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22 January 2003

SNH Conference September 2000

Enjoyment and Understanding of the Natural Heritage: Finding the New Balance between Rights and Responsibilities

A Review of the Proceedings

Dr. W. James Irvine, DSc, FRSEd, FInstBiol, FInstD, FRCPEd, FRCPath(London)
Farmer, Cultybraggan Farm, Teviot Agriculture, Comrie, Perthshire
Editor, LandCare Scotland, Teviot-Kimpton Publications, Edinburgh
Director, Teviot Scientific Consultancy, Edinburgh

Reproduced, with minor updates, from LandCare Scotland, Vol. 1: 25-32

This report was written in September 2000, but is relevant in January 2003 as it reflects the level of integrity (or lack of it) concerning the manner in which SNH (and its Acess Forum) has handled the problem of Access to the Countryside in relation to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill.



The annual Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Conference for the year 2000 was held at the McCance Building, University of Strathclyde between Wednesday 13th and Thursday 14th September 2000, with a choice of field trips on the previous Tuesday afternoon.

The subject of the conference is of course highly topical. When drawing up the programme the organisers of the conference had somewhat arrogantly predicted that the next version of the proposed Land Reform Bill would have been published by the Scottish Executive as a consultation document, together with a version of the new country code also for consultation. In the event the publication date for both of these items had been postponed by the Scottish Executive to February 2001. They had encountered serious disagreements on the way which frankly they should have anticipated - that is if they were genuinely interested in listening to what the public had to say.

The introductory preamble published in the Final Circular and Booking Form made available by SNH stated:

"....the conference will seek to stimulate debate about the definition of responsible behaviour, the methods available to assist in promoting enjoyment while minimising impacts, and about the roles of land managers and public bodies in working together to facilitate access...."


".....The conference will provide an ideal opportunity to share research and experience and contribute directly to the development and promotion of a new Scottish Outdoor Access Code".

These plausible proclaimed aims in fact turned out to be a meaningless facade for the furtherance of the political dogma perpetrated by SNH following the instruction of its paymaster, the Scottish Executive, to implement the Labour/Liberal Democrat manifesto for increased access to the countryside. Consultation in name, but a devious sham in practice.


The Conference Programme

On looking through the programme I was struck by the fact that neither the word "agriculture" nor the word "farm" appeared anywhere in the two day programme including 21 items of presentation. The words "land management" and "land managers" appeared twice. This indeed seemed curious since the vast majority of land in Scotland is involved in agriculture, and the majority of "land managers" must therefore be involved in some form of agriculture. Farming is a very important part of the rural economy, the rural landscape and conservation. Its characteristics are very variable across the country and are often very different from those of large sporting estates. Yet as far as this important conference was concerned, they were all grouped together into two papers talking about land mangers and land management. Also I felt some unease about farmers being referred to as land managers - managers for whom?

Could it be that SNH is seriously out of touch with the realities of land management in Scotland and the real problems that exist in providing such wide access for public recreation? It would appear that the Scottish Executive had charged SNH to implement the labour/liberal democrat coalition's manifesto commitment, as they (the coalition) had the majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament? Or was it that the organisers of this conference were all too aware of the problems and were making as sure as possible that these concerns had little or no chance to be ventilated? Was that why the conference was held mid week over three days during harvest?

On contacting the SNH Chief Scientist's Unit in Edinburgh I was informed that two of the papers (these were the two with the words "land management" and "land manager" in their titles) would cover the agricultural interest: namely the paper to be given by Richard Williamson of Buccleuch Estates Ltd and the System 3 survey to be presented by Tom Costly. When asked if SNH had sought any external advice about drawing up the programme, so as to ensure a fair representation of interests in this highly important subject, I got a very unclear answer. I was left with the impression that the organisers were highly biased in their aims and had not made any serious attempt to ensure that farmers/land managers had a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate as to how "public enjoyment and understanding can be harmonised with other land uses" etc as described in the introduction to this article and quoted from SNH's Booking Form. It also seemed a little odd that farming came under the category of "other land uses" in the eyes of the conference organisers (SNH).

Could it be that the public were invited to attend a conference that was highly biased and based on "spin-doctoring hype" so that SNH could facilitate the implementation of the proposed bill, and not act as it should as an independent advisor to Government? Was SNH just a selling machine for the Scottish Executive? Were participants really going to get an opportunity at the Conference to "contribute directly to the development and promotion of a new Scottish Outdoor Access Code" as promised in the Final Circular and Booking Form?

I completed the booking form, paid my dues (a staggering £145) and in due course went along to see.


