Dirty work: Coping with the rush to the countryside

The last few days have been great for walking around here, the rain showers clearing the air and the lowering sun bringing a fresh light to the views.

Our local loveliness …

We’re lucky to have this on our doorstep, and to have been here through lockdown and the current restrictions.

When you see how wonderful it is,  you understand better why people from the cities have, post-lockdown, burst into the countryside at what many would think is an alarming rate, to enjoy what we take for granted.

Photos, reports from national parks and other beauty spots show cars cramming onto verges when car-parks are full, and reports of dirty camping, littering and fouling. I’ve seen a lot of it myself.

Working on a footpath in Glen Nevis on Saturday I heard the wild meadows up at Steall Falls have become a favourite campground, with the Nevis Partnership team having to take daily visits up there to remind folk to clear up after themselves and not leave their (literal, not metaphorical) shite everywhere.

On my way up there very early on Saturday it was a bit like the old film Zulu: “Campervans, sir, thousands of ’em!” Every possible pull-in from Loch Lomond to Onich was packed with big white vans, little VWs, cars with stuff taped over the windows.

Most of those travellers will have got up, had their first cuppa, and then wondered where they were going to have their morning crap. A lot will not make it to the nearest public toilet …

I was covering the Finnich Glen beauty spot story again this week, and saw an unbearable pile of filth picked up by local volunteers for disposal there.

Landowner David Young points out the problem at Finnich Glen

Of course the people who are causing problems like this bear a responsibility, but look at parking: If you have driven from Glasgow to Ben A’an because it’s a place you know, went to as a kid, and want to show your own family, you expect to be able to park.

If the car-park is full, you maybe don’t know anywhere else to go in the Trossachs, and anyway, you promised them this great place… So you park on the verge. The response from the powers that be has of course been to close all the informal parking and ticket anyone who tries to park outside the car-park. Maybe they should direct them to somewhere quieter …

Nothing can excuse leaving litter behind, but people are people and they (kids especially) will need a crap while they are out and about. They’ll try to be unobtrusive, but when 70,000+ are visiting a 27-acre site like Finnich Glen, don’t expect it to be able to absorb that stoolage without impact. Up at the Fairy Pools on Skye they have had to install a treatment tank the size of a nuclear sub for the new toilets to deal with 200,000 bottoms a year.

At the same time the TV ads tell us to enjoy the natural wonders on our doorstep, for the sake of the economy; the pressure is on to cut long-distance travel; and the realisation that the natural world is in danger is encouraging a new appreciation of its wonders.

What that means is we need more and better facilities for people visiting the countryside. It does mean more car parks, and in the less frequented places, so they can absorb some of the hordes. It means better public transport – I don’t think there’s a bus stop less than 4km away from Finnich Glen.

It means new lavs, lots of them, all over the Highlands and in other rural areas, not closing them down to save money, plus places to empty chemical toilets  – aires like they have in France, maybe.

It means income from car parks such as that in Glen Nevis (£6 a day, I’d guess 100+ spaces?!) going back into the local tourist infrastructure, the crumbling footpath we were maintaining on Saturday, the council ranger service that has been cut.

And it means education. Not just signs, not just rangers politely informing people about the dos and don’ts: I haven’t see TV ads urging people to clean up their mess in the countryside, to run alongside the lavish films that tell us to go out and enjoy it.

And while I am sure it’s on the Curriculum for Excellence somewhere that you should take your litter and bog-roll home, and not leave your tent and beer bottles behind after camping, I’m just not sure it has quite enough emphasis…

A fine morning near Mugdock

Which of course brings me to residential outdoor education centres, so many of which are under threat of closure from being unable to operate under lockdown. They are the places young people from cities learn about litter, outdoor hygiene, and caring for the country. Yet they’ve had to launch a campaign for Government help to stay afloat. Maybe the Eat Out to Help Spread Coronavirus scheme’s cash could have gone on that …

So enjoy the countryside, folks, but don’t forget: it needs money, effort and political will to keep it the way we want it. Spread the word, not the sh……