Get off my land? Responsible access in Scotland during a pandemic
Rural Scotland’s known for its stunning scenery — rolling hills, dense woodlands, miles of beaches and, of course, lush farmland.
For those keen to get out and about, the good news is the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives everyone a right of responsible access to most land and inland water in this country. Rights people have been free to exercise since 2005.
Provided people behave responsibly, this access covers a host of activities such as walking, sightseeing, cycling, dog walking — provided they’re under proper control — and even educational trips.
It’s fair to say over the years not all landowners have necessarily welcomed the so-called ‘right to roam’.
Many have raised understandable concerns about how these rights are safely exercised and whether they interfere with their ability to freely, and safely, use their own land.
These concerns are thrown into sharp relief in the middle of a global pandemic.
With recent coronavirus-related restrictions, and the ongoing prospect of localised lockdowns, it’s no surprise we’re hearing about increased numbers of walkers, runners and cyclists making the most of this access, particularly in areas close to where they live.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s behaving responsibly in line with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which gives detailed guidance on the rights and responsibilities of both the public and land managers.
Some clients have reported sheep and cattle worrying, littering, damage to fences, and dog fouling, as well as people leaving gates open and parking where they shouldn’t.
Plus, recent news reports have described people leaving rubbish and lighting fires during a party in Glen Doll, campfires being set near Aviemore that firefighters had to extinguish, and tents being apparently abandoned at Loch Muick in Aberdeenshire.
Know the code
What can landowners do if they’re concerned about the spread of the virus and the impact on their businesses because of this access?
It’s about balance — allowing the public to exercise its right of responsible access, while protecting you and your workers from exposure to COVID-19, as well as avoiding damage to operations and property.
For a start, there are specific areas on a farm that are excluded from rights of public access.
These include land where crops have been sown or are growing; buildings, structures, works, plant and machinery; gardens and land developed as part of a recreational purpose.
Landowners can’t obstruct or discourage others from the right to roam, but good starting points to guide and inform those visiting include putting up signs, notices and fences if there is a legitimate land management purpose, or indeed for visitors’ safety.
In times such as these, signs can include the usual requests to stay on paths, keep dogs on leads and take litter home, as well as pandemic-specific guidance such as asking people to stay at least two-metres apart and use hand sanitiser if they touch gates.
If you have concerns or a recurring problem, you can contact your local authority, national park authority or lawyer to discuss further. Plus, if large groups of people are congregating on your land, flouting distancing and other rules, the police have responsibility for enforcing special measures during the outbreak.
In the current climate there are a lot of newcomers to the countryside, and it’s not enough to assume they know the rules. Whilst the Scottish countryside for some is an excellent recreational facility, it must be recognised that first and foremost it is a business premises and food production unit for the land manager.
As such, these rules need reinforcement — and of course people should make sure they are informed — but in essence it all comes down to mutual education and respect.