Field Trip

Of the three field trips that were on offer I opted for the one entitled "Countryside around Towns", as this seemed to me one of the most contentious areas in the Access component of the proposed Land Reform Bill. It also seemed highly relevant to the situation of my farm that abuts with much of the village (now almost a town with approximately 3000 inhabitants) of Comrie in Perthshire. Here there are very real difficulties in accommodating open access for such urban-thinking dwellers and conducting a high quality farming enterprise, including the breeding of pedigree cattle (Aberdeen Angus and Limousin), running a commercial suckler herd, a commercial sheep enterprise, growing barley for malting, and grass for silage as winter feed for livestock, and doing one's best for conservation of wildlife and the amenity of the area with its delightful landscape (1). Numerous "rights of way" on the farm have already been claimed by the District Council (although the legality of some of these is questionable). So why the need for even more access that was clearly going to threaten the effective management of the farm and undo efforts that the farm has made to conserve wildlife?

In the event a group of some twenty participants were taken by coach to a piece of land that seemed to me to be within the city of Glasgow. I had difficulty in believing we had arrived after such a short trip as I had seen no evidence of any countryside and far less evidence of any farming. We dismounted from the bus directly on to a city street and stood on immaculate tarmacadam looking at a substantial walled pond with swans gliding gracefully about in the tranquil water, that was in turn surrounded by immaculately mown grass. There was some scrub area extending beyond that, bearing witness to the architectural disaster of previous years in the form of the massive high rising building known as Easterhouse. This area did not look like countryside as I understood it. It looked like a City Park. There was not a cow, sheep, horse or any other farm animal in sight. There were no crops to be seen, but a tarmacadam path went through the scrub land connecting these high rise buildings with the rest of the City of Glasgow. We were told that drugs were a major problem in the area. When I asked who owned it, I was told that it was owned and maintained by Glasgow City Council. It was a city park.

City parks are absolutely admirable and have been created by architects for cities for centuries with excellent effect and function. However, they have little to do with the problems of access to the countryside. What a con! What an obvious deception!

We were told that the agriculture that had previously been there had all gone. The only integration with agriculture was the pathetic claim that the small dairy farmer who still survived away in the distance at the far boundary of this park got part of the contract to cut the grass in the park. However, the Glasgow City Council and other charitable bodies apparently had difficulty in meeting the expense of keeping the grass cut and planting new grass. Ideas of introducing cattle to keep these rough parts under control (they looked like neglected set-a-side) with removable fencing seemed to me unrealistic; especially so in terms of modern controls on access to cattle by young children, elderly people and indeed the public at large. What they would be doing was to create a form of zoo that had very little to do with agriculture. But then we were told that the park keeper (or was he called a ranger?) knew about farming, because at some stage he had worked on a farm, but in what capacity or for how long was not revealed.


One-to-One Discussion with the Secretary of SNH's Access Forum

As there was clearly no further useful information to be gained from merely visiting a city park, I took the opportunity to have a prolonged one-to-one discussion with Dr Richard Davison, Secretary of the SNH Access Forum and whom I had previously encountered at the SNH press conference on Access at the Royal Highland Show earlier in the year (2). He happened to be on the same field trip. Apparently therefore this farce of a field trip had the full approval of the hierarchy of SNH.

Having been responsible financially for, and been the director of, a 540 acre farm on the boundary of a substantial urban settlement for 11 years (and managed it myself for the past 3 and half years), I felt my credentials were at least adequate in terms of knowing what the problems are in terms of a traditional mixed stock/arable farm - and especially in terms of increased public access. I also had credible credentials in terms of scientific background and company management. I found that a similar level of experience was not forthcoming in Dr Davison's case. His agricultural experience appeared to me to be anecdotal and basically lacking: in fact I got the impression it was virtually non-existant.

When asked why the programme for the meeting appeared to be so biased, and when asked if SNH had sought advice about its conference from other bodies in order to try and achieve a satisfactory balance, he resented the criticism. He was reminded however that SNH is a government agency and is ultimately answerable to the public. Also the public had been invited to subscribe to the conference in order to take part in the debate. My personal assessment of the calibre of the secretary of SNH Access Form was that he did not have the breadth of view or knowledge that would appear to me to be essential in order to properly fulfil that role. His arguments seemed to be based on "cleverness", trying to catch one out on some detail rather than facing the real issues. Dr Davison, as secretary of the Access Forum, seemed to me to have a very one-sided approach - to put into effect a political dogma without facing up to the real problems that exist. Nor indeed was he prepared to enter into a serious discussion about these very real problems.

