Land reform: much remains to be done

Mountain hare

MOUNTAIN HARE: they’re being ‘culled’ by the lorry-load this season, to make way for grouse

by Roz Paterson 

• “I have described the Grampians as a great faunal region—and so, according to our twentieth-century standards, it is. I ought rather to have described them as a great faunal tragedy.”

So writes naturalist Richard Perry, in the late 1940s, in his book In The High Cairngorms, in which he considers the carnage caused to wildlife in the name of ‘sport’.

“Just look at these figures! In the three years between Whitsunday 1837 and Whitsunday 1840, the lessee of a single estate south of the Forests of Gaick and Glen Feshie caused his keepers to destroy, among other vermin, and solely in the interests of grouse preservation, the following: 246 Martens; 198 Wild Cats; 106 Polecats; 67 Badgers; 48 Otters; 475 Ravens; 462 Kestrels…”

A sickening roll-call, and the very creatures whose populations we are now striving to revive, to recover even a toe-hold in Scotland.

The very creatures we consider ourselves blessed to see one of, in a lifetime. Brought to the brink of extinction by a grossly ill-conceived ‘affection’ for Scotland amongst the upper classes, who came here, not to gaze at the slow, majestic gyre of a golden eagle, or watch the secretive wildcat slip through a forest, or hear the haunting ribbon-thread hoot of a long-eared owl on a still night…but to blast grouse to bits on wilderness given over to soil-souring heather, wiped clean of the wildlife that gives this land its magic, informs its folk history, laces its song. And wiped clean of its people, shoved off the land to make way for profiteering.

If you dispute that Scotland is an exploited nation, take a look at who ‘owns’ the land. We have the smallest concentration of land ownership in the Western world, which is why so few of us ever get near it, why we have such a paucity of wild creatures when we once had so many, why we have such a weird, alienated relationship with land and food, and why the Land Reform bill is such a landmark in Scottish legislation.

Sure, it was a weak wee thing to begin with and has since been buckled out of shape under pressure from landowners, so that it came out the wash more like Obama’s Medicare bill than the Declaration of Independence, but it is nonetheless a significant milestone in the people’s journey back to the land.

At last, there is to be a land register; allowing us to know who actually holds the titles to our great wildernesses. Who are these figures, who control so much land, and therefore, the people who live on it, and what they do on it.


Land Reform Bill – key points:
• The establishment of a Land Register, by which all of Scotland’s land will be officially registered within ten years
• Removal of business exemption on sporting estates
• Introduction of a right to buy land to “further sustainable development”
• Engagement of communities in issues relating to the use of land
• New rules relating to deer management, the use of common good land, and access to paths and rights of way
• Changes to agricultural holdings legislation

As Professor Bryan MacGregor commented in the first McEwan Memorial Lecture, “The impact of the land tenure system goes far beyond land use…(they) play a crucial role in local development: they are the rural planners.”

The crofting laws ensure that the small parcels of land designated for crofters are properly used and maintained; the legislation is quite stringent. Yet there are no laws prohibiting a big landowner from stymieing local development and throwing a spanner in the works of a community’s development. Or keeping their tenants in a state of obeisance. Until now.

Tenant farmers, for instance, will now be able to demand recompense for improvements they have made to their holdings when they retire. Think about that for a minute. Previously, a tenant farmer could spend a lifetime’s earnings upgrading the land he worked…and get nothing for it when he returned it to his landlord, not even enough to constitute a pension.

Couple that with the big supermarkets’ infamous policies of paying below the cost of production, and you have a haemorrhage of small-scale farmers from the land, destroying any semblance of a rural culture and replacing it with a corporatised mess of agribusiness and ‘sporting’ estates, with a few wind farms and golf courses chucked in.

Tenant farmers can now also pass their tenancies on, in the event of not having a natural successor, which allows them an out, and someone new, an in. This is a point on which landowners and their representatives are really quite outraged. For instance, Scottish Land and Estates chairman David Johnstone is concerned that the ‘radicalism’ of the Land Reform bill ignores the contribution made by landowners to the countryside. Oh yes, that.

Furthermore, says Mr Johnstone, allowing tenant farmers to pass on their tenancies could mean that landowners would struggle to regain control of their oversized assets. He added, darkly, that landowners might, in future, only let land on a ‘short-term basis’…which rather neatly illustrates the abuses to which our current, quasi-feudal land system is wide open. Not so much stewards of the land, but hoarders, perhaps?

