A rural economy dependent on tweedy gentlemen coming from the south to slaughter our wildlife

Photo: The author working as a stalker’s ghille or pony-man on a large landed estate in eastern Scotland with my Highland garron, Brandy.

Recently I found myself in the garden of a mansion house of a large Scottish landed estate drinking a cup of tea. I was there quite legally having entered through the front gate so to speak. It is fair to say, however, that most of the people there did not know who I was. One lady (who I recognised) caught my eye and smiled as if to begin a conversation. I moved sideways swiftly. Anyhow, I enjoyed 30 minutes or so of eaves-dropping conversations between members of the landed class.

Johnny, how lovely to see you. How is Sarah keeping?

Enjoying this fine weather – how long are you up for?

Til the stalking I think. You know I was saying to Angus this morning it’s difficult to know who’s around and who’s not. My daughter says we should get onto Facebook but I don’t like that sort of thing. Who else is around?”

Well the [names withheld] arrived last week and she said the whole family were going to manage sometime over the summer.”

It is fair to say that these assembled members of the landed class comprise the absentee owners of hunting estates who arrive like swallows for the summer and depart after the end of the red deer stalking season ends on 21 October. Indeed it is the principal reason I understand why the UK Parliament traditionally opens at the beginning of November as the Monarch would be occupied at Balmoral until well into October as would many Members of Parliament. One of the highlights of the “season” is the Northern Meeting Summer Ball in August (“Coloured bow ties, coloured shirts and smoking jackets should not be worn” by men and “tartan sashes and tiaras are encouraged” for the ladies).

Anyhow, as I shuffled round the garden, I noticed a copy of the Scottish Field magazine which reminded me that back in January, I had been asked by its editor to write an article on aspects of what I had just been hearing about.

Specifically, he noted that land reform is going to be on the agenda in 2013  and “do you fancy writing me a Viewpoint column arguing that we don’t need private estates to protect the economic value of game sports? There is a school of thought that private ownership actually limits the economic potential of huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’. If you could explore that, particularly with reference to Scandinavia and Sweden in particular, that would  be great.”

I readily agreed. I am a writer. I need to earn a living.

Two weeks after I submitted the article, I hadn’t heard anything and so I emailed him asking if he had got the piece. He replied that he had but that “it’s going to need a fair bit of work before it’s ready for publication in a magazine where a lot of readers will know a great deal about this subject.” He then promised to come back to me with “some detailed thoughts on how I think we should proceed with a view to publishing in the next issue.”

Nothing arrived. I forgot about it until I was chasing up invoices at the end of March. I asked if he was still interested in the piece or not. No reply. At the end of May we finally made contact. It was clear that he was not happy with the piece and felt that it didn’t meet the brief I had been given. To avoid any further pain, I suggested that, since I had spent some time writing it, I was not inclined to re-write it and that perhaps we should just forget about it. That was agreed. I feel that the piece is worth publishing though so here it is as a blog post.

As a result of my indiscretions I shall probably not be asked to write again for the Scottish Field. Which is probably just as well since, had my article been published, rather more of those who I was mingling with in the garden over a cup of tea might well have recognised me. I don’t think they read my blog.


Shortly after New Year, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) welcomed the fact that newly qualified gamekeepers from Scotland’s colleges had all found jobs on sporting estates. Given the level of youth unemployment more generally, this is certainly welcome news and what was particularly notable about the TV and radio reports was the enthusiasm of the young gamekeepers who clearly saw their chosen profession as challenging and worthwhile.

These young gamekeepers can no doubt look forward to a rewarding life in Scotland’s great outdoors. But the job is not well paid (often little more than the minimum wage) and many gamekeepers do not even have written contracts of employment (as many as a third according to a recent survey – 1.2Mb pdf). Keepers will often live in tied accommodation on sporting estates and the opportunities for career development are very limited.