Such an attitude is not compatible with his position as Secretary of the Access Forum, when he should be seen to be open to objective and rational consideration of the views of the different bodies involved in "Access with Responsibility". After all, that was what the present conference was supposed to be all about.

There seemed to be a real problem as to whether the role of SNH was to simply deliver Scottish Executive policy (that was still under debate) or whether SNH was feeding back imbalanced advice to the Scottish Executive as to how real problems should be managed. Was it that the Access forum with Dr Davison as Secretary was feeding back to the Scottish Executive the very one-sided views of certain individuals within the forum, or was it the other way round?

Certainly the field trip that had been organised supposedly to highlight and discuss problems of managing the countryside around towns was a non-starter and was frankly misleading. Under the trades description act I would be justified in asking for my money back. However, it did give me a revealing insight into the "workings" of the Access Forum and of SNH itself.

Could it possibly be that more of the same highly warped agenda was to continue the next day, the next evening and the day after that?


The Main Conference

As mentioned above, agriculture is involved in the vast majority of land in Scotland in one way or another and is clearly central to any discussion on access. The rights and responsibilities of those using these proposed rights need to be openly debated, as do rights and responsibilities of those providing the access. The word "landowner" never appeared at all in the programme of 21 speakers. Yet all land in Scotland is owned by someone who carries the financial responsibility for it. Many of these landowners are small to average-sized family run farms. Were they getting any say at this conference? There was not a trace of evidence that that was the case.

The majority of the delegates at the conference came from Councils or from SNH itself, their substantial fees all being paid by the tax-payer. Any farmer wanting to attend had to pay his own and nobody was representing his concerns at his meeting, as far as the programme was concerned. Apart from the absurd timing of the conference, it was therefore no surprise that very few farmers were there. It was largely SNH talking to itself, to council employees who would be given greater powers (but no defined finances), to ramblers (who would get plenty advantages at no cost to themselves) and to members of the business community who could see financial opportunities for themselves unrelated to agriculture.

The conference was opened by SNH chairman, Dr John Markland, who is an ex-executive of Fife Council and who, as far as I am aware, has no significant experience of farming (or "land management", as SNH likes to call it).

A balance needs to be struck to avoid further damage to agriculture, which currently is in serious depression and has major (and increasing) commitments to quality and environmental assurance schemes. The programme of the conference was ridiculously weighted towards open access with lip service as to how responsible behaviour was to be achieved. The only contribution concerning education was limited to the pre-school years. Yet the proposed Countryside Code was all to be based on trust and responsibiity - nice words, but in the presence of a culture that has one of the worst reputations in Europe for litter, an extraordinary lack of understanding of rural matters and no adult education on the subject, they were meaningless hype. I will therefore confine my reviews of individual papers to the two papers that I was told represent the farming interest.

From the CVs provided in the conference documents, there was no evidence that I could see that either of these two speakers had any significant professional training (or substantial hands-on professional work experience) in agriculture as it is predominantly practised in Scotland.


The Land Manager's Perspective - Removing the Blinkers

Richard Williamson
Strategy & Communications Manager, Buccleuch Estates Ltd

He emphatically and categorically stated that there were no real problems for land managers with access to the countryside, only perceived problems. He presented a facile, playing-to-the gallery type of presentation. This to an audience where it would have been much more important to explain what the real concerns and anxieties many land mangers have in relation to providing the scope of access that the Scottish Executive are proposing with the advice of SNH (open access to all land and all inland water - with few exceptions - day and night for everyone).

Richard Williamson went on to say that the problems of dogs, vandalism and litter were not access problems but ones of social behaviour and were not relevant to the debate. Clearly Richard Williamson was either ignorant of the fact that a hazard is the realisation that a damaging event could possibly happen, while risk is the probability of that event actually happening; or that he chose to ignore the fact. According to the doctrine of Richard Williamson it is alright to actively promote and legalise access day and night to farms knowing full well that by so doing the risk of damaging events happening on farms will escalate. I believe that is an unacceptable attitude to take in relation to small farms run as family business and who have little margin to absorb such increased costs. Indeed, I would doubt if such a massive estate as Buccleuch Estates Ltd (400 square miles) would in reality be prepared to accept it either, whatever their promotion manager (spin doctor) might say in public. In any event it would seem to me to be entirely inappropriate for one of the largest estates in the country backed heavily by inherited wealth to put forward a spokesperson on the general topic "Land Manager's Perspective" and be so thoughtless in relation to others in agriculture, who are not in a position to take on such enormous additional burdens in terms of security, animal welfare and animal health (3), and property maintenance (4). In my view this was an opportunity taken by the Buccleuch Estates for what they presumably calculated as a promotional benefit to themselves - calculated to improve their image with the public, SNH and the Scottish Executive. In doing so, did they consult with their tenant farmers? Would their tenant farmers risk speaking against the wishes of the Promotion and Strategy Manager of the Estate? It was commented to me afterwards that substantial parts of the Buccleuch Estates are closed to the public. Was our speaker being totally honest, or was he behaving like a second-hand car salesman? It sounded suspiciously like the latter.

