Publication - Research and analysis

Attitudes to land reform: research

Published: 5 Mar 2021
Directorate:
Environment and Forestry Directorate
ISBN:
9781800047198

This report outlines the main findings from research exploring public attitudes to land reform.

Attitudes to land reform: research
7. Statutory Public Access Rights

7. Statutory Public Access Rights

Main findings and implications

56% of survey respondents indicated they were confident about their rights to access different types of land on foot or bicycle (42% were not confident). However, the deliberative research suggests that some of those who lack confidence about their rights have a good idea about the main principles of responsible access.

Once current access rights were explained, there was strong support for them. There was a sense of pride that Scotland had the 'right to roam', along with a sense of pride and a sense of ownership over Scotland's land.

However, there were concerns about people dropping litter, lighting fires irresponsibly, dog fouling and disturbing animals (and a view that these negative effects were exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which has increased amount of people visiting rural land). There was a suggestion that more education and clear communication about responsible access was required.

Among the minority opposed, there was a view that current access rights go too far and diminish the rights of landowners to protect and look after their land.

Few had personally experienced a disagreement about access rights, but there was some uncertainty about what they would do if their rights were challenged – as well as what landowners should do in the event of a dispute. One particular area of uncertainty was the degree to which landowners must aid the right to roam by improving paths and/or removing barriers to accessing their land.

Overall, therefore, the participants support current access rights but think there should be more education and clarity around the respective responsibilities of the public and landowners – and what to do in the event of a dispute.

Awareness of statutory public access rights

Survey respondents were asked how confident they were about their rights to access different types of land on foot or bicycle. Overall, 56% of respondents said they were 'very' or 'fairly confident', and 42% said they were 'not very' or 'not at all confident'. Those in rural areas were most likely to say they were 'very' or 'fairly confident' (70% compared to 53% in urban areas).

Figure 7.1 Q How confident are you that you know your rights regarding which types of land you can freely access on foot or bicycle in Scotland?

Chart description below

Base: All (n=1501)

Chart Description

Figure 7.1 - a chart showing respondents’ confidence they know their rights regarding what types of land they can freely access on for or bicycle in Scotland: it shows 11%  were “very confident”, 45% “fairl confident”, 30% “not very confident” and 12% “not at all confident”.

Overall, participants who took part in the deliberative research were aware of the extent of their rights to access land in Scotland. The 'right to roam' was mentioned unprompted and people felt they had the right to access most parts of the country unrestricted.

"I'm not 100% sure but I think we're allowed to go pretty much anywhere."

Urban interview participant

There was an acknowledgement that access rights came with the responsibility of behaving responsibly and respectfully, for example shutting gates[11] and walking around the edges of fields to cause minimal disruption.

"In my eyes, you can go on any land as long as you shut the gate behind you."

Younger Rural interview participant

However, there was a concern raised that more signage was needed to avoid confusion. There was a view that, because people take it for granted that they can access any land in Scotland, it is even more important to make people aware of land that they are not supposed to access. One participant recounted that they had accidentally come across workmen when they were out horse-riding, because there were no signs to let people know.

"A couple of times I've seen the forestry guys when I was on horseback. Respectfully they stopped and let us pass to not spook the horses. That was kind of them but there should be more signs to let people know."

Younger Urban group participant

Views on statutory public access rights

Respondents were asked about their views on statutory public access rights. The following introductory text preceded the question:

'Everyone has the right to access most of Scotland's outdoors (excluding specific types of land such as that close to homes or schools), if they do so responsibly, with respect for people's property, and for the environment. These rights are sometimes referred to as 'right to roam'.'

Most respondents (81%) expressed support for the 'right to roam', while just 6% stated that they oppose it. Moreover, almost half of respondents (47%) said that they strongly support this right, while just 2% reported strongly opposing it. Levels of support for the 'right to roam' were highest among those who also support the diversification of land ownership (88%) compared with those who oppose it (57%).

Figure 7.2 To what extent do you support or oppose this right to roam?

Chart description below

Base: All (n=1501)

Chart Description

Figure 7.2: Q To what extent do you support or oppose this right to roam? A chart showing 47% said “strongly support”, 34% said “tend to support”, 11% said neither support nor oppose, 4% said “tend to oppose” and 2% said “strongly oppose.”

Generally, there was strong support across the deliberative groups for the current level of access rights in Scotland and the principle of the 'right to roam'. A more exceptional view was that it infringed upon the rights of landowners.

Reasons for support included valuing freedom and the idea of individuals being free to explore their country unrestricted. Access rights in Scotland were contrasted to what were perceived as the more restrictive rights in England, and participants described feeling fortunate to have such extensive access rights. There was a sense of pride among participants that Scotland had the right to roam, along with a sense of pride and a sense ownership over Scotland's land.

"It's more of a concept. It's about having the freedom to go anywhere in the country that you live in."

Urban interview participant

Participants were also supportive of the current access rights because of the positive effects on mental health from accessing the countryside.

However, there was an acknowledgment that this policy could have potential negative effects. People who thought current access rights went too far felt that it diminished the rights of landowners to protect and look after their land. One participant suggested that it meant landowners in Scotland did not own the land fully, and worried that it could deter investors from buying land in Scotland.

"People take their dog through places for wildlife and they have a right to roam but they shouldn't. Scotland is a beautiful country, but we'll lose it if you allow people to go anywhere."

Older Rural group participant

Even among participants who were broadly supportive of the right to roam, there were concerns about people mistreating the land and disturbing animals. Participants described several examples of this, including visitors dropping litter, wild campers lighting irresponsible fires and dog walkers whose dogs worried sheep and other livestock. Among urban participants, there was an acknowledgment that they may not know enough about how to access rural land respectfully.

"I could drive out to the countryside and I don't have the first clue about farming. I like to think I'm a careful person, but I could be doing things wrong."

Urban interview participant

There was a view that these negative effects were exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased the amount of people visiting rural land. One participant suggested that access rights should be temporarily restricted, for example allowing farmers to lock gates during the lockdown.

There was a suggestion that more education and clear communication would give people a greater understanding and appreciation of the land, which would encourage them to look after it better.

"It would be beneficial if there was more open information. […] People tend to act out more if they don't know why there's a fence in the way or a path blocked for maintenance."

Younger Urban group participant

Participants also highlighted the importance of paths to help guide visitors and minimise disruption to wildlife. However, there was some concern that not everybody keeps to the paths.

Another general concern was safety of the people accessing the land who were not aware of potential hazards. Various dangers were associated with the right to roam, including getting lost; dangerous weather conditions; contaminated land; or encountering aggressive animals.

There was a belief that more needs to be done to let people know which land is safe to access and which is not.

"I was walking in the Trossachs and there was a sign saying during these months stalking deer would be in progress. When we got to where I assume the stalking takes place there was a blank board and even after we got back it was really hard to find out more. They didn't reply to communications about whether it was safe to walk in this valley."

Younger Urban group participant

Even when there are signs around, they were not always perceived to be clear. There was a view that the general public will often not know what symbols on signs mean- especially foreign tourists.

"Often, they'll put up one sign because they have to, but won't tell you what it means. Sometimes there's signage but often if you look it up, you'll know but they don't teach it at school and it's different in different countries, so tourists won't know. They might have heard you can walk anywhere in Scotland and could wander into a firing range or something."

Younger Urban group participant

Experience of disagreements around access rights

Just 7% of survey respondents reported encountering an issue in the past 12 months where they thought they had the right to roam but someone else disagreed, while almost all (92%) had experienced no such issue. Those most likely to have encountered an issue were those living in remote rural areas (12% compared with 5% of those in large urban areas).

A few participants in the deliberative groups had experienced disputes with landowners. While this typically involved being told to get off the land by landowners, one participant described an incident where they were confronted by a gamekeeper with a rifle.

Among those who had not experienced a disagreement about access rights, there was some uncertainty about what they would do if their rights were challenged – as well as what landowners should do in the event of a dispute.

There were questions raised over the degree to which landowners must aid the right to roam by improving paths and removing barriers to accessing their land. Participants mentioned examples where they had not experienced direct conflict, but landowners had made it difficult to access certain areas or failed to make them accessible to all. For example, one participant described a gate which walkers could get through, but those on horseback could not. This meant she was prevented from accessing the only path down to a beach when she was out riding. Another participant highlighted the extra needs of disabled people to access the land which are not always met:

"There's a cycle path in south Edinburgh on the route towards Roslin, they recently put in these little blockade bars and you can't get heavy e-bikes over them. It would be impossible for any non-standard bicycle, for example, one for people with disabilities, to use that path."

Younger Urban group participant


Contact

Email: socialresearch@gov.scot