Such matters were not covered in the media reports which also, rather misleadingly, conflated the economic contribution of field sports in Scotland (around £240 million per year) with the economic contribution of sporting estates (the framework within which much of the hunting economy is currently delivered). The two are very different. Scotland no doubt has a vibrant hunting economy with people coming from all over the UK and abroad to enjoy activities such as angling and deer-stalking. But it is by no means obvious that sporting estates are the best means of exploiting the full potential of what Scotland has to offer. Indeed, such estates may well be part of the problem.

Prior to 1811, there were only around six hunting estates in Scotland but by the end of the century there were around 150 covering over one million hectares of land. Today there are around 340 extending over 2.1 million hectares of the Highlands and Islands. Two-thirds of them are owned by absentee owners and 70% have been owned by the current owners or their family for less than 50 years. Most owners are primarily concerned with the private enjoyment of hunting for their family and friends. (1)

Land use priorities are changing, however, and a report by the SGA last year highlighted how, from their point of view the traditional model of red deer stalking in Sutherland is under threat from “overambitious and ill thought through forestry and conservation projects” with the “notorious crimes” at Glenfeshie and Mar Lodge being singled out as “carnages” which will go down in history as “animal welfare atrocities”.

Other changes are taking place. New owners are appearing on the scene with Scandinavians in particular bringing a very different approach to the management of the traditional Victorian sporting estate. Across much of Europe there are no sporting estates. In Norway, a country five times the size of Scotland and where hunting is a national passion, there are a mere 23 private estates larger than 10,000ha. In Scotland there are 144. Much hunting takes place on common land owned by the state or local kommune.

Norway’s equivalent of the gamekeeper – a jaktguide – is actually very rare. Hunters simply obtain a hunting permit and off they go. Hunting guides in Scandinavia are generally self-employed. Instead of living in tied housing, they will own their own farm and will have skills in other outdoor pursuits. In Scandinavian countries hunting is seen as a recreational activity equivalent to other outdoor pursuits such as hiking and skiing. In Scotland, walkers and climbers are considered very different from hunters with interests that are often in conflict.

At a time when field sports are coming under sustained attack from various directions, it is time to think afresh about how the hunting economy could be developed to bring greater economic and social benefits to rural Scotland. Some evidence submitted to the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group suggests that it time to introduce a system of hunting permits so that red deer in particular (which are a public resource) can be managed in a more integrated way with other land uses including outdoor recreation.

New thinking should include better prospects for young people who wish to follow a career as hunting guides and whose opportunities are constrained by the limited and poorly paid jobs available on sporting estates. If the provision of hunting can be made more democratic with greater levels of participation and integration with other land uses then Scotland’s hunting economy might begin to grow and to provide greater opportunities for the many individuals and businesses who complain of how it is currently managed.

Hunting, fishing and shooting have a bright future. The way forward for the hunting economy lies in taking a critical look at how it is delivered. Scotland’s sporting estates have their origins in a very different era to serve very different priorities. In the 21st century, however, they are no longer fit for purpose and are now increasingly an obstacle to a vibrant rural economy.

Doing things differently, will involve local control of hunting, community ownership of land, integrated management of forestry, conservation and recreation, opportunities for self-employed hunting guide businesses and a proper system of permits and licensing to manage wild game according to democratically agreed management plans.

Almost two decades ago in 1995, the highland historian James Hunter, responding to the claim that landowners felt threatened with talk of land reform, opined on the BBC programme Eorpa that,

The more they feel threatened in my view the better. They need to feel threatened and they should feel threatened because there can be no future in Britain in the 21st century for a rural economy dependent on tweedy gentlemen coming from the south to slaughter our wildlife. That is not the way to run the Highlands and Islands.” (2)

I wish Scotland’s newly employed gamekeepers the best of luck in their chosen profession. But I urge them to join me and others in discussing how we can liberate them from poorly-paid employment in the service of Scotland’s privately-owned sporting estates.


(1) See Hunting and hegemony in the Highlands of Scotland: a study in the ideology of landscapes and landownership, Norwegian University of Agriculture, 2004.

(2) This quote from Hunter was not in the submitted article to Scottish Field. I felt it might be too inflammatory.