As if Richard Williamson had not done enough damage in dis-educating this important audience largely made up of SNH staff, Local Government Council staff and independent advisers (who are hired by these bodies to write endless repetitive reports), he went on to dismiss the real concerns that have been repeatedly expressed by the NFUS and SLF concerning access to enclosed farm land at night, especially in the vicinity of urban communities. According to Richard Williamson the possibility of imposing a "curfew", as he put it, on access at dusk was intolerable. Richard Williamson clearly had no concern for the family farm where this would indeed cause very serious anxiety and a lack of security, especially in view of the presently rising crime figures affecting farms. Again Richard Williamson's comprehension of the meaning of the words hazard and risk seemed to be sadly lacking. Rather he wished to appear personally popular, and indeed received a loud round of applause for his "entertaining" but facile and misguided performance. His paper is scheduled to appear in a book to be published by SNH (5) and no doubt will be quoted by those who wish to promote access but avoid the responsibilities.

One has to wonder how Richard Willaimson came to be chosen as one of only two representatives among the speakers with the brief to put across the land mangers' view relating to finding the right balance between rights and responsibilities. Obviously the agenda was "cooked" to SNH's biased aims, and not to the recipe that should have been used - to get a balance between Access and Responsibility.


"Attitudes of the Public and Land Managers"

Tom Costley,
Director of System Three

As this study was based on a Telephone Centre type enquiry, it was in my view largely worthless. Such enquiries are so dependent on the actual questions asked, the way they are asked and who does the asking that the results are probably meaningless. In these circumstances the outcome can be readily geared to the perceived wishes of the body commissioning the contract. Frankly, there would be little merit in repeating the "findings" here. It amounted to a kind of Mori Pole that claimed to reflect the views of "landmanagers" i.e. that there was no great problem about the extent of access that SNH was proposing. I think the farming community deserves better than that, if this was what their "representation" amounted to.

Clearly both the above mentioned speakers had been chosen by the SNH Executive to present a very one-sided view of this important topic.



I went along to the workshop I had selected - to do with Access with Responsibility to River Banks etc. (i.e. Inland Water). Unbelievably the leader of the workshop was a graphic designer. There was no intention whatsoever to discuss Access with Responsibility and to achieve a balance. This was simply to design notices according to what the SNH had already decided!

I already have had enough of so-called "consultation" from Perth & Kinross Council. I thought SNH might at least have been a bit more honest, when they charged me £145 to take part in a conference to discuss balance in the equation Access versus Responsibility. The conference was severely "rigged" and indeed a fraud.

I left unable to tolerate such deliberate misleading of the public. The prospect of going to the dinner to hear a speech from the chairman of the Ramblers Association as guest speaker also did not appeal. The absurd imbalance of presentation at this conference surpassed credibility.


Discussion with the Chief Scientist SNH

On my way out I had the opportunity of meeting the Chief Scientist for SNH on the front steps of Strathclyde University. Strangely he thought the conference was fine. He clearly resented criticism. He gave me the impression that the SNH was above everyone else and really did not like being questioned as to what they thought they were doing: i.e. as to why the conference was so obviously rigged. Whatever happened to his academic credentials? Had he forgotten that SNH is funded from the public purse, and that members of the public have every right to question what SNH and the executives within it are doing. He did not see any reason why SNH should have sought input from other bodies such as NFUS or SLF, for example.

If running such a biased meeting in which any attempt at correcting the imbalance of presentation was so strongly resented, what is going on within the SNH the rest of the time, behind closed doors and "advising" government?

SNH are clearly using their position to further the views of some inner group by unscrupulous manipulation, under the pretence of seeking consultation with the wider public.

My experience at the conference bore out the strong impression I got at the press conference SNH gave at the Royal Highland Show 2000 (2).

