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Wildcamping, fire damage, rubbish and the erosion of hard won countryside access in Scotland

The end of summer throws into focus the issue of abandoned camps, fire damage, broken glass and other rubbish that can be found all along many of the loch shores in Scotland, left by inconsiderate ‘wild campers’ and other visitors.

It is easy to point the finger at ‘others’ but unless we are part of the solution, we really don’t get a say. We often clear these fire scars and rubbish as far as we can/dare when we canoe on lochs, but we, along with many other silent others do not fundamentally change the balance of the issue, as most of the damage takes years to heal.

This issue has come to the fore over the last couple of years, with the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park taking a hard line approach of introducing seasonal camping bans covering much of the loch shore fronts throughout the national park. This has been met with dismay from many groups as it clearly undermines the fantastic access that is enjoyed in Scotland. If a national park thinks that the appropriate way to increase visitor enjoyment is to introduce bans, which in effect stops access for several user groups, where does it stop, both in the national parks and for other land owners?

However, whilst it is right to be outraged by the ease with which access has been eroded, it is useful to consider what the NP are trying to do, and what tools they might need to help. In effect the issue that is purportedly being solved by the ban is with litter, fire scars, tree damage human waste and abandoned camps, mainly along the loch shores. The camping ban is being used as a simply enforceable way of dealing with the problem. Tents are easy to spot, so if there is a tent, it is straightforward and immediately possible to say ‘you are breaking the bylaw.’

There has been several suggestions that existing laws give the NP and police all the enforcement powers they need, through local alcohol bans, to littering laws, but it is clear to me that these do not offer an immediate and low time (and hence cost) enforcement route. To enforce alcohol bans you need to catch someone in the act of drinking – not easy if you are obviously policing an area where there is a ban. A simple argument of ‘what me officer? no officer, that isn’t my beer’ is quite hard to argue against in legal terms without video/picture evidence of the accused actually drinking. In other words, the cost of enforcing drinking bans is high unless in a cctv covered area such as a town centre.

The same is true with littering. If there is a messy camp no action can be taken, as the campers can simply argue ‘we will clear it before we leave’ or as soon as they have left, they can argue ‘its not mine’ even with photos of their camp, it would be easy to argue that there might be reasonable doubt unless they are caught in the act of actually leaving rubbish. In my opinion therefore, littering laws and alcohol bans do not offer a useful tool to police, as the cost of enforcement is high due to the difficulty of proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Compare this to catching smokers dropping cigarette butts in city centres. A maximum wait of three minutes will allow an enforcement officer to record the whole event from lighting up, to dropping the butt, making it a low cost and effective enforcement.

If we don’t want outright bans then a solution that does not harm key access rights; (the right to actually be there and the right to wild camp) then the authorities need to be given a tool that allows easy, low cost, immediate enforcement in a similar way to littering and alcohol laws in city centres.

This leads me to the idea that a legal ban on fires would be an effective, and more tolerable alternative than camping bans to tackle this problem. Already most wild campers have a compact gas or meths cooker for cooking facilities, and a fire is not necessary in any way for warmth or light – using torches and wrapping up warm does this perfectly well. Also, fires are highly visible from a long distance both at day and night and it would be much harder to claim a fire wasn’t yours when you were near it. Finally, a ban on fires provides the immediate enforcement route that most laws to tackle anti-social behaviour require to be effective and enforceable for a reasonable cost.

Clearly the erosion of any access is hard to swallow, but the outright banning of fires would be, to me, the most tolerable solution, whilst providing the necessary tool that is currently missing to effectively allow for enforcement against the wanton damaging and littering of our wild spaces.

What are your thoughts? Would you be willing to accept a ‘no fires’ rule to reverse the move towards camping bans? Do you have any other ideas that might work?

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