Established Titles

There has apparently been quite a fuss among so-called YouTubers (folk who run influential YouTube channels) about an outfit called Established Titles. This video by Scott Shafer has been viewed 2.5 million times in 7 days. He calls out Established Titles as a scam and criticises fellow YouTubers (who he claims are being offered $20,000 per month to promote the project) who have been sponsored by the company. I know nothing about this world of YouTube influencers but it is big, it is profitable, and it is influential.

Some YouTubers (eg Holden Hardman) have been sponsored by Established Titles and have now withdrawn.

Established Titles has responded to the fuss here.

Readers will be familiar with Highland Titles and their dubious practice of “selling” square-foot souvenir plots and claiming that this entitles you to call yourself a Lord or Lady of Glencoe. Readers will also be familiar with my own legal battle with Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC, another outfit operating the same business model and (until recently) actively supported by Highland Titles.

Established Titles adopts the same business model. It was founded two years ago years ago by Katerina Yip, a US citizen who lives in Hong Kong. She describes the project in the “About Us” section as follows:-

Ye Olde Established Titles wast setteth up to preserve woodland in Scotland while eke making a unique gift for those looking for something different. T’was started by Katerina Yip who had fallen in loveth with the breathtaking sights of the Scottish countryside on trips madeth during her timeth studying Law at the University of Durham, and subsequently living in the medieval city of York.

The Established Titles website contains an address in the footer – “Lessendrum, Huntly, AB54 6XR, Scotland, UK”. This is not a registered office address and appears to be a reference to one of the parcels of land owned by the company that runs the project. Established Titles is not an incorporated organsiation.

The Established Titles website landing page invites you to “Save the Scottish Woodlands” and “Become a Lord today”. You are invited to “purchase a personal Lordship or Ladyship Title pack with dedicated land in Scotland”. In a footnote it is explained that “This is a purchase for a personal dedication for a souvenir plot of land. You may choose to title yourself with the titles of Lord, Laird or Lady.”

It goes on to claim that “every lordship of ladyship title pack contributes to the preservation and protection of woodland areas in Scotland.” It does not explain what this preservation or protection involves or how much your purchase contributes to that objective.

The certificate claims that Established Titles agrees to sell a plot of land of one square foot in extent.

Fact

1. The acquisition of a square foot plot does not entitle anyone to become a Lord or a Lady

2. The acquisition of a square foot plot does not confer ownership of the land which remains owned by the existing owner.

The Land

In their response to criticism, Established Titles claims that it “has been able to purchase a total of 6 different slots of land, exceeding over 200 acres in total area.

Established Titles owns no land in Scotland. In so far as they claim to, it is all owned by a company called Galton Voysey Ltd. which is a company registered in Hong Kong (No. 2232931).

In a letter to content creators, Established Titles claims to have acquired “over hundreds of acres of land”(sic). They claim to own six parcels of land across Scotland from Aberdeenshire to Wigtonshire. Five of those parcels (totalling 55.7 acres) are owned by Galton Voysey Ltd. The sixth, at Eddleston in Peebleshire is claimed to be owned by Established Titles/Galton Voysey but in fact is owned by a Sara Flynn, is part of an existing tree planting project approved by Scottish Ministers, and part of which is also registered for carbon credits (Carbon Registry No. ID: 104000000026523).

A 25 acre holding at Edleston is registered in the Land Register under the name of Sara Flynn (PBL6578) and a larger part (121 acres) remains in the Register of Sasines. An Advance Notice was registered on 19 August 2022 for a disposition from Sara Flynn to Galton Voysey Ltd. but has now expired and no disposition or sale is recorded either in the Register of Sasines or the Application Register of the Land Register.

Galton Voysey Ltd. thus owns not hundreds of acres of land but 55.7 acres to be precise.

The claim on the home page of Established Titles that “Each Pack contains one square foot of dedicated land on a private estate in Eddleston” is thus open to question.

Finances

No accounts of Galton Voysey Ltd. are available for public inspection. The company claims to plant a tree with every order through a partner project, Trees for the Future. Established Titles claims it has planted over 2,065,630 trees as at 2 December 2022. With the cheapest souvenir plot costing $49.95 (£40), this means that Established Titles must have generated an income of £82,625,200.

