Fife-based journalist, blogger and countryside ranger Ben Dolphin has been named president of Ramblers Scotland, the representative body for Scottish walkers. Michael Alexander spoke to him.
From exploring the beaches and coves of the Cornwall coast on family holidays, to night hikes with the Scouts over the Malvern Hills, the great outdoors has been a part of Ben Dolphin’s life for as long as he can remember.
But the newly appointed president of Ramblers Scotland, who lives in the Lomond Hills, Fife, is fearful that the right of walkers to roam freely – and responsibly – in Scotland may be under threat.
His concerns stem from the recent introduction of new by-laws restricting camping and fire lighting across Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park – which Ben fears could be the “slippery slope” to further controls on access rights across the country.
Camping management zones have been created at key sites covering less than 4% of the Loch Lomond park’s 460,900 acres.
The policy, now in effect from March until September, was tabled by park management in response to anti-social behaviour and concerns about rubbish abandoned on the loch shores.
People can still camp in these zones but must buy a permit or stay in a campsite.
But Ben believes the measures are “heavy handed” and could open the door to further restrictions.
He said: “It potentially criminalises a well behaved majority who value the loch shores. Concerns could become more prevalent. It is a worry. There are so many loch sides.
“I think it is a slippery slope. Ramblers Scotland will be pushing when it’s up for review in 2020. At the moment we are asking people to report back on their experience of how the by-law is working.”
Ben, 41, whose day job is as a West Lothian Council ranger, was elected president of Ramblers Scotland – the representative body for Scottish walkers – in March.
Well known in the Scottish outdoor scene for writing for the Walkhighlands website and Outdoor Enthusiast magazine, as well as for his blogs, photos and videos on his own Benvironment website, he follows in the footsteps of the late conservationist Dick Balharry, award-winning broadcaster Cameron McNeish and most recently Dr Andrew Murray, who was the Scottish Government’s first Physical Activity Champion.
Ramblers Scotland has around 6,500 members and 55 local groups across the country, run entirely by volunteers.
Ben is planning to use his presidency to encourage even more people to explore Scotland on foot.
But while walkers need to know their rights, he emphasises that countryside users also have to respect the environment and the rights of landowners too.
“A lot of people have heard about the right to roam,” he added, “but they don’t really know that a landowner can’t put up an unwelcoming sign saying things like ‘No dogs’ or ‘No cycling’.
“The public has rights. But they also have to realise that people are living off the land. For example, there’s lambing on the go at the moment, so if someone lets their dog run off then people have to realise that a line has been crossed and they have breached their rights.
“This is what my whole day job is about. As a ranger I am supposed to uphold the rights of landowners and the public. With the ramblers, it’s about making sure people are well versed in knowing what those rights are, and being bold enough to uphold them.”
Ben, who grew up in the English Midlands and “sidestepped from one job to another”, initially moved to Edinburgh to be “nearer the hills”.
The Portsmouth University cultural studies graduate, who spent a couple of years temping in Canada and New Zealand, volunteered with various organisations including the Pentland Hills Voluntary Ranger Service, Falkland Centre for Stewardship and the Fife Red Squirrel Group.
He set up his hill walking blog in 2011.
And while he has never been a member of Ramblers Scotland, he said it was a “huge honour” to be appointed president.
He said: “In my personal and working lives I’ve seen first-hand how time spent around nature has enormous physical and mental benefits, whether it’s the blanket bogs of Sutherland or an urban park in West Lothian.
“Much of my time is therefore spent encouraging folk to get out and about.
“As president of Ramblers Scotland, I hope to be able to do just that by showing people the amazing wildlife and landscapes we have right here at home, not just up in the Highlands but right outside our front doors.
“’ll also continue to speak up for our wild places and progressive access rights, which should never be taken for granted.”
Ramblers Scotland convener Alison Mitchell said: “It’s wonderful to have Ben Dolphin on board as our president.
“His passion for walking, landscape and outdoor access, together with his respected position within the Scottish outdoors scene, will help us deliver the wide range of exciting campaigns and projects we have planned in the coming year.”