Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Scottish tourism revenues: how much does huntin' fishin' and shootin' really contribute?

The topic of land ownership in Scotland is one that I have tackled on a number of previous occasions on this blog, for it is an important issue and one that affects all hill goers whether they notice it or not. I'm going to revisit these issues this week, armed with some hard numbers about the contribution of various types of outdoor-related tourism to the Scottish economy.

Currently almost all of the uplands of Scotland are managed purely for the benefit of field sports; hunting, fishing and shooting. Thanks to our enlightened access laws we are entitled to wander freely, but we do so on land that is managed for another purpose. There are some notable exceptions, such as the lands owned by the National Trust and by the John Muir Trust. There is also some exemplary land management by sporting estates themselves, such as in Glen Feshie.

My personal views on the best way to manage Scotland's wild land are controversial. I would nationalise the sporting estates and establish an extensive network of national parks. This may seem radical, but it is the only way that re-wilding - specifically the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, which require large territories, could be achieved. Any attempts to effect such re-introductions within the limited confines of a single estate, such as Lister's proposals for Alladale, will be no more than zoos.

When I advanced these ideas previously some commenters leapt to the defence of the sporting estates, trumpeting their enormous contribution to the economy and the employment that they create in rural areas. Now, thanks to an article I found in the Spring 2011 edition of SNH's
'Nature of Scotland' magazine
(available free online but I'm typing this on my phone so can't link to it easily) I can present the relevant figures.

Outdoor tourism contributes £1.4 bn, 40 percent of tourism spending, and creates 39000 jobs. The breakdown is as follows:

Walking + landscape tourism £900 m
Adventure tourism £178 m
Field sports £136 m
Wildlife tourism £127 m

So you can see that the sector for the benefit of which the land is managed, field sports, contributes less than 10 % of the total. It seems incredible that even the adventure sector - skinflint climbers, mountainbikers and stag doos on canyoneering trips - brings in much more than hunting and fishing per year. Imagine by how much the total might be increased if the land were instead managed for the benefit of nature and those who wish to enjoy it, unarmed?

Before I visit a country, when I am deciding which parts of it I will visit, I often pore over maps and identify the National Parks, under the - often correct - assumption that a country will seek to protect its most beautiful landscapes. Were a prospective visitor to Scotland to engage in a similar pre-travel exercise to my own, they may arrive at the incorrect conclusion that the only parts of Scotland that stand out are our two National Parks, Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms. The map provides no explicit encouragement to visit other outstanding areas; the Cuilin of Skye; the sandstone peaks of the northwest; Fisherfield; Glens Affric or Strathfarrar to name but a few.

I will happily concede that if these areas were to be given the National Park treatment it would not all be good news. In 'Desert Solitaire' Edward Abbey described the changes that occurred in Utah's Arches NP following its upgrade. He hated the intrusion of tarmac, of visitor centres, of the motorised tourist hordes whose very presence destroyed what he had found so special about the place. Arches was not an isolated case and Abbey wrote scathingly about the National Park Service and the manner in which it capitulated so readily to the demands of the chambers of commerce in neighbouring settlements.

Offensive as the development of infrastructure, of visitor centres and car parks, may be, I would argue that the benefits would likely outweigh the disadvantages. We must not forget that the land is already managed intensively and often insensitively, and that this management is for the benefit of the moneyed few. The numbers above show that this management is of relatively little benefit to Scotland's economy.

Widening access through an extension of the National Park network (ideally more along the lines of the Norwegian than the US model) would be to the benefit of the land itself, to the wildlife, to the nearby communities and to the wider economy. I don't accept the line peddled by the pro-field sports lobby that preserving the jobs of gamekeepers is any argument in favour of the status quo. For example deer and mink numbers would still need to be controlled, paths, bridges and huts maintained, woodland managed. This work would surely be done by the same people, for if you were recruiting park rangers you would struggle to find better qualified applicants than those currently employed in gamekeeping and associated professions.

As windfarm developments spring up throughout the countryside I have come to realise that, were it not for the likes of grouse shooting, more of our uplands would have been turned over to the turbines. Though the management of land for shooting is far from optimal it is far preferable in my eyed to this particular alternative. The current protection of wild land from windfarm development provided by the very wealthy and their appetite for blasting birds is both entirely accidental and extremely fragile.

On my recent trip to Iceland I learned that their first national park was established to protect the Jukulsa river and its canyon, in which is found Europe's most voluminous waterfall, Dettifoss. I presume that the underlying reason for its designation was that, where some saw the wonder of nature, other, less imaginative people could see only the potential for one of Europe's largest hydroelectric power generation schemes.