While we may have got our boot stuck in the door on this issue, the Land Reform bill can only be construed as a beginning. We need to see these huge estates broken up, the land used for “people and nature”, as land campaigner Andy Wightman says, for communities, food security, forests, animals, revival.

It is surely also time to usher out the grouse estate, that abomination that sees wild creatures slaughtered indiscriminately, and unsupervised, to boost a population of game bird that is then to be blasted to bits for fun. The land itself denuded of trees, shrubs and other cover, to make the birds easier to flush out and shoot. If that is aristocratic sophistication, you can shove it up the proverbial.

The Land Reform bill is hardly the revolutionary Marxist agenda that the landowners’ lobby would have us believe, and as such, is a grievous disappointment, and one which could see tenant farmers even worse off in the short-term, thanks to those threatened short leases. But it is a start, and a toothier one than it might have been, thanks to the SNP’s phalanx of new intake, radicalised by the referendum and ready to take on those who would keep politics in the hands of the professionals.

Because it was the rank-and-file who challenged the leadership at conference..and won. Albeit on a small scale, to deliver a very modest package of light reforms. It is important that those of us on the outside of the SNP keep up the pressure, because as demonstrated by the introduction of free school meals and the abolition of prescription charges—policies first tabled by SSP MSPs at Holyrood—concerted, well-researched, intelligent and heartfelt campaigning makes a huge impact in the long term.

Or, to consider these statistics from another angle, there were destroyed in each of the three years more than 1,000 individuals of a fauna of which to-day I do not see as many as 50 individuals during a twelvemonth.

The wrongs that Perry witnessed, and was helpless to right, are not over yet. Mountain hares are being ‘culled’ by the lorry-load this season, to make way for grouse, yet again. In response, wildlife blogger Mark Avery has launched a petition calling for a ban on driven shooting of grouse in England, which has already garnered over 22,000 signatures, well over the 10,000 threshold which forces a government response.

Naturalists and conservationists are quite clear on this; sporting estates damage everything, from the ecosystem to the local economy, and are indefensible. Meanwhile, small farmers continue to be driven from the land in a steady torrent, leaving the field open to the modern-day land-grabbers.

But Scotland is waking up to the fact that, just because you hold the title deeds, doesn’t mean you’re entitled. And that, after centuries of kowtowing to the local landlord, whatever his name is, is a nice wee bit of progress.

• See whoownsscotland.org.uk


Caring for the countryside?

Extract from Richard Perry’s ‘In the High Cairngorms’

Just look at these figures! In the three years between Whitsunday 1837 and Whitsunday 1840, the lessee of a single estate south of the Forests of Gaick and Glen Feshie caused his keepers to destroy, among other vermin, and solely in the interests of grouse preservation, the following: 246 Martens; 198 Wild Cats; 106 Polecats; 67 Badgers; 48 Otters; 475 Ravens; 462 Kestrels; 371 Rough-legged Buzzards; 285 Common Buzzards; 275 Kites; 98 Peregrine Falcons; 92 Hen-Harriers; 78 Merlins; 71 Short-eared Owls; 63 Goshawks; 35 Long-eared Owls; 27 Sea Eagles; 18 Ospreys; 15 Golden Eagles; 11 Hobbys; 6 Gyrfalcons; 5 Marsh Harriers; 3 Honey Buzzards.

My first reaction to this dreadful black-list was that of amazed incredulity. I still find the details incredible. However, they were supplied by the lessee himself and must be considered correct or approximately so. But in this year of 1946 there are on the 100,000 acres of my beat only 2 pairs of golden eagles, 1 of buzzards, 3 of peregrines, 3 of ravens, not more than 6 of kestrels, and possibly 1 of merlins.

Yet in those three black years, there were destroyed on this single estate 1,484 individuals of these six species. Rough-legged buzzard, sea eagle, kite, goshawk, osprey, hobby, gyrfalcon, marsh harrier, honey buzzard and, I believe, short-eared and long-eared owls are totally extinct or immigrate no longer, (I have seen one male hen-harrier on autumn passage), as are also marten and pole- cat. Of these fourteen extinct species 1,810 individuals were destroyed in this same period.

Or, to consider these statistics from another angle, there were destroyed in each of the three years more than 1,000 individuals of a fauna of which to-day I do not see as many as 50 individuals during a twelvemonth.

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