to the local authority since the obstruction was created and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has confirmed it is receiving “daily” complaints from concerned members of the public.
A large quantity of wood chips, lain by the council to upgrade the path in February, has also been scraped off the route and dumped on the side of the road next to the field’s entrance.
Under the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2003, members of the public have statutory rights to access the countryside so long as they exercise that right responsibly.
For example, the Act forbids members of the public from accessing or crossing land where crops have been sown or are growing.
The field at Traprain is part of Luggate Farm, owned by James Clark, of Standingstone Farm near East Linton.
Mr Clark has leased the 140-acre arable farm to his son, Alistair, since September 2009.
The Land Reform Act states that a landowner cannot remove a public access without permission from the local authority and agreement that a suitable alternative will be installed which offers the same start point and destination as the previous route.
Despite the council refusing to grant permission to the Clarks for the route to be removed, the farmer consolidated the land on either side of thepath and sowed crops in to the strip of land last month.
Alistair, 25, posted the following notice at the site: “We took the opportunity, some years ago, to use EU and Scottish Government funding to improve the access by upgrading the path. This funding has ended and an application to renew it has been refused.”
The notice also claims that “East Lothian Council, without consultation or permission, has done works to the field”.
“We are concerned that this is an action designed to change the current informal access to an established right of way. We consider it a gross incursion on our rights as farmers and are advised, under the circumstances, to take such actions as we can to prevent this from happening.”
James Clark – who as the landowner is responsible for ensuring public access is maintained – has been involved in negotiations with the council’s landscape and countryside and community well-being officials in recent months.
A council source claimed Mr Clark had, in discussions with council officials, indicated that the row over the path could be resolved if the local authority agreed to support his bid to erect wind turbines near Traprain Law.
Mr Clark has lodged eight planning applications for wind energy developments – of between one and three turbines – since 2009. Two pending applications, submitted this year, are for a 66-metre turbine to be erected at Crossgatehall at Morham and a 40-metre tall turbine at Cockielaw, near East Linton.
“This all boils down to him (James Clark) retaliating because his applications have not been granted and he’s trying to use the dispute over this public access to sway the council. But it simply won’t work,” the source alleged.
However, Mr Clark maintained that the decision to consolidate the two fields had been his tenant son’s and denied there was any link to his wind turbine bids.
Mr Clark, whose family has been farming in the area since 1908, told the Courier that Alistair had mown alternative routes for the public on the east and west margins of the field.
“The farmer has taken positive measures to make an alternative access available through the field margins,” he said.
“My understanding is that arable crops have legal protection under the Land Reform Act and walkers are not allowed to have a right of access through crops.
The fields have now been consolidated into one 50-hectare site and crops have been sown into the strip of land.”
He added that there were a number of long-standing issues surrounding the public’s use of his field, including disruption to the farm’s operations by motorists and walkers who damaged crops.
“I have witnessed vehicles being driven across the field and damage has been caused to the dyke that stands alongside the path,” he said.
Mr Clark also accused the council of being “extremely inflammatory” by damaging the field’s crops while laying the bark on the path.
He said: “Issue was taken by the farmer with the council attempting to upgrade the path because the appropriate infrastructure, i.e. better parking, is not in place to support that.”
Mr Clark denied any knowledge of recent vandalism to vehicles parked near the access route. Alistair Clark could not be reached for comment.
A council spokeswoman said: “We have entered into discussions with the landowner in the hope that access can be reinstated.”
She added that the council “strongly refuted” any allegations that the recent upgrading of the path had caused damage to crops.
“The route has been in existence for more than a generation and as part of the management of the path the council carries out improvements to prevent people from straying on to the agricultural fields. Laying of the bark is a clear delineation of this so walkers know where they are allowed,” she said.
“We’ve worked with the farmer in previous years and the bark is not laid anywhere near crops. This work has always been carried out in agreement with the farmer.”
The Courier understands council officials were to meet yesterday (Thursday) to discuss whether to apply to the sheriff court for a Section 14 notice under the Land Reform Act, which grants local authorities the powers to take legal action – such as imposing a fine or removing any obstruction to a route – if landowners refuse to comply.
The dispute has also been brought to the attention of the East Lothian Local Access Forum (ELLAF), a statutory advisory body comprised of both access-users and landowner representatives.
Keith Burns, chairman of ELLAF and a frequent visitor to Traprain Law, confirmed that “given the number of objections to the council in recent weeks” the forum would be discussing the removal of the path at its next meeting.
Mr Burns added: “In my personal opinion I think this will have a serious and frustrating effect on climbers.”
Despite Mr Clark’s efforts to divert members of the public elsewhere, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland maintains visitors to the Law are still legally entitled to access the route if they wish.
Hebe Carus, MCS’s access and conservation officer, said: “It doesn’t have to be a made path for the public to have a right of access so long as visitors are using their rights responsibly.
“Even though crops have been sown along the path, which is about two to three metres wide, there remains a small stone dyke running alongside it. So there is likely to be a narrow strip of uncultivated land remaining that the public would be entitled to use if they wished.”
Walkers can still access the Law from the north side.
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