My vision of a future in which wild land is protected and nature is encouraged to flourish on the land currently occupied by sporting estates is a bold and controversial one. To reap the full benefits - including the economic benefits - we must follow the example set by the Icelanders and act sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Benighted on Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Mullach na Dheiragain from near the summit of  Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

I panted my way to the summit of Mullach na Dheiragain at 2030 hrs.  After fueling up on trail mix I rummaged in my pack for my head torch. The prospect of benightment didn't concern me in the slightest. After the short, light nights of summer, I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the constellations as I strode along under the starlit sky, 

The torch was nowhere to be found. I realised with a sinking feeling exactly where it was - back in my camp, about 6 km away and 700 m below. Suddenly my impending benightment seemed to be a very serious predicament indeed. I had seen a small slither of moon low in the sky earlier in the evening so knew that  there would be no reprieve from a full moon; my error would not go unpunished. Less than an hour of usable twilight was the most I could expect before true darkness set in. I looked around and took stock of my situation. If you were to hand me a map of Scotland and ask me to point out the place in which I would least like to find myself alone, in the dark, without a torch, the place in which I now found myself would be a strong contender.  I was deep in the wilderness, at least 15 km from the nearest road in every direction.

It was clear that I had to move fast, to get down off the summit, traverse across to Coire nan Dearcag, then climb up and over the east ridge of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan to start the descent into Glen Affric.  The route would be on unfamiliar, trackless terrain, but I had prospected the initial section of the route carefully on the way out. I would make the coire before light faded completely. Once in the coire I knew that the east ridge would be silhouetted above me and I knew exactly where I had to cross it, on the left side of the third top. Once on the other side I may be lucky enough to pick up the stalkers' path. I hoped that I would see the light of the remote Alltbeithe Youth Hostel and that this would give me something to aim for. I made haste.

Campspot with Beinn Fhada beyond
It was very dark indeed as I began to scramble up from the coire floor to the ridge. I felt my eyes bulging open, as if by opening my eyes as wide as possible I could actually let more light in. I had Tam the dog on his lead a few feet ahead of me. It was possible to pick his body out of the surrounding gloom, thus providing a useful gauge of the aspect of the terrain. My plan had been to push on until I could see no more and then assess the situation. I had a mobile phone but was knew that using it would kill my night vision for at least 10 minutes. I wanted to save the battery in case I needed its feeble light during the intricate micro navigation that would be required to locate my camp.

The light of the hostel was not apparent on the initial descent from the ridge but the outline of Mullach Fraoch Coire on the other side of the glen provided a guide as to the correct bearing. Hitting some steep ground made me realise that I had to be exceedingly careful, I couldn't make a single step without being very sure that there was something to step onto. Darkness could hide anything from a tiny divot to a leg-breaking cleft or the edge of a cliff. I resorted to tapping the ground before me like a blind man to verify its solidity, even shuffling on my rear at times. As I weaved to and fro in search of an easy route I dreaded finding myself stuck on a crag with no option but to put on my coat and hunker down to pass an unpleasant night, waiting for the dawn. 

The lights of the hostel came into view, lending me great cheer and giving me something to aim for. The terrain hid them on a few further occasions and each time I fervently hoped that the guests had not retired for the evening, depriving me of my beacon. I blinked, trying to interpret a tall, totem pole-like object a few feet in front. I realised that it was part of the fence that encloses the burn above the hostel. Its purpose is to keep the deer from eating the young birch that are doing their best to replace those that originally gave the burn - and the hostel - its name, Alltbeithe. This provided me with a handrail with which I was able to feel my way down the slope. When the wire ran out I glanced above to where an embarrassment of stars and the milky way peeped between shifting cloud. The lights of the hostel were now close and the angle of the slope had eased off considerably. The worst of it was over. I decided to use my mobile phone display to negotiate my way back to the tent. The puny light did little more than illuminate the ground on which I stood but this was a tremendous improvement. With its aid I picked up the track and made straight for my campsite. I was practically standing on my tent before I could see it. I have never been so glad to see a tent in my life. The time was just before 2245 hrs. I had been on the hill for just under five hours but was was completely frazzled after concentrating so hard. I stretched in my tent with a brew, deeply satisfied at having successfully extricated myself from what could all too easily have turned into a right old pickle.

A'Chralaig and the ridge connecting it with Mullach Fraoch Coire

On waking next morning to the sound of rain I opened the flap to inspect the day. On seeing that a thick swarm of midges milled outside, waiting for me, I decided to return to sleep and didn't wake until after 1000 hrs by which time the sun was shining, a light breeze had dispersed the midges and all was well. I walked out over Mullach Fraoch Coire and A'Chralaig in beautiful conditions to round off what had been a splendid - and unexpectedly exciting - weekend amid the high peaks of Affric and Kintail.

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