Dealing with the mess left behind at Loch Morlich, Glenmore and on the North Coast 500 is no easy task, according to Forestry and Land Scotland
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Beauty spots have been hit hard by an influx of visitors since lockdown. John Davidson spoke to one land manager about some of the issues
It's been a summer like no other. After months of lockdown and with events, holidays and much more cancelled, an escape to the country has become the outing of choice.
But the impact of such a large increase in visitor numbers in some rural areas at a time when many facilities remained closed is still being felt.
Busy roads, abandoned campsites, dangerous fires, litter and even trees being chopped down have been seen at locations across the Highlands, not to mention the unsightly mess left behind when there are no toilets available.
Paul Hibberd, Forestry and Land Scotland's (FLS) regional visitor services manager, said it had been an interesting and challenging year for the organisation, which runs around 70 sites across the Highlands.
"We seemed to attract a wider range of visitors this year, which is logical when you think people weren't able to go abroad or go to festivals," he said. "We were also seeing some quite challenging behaviour.
"Attracting a wider range of visitors in one way is a positive thing, certainly we are very keen to encourage more people to come and enjoy the countryside.
"But there were an unprecedented number of unsocial use issues this summer. Initially a lot of facilities were closed so, without going into detail, there were some unpleasant issues when toilets were closed but people were still coming out.
"That has been an issue across the Highlands, with a large spike in people camping either where facilities don't exist or where they had to remain closed for various reasons."
FLS's biggest problem site has been at Glenmore Forest Park near Aviemore, but the same issues have been felt around the North Coast 500 route and in other rural areas.
A continuing rise in the number of campervans has also prompted the organisation to trial a Stay The Night scheme at some of its forest car parks.
"The Highlands has been under increased pressure from tourism for a while and there have been calls for extra facilities and better management," Mr Hibberd said. "That remains a challenge because of everyone's resources, but I think those issues have been brought forward this year."
The scheme, which allows self-contained motorhomes and campervans to park at registered sites subject to certain rules, was planned before coronavirus struck, but FLS extended it to more sites as the lockdown was eased.
"It has been extremely popular with campervan users – our webpage had 90,000 views, which is massively more than our other pages – so as a concept it is a good idea.
"There have been some issues with it, and that is the point of having a trial. We don't see ourselves as being able to solve the campervan issue on our own, but it's an example of how perhaps we can do things."
Mr Hibberd stressed the importance of partnership working as one of the positives to have come out of the summer influx – and he also thanks those visitors who continue to 'leave no trace'.
FLS has been working alongside the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), as well as police, the fire service and others to help deal with some of the problems which have been hitting areas such as Glenmore and Loch Morlich.
A number of additional seasonal rangers have been employed by the CNPA and Mr Hibberd said engaging with visitors remained the best course of action.
"We've found that face-to-face communication with ranger staff and stewards has been the most effective thing – but the flip side of that is that it takes a lot of time," he said. "We have staff on seven days a week and the park authority rangers patrol into the evenings, so that's been very helpful."
He said the vast majority of people understood the issues once they were explained and the headline-grabbing problems of people chopping down live trees and having large campfires was a very small minority, some of whom even refused to move when the police were involved.
It has been a tough year for the staff dealing with these issues on the ground and Mr Hibberd added that FLS has some plans to improve infrastructure where it can, though such moves are restricted in environmentally sensitive areas such as Glenmore.
He said that people were still welcome at its sites but asked them to continue to plan ahead and have an alternative in mind in case places were already busy, as we are still in the midst of a pandemic.
"We very much recognise that it has been invaluable for everyone's physical and mental health to get out into the forests and I'd like to thank the vast majority of visitors who have been responsible, as well as local communities and businesses for their help throughout the summer," he added.
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