Highland ranger service under threat in council budget cuts
Groups have urged the local authority to protect the organisation and safeguard jobs.
Highland Council's countryside ranger service could be axed as a result of budget cuts.
Groups including the John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland have urged the local authority to protect the organisation and safeguard 18 jobs.
The council pointed out the proposal, which emerged in a leaked budget document, has not yet been discussed by councillors.
John Muir Trust land manager Don O'Driscoll said: "We would be very disappointed if these posts were to be axed.
"We work closely with the Highland Council Ranger Service on a range of projects including the delivery of the John Muir Award to schools and other groups.
"They do great work bringing people and nature together, and helping the Highlands thrive as one of the top wildlife destinations in Europe."
He added; "I know some of the rangers in the north west and can testify to their passion and motivation.
"To lose these jobs in fragile and peripheral areas of the Highlands would inflict a serious blow on many local communities."
The National Trust for Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust have also raised concerns over the potential loss of the rangers, who organise events, walks and activities across the Highlands.
Rangers met 8000 primary pupils this year and helped with 373 school projects. They also delivered 280 guided walks and tours during the summer.
Mark Foxwell, from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: "Countryside rangers play a vital role in caring for the natural environment and helping visitors and young people experience wildlife.
"The Trust has worked closely with Highland Council's ranger service for a number of years and they are very effective ambassadors for the wildlife and landscapes of the region.
"While we understand that the council is under severe financial pressure, they should reconsider their plans to cut this important and effective service."
Mountaineering Scotland chief executive David Gibson added: "We recognise that ranger services play a valuable role in nurturing people's connection with the great outdoors and in promoting responsible access.
"It is regrettable - not just for the individuals directly involved - but also that a council should feel it has to make such a decision at a time when the physical and mental health benefits of walking to individuals and communities are being increasingly promoted as a means of offsetting rocketing health care costs."
Up to 200 jobs are under threat at the Highland Council, which faces a £26m budget gap next year. Shutting down the ranger service would save about £860,000 annually, according to the local authority.
Highland Council declined to comment.