However, in its letter to YouTubers, Established Titles claims that Galton Voysey “has made a multi-million dollar loss on Established Titles”. Given that the products being sold are merely downloaded digital files, it is hard to see how this claim is accurate. The land acquired to date has cost £35,000 and, if a tree has been planted through its partner for every plot sold then Establsihed Titles, as explained above, has made revenue of over £82 million.

Questions for Established Titles

How much income have you made since the project started?

Why do you claim to own land at Eddleston when it is owned by someone else?

What is the reason for the multi-million dollar losses?

How much money have you contributed to partners in order to plant trees?


This blog has been supported by donors to my defamation crowdfunder who kindly donated their eligible refunds to my work on land reform.

This blog is the second in a series of blogs about the Scottish Government’s consultation – Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation (see this page for details). It follows a previous blog that provided an overview of the proposals.

This blog provides a short and preliminary examination of the issue of scale and concentration of landownership and is prompted by discussion in the online meeting last night with the Minister and her team,

In the introduction to the consultation paper, the Minister states in her introduction that “we are driving forward reform to historically iniquitous patterns of landownership.”

On page 6, it is stated that “The first three proposals we put forward are aimed at tackling the issues associated with scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland.”

As was discussed in my previous blog, these three proposals are focussed on large-scale landholdings. I will blog further on what this might mean but for the moment I want to flag up potential issues with the statistics used by the Scottish Government.

Landholdings over 3000ha

Page 7 of the consultation paper contains the following claim,

As of May 2022, Registers of Scotland data indicates that 386 of the 1.86 million titles in the Land Register of Scotland had a total land area of over 3,000 hectares. These titles cover 1.62 million hectares of land, equating to 20.2% of Scotland’s total land mass.

I asked Registers of Scotland (RoS) what the basis of these figures was.

They replied as follows (Land Reform Team refers to officials in the Scottish Government)

The methodology agreed by the Land Reform Team was:

Methodology
For each Title on the Land Register
Measure the footprint of all rights/extents displayed on the title plan, regardless of the type of interest
where the total footprint is over 3000 hectares.

Limitations:
As non-ownership rights are included, the area figures and title counts may be an over-estimate.
Customer may not be interested in leases

Output:
When programmed and executed, this methodology returned
Number of titles over 3000 ha:        386
Land mass covered:                       1,616,976 ha
Area of Scotland:                            8,007,825 ha
% of Scotland’s land mass:            20.2%

I have analysed the Land Register data and found 231 holdings covering 1,531,640ha. So the extent is in line with the Scottish Government’s figures but the number of holdings is not. This is almost certainly because the RoS exercise included wind farm leases and other types of interest that overlap with ownership.

The number of titles is thus greater (386 compared with 231) and the area is also 6% greater than my own figures. Both datasets include almost all of the National Forest estate and so are also both overestimates of the extent of large-scale landownership on the Land Register.

In any event, the Land Register only covers 48.9% of the land mass of Scotland. The majority of Scotland’s land is still registered in the Register of Sasines. Despite this, a Government official claimed last night that the majority of large-scale holdings are on the Land Register and thus their figure is reliable. In fact the opposite is the case.

I have been researching landownership since 1994 and am currently updating my Who Owns Scotland website and so have analysed a more comprehensive dataset of landholdings that includes those still in the Register of Sasines.

My preliminary analysis is illustrated below where landholdings over 3000ha are coloured blue where they are on the Land Register and red where they are on the Register of Sasines. (this map does NOT include ALL holdings over 3000ha – this is research in progress).


In total the map shows 358 holdings covering 2.86 million ha of Scotland (35.6% of the land mass). Of these, only 30% of the land (covered by 130 landholdings) is on the Land Register with the majority (70%) comprising 228 landholdings still in the Register of Sasines.

So the Scottish Goverment say 386 holdings covering 1,620,000 ha (20.2% of Scotland)

I say 130 holdings covering 872,833ha (10.8% of Scotland) from Land Register

PLUS 228 holdings covering 1,988.939 ha (24.8% of Scotland) from the Register of Sasines

giving a TOTAL of 358 holdings covering 2,861,772 ha (35.6% of Scotland)

(My data remains preliminary and does not include some known large scale holdings. it will be finalised in September.)

