Associate feature: Crisis in our countryside
The COVID pandemic and its impact on our society has revealed deep flaws in our policies governing countryside management and visitor provision.
A significant increase in visitor numbers during 2020 exposed a historic lack of investment in infrastructure and visitor facilities, bringing into sharp focus some of the poor provision our many foreign and domestic visitors have had to endure.
This led to calls for VisitScotland’s substantial overseas promotional budget to be used towards tourist infrastructure improvement.
While that would be a welcome recognition of a budget priority, it would still be woefully short on the funding needed and would not address the policies that have contributed to the long term under investment in this vital, revenue generating service industry.
Parallel to the calls for investment in visitor infrastructure were calls for more rangers on site to help deal with high visitor numbers, anti-social behaviour and damage to our important natural heritage resources.
It was readily evident the overwhelming visitor numbers were now far beyond the current capacity of Ranger Services to manage in any meaningful and sustainable way.
The great tragedy of the situation is that Scotland had previously established a country-wide network of services, largely sufficient in number and resources, to deal with high visitor numbers and provide vital resource protection.
Our national network of Countryside Rangers and related countryside professionals have, over the last 50 years, provided that frontline service.
Created under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967, Scotland's rangers have established a global reputation for the quality of the work they carry out with the visitor experience being to the fore.
Supported by a grant aid scheme administered by the Countryside Commission for Scotland and latterly by Scottish Natural Heritage, rangers were employed by a wide variety of NGOs, charities, private estates, government agencies and local authorities.
Unified by the use of a national logo, national training and through the work of the Scottish Countryside Rangers’ Association (SCRA), Scotland’s Ranger Services were able to play a key role in helping to deliver government priorities in biodiversity, environmental education and outdoor activity provision.
The role of the ranger is a wide and varied one, for example rangers were identified as a key delivery mechanism as part of the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2003 providing advice and support to visitors, monitoring and maintaining footpaths and acting as an honest broker to help resolve local conflicts.
Similarly, rangers undertook additional duties to assist with statutory biodiversity reporting required from local authorities. An adaptable, professional and motivated force, the work of Scotland's Ranger Services provided tremendous value for money but all the time struggling for recognition for the contribution they made.
In 2018, SCRA submitted a petition to the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Government seeking to establish a national strategic framework for Ranger Services in Scotland.
This was towards the end of a long saga of unintended consequences.
Local authority reorganisation in 1996 had resulted in an unfavourable restructuring of some services within the new boundaries.
A subsequent decline in available grant aid support from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), led to further challenges for many employers.
Typically, grant aid support was less than 20 per cent of employment costs only, but to qualify SNH looked for the vast majority of the outcomes to reflect their priorities.
A memorable quote from that time is “SNH are paying 10 per cent of the race horse and asking to keep 100 per cent of the winnings”. Again, this presented challenges to Ranger Service employers with a detrimental effect on the recruitment of existing and new posts.
A review of local authority finances in 2008 resulted in the end of any indirect government funding of local authorities.
In the majority of cases this ended the longstanding relationship between local authorities and SNH along with the opportunity to influence Ranger Service outcomes.
In mitigation, funding for Local Authority Ranger Services was ring-fenced within the block grant but proved notoriously difficult to identify. Further job losses in the sector were accelerated when this ring-fenced protection was removed within a few years.
The collective impact of these shifts in government fiscal policy over two decades had left Scotland's Ranger Services in a very parlous state with a 35 per cent reduction in posts (147) since 2008 and of that number 54 per cent were in local authority areas.
These were only indicative figures established by a SCRA survey of existing services at the end of 2017.
Despite the grant aid role played by SNH there had been no effective monitoring of Ranger Service provision nationally in over ten years.
Many seasonal (summer) ranger posts had been deleted from staffing structures, non-filling of vacant posts was commonplace, early retirement or redeployment accounted for more as the annual settlements to Local Authority funding in particular took a further toll.
The purpose of the petition was to focus political attention on the plight of the sector and SCRA gained cross party support to take the petition forward.
In evidence sessions the Public Petitions Committee readily acknowledged the important role carried out by Scotland’s rangers and gave instruction that a national strategic framework be developed and reported back to the committee.
Submissions by SNH were robustly challenged and it was clear there was a discrepancy between the policies SNH were pursuing and an expectation of their role from the MSPs on the committee.
Anticipating the crisis in our profession, SCRA could not have imagined just how sharply that would be brought into focus during 2020.
The invasion of “staycation” visitors brought well-documented problems of litter, parking, anti-social behaviour and vandalism, overwhelming local resources and impacting adversely on many rural communities.
The outcry that followed had, for our sector, a very hollow ring to it. These problems had historically been mitigated by the presence of a Ranger Service.
Even where very significant numbers of visitors congregate, Ranger Services had been on the front line - Strathclyde Park, 5.6million visitors annually, Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, 7 million, are examples where the role of the Ranger Service was to address problems and gradually, through enforcement and engagement, improve the visitor experience for all.
These skills are called for once again. Recent parliamentary questions and a debate on more support for more ranger posts were a welcome step in recognising the role rangers can play in protecting and promoting our precious natural heritage.
A due political priority is now required to progress matters quickly, part in readiness for the 2021 onslaught - only 10 per cent of people in a recent national survey were planning an overseas holiday - and part to secure succession within the profession.
Succession is an issue, with very few recruitment opportunities at entry level for a number of years this sector is at great risk of losing the chance to pass on the skills and professional standards to the next generation.
A career which once was a popular graduate choice has lost some of its appeal with the recruitment experience bar being higher than ever before due to the scarcity of posts.
In a sporting context, it is often commented that Scotland “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”. It could very well be applied to the crisis in our countryside.
Scotland had created a mature and well-established delivery model which is capable of resolving many of the issues which have emerged over the last decade, but at a political level, both locally and nationally, policy makers are failing to attach a sufficient priority to allow this to function.
There are many benefits to be accrued from actively addressing this situation. In doing so this will help to resolve the current challenges of staycation numbers and in the longer term contribute in a very tangible way to Scottish Government targets in health, education and our natural heritage.
SCRA remains willing to engage in the development of new policies and strategies which identify a sustainable funding model to help put more “boots on the ground” and restore the global reputation of Scotland’s Ranger Services.
George Potts is the chair of the Scottish Countryside Rangers’ Association (SCRA). This piece was sponsored by the SCRA.