Published 25th June 2020, 10:08

    WHEN you describe yourself as a treehugger with attitude, it is perhaps inevitable you end up indulging that passion for the outdoors in a more formal role.

    It's just over a year since Ron Neville joined the board of Mountaineering Scotland as Director (Access and Conservation), a position that comes with high expectations and responsibilities at a time of critical environmental challenges.

    If timing is everything, there's no doubt the clock is ticking ever closer to midnight. I sat down with Ron to discuss his hopes and aspirations just before the coronavirus outbreak threw an extra curveball into an already complex mix.

    The first thing to stress is that his is a voluntary position, a real labour of love. He works closely with a full-time access and conservation officer, Davie Black. His connection with the outdoors is lifelong. As a youngster he didn't want to be just paddling around in Loch Lomond looking up at the mountains, he wanted to be up there on the 'jaggy bits'. 

    That attitude endured. He not only continued walking in the hills regularly, but as a general practitioner he prescribed the physical and mental benefits of a healthy outdoors lifestyle to his patients.

    When the opportunity for volunteers on the MScot board arose, that background, plus his legal experience and work with various charities was enough to offset any lack of formal qualifications in access and conservation. This was someone getting the chance to give something back to the mountains, and doing it in spades.

    Ron sees his role as reactive, and he admits he's fortunate to have someone of Davie's experience and knowledge of the land, its ecology and its people. It's all about building relationships and seeing how best he can support the team. He doesn't talk so much of climate change but of a climate emergency. He believes this will disproportionately affect the mountain environment and that those who live in that landscape or just enjoy being out there have to do more than our fair share to combat this.

    A survey of the organisation's 15,000 members demanded that these words be backed by urgent action, and to this end MScot have set up CRAG (Climate Response Action Group). There's no simple solution, no magic bullet; we need a combination of responses. For instance, there's a need to understand the intricate processes of hydrology, carbon capture as well as learning the psychology of human behaviour, to ensure things get done.

    Ron is optimistic that big changes are our relationships with nature are coming, and the key to that is constantly nudging the middle where the majority are rather than fighting the two extremes. After all, he says, it worked with alcohol pricing and the smoking ban.

    “We shouldn't get on our high horse about all having electric cars. Look at the middle and nudge it along and transition will happen. Most people can't go carbon neutral, but we should find the ones who can and move forward that way. The infrastructure needs to be there first, more charging points, better public transport, and a lower carbon profile. That would eventually mean fewer individual car journeys, so a change of attitude and a smarter way of working is necessary. For instance, spending a working day travelling by train to reach the mountains.”

    We talked about climbing clubs working together to combine group outings, the possibility of minibus shuttle services starting up in the bigger or more remote glens to provide a sensible alternative to private cars, better public transport options and more rail links, and the opportunity for an increased network of hostels.

    Rewilding is another issue that requires a smarter approach, more joined-up thinking. For many, the term conjures up headlines about apex predators such as wolves, but the reality is that it is much more about trees and plants, birds and insects. 

    Ron said: “It's about diversity and restoring and allowing nature to do what it does best – capture and store carbon. It's about keystone species. Wolves proved to be the keystone species in Yellowstone, but for many reasons, they are more a romantic notion here. In Scotland, it is more likely to be the beaver. In some Highland areas it could even be cattle because they churn the soil. There are also growing calls to bring back lynx but the arguments are academic if we don't drastically reduce the deer population to encourage tree regeneration. That's why Glen Feshie is one of the big success stories. Deer numbers were brought down from 50 per square kilometre to around three (the target should be under five), and Feshie has really bounced back.

    "Trees are sprouting, running up the hills into Glen Tromie. It shows that if you bring back nature to one area, it quickly spreads to others; for instance, links to Insch marshes, Abernethy, Rothiemurchus. Joining areas of functioning ecosystems means species that should flourish are given the opportunity. One example is how the growth in numbers in pine martens have helped the red squirrel population recover ground from the greys.

    “Such a scenario would also suggest a glimmer of hope for the Scottish wildcat, which is thought to down to less than 30 breeding pairs. There is a captive programme going on at the Highland Wildlife Park, but a lot will depend on having an ecosystem where there is a big enough range for the reintroduction of a purer genetic stock.”

    Mountaineering Scotland is seen as the representative voice for mountaineers, climbers and walkers, but the organisation believes walkers need to be careful about interpreting superiority over other hill users, such as bikers, kayakers, skiers. The hills are big enough for us all, and MScot is happy to encourage responsible groups that understand the rules of the right to roam.

    The increasing use of e-bikes, however, does throw up some questions. There's the prospect of more people with a more modest level of fitness finding themselves in areas of the high Cairngorms they might not have previously been able to access. An accident or a battery failure, along with a lack of map and compass skills, could have serious repercussions. There is also the possibility of increased path erosion. Footprints may collect a little water but it doesn't run between each separate tread, unlike the traction of e-bikes which creates a linear groove that allows water to run down a channel. 

    Providing access for all sections of society is another issue to ponder and the suggestion that there should be more tarmac paths in national parks to accommodate families with pushchairs and those with disabilities has proved controversial. There's a fine line to tread over broadening access to the outdoors but Ron believes it can – and should – be done.

    “I cannot believe that someone who loves the hills would deny families and the disabled the chance to also enjoy our great outdoors and look up at the mountains. If we are smart we can create low-level core path networks without the need to trash the place with guided walkway signs and markers like in other countries. There has been some fantastic recent path restoration work in the Cairngorms and the Trossachs. Ben Lomond is amazing. You don't see erosion on either side of the path like you do on the Pennine Way. There's no doubt we could make it work.” 

    Regular meetings with landowners is key to solving problems and although there's obviously disagreement on some issues, talking it out usually keeps the peace. Sometimes the official line differs from the personal, and when it comes to shooting for sport Ron has no problem nailing his colours to the mast.

    “While I don't agree with shooting deer for fun, if estates see that as a more productive income stream than eco-tourism or diversifying farming methods then they have the legal right and its our responsibility not to disrupt that. 

    “Personally, I think stalking doesn't belong in this century and it is going to decline naturally. We are already seeing that tourism in Mull has become more important than shooting wildlife and eco-tourism in the Cairngorms and Trossachs supports more jobs, more diversity, more people, more income streams, more gamekeeping to keep wildlife there.

    “Grouse shooting will go the same way, and muir burn is just madness. In this day and age, we cannot set fire to hillsides and claim this helps the diversity of species or the economy. It's utter nonsense.”

    The optimism for a rosier future is infectious. Close your eyes and you can picture that wee boy still looking up the 'jaggy bits' and knowing that there is no obstacle that can't be overcome.