Lairds and ramblers sign truce over access

RAMBLERS and lairds have signed an historic agreement which safeguards Scots' cherished freedom to roam Highland mountains and glens. The deal, brokered by environmentalists, is the first of its kind in Britain.

After two years of negotiations, walkers and landowners met in Perthshire last week to sign the Scottish "Access Concordat". Both sides hope the agreement will reduce the growing number of violent confrontations between estate managers and hikers.

Scots have been scaling Highland peaks for centuries, attracted by the scenery and solitude. But in recent years heated disputes have erupted in the hills. Lairds and stalkers, who accuse ramblers of disrupting lucrative deer and grouse shooting, have blocked public footpaths and put up "No Entry" signs on their land. Angry walkers have hit back with mass trespasses and calls for right-to-roam laws.

Under the new concordat, landowners have agreed to allow ramblers full access to their land in return for assurances that they will avoid active stalking areas during the shooting season. Lairds, the document says, "recognise the principle of freedom of access," while Scotland's growing army of mountaineers and Munro-baggers (who climb peaks over 3,000 feet) "accept the needs of land management [which] sustains the livelihood, culture and community interests of those who live and work in the hills."

The public truce has been welcomed by Scotland's two main land-using groups. Dave Morris of the Ramblers' Association said: "This is a watershed agreement. In the past many landowners have insisted that their land was their own private kingdom. Now the principle of free access has been established. In future, any discussions about hill-walking will start with the presumption that the public have the freedom to walk over the land as a whole."

For the Scottish Landowners' Federation, John Grant, who owns the 23,300- acre Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore in the Cairngorms, said: "There is a tradition of free access to the Scottish hills. But we have had problems. Some walkers do not seem to care about local people and their livelihoods and have disrupted stalking. This has prompted some landowners to put up aggressive signs to try to keep people out. Our hope is that the concordat will help to educate people so that 99 per cent behave responsibly."

Many landowners see the voluntary agreement as the best way to avert the legislation guaranteeing unrestricted access which many Labour and Scottish National Party MPs support. Labour already plans to bring in legislation enshrining the right to roam south of the border.

The concordat is brokered by Scottish Natural Heritage, which safeguards Scotland's natural environment. It is to be published as a preface to the Ramblers' guide to hill walking in Scotland, and 3,500 copies are being sent to landowners. Ramblers have also asked Highland estate agents to publish the agreement in sales brochures.

Although the concordat cannot be enforced by law, its signatories, which include representatives of deer farmers and mountaineers as well as ramblers and lairds, are confident that it will prove successful. After a trial period, environmentalists plan to extend it southwards to cover the lowlands. A separate deal may be negotiated to cover Scotland's salmon-rich lochs and rivers, where disputes between anglers and rafters are on the increase.

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