With Brexit a potential long-term threat, Ramblers Scotland Director Jess Dolan says a Scottish Environment Act can protect what makes our walks and land so special.
By Jess Dolan
What does walking in Scotland mean to you?
For me, it’s often about freedom, friendship and the revitalising power of enjoying Scotland’s nature and landscapes on foot. At other times, it can be more about the breathless ascent of hills, the challenge of long-distance trails or just the simple pleasures of a family stroll on the beach.
A good walk can make me feel like I’m floating in my own little bubble; a world away from the stresses and strains of daily life.
It can also instil a unique sense of belonging to the land around me.
“Right now, without mitigation, the prospect of Brexit threatens to burst our walking bubble – with damaging results that could impact upon our cherished landscapes”
The more I walk, the more I’ve come to appreciate the warm embrace of familiar places – like when I’m among the Pentland Hills near my home, or witnessing the annual return of waders to my former workplace at Skinflats, an RSPB reserve sustaining life amongst the industry of the Forth estuary.
There have been several moments during my four years as director of Ramblers Scotland that such special landscapes have come under threat. As I write this, the Coul Links public inquiry is under way, and Highland Council is reviewing its decision to let seven hydro schemes in Glen Etive.
At such times I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favourite books – Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki – in which a Maori community member mourns the creep of industrial development on to their ancestral land:
“We tried to turn our backs on the hills and not look up. The hills did not belong to us any more. At the same time we could not help but remember that land does not belong to people, but people belong to the land.”
However much we might like them to, our walking experiences and Scotland’s landscapes don’t exist in isolation to political decision-making.
There will always be conflicts between immediate economic desires and the long-term sustainability of our environment. Which is why we need robust environmental regulations, and evidence-based decisions.
Right now, without mitigation, the prospect of Brexit threatens to burst our walking bubble – with damaging results that could impact upon our cherished landscapes.
With 80% of Scotland’s environmental protections coming via the EU, there is a long-term threat to the special places that walkers hold most dear.
At times EU environment laws can seem distant and impenetrable, yet they translate into the tangible measures that safeguard our wildlife, woodlands and coasts.
Last Sunday I was out in the hills near where I live, and nearly stepped on a common lizard, presumably lured out by the worryingly warm February weather. It was a memorable, unexpected encounter.
Those close interactions with nature are fundamental to our enjoyment of walking – yet 1 in 11 of our native animal and plant species is at risk of extinction.
“Ramblers Scotland is calling upon our leaders to grasp this unique opportunity to take bold, progressive action to protect our right to a healthy environment”
Unbeknown to them, the bottlenose dolphins, porpoises and otters that we all crave to glimpse during coastal walks are safer thanks to EU environmental principles.
So are many of the rare wildflowers that add uplifting colour to our days out, such as the Marsh Saxifrage that you can spot in the Pentlands, if you’re lucky.
While I suspect it’s far from most walkers’ minds when they are deep in the Cairngorms’ pinewoods, high on a West Highland ridge or exploring Sutherland’s dunes – the legislation passed in Brussels (and Holyrood, Westminster and the UN…) directly impacts our walking world.
A new Scottish Environment Act
We’re so lucky in Scotland to have such diverse walking opportunities right here on our doorsteps.
People from across the UK, Europe and beyond come here to experience our amazing country on foot. In fact, VisitScotland has found that walking is worth £1.26billlion to the Scottish economy each year.
We must not take that good fortune for granted.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government has this month published its consultation on environmental principles and governance. It’s also made encouraging statements about maintaining or exceeding existing environmental standards, whatever happens with Brexit.
Alongside 35 leading Scottish charities within Scottish Environment LINK, Ramblers Scotland is calling upon our leaders to grasp this unique opportunity to take bold, progressive action to protect our right to a healthy environment.
To do this, we need a new world-class Scottish Environment Act.
The Act would set ambitious environmental targets, embed EU and international environmental principles in Scots legislation and create an independent watchdog with the teeth and resources to enforce the law.
I hope the entire Scottish walking community will urge the Scottish Government to appreciate the value of our natural environment, and the knock-on benefits for the nation’s health, wellbeing and economy.
Together, let’s fight for Scotland’s nature.