IN A move that may hit school parties, outdoor education centres could be charged by landowners for hillwalking, mountain biking or pony-trekking. The proposal could emerge from draft land reform legislation to be presented shortly to the Scottish Parliament.
Landowners want recompense for maintaining and repairing paths trodden down by feet, wheels or hooves over a prolonged period. Some also feel they should benefit from commercial activities on their properties.
Fears about the indirect impact on school and youth groups of the land reform and right of access legislation were expressed by outdoor education groups at a conference in Edinburgh last weekend. Robin Harper, Green MSP and a former secondary teacher, pledged to fight for free access and promised to organise a parliamentary lobby.
Land reform is a key Scottish Executive policy and a Bill is likely to surface before the summer. But Peter Higgins, an outdoor education lecturer at Edinburgh University and a member of the umbrella group Outdoor Learning Scotland cautioned that it could have a "significant impact" on access to the countryside by groups of children.
Informal groups on an occasional trip or adventure are unlikely to face charges but regular formal use may incur additional costs. "There are a number of issues that should be explored properly. There is a strong suggestion that commercial operators face the possibility of charges," Mr Higgins said.
Bob Aitken, an expert on land access and a member of the Scottish Natural Heritage access forum, said that the Bill would confer rights of access to land and water for informal recreation and passage, "exercised responsibly". But the "devil is in the detail" of a supporting code of practice, Mr Aitken warned. "This is not daggers drawn but there are technical issues to be clarified."
Landowners did not want mass events on their land withut their consent, while there was "justified concern" about commercial operations, such as the hundreds of organised groups being guided up Ben Nevis.
The more difficult area was the definition of an informal and formal group, now the subject of an access forum committee.
Mr Aitken said landowners would be unlikely to object to a school group or Duke of Edinburgh Award party but could be more concerned at a local authority or private centre which used a piece of land or water every week. "You could be abseiling or rock climbing on a single crag throughout the year."
Mr Harper said: "I would challenge anybody to prove significant damage by a school group anywhere in Scotland. It's land such as Schiehallion that is open to daily tourist use that is suffering the worst." However, he suggested a local authority could be made responsible for a particular path it used regularly.
Outdoor recreation and education generates pound;600-pound;800 million of Scotland's tourist income, a third of the total, the conference heard.
WE WANT SCHOOLS TO COME'
THE access adviser with the Scottish Landowners Federation said she was not aware the issue of charging had been raised. But Marian Silvester added: "We would welcome a contribution to the maintenance and repair of paths where there is regular commercial activity."
Pony-trekking, for example, could cause considerable damage to paths. It was only fair operators made a contribution.
"The basic thing from the land managers' perspective is that they like to know who is on the land. If a school is planning to visit a certain area it may clash with the movement of cattle or young lambs.
"If there are potential clashes, they can be worked out. Landowners on the whole would prefer educational groups to come into the countryside to improve their knowledge. That's the way to develop responsible attitudes."