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I HAVE ALWAYS been an advocate of legislation to enshrine the right of access in Scotland, thinking that this would simply mean the de jure recognition of the de facto right traditionally held to roam uncultivated land. If anything, events over the past few years strengthened my conviction that legislation was necessary, as I have faced increasing problems with access, ranging from the infamous Invervar gate in Glen Lyon to an encounter at Braemore with an aggressive gamekeeper who had to be reported to the police. However, as the access legislation has progressed, I am beginning tae hae ma doots, to wonder whether we should have tried to fix something that worked reasonably well, apart from instances such as the above.
The assumption I held was that in the new devolved Scotland, politicians in Edinburgh, free of the dead weight of a landed chamber, would simply pass a law which respected the right of access and that would be it. However, what was possibly forgotten in the euphoria was that the landed interests are much richer than we hillwalkers, are much more influential, and are much more connected to the levers of power. Individually or collectively, they have lawyers, press agents, and time, and money. Anyone who doubted this would have been disabused as the NFU recently committed the British state - and its Scottish arm - to a direct and indirect bill of many billions of pounds to save an industry worth £300 million a year from FMD.
What we hear about the likely content of access legislation is not good and has many individuals - and organisations such as the Ramblers - worried. It appears that a legitimate and legally enforceable right to close land would be available for stock management - and a mega-campaign of stock management has been used during the FMD crisis to prevent access, in the vast majority of cases unreasonably. Having tasted blood over that, it would be naive to think that reasons of disease or other management factors would not be used by landowners to prevent access, and to legally do so.
In addition, the idea of grass being considered a crop staggers the imagination. Of course silage cut for fodder is a crop, but I know no one who goes for walks through fields of silage. But what about hill grass for deer, sheep and cattle in its "growing season"? Could we see estates gaining the legally enforceable right to restrict access to hills when grass is growing? Be assured, the landed and agricultural interests will not miss a trick.
It is too late to alter the fact that there will be legislation, so we should be trying to influence it. But, like the Irishman, I am beginning to wish "I had not started from here", to feel that we may well gain a legal right to part of what we already had, while legally seeing former rights curtailed. In that event the determination to enforce access would be all that would keep the hills open; sadly I have to say that my belief in this eventuality being likely has been severely dented during the outbreak, when the vast majority of walkers have meekly done what they were (unreasonably) told.
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