SNH (among others) have been keen to highlight bad landowners and have endeavoured to give all landowners a bad name. In fact the majority of landowners (and tenant farmers) look after the countryside well; as testified by the good state of the landscape, quality of livestock and other farm products and the quality of the wildlife. Perhaps it is more than time attention is also focused on bad planners and bad government advisors with personal and imbalanced agendas - planners and advisors who use the public purse to put forward their unrealistic schemes in a less than transparent manner.



The claim that "....the conference will seek to stimulate debate about the definition of responsible behaviour, the methods available to assist in promoting enjoyment while minimising impacts, and about the roles of land managers and public bodies in working together to facilitate access...." was clearly false.

The choice of presentations was absurdly biased against the majority of those in Scotland who actually manage the land, who have looked after it well for centuries and who have produced a world aclaimed standard of food and drink, as well as landscape.

Under the guise of academia the conference was no more than an exercise in political spin.

Clearly there is something far wrong with SNH.



It came as no surprise that (some time after the conference) the NFUS walked out of the Access Forum, which is an agency of SNH. The NFUS had called a meeting with the Chairman of The Access Forum when they learned direct form him that the Consensus that the Forum had claimed for Access with Responsibility (The Draft Country Code) had been contrived by omitting all reference to controversial points, i.e. those made by people whose livelihood is made from the land and who have looked after it over the years so well (the farmers).

The Access Forum had decreed not to pass on the points made by the NFUS and by the SLF to the Scottish Executive. Clearly, yet again the SNH had been indulging in a fraudulent farce - pretending to be seeking a balanced solution, but in the end just discarding very serious concerns that did not fit their book. These are not the actions of an honest broker.



1. Cultybraggan Farm on Land-Care. (Click here).

2. Irvine, W. J. (2001). Scottish Natural Heritage's Policy on Access to the Outdoors. Is it being mis-sold in relation to enclosed Farmland next to Urban communities? LandCare Scotland, 1: 19-23. (Reproduced on Land-Care).

3. Raeside, T. (2001). Land Reform: Response to Scottish Executive Proposals for Legislation. Veterinary Hazards to Open Access to Enclosed Agricultural Land. LandCare Scotland, 1: 33-34. (Reproduced on Land-Care).

4. Mylius, A. (2001). Access: The Reality for Farmers, Landowners, Foresters and all Rural Residents. LandCare Scotland, 1: 3-18. (Reproduced on Land-Care).

5. Enjoyment and Understanding of the Natural Heritage. Edited by Micahel B. Usher. The Stationery Office, 2001. ISBN 0 11 497290 7


Further Reading Recommended by Land-Care

Linklater, Magnus. From the Highlands to the Lowlands, in future it's going to be anybody's lands. The Times, 23 January 2003. (View on Land-Care).

Linklater, Magnus. Fair play on land reform swept away in a torrent of prejudice. Scotland on Sunday, 19 January 2003. (View on Land-Care).

Irvine, W. J. (2001). Scottish Natural Heritage’s Policy on Access. Is it being mis-sold in relation to enclosed Farmland next to Urban Communities? LandCare Scotland, 1: 19-23.

Uncalled for unwarranted ideological legislation. Dundee Courier, Letters, 7 January 2003. (View on Land-Care).

Justice 2's legal expertise in doubt. Letter from Robbie Douglas Miller, Vice-chairman, Highlands and Islands Rivers Association. Scotland on Sunday, Letters, 22 December 2002. (View on Land-Care).

No Corners Cut on Land Reform Bill. Letter from Pauline McNeill, MSP and Convenor of the Justice 2 Committee. Scotland on Sunday, Letters, 15 December 2002. (View on Land-Care).

Watson, Jeremy. Scotland's first 'land grab' victim. Scotland on Sunday, 8th December 2002. (Click here to view).

Linklater, Magnus. Land Reform Falls Foul of Scotland’s own Kangaroo Committee. Scotland on Sunday, 1 December 2002. (Includes editorial comment from Land-Care). (Click here to view).

Mylius, A. (2001). Access: the Reality for Farmers, Landowners, Foresters and all Rural Residents. LandCare Scotland, 1: 3-18. (View on Land-Care).

Raeside, T. (2001). Veterinary Hazards to Open Access to Enclosed Agrciultural Land. LandCare Scotland, 1: 33-34. (View on Land-Care).

Linklater, Magnus. Sniggering snobbery puts Scots in a class of their own. Scotland on Sunday, 27 October 2002. (View on Land-Care).

Linklater, Magnus. New spirit of Western Isles derring-do will not come cheap. Scotland on Sunday, 20 October 2002. (View on Land-Care).

Land Reform (Scotland) Bill. (View on Land-Care).