The government agency, one of the country’s largest landowners, suggested “a blanket ban on camping within 400 metres of a public road” in an internal minute from 2014, just released under freedom of information law.
According to countryside campaigners, such a widespread ban would undermine the “right to roam” law, turn the clock back more than a hundred years, and criminalise people enjoying the countryside. The commission, however, says it was “a throw-away comment”.
The comment was made during a meeting with Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority on 22 September last year. The meeting was to discuss the park’s controversial proposal to ban camping without permission on long stretches of loch shores, currently being considered by ministers.
A minute of the meeting records Forestry Commission Scotland as being “keen to secure solutions which covered all situations”. The commission complained that ”the current understanding of the meaning of wild camping was poor and that car boot camping and motorhome issues were growing across all of Scotland.”
The commission promised to raise concerns about the need for “wider review of car boot camping and antisocial behaviour and instigation of new measures to deal with it,” the minute said. “A possible suggestion for this could be a blanket ban on camping within 400m of a public road or recognised formal recreation facility car park.”
Cameron McNeish, the well-known outdoor writer and broadcaster, accused the commission of “furtively attempting to erode” Scotland’s access legislation. It clearly indicated “an anti-access mindset that could have serious implications for outdoor enthusiasts and tourism throughout the rest of Scotland,” he warned.
Andrea Partridge, the access officer for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) was “extremely concerned” at the suggested ban. She pointed out that there was a lack of resources to deal with irresponsible behaviour.
“Introducing further bans and byelaws will not help, and will criminalise those who are acting responsibly and exercising their statutory rights. The MCofS will robustly challenge any suggestion of introducing a blanket ban across Scotland.”
Ramblers Scotland also warned of “significant opposition” to a widespread camping ban. “It is of particular concern to hear allegations that Forestry Commission Scotland is seeking to curtail rights which were established through parliament,” said the group’s director, Jess Dolan.
The veteran outdoor campaigner, Dave Morris, accused the commission of undermining the Scottish Government’s land reform programme. He called on the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to “chop out some dead wood” before the commission does any more damage.
“It is disgraceful that a public body should be engaged in a secretive operation to prevent thousands of citizens enjoying the countryside and threatening us all with criminal prosecution,” Morris said.
“They are trying to wind the clock back to 1865 when the Westminster Parliament made camping in Scotland a criminal offence, until this was repealed in 2003 by the Scottish Parliament.”
But Alan Stevenson, head of recreation and tourism at the commission’s Forest Enterprise Scotland, insisted that the suggested ban was not official policy. “The remark was a throw-away comment at the end of a meeting 14 months ago,” he said.
“This is neither policy nor proposed policy and to suggest otherwise would misrepresent the position of Forest Enterprise Scotland on this issue. Only Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park proposals are under consideration.”
He added: “These involve improved management arrangements for camping in a small area of the park, including parts of the national forest estate, which are suffering from unacceptable visitor impacts due to high levels of use.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Ministers are currently considering the camping management proposals submitted by Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, and will take a decision in due course.”
How I was taken to court for camping, but then let off
Jason MacLean, 38, from Forfar experienced the pitfalls of land access byelaws first hand, when a disagreement over the interpretation of the East Loch Lomond camping restrictions with national park rangers led to police being called - and a court appearance.
MacLean was camping on a beach near to the Balmaha area of the loch with his wife Pauline, brother Ross and three children Ionagh, Rhianwen and Isaiaha. They were approached by park rangers and, after a dispute about whether the family were allowed to camp there, four officers from Police Scotland were called to the scene.
“My wife and I were summoned to appear at Stirling Justice of the Peace Court, but my brother’s paperwork had not been issued so we were set a date four weeks later to appear again. However, we informed them my wife and I would not be able to appear as we were going on holiday.
“We returned home to a warrant for our arrest, and the police at our door. But they were very reasonable, so they did not arrest us. We then had to contact the Procurator Fiscal, to appear. We appeared again on September 4 but made no plea and the case was dropped.”
This example raises questions over whether resources are being correctly utilised, particularly as a 2013 review by Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park acknowledged that rangers and uniformed police patrols had been scaled back. Andrea Partridge, access officer for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, thought the case may have set a precedent.
"It begs the question, what is the point of byelaws if they are not going to be upheld in court?" she wrote in an article in the council's magazine, Scottish Mountaineer.
MacLean insisted his family had not been breaking the law. “There are already laws in place to prevent anti-social behaviour. We weren’t making a mess, we didn’t damage any trees. They should be focussing resources on dealing with real crimes," he said. “I first came camping to the loch with my father, and I would like to be able to take my children there too."
- The current East Loch Lomond Camping Byelaws put restrictions in place from March 1 until October 31 each year, meaning camping within the so-called ‘restricted zone’ is forbidden between 7pm and 7am.
- The restricted zone extends along the shore from the Ptarmigan Lodge to Drymen further down the Eastern shore of the loch. It is patrolled and enforced by National Park Rangers. They work in coordination with Police Scotland as part of Operation Ironworks.
- Restrictions apply at night to the use tents, temporary gazebos, tarpaulin shelters, sleeping in cars in the restricted zone during the night and anything deemed an overnight shelter.
- The only permissible camping areas within the zone are at official camp sites at Millarochy Bay, Cashel and Sallochy.
- A maximum fine of £500 is possible for breaching the byelaw.
- Loch Lomond byelaws were last revised in 2013 after consultation with the Scottish Government.
- Five exemptions were granted for use between 2011 and 2013, including for long standing events which included camping.
- Patrols by rangers and uniformed officers were scaled back during the period 2011-2013.
- Tent numbers recorded within the restricted zone fell sharply by 2013.
The minute released by Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority under freedom of information law can be downloaded here (226KB pdf).
Photo thanks to summonedbyfells.
This story was followed up by The Times.