A fire pit made using stones from historic buildings at Fethaland. Photo: David Murray
This blog is a little reminder, and hopefully a helpful guide to accessing the outdoors safely and responsibly in Shetland. I first published this in the Shetland Times, our weekly newspaper, to raise awareness amongst locals. The message remains important to everyone visiting Shetland, particularly those who hope to access some of our many beauty spots.
People are being urged to get-to-know the Scottish Outdoor Access Code before heading into the countryside after what has been described as “a crazy summer” by one westside crofter.
Shetland’s top beauty spots have seen more traffic than Piccadilly Circus this summer as locals, lifted from lockdown, took the opportunity to visit places such as Westerwick, Fethaland, Muckle Roe’s scenic area and Uyea.
Westerwick is one of many beauty spots that has seen increased footfall in recent years.
And while this is great, and we should all learn to appreciate what’s on our doorstep a little bit more, we also need to remember that with this right to roam, comes responsibility; the responsibility to treat the landscape, it’s inhabitants and the people who work the land with respect.
Several crofters have been left despairing after a summer of increased footfall at many of these places and many incidences where visitors are not adhering to the Outdoor Access Code. The striking takeaway after speaking to crofters across Shetland was that, what they are seeing, is a serious reduction in the numbers of nesting birds, both indigenous and migratory which, they say, is a direct result of increased footfall and, more specifically, dogs being taken onto the land, disrupting wildlife and livestock.
Increasing visitor numbers has also had a direct effect on how they are managing their land, with many reporting that they have had to reduce numbers of grazing livestock due to increasing numbers of sheep being driven off the cliffs and away from their usual pastures
Many crofters have reduced the numbers of grazing sheep in some areas as a result of losses to livestock.
At Fethaland, between 2006 and 2013 there was a six per cent increase year on year of people going to the historic fishing station, with 2,300 visitors in 2013. Since then these numbers have continued to grow. Crofters say that these past two years have been particularly busy and that they are fast approaching a tipping point.
One major issue is dogs being allowed to run off their leads. Jim Johnson who owns land in Muckle Roe says that “free-running dogs follow their noses, they sense what we don’t and they scare birds out of their nests.” He says that at one time dogs weren’t allowed in the hill and this was sanctioned by the grazings committee. This is echoed by Brendon Smith who has land in the South Mainland and says that “in the past, dogs weren’t taken into the hill except for on caain days. Now everybody has a dog and they want to run it in the hills.” He continues that, “some folk in Shetland have no idea that every inch of Shetland is owned.”
It would be unfair to solely blame dog owners and similarly, it would be unfair to blame visitors to the isles, the overall feeling from the crofters I spoke to was that this is a local problem and stems from, not a lack of respect, but a lack of understanding – although, disregarding signs, polite notices and blocking access tracks and sheds is a blatant lack of respect that is being seen more frequently across the isles.
One crofter on the westside who keeps cattle and sheep reported that 90 per cent of people ignored the signs put in place for the safety of cattle – and visitors – and went into the field regardless. With signs ignored, silage parks trampled and reports of stolen pallets to make fires, they are at their “wit’s end.”
Many crofters despair that signs are ignored and rules flouted in some areas.
Jim Johnson says that “it’s shocking how bad the situation has become”. This sentiment is echoed by David Murray who owns the land at Fethaland. He has recently padlocked his gate, but still allows permission to use the road if people get in touch with him directly and pay a fee to help with the upkeep of the private track. He says that “there needs to be a shift of balance from folk using it as a playground” and realising that it’s not an empty landscape, he says that, when visiting the outdoors you are in nature’s habitat, and ultimately you are “in their hoose” and must treat it accordingly.
“Folk need to think about what they’re doing; ask yourself, ‘why are the birds making a noise’.
“It’s a lack of education, and I don’t mean to cause offence by saying that.” He says he is “immensely proud of Fedaland and I don’t want to stop folk enjoying it. I like seeing folk appreciating the place.”
In Fethaland he has noted a decrease in the number of nesting birds, including tirricks and shalders. Jim Johnson reports similar declining numbers in recent years at in Muckle Roe where until a few years ago, golden plovers nested every year. He says that they now don’t nest. This year, they came but were disturbed and failed to nest. He says that “as custodians of the countryside we have to accept that more people will keep coming here, and the trick is to educate them on what they need to do in the area.”
Another problem facing crofters is that many people have no idea what the land is used for. With people traipsing through crops, silage fields and getting too close to livestock with young, the situation, they said, was becoming dangerous and something has got to give.
Always ensure that you avoid walking in cultivated fields - seek an alternative route.
I come to this with no crofting background, I’m from a fishing family, but I enjoy long walks in the country and I too love to visit Shetland’s beauty spots. But, with this there comes a caveat; I – and we collectively – must do this responsibly.
The general message is that people needed to be educated about how to behave in the outdoors and that this education should start in a formal setting, in primary school. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we look after nature. And the overriding message is that our countryside is not a playground; it’s a habitat, it’s a workplace and it is incredibly fragile and susceptible to change.
A visitor’s attempt to photograph a bird’s nest may be all that it takes to prevent a mother returning to a nest; the fire that you light on the clifftop, not only spoils the area for others, but it may damages the native flora that tentatively clings to the thin soils.
Jim Johnson offers a very stark warning that if we don’t get a handle on this situation and increase our awareness then “we’re going to lose the very things that people come here to value.” He reminds us that “we can do tremendous damage in a very short space of time.”
Understanding the Scottish Outdoor Access Code:
In Scotland, you can go on to most land to enjoy the outdoors – as long as you behave responsibly. Scottish access rights apply, for example, to hills and moors, forests and woods, beaches and the coast, rivers and lochs, parks and some types of farmland. There are also some common-sense exceptions, including houses and gardens, other buildings and their yards or compounds, school grounds and places which charge for entry.
You have a responsibility to:
It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t look for loopholes to access rights; we are privileged to have this access code and, I for one, am a real advocate for appreciating what’s on our doorstep. But please do this responsibly and remember that these areas are working crofts, habitats and quite often SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) where human activities can have catastrophic effects on habitats.
If in any doubt, contact the crofter and ask permission, especially if you would like to request access on to a private farm road. This is common courtesy and something that, here in Shetland, we should always do.
Until next time, let's all remember to exercise our responsibilities and respect the outdoors and those who live and work in it to ensure a bright and sustainable future.
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.