Minutes of the Caithness Local Access Forum held in the Band Rooms, Thurso Town Hall, Thurso on Monday, 22nd August, 2005.




Mr Ken Butler (Chairman)
Mr Peter Blackwood
Mr David Hall
Mrs Helena Koponen-Baikie
Mr Chris Hobson
Ms Gail Baker Councillor Graeme Smith
Councillor John Green
Mr Terry Keating
Mr Steven Fraser
Mr Willie Beattie
Mr George C Walker


In Attendance:


Mr Geoff Robson, Head of Environment, The Highland Council
Mrs Fiona Sinclair, Area Solicitor/Administrator, The Highland Council (Clerk)
Mr David Barclay, Access Officer, The Highland Council
Mrs Cath Whittles, Caithness Riders Action Group


1. Apologies for Absence


Apologies for absence were intimated on behalf of Mr William Bruce, Mr Robert Coghill and Mr Adam Streeter-Smith of the Paths For All Partnership


2. Chairman’s Remarks


The Chairman explained that he had nothing to report since the last Meeting.


3. Minutes of Previous Meeting and Actions Arising


The Minutes of the Meeting  held on 13 June 2005 were held as read and were approved.   It was agreed that the proposed remit of the Group be circulated among the Members again and that the Forum Members submit suggestions for the Forum’s Stakeholders to the Officials. 


4. Presentation on Equestrian Issues


The Chairman introduced Mrs Cath Whittles from Latheronwheel who had attended the Meeting to explain the work of Caithness Riders Action Group.


Mrs Whittles explained that CRAG had been set up with the aim of providing and approving off road routes for riders in Caithness, both local routes for riders without transport for their horses, and longer routes for people who could provide horse transport.  The Group is affiliated to the British Horse Society and is taking over the access role of the BHS in Caithness.  It is a Voluntary Group with about 50 Members and a core Committee of 12.  She said that the horse and rider population of Caithness is increasing and that the group wish to improve conditions for themselves and for young riders in the County. 


Mrs Whittles explained that Caithness has a lot of untapped potential for trial riding, endurance riding and trekking.  Riding has physical and mental health benefits. 


The Group has good links with the Highland Council, the Forestry Commission and large and small landowners, the access legislation having raised the profile of access for horse riding.  The Group aims to foster goodwill and only to go into areas where horses and riders are welcome in spite of any access rights that they may have.  The group has its own code of conduct and also follows a code of conduct promoted by the British Horse Society. 


The Group began by looking at maps and trying to identify areas where horses and riders would be welcome, and also try to think about the requirements of any new routes such as the surface of the route, parking provision, the provision of horse-friendly gates and way marking where appropriate. 


So far the Group has been a successful pressure group and has had a good response.  In particular, parking on the Camster to Rumster route, new paths have been made in Rumster Forest, a twenty mile route has been provided at Loch More and Highland Council has negotiated with private landowners on behalf of the Group.  Generally the Group has been keen to insure the installation of gates, ground improvements and is keen to find more routes locally.  Nothing is too small for the group to consider.  Mrs Whittles said that CRAG welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with groups such as the Local Access Forum and it is keen not to cause damage or harm to any routes on which its members travel.


The Group has a website and produces map packs and ride reports.  The Group has raised money for the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.


In response to questions from Forum Members, Mrs Whittles explained that the CRAG Members had a very responsible attitude to riding in the countryside and that although the organisation could not enforce its rules it could encourage all riders to abide by the code of conduct.  Mrs Whittles said that CRAG were looking for more circular routes to add to its list and there was discussion about the suitability for horses of routes used by walkers.


The Chairman thanked Mrs Whittles for her attendance at the Meeting.


5. Access Officer’s Report


Shooting in progress signs.  Mr Barclay said that he had been tasked with investigating the use of these signs at a previous Meeting.  Since then he had spoken to the Forest Manager and had been assured that the signs were only erected temporarily to cover the actual period in which stalking was in progress, typically in the early morning or in the evening.  Mr Barclay said that the use and wording on the signs must be balanced and the signs should be informative rather than prohibitive with best practice detailing alternative access routes. The signs could be considered legitimate if appropriately worded to cover this essential land management.  Discussion then followed about conflicts between different users of land, for example walkers, deer stalking or riders being thrown from horses as the result of gun shots.  It was suggested that it may be possible to resolve the issue by having signs which invited access users to telephone a certain number to make enquiries.


Yarrows Archaeological Trail.  Mr Barclay explained that cattle now graze the area in which the Archaeological Trail is located and that concern had been expressed about the interaction of access users, especially those accompanied by dogs, and the cattle. Existing signs had stated all dogs on leads which may have led to problems if cattle had charged the dogs. These signs were being altered to indicate that dogs should be under close control rather than on a lead. A further complication was that the Trail design does not allow for an identifiable alternative route being used to avoid the cattle.  Mr Barclay stressed that the Council is not in a position to dictate the types of livestock which can be kept in the area of the Trail and said that the land manager would have to accept responsibility for injury or damage caused by the livestock in such instances. There was inconclusive discussion on conflicts of interest between managing cattle on the land and managing people. 


Mid Clyth Access Complaint.  Mr Barclay referred to a dispute between neighbours in Mid Clyth in terms of which it had been suggested that access rights were being used irresponsibly in furtherance of a neighbour dispute and explained that he is waiting for advice from Northern Constabulary on the matter. 


Access Exemptions.  Mr Barclay said that the County Showground in Wick is a good example of a place where an exemption order could be useful although exemption orders can be costly for the organisation concerned.  Organisers of events should be made aware of the issue and consider the advantages and disadvantages of making application for an access exemption. In cases where there is a health and safety issue e.g. car rally in a forest, this could be of greater significance than in cases where the financial cost of the exemption outweighs the likely fall in gate takings by those specifying access rights as a means to gain entry to an event e.g. The County Show. The procedure for applying for exemption orders was circulated to the Members of the Forum.  The Forum agreed that it was important to educate people about exemption orders. 


Langwell Press Notice.  Mr Barclay explained that the press notice which appears in the newspaper each year regarding access to the Langwell Estate during the Estate’s deerstalking season contravenes the spirit of the access legislation and the Access Code as the notice is too prescriptive.  It was agreed that Mr Barclay would approach the Estate and suggest alternative wording for the advertisement and that the Estate also be encouraged to erect signs on the ground.  It was suggested that the Deer Management Group may also have some input into suitable signage and that they would be a suitable Stakeholder for the Local Access Forum.


6. Disposal of Actions Arising


Remit - The Forum agreed to the remit of the Forum and invited any final comments to be submitted at the next Meeting.


Launching the Forum – David Barclay said that he had discussed this with Steven Fraser and that they had considered the Rumster Forest mast as a suitable spot for a photo call.   Geoff Robson agreed to choose a date for the launch in consultation with the Council’s Public Relations Office.


Identifying Stakeholders – Mr Robson stressed the importance of identifying the people and groups which the Forum should consult on topical interests.


PR Strategy Development – Mr Robson advised that he is working on this and is currently seeking ways to find out the aspirations of visitors to the area.


Code of Conduct – it was agreed that this would be considered at a future meeting of the Forum.


7. Future Programme


Suggestions included a talk from a land manager, a talk from a deer management person and a visit to Yarrows Archaeological Trail.


8. Date and Place of Next Meeting


It was agreed that the next meeting would be held on 31st October 2005 in Thurso Town Hall at 7 p.m.