Tackling Scale and Concentration

The one substantive policy question I wish to address in this blog is why scale and concentration matters and what to do about it.

As discussed in the consultation paper, it is proposed to define large-scale holdings as those over 3000ha, comprising more than a defined % of an administrative unit (such as a Council ward) or comprising more than a defined % of a permanently inhabited island.

I don’t propose to discuss this definition here but to concentrate instead on the rationale lying behind focussing on large-scale holdings and how this is being defined.

A definition of large-scale being landholdings over 3000ha in extent begs an important question. Is the threshold of 3000ha to apply to a single parcel or to an aggregate of parcels? An aggregate of parcels would arise where, for example, an owner owns five landholdings across the country each of 1000ha thus potentially exceeding the threshold of 3000ha.

In response to my question on this last night, the Scottish Government stated that their proposal is for a single parcel and that an owner who owned 2009ha in Aberdeenshire and 5ha in Lanarkshire would not be covered by the proposals.

The answer was further reinforced by the Chair of the Scottish Land Commission, Andrew Thin who emphasised that their advice was based on local concentrations of power over land.

So as things stand, aggregate ownership is not regarded as large-scale even it exceeds the 3000ha threshold. The Scottish Government takes the view (based on advice from the Scottish Land Commission) that it the key impact of scale and concentration is the potential negative impact that arises from large landholdings in local areas. Where power is concentrated in the hands of one owner over a large area, it can thwart local priorities.

The Scottish Land Commission’s research and subsequent advice was based upon the impact that the concentration of power can have in a local area and in so far as that analysis goes, it is fine.

BUT, consider this.

If Scotland consisted of 100 landholdings of 80,000ha each, that would be a significant issue in terms of scale and concentration.

If Scotland consisted of one million holdings of 8ha each, that would, on the face of it not pose the same issues.

Except that it would if 100 people or entities each owned 10,000 of these 8ha holdings.

The Scottish Land Commission recognises the issues associated with the former but ignores the issues associated with the latter.

And this is where the question of aggregate holdings is important.

This is a live issue with me as I am, on a daily basis, researching and documenting the ownership of land in order to relaunch my Who Owns Scotland website in September. What I am finding (and this is no surprise) is that there are a number of owners who are accumulating landholdings across Scotland, buying more and more land but typically in individuals holdings that fall below the 3000ha threshold.

If (as the Scottish Government states) it wishes to see a more diverse pattern of landownership with more opportunities for citizens and communities to own land (see page 2 of consultation document) then it needs to be just as concerned with the accumulation of landownership and the resulting concentration that arises as it is with the impacts at any particular local level.

If someone already owns 3000ha as an aggregate total of their ownership, then acquiring more will exacerbate the existing inequalities and lead to more concentrated landownership. Yet this phenomenon is absent from both the Scottish Land Commission’s advice and thus the Government’s analysis of the problem.

Over ten years ago I published an analysis of private forest ownership in Scotland (see 5th document on this page). It showed a remarkably concentrated pattern of ownership in this sector and a stark contrast with the rest of Europe (see graph below). Over 44% of private forests in Scotland are over 100ha in size and account for over 94% of the forest area. Across Europe most forests are small-scale and less that 1% are over 100ha in size. Over half of Scotland’s private forests are owned by absentee owners and a third don’t even live in Scotland.


My current research suggests that the situation has got worse (I will publish a final analysis later this year). If it has got worse, then it is because of the rapid accumulation of land by a few individual owners.

Yet, there are no proposals to deal with this.

This blog has been supported by donors to my defamation crowdfunder who kindly donated their eligible refunds to my work on land reform.

Introduction

On Monday 4 July, the Scottish Government published its consultation paper “Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation” (1). The consultation is designed to inform the introduction of a Land Reform Bill by the end of 2023.

I spent last week wandering in the hills around Glen Affric during which time I had plenty opportunity to think about where land reform needs to go now and how the proposals set out in this paper contribute to that process. This blog sets out my relatively high level thoughts. More blogs will follow on more detailed aspects