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Wider interest in the outdoors should be welcomed, says Paul Webster of Walk Highlands

By John Davidson

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Closer to home in the Cromdales.
Closer to home in the Cromdales.

Come summer, we are likely to see another surge of people heading to enjoy beauty spots around the Highlands and getting out on foot in the countryside.

With any luck, our current lockdown restrictions will have eased enough by then to allow us to safely travel further and explore more of the fabulous places in our midst.

While we saw some of the problems that emerged last year when the travel restrictions were eased and hotspots were inundated with hordes of visitors, Paul Webster of Walk Highlands insists the growing interest in the outdoors is a good thing.

“I refuse to see it as a negative that more people want to get out into the outdoors, and I think there’s space for everyone,” he said.

“I think most people are responsible, it’s just a few people – those pictures of whole campsites being abandoned, I don’t think that’s a very large proportion of people who would do that.

“It seems bizarre to me that you would throw away all that kit!”

Mr Webster also warned that a lack of available accommodation could also see more roadside camping taking place across the region.

Paul and Helen Webster of Walk Highlands.
Paul and Helen Webster of Walk Highlands.

He went on: “This summer is going to be very hard to deal with because a lot of accommodation providers that took bookings last year have rolled them over to this year, and a lot of other places have closed.

“Often people running B&Bs are doing that just before they retire, so a lot have decided to retire now because of the pandemic.

“So, the capacity has gone down and I think when things do start to open up it’s going to be almost impossible to find a place to stay.

“So inevitably we’re going to see a lot more people camping at the roadside. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, because it’s great for people to get into the outdoors, but I think we’re really going to need those ranger services, people on the ground, to make sure that they’re teaching people how to behave responsibly.”

The Cairngorms National Park Authority is already planning to operate its own ranger service from mid-March to October after setting up a temporary service last year to deal with some of the problems.

Visitors flocked to the Glenmore area near Aviemore, with pictures of abandoned tents, chopped down trees and live fires being shared widely on social media and through news channels.

However, Mr Webster pointed out that this was a tiny minority of irresponsible visitors, which perhaps led to a more widespread belief that “people aren’t obeying the rules”. The vast majority came, enjoyed their walk and took their rubbish and belongings home with them – and statistics from the Walk Highlands website during the first lockdown back up his assertion that most people were in fact following the rules.

Rothiemurchus in the snow.
Rothiemurchus in the snow.

“Normally the central belt walks are not the busiest walks on Walk Highlands by any means because people are searching for the really popular, famous places, so I was seeing that the behaviour of people was changing completely,” he said.

“In the first lockdown our most popular route was the Clyde Walkway, which normally is not very popular at all.

“Normally places like Torridon are really popular with us, but it’s places like that which have really been hit. Inverness and the places nearer to there have still been busy, though.”

He concludes that the reason for the change is that “it’s not visitors who are looking for the walks anymore, it’s locals.”

That switch to seeing more people wanting to explore their local area on foot is welcome, and the benefit to mental health and wellbeing cannot be understated.

Mr Webster added: “It’s one of the few things you can do at the minute, isn’t it? When your life is kind of stripped back to the essentials, you realise what is important, and getting out into nature is key – well, it’s been key to me!

“I think people are more focused on what’s important and I think that’s going out and spending quality time and reconnecting with the outside.

“Normally we’d see the winter hills would be quite popular at the moment, but you wouldn’t see the family walks getting much of a look in at this time of year. But it’s different now, and I think that interest in the outdoors from last summer has continued.

“There are still a lot more people going out for walks now than there normally would be at this time of year, when it would normally only be the keener types.

“I think that’s a good thing for the future if there’s more interest in the outdoors.”

Education and understanding how to care for the environment and respect those living, working and spending time there will be central to the message that needs to go out ahead of the visitor season. That’s why expanded ranger services are essential, as well as getting information to a new audience about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the rights and responsibilities that go along with it.

On top of that, there is a need for more infrastructure to assist those overnight camping at roadsides, whether in tents, campervans, motorhomes or any other means. As well as places to stop, this must include facilities for disposing of waste responsibly.

Last year, we were all taken by surprise at the influx of visitors to our Highland beauty spots. This time we have no excuse for not being prepared.

The majority of people have been waiting patiently for a chance to return to share in this stunning part of Scotland as we wait for the pandemic to come back under control.

Mr Webster, who runs the Walk Highlands site with his wife Helen from their base in the Cromdale Hills near Grantown, pointed out: “We’re lucky that we can get out, but a lot of people that are following our social media pages are stuck in Edinburgh or somewhere. So, it’s trying to get a message to them that gets them to look forward to [getting back to the Highlands] rather than having doom and gloom all the time.”

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