One of Scotland’s biggest environment organisations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has been accused of acting “like Donald Trump” by trying to dictate the route of a popular footpath around a loch.
Local residents and the recreation group, Ramblers Scotland, are angry that RSPB Scotland wants the 200,000 walkers, runners and cyclists who use the Loch Leven Heritage Trail near Kinross every year to take a detour around its nature reserve in order to protect birds.
But, in a fierce counter-attack, the RSPB has insisted that the route through the reserve proposed by Ramblers Scotland would cause “considerable damage” to one of the UK’s most important areas for wintering geese and ducks. It was under a legal obligation to protect the wildlife, the conservation group said.
Following prolonged negotiations, a planning application to complete the footpath around Loch Leven has been submitted to Perth and Kinross Council. But at the insistence of the RSPB it follows a road skirting around the outside of its reserve at Vane Farm on the southern shore of the loch.
But this route also takes it around the homes of two local residents, who have attacked the RSPB for being a bad neighbour. “The RSPB is operating like a commercial company not like a charity,” said John Haynes (51), a joiner who lives in West Newhall Cottage.
“They are showing serious disregard for the public by putting the path around the periphery of the reserve, not by the loch,” he argued. “They are dictating this and not listening to anybody else. The whole thing smacks of a Donald Trump scenario.”
His neighbour, retired lecturer Alan Bell (68) in East Newhall Cottage, warned that the path proposed by the RSPB would damage the reputation of Loch Leven. He accused the charity of acting like the “lairds of the loch”.
“It’s bit like going back to the old days when lairds owned the land and told the people what to do,” he told The Herald. If an amicable agreement can’t be reached, residents have suggested that RSPB land could be subject to compulsory purchase to force a path through its reserve.
According to Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland, the RSPB route was in the wrong place. “It is very disappointing that the RSPB is resisting a route across their land which makes the best sense from an environmental and outdoor recreation perspective and causes least disturbance to local householders,” he said.
“The route proposed by the Ramblers will cause minimal disturbance to wildlife and will be a superb way for the people of Scotland to enjoy the natural heritage of Loch Leven."
The RSPB, however, strongly defended its position, pointing out that it had been managing access at Loch Leven for 40 years and had helped more than 50,000 people a year enjoy the wildlife. There had been a “positive and helpful dialogue” about the footpath, said RSPB regional director, Martin Auld.
“It is extremely surprising that Ramblers Scotland, who purport to have the best interests of our natural heritage at heart, are proposing a route which would cause considerable damage to the wildlife and conservation interest at Loch Leven,” he added.
“Their proposal would also reduce the quality visitor experience of those who visit the reserve, disturbing and dispersing the breeding and wintering birds.” The RSPB route around the reserve would provide “sweeping views of the loch and surrounding designated landscape whilst ensuring no damage is done”.
Auld pointed out that the RSPB reserve was the only place on the loch where thousands of migratory birds could find refuge from human disturbance and hunters. “Without this refuge - that the Ramblers’ proposal threatens - a large part of the bird population may desert Loch Leven,” he said.
The RSPB was backed by the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). “RSPB, and other land managers, had legitimate concerns about how different route options could affect their management,” said SNH’s director of operations, Andrew Bachell.
“It's important that walkers or cyclists don't disturb the wildfowl and yet, at the same time, we want them to see and enjoy the spectacle of wildlife in the nature reserve. The route chosen provides an excellent compromise between these two objectives.”