Returning with respect

As lockdown eases across the UK, Trust Chief Executive David Balharry offers some thoughts on navigating a phased return to wild places

Chief exec david (right) with his son ross in patagonia detail

It is stating the obvious that the last few months have been incredibly difficult for everyone. Now, as lockdown eases, we are entering into a new and delicate phase. I’m delighted that many of our land staff are returning to their regular duties, but all land managers have a formidable task ahead in helping guide reasonable behaviour.

As we take the brakes off and get back to what we love, respect and understanding is more important than ever; respect for other people and for the environment in which we all work and play.

Awareness of risk

For both the Trust and the public, lockdown has directly challenged access to the wild places we cherish – but there are new risks associated with our return to these places for people, wildlife and landscape. Awareness of these risks, and an appreciation that risk appetite varies from person to person is important. It is inappropriate for any of us – as an organisation or as individuals – to assume that one size fits all.

The Trust is fortunate enough to work in relatively remote and beautiful places, but these places are not empty of people, and they are a diverse group with different ages, passions, needs and concerns. Some are dependent on a resumption of tourism, while for others, visitors bring the renewed threat of infection. As an organisation that cares for land and people, we understand and respect all these voices and will continue to listen. No organisation is perfect, but we will do our level best to respond to concerns with kindness and respect, as the situation changes.

While we are looking forward to getting on with land management duties and welcoming visitors back to the land in our care in due course, we have no intention of rushing headlong back to the old normal. Our returning land staff are developing safe working guidance, revising risk assessments in relation to deer and woodland management, habitat and species monitoring, managing contractors, and towards a gradual reopening of public facilities when the time is right. Risk assessment is a dynamic process, responsive and ongoing.

Collaborating with partners

The Trust is in regular contact with Government land managers, other access and conservation organisations and we will phase our return in collaboration with them and alongside local stakeholders, to ensure that messaging to the visiting public remains consistent and as straightforward as possible.

For the time being, public car parks and toilets on our land remain closed to the public and our volunteer program remains suspended. A measured and consistent approach across all the UK nations is essential for clear and unambiguous guidance. Government guidelines in England have begun to allow for more travel and recreation, while in Scotland we expect the same in the coming weeks, when we will be able to welcome our volunteers and other visitors back into the wild places in our care.

The Trust is an upland conservation organisation and many of us are hill people at heart, so arguably we have some measure of experience and understanding to draw from. For now, in Scotland, the advice of access organisation Mountaineering Scotland seems very sensible: Stay Local, be Prepared, be Safe and be Considerate. Wherever in the UK you venture into the wild, it’s all about respect for others’ safety and well-being, as well as our own.

While I know our members will look to tread lightly, responsibly and with mutual respect, the pressures of lockdown easing are well evidenced across the country’s media. At the moment, socialising is only possible outdoors. As such, many who do not normally spend time in the outdoors are doing so. The upsetting profusion of littering, wildfires and other abuse of the countryside is often about a lack of knowledge. Now would be a perfect time for the Scottish Government to invest in promoting the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC), to highlight the hard-earned rights around responsible access we very much enjoy in Scotland.

Keeping busy during lockdown

Lastly, I want to assure our Members and supporters that we have not been idle over recent months – quite the opposite.

The John Muir Award Team have been working throughout to support Award activity where it can still be enjoyed safely and within current government guidelines. There’s an inspiring selection of examples showcasing John Muir Award activity during the pandemic from across the UK. We’re organising an online AGM – no mean feat - and have launched the Wild Inside eNewsletter which has reached an audience largely new to the organisation to great effect.

Our Policy team are consistently busy, considering planning applications on and around wild land, on consultation responses to ranger services and the Scottish Government's National Planning Framework, as well as in preparing asks as Parliamentary elections approach in Scotland and Wales in 2021.

Elsewhere, many of our staff temporarily redeployed into new working groups to look with fresh eyes at our carbon footprint, operational planning, staff development and crofting responsibilities. Some of this is not the stuff of headlines but is essential to the better functioning of the organisation into the future. A silver lining from this terrible virus may be a greater public appreciation of wild places and we are now in a much stronger position to channel that energy.

If you are reading this and not yet a member, I sincerely hope you can and will join us. We will need all hands on deck as we work towards a new, and I hope greener future.

Header image shows Trust Chief Executive David (right) with his son Ross in Patagonia.