Countryside management

Neil Clark

On 15th of April, 1970 Archie Mathieson was appointed East Lothian’s first and Scotland’s second countryside ranger. At that time the County Council managed a quarter of the coastline, boasted the first Local Nature Reserve in the United Kingdom and large coastal restoration and derelict land rehabilitation programmes were underway. ‘A more mature practical countryman was needed to look after the countryside and help people enjoy it.’ (Tindall, FP 1998 p230)

The County Ranger was allocated a uniform consisting of breeches, a tweed Norfolk jacket and a deerstalker’s waterproof hat. A Land Rover was provided and he was equipped with joiner’s tools, scythe, hedge knife, bushman saw, and grappling iron. With a salary of £1272 per annum he was responsible for three part-time wardens (at Aberlady Bay, Whitesands and Pencraig) and three car park attendants working on the Longniddry Bents. In 1971 the attendants from Gullane Bents and Yellowcraig joined this embryonic Countryside Ranger Service. The main task of a countryside ranger ‘is to patrol the land to which the public have access, to see that they are not breaking the byelaws but more positively to interest them in their surroundings’ (ELC, 1970 p2).

By 2000, the East Lothian Countryside Ranger Service consisted of two senior, four full-time and three seasonal, countryside rangers, the Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve warden and four car park attendants. Each countryside ranger had a clothing budget to fund a corporate dress style that inevitably meant fleece and breathable fabrics. A van still carried those essential tools but the mechanised strimmer had replaced the scythe. The salary had increased over ten-fold and the tools of the trade included a mobile telephone and computer.

Ravensheugh beach

Between 1941 and 1946 most of East Lothian’s sheltered sandy beaches were requisitioned by the War Department who fortified them with large anti tank blocks. Gullane Bents was also used as a heavy vehicle recovery practice ground for the Normandy landings. This wartime use broke the fragile grassland, causing severe erosion and creating a desert of shifting sands. Initial restoration work started in 1955 but a more significant programme of sand trapping, grass planting and controlling access followed after a report produced by David Skinner, a landscape architect. Forty-five years later the desert had become green, the rampant sea buckthorn, planted to trap sand, needed controlling; and the only bare sand blew in from the eroding foredune. The mile of golden sand remained virtually untouched and ‘Edinburgh’s beach’ attracted an average of 300,000 visits per year.

Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve was established in 1952 under the National Parks and Countryside Act, 1948. At the time, there was strong support from landowners, national agencies and the local authority to protect the Bay’s flora and fauna but there was a concern that the designation would impinge on Regina Major,a public right to use the foreshore. Wildfowlers were particularly concerned and, following High Court action, a permit system was introduced to control wildfowling. Carpets of purple marsh orchids, skulking roe deer, singing skylarks and roosting waders epitomised this wild area, but the autumn skeins of up to 20,000 pink-footed geese flighting into the Bay at dusk were the greatest spectacle.

In 1967, the first management plan for the Reserve defined the main object of management as ‘to conserve the fauna, flora and habitats of the Reserve in order to provide an area of high educational value’ (ELC, 1967 p20). In 1974 the first full time warden was appointed, the list of birds seen on the Reserve stood at 170 and 12,000 people visited the Reserve. Even with an active non-publicity policy 45,000 visits per year were the norm by 2000, the bird list stood at 248 and a summer seasonal warden was also employed. The aim had evolved: ‘to conserve the geomorphological and physiographical features, the habitats, the flora, fauna found within the Reserve, and the resultant landscape character’ (ELC, 1997-2001 p2)

In 1970, Archie patrolled twelve miles of coastline and two inland sites: Longniddry Bents, Aberlady Bay, Gullane, Yellowcraig, Whitesands/Barn Ness, Thorntonloch, Pencraig and Woodhall. In 1974, Tyninghame Area Access Agreements were signed and a further six miles of coastline came under the control of the local authority. These agreements formed the foundations for the designation of John Muir Country Park in 1976, named after the farmer, explorer, naturalist, writer and conservationist who was born in Dunbar. A Country Park ‘is a park or pleasure ground in the countryside which by reason of its position in relation to major concentrations of population affords convenient opportunities to the public for enjoyment of the countryside or open-air recreation’ (Countryside (Scotland) Act, 1967). The aim of John Muir Country Park was to manage public recreation and conserve the geomorphology, geology and landscape, and to sustain the biodiversity of the area. To achieve the delicate balance between recreation provision and nature conservation, the Country Park’s sensitive areas were not promoted. In more robust areas, horse riding, sand yachting or orienteering all took place; by the end of the period, over 370,000 visits were regularly made to the Country Park each year.

By 2000, the Countryside Ranger Service operated over 29 miles of coastline including notable sites such as Levenhall Links, claimed from the sea by the deposition of waste fly ash from Cockenzie power station. The whole of the coastline, apart from approximately four miles, was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), while the Forth Estuary section had the European Special Protection Area and international Ramsar designations. Inland, the Countryside Ranger Service operated over a host of sites such as Traprain and North Berwick Laws, the Pencaitland and Haddington/Longniddry railway walks, the Hopetoun Monument, and Pencraig and Butterdean woodlands.

The aim of the Service had evolved into ‘promoting an awareness and understanding of the countryside; enhancing the variety of experiences provided by East Lothian’s countryside and coastal sites and ensuring that these sites are managed in a sustainable manner’ (ELC, 2001-2004 Section 2.0). The interpretation, and raising awareness, of East Lothian’s countryside remained the most important aspect of a countryside ranger’s work and, during 2000, a total of 141 groups were led on outings, 15 talks given and 51 countryside events conducted.

The pressures on the countryside had increased greatly over the 30 years since Archie Matheson’s appointment. However, despite a rise in car ownership and leisure time, visits to the easily accessible East Lothian coastline had not risen dramatically, as more people were accommodated in more sites, the main holiday was often taken abroad and ‘local’ visits were spread throughout the year and week.

Other things had also changed. The days of the Countryside Ranger ‘doing some work task in the morning, resting in the afternoon and going out in the mid afternoon and again in the evening’ (ELC, 1970 p3) were gone, replaced with three-year strategies, annual programmes, performance indicators and work targets. By 2000, countryside management had become more professional, in keeping with expectations of visitors and a greater understanding and higher profile of the environment.

Further reading & references

  • Countryside (Scotland) Act, 1967
  • East Lothian Council (June-August 1967) Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve: Description and Management Plan
  • East Lothian Council (1970) County Ranger Service Report
  • East Lothian Council (1997-2001) Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve: Management Plan
  • East Lothian Council (2001-2004) East Lothian Countryside Ranger Service Management Strategy
  • Tindall, FP (1998) Memoirs & Confessions of a County Planning Officer, The Pantile Press, Midlothian