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Axing the Highland Council’s Countryside Ranger Service is a false economy!

Posted: Tuesday 13 December, 2016 @ 05:54:57

Countryside rangers organised a successful Highland Seashore day at Laide in September 2013

Peter Cunningham, 9th December 2016

I’m feeling a bit gloomy today. We are nearly at the shortest afternoon and there has been no sunshine today.

I’ve just been out for a walk before it gets dark, over the hill from Gairloch Harbour to the beach. There are many more Rhododendron ponticum plants popping up amongst the heather on the high ground than there were last year; nothing has been done about them.

About the only reason why I did not organise a team of volunteers to pull out the bushes a couple of years ago was because some of the nearby residents were not in favour; I didn’t to want to fall out with them. Now the problem has grown even bigger.

It’s very hard to explain to some people why it is important to remove ponticum bushes without disagreement. Some people still think that because ponticum flowers look nice, they must be good for wildlife?

However the main reason why I am feeling a bit gloomy today is that on the BBC news it has been announced that The Highland Council is once again threatening to completely axe our Countryside Ranger Service.

Over the years, we (Wester Ross Fisheries Trust) have worked with a succession of hardworking, enthusiastic, energetic, nearly always smiling HC rangers to organise and support events to help people enjoy, understand and thereby learn to share some of the responsibility for looking after the countryside and our wildlife. 

As I was walking past the budding ponticum bushes and down towards the beach (where we have plans for a collaborative seashore discovery day in July 2017 with the Highland Council ranger and SWT Living Seas Project), it became obvious to me what a short-sighted saving axing the HC Countryside Ranger service would be for taxpayers in the Highlands.

Ponticum bushes are continuing to spread from nearby gardens because of ignorance. The job of removing the ponticum bushes in open ground on the An Ard peninsula is already twice as big as it would have been just a couple of years ago.

Non-native plants, such as ponticum, threaten the ecology and productivity of our land and its usefulness to wildlife, our economy and our fellow citizens.

If there are fewer HC rangers, then there will be even less understanding of the consequences of allowing plants like R. ponticum to continue to spread over areas such as the An Ard peninsula, an otherwise semi-natural wild landscape with some wonderful views across Gairloch beach.

In another few years time the job of removing them will be much too big for a group of volunteers, even if they are led by an enthusiastic countryside ranger! So instead, the bushes will be left to grow and spread for a few more years . . . until eventually the ponticum problem becomes so obvious to everybody (. . . even to those who currently quite like to see them. . .); that action is eventually taken. That’s what has happened elsewhere. And then the cost of removing them will quite possibly be in the £10ks.

I was told that the cost of removing the ponticum bushes from Forestry Commission land in Lochaber alone is several £million per year. There are several big on-going projects in Wester Ross, for example, along the south side of Loch Torridon, costing many £100ks from the public purse; money which could otherwise have helped to support a primary school, a healthcare centre, or sustain other vital services.

If things carry on as they are, in future years many more expensive INNS [Invasive Non-native Species] control projects, costing £millions / year will be required around Scotland, especially if fewer and fewer people are given the sort of opportunity provided by HC Countryside Rangers to understand why it is sensible to prevent their spread and learn to share the responsibility of controlling them, for example, by preventing problems in the first place (e.g. in their gardens).

Are we really becoming as short-sighted as that?

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On a more positive note, within my lifetime practices such as birds’ egg collecting have almost died out entirely (I collected eggs as a wee boy); many anglers now return some of the fish they catch, because they understand how that can help to sustain populations (I used to kill all the fish I caught!); dog walkers regularly pick up from footpaths, much more so than many years ago.

Some things have changed for the better partly as a result of outdoor education and environment awareness-raising activities by people like countryside rangers.

The current generation of children is said to be spending less time in the outdoors learning about nature than in previous generations. So the level of understanding of natural history and of wildlife ecology is in decline. It is more important than ever to give them the opportunity to learn to enjoy and understand their natural environment, and to encourage them to take an active interest in helping to look after it.

Good environmental education requires training, experience and skill. When people, especially young people, are given opportunities to learn to value the countryside and understand problems, behaviours can change bringing benefits, including health benefits, to all. And money can be saved!

The job of helping people to recognise threats from invasive species and of other ways of helping to protect wildlife, and safeguard and interpret our countryside and the natural environment for the next generation (and much else) is one that our dedicated team of Countryside Rangers is committed to.

I don’t think we can afford to lose them.

If the Highland Council can’t find the money to support the Countryside Ranger Service from its existing budget, then The Scottish Government needs to identify funds from elsewhere to be invested in an outdoor education programme and a Countryside Ranger Service as a matter of priority, thereby preventing the need for even greater otherwise unnecessary expenditure in future years. 

Related links:

Nature Deficit Disorder is Damaging Britain’s Children

see also

Parrott, J & Neil MacKenize 2013 A critical review of work undertaken to control invasive rhododendron in Scotland [. . . compare £ figures for the costs of eradication with those of running the HC Countryside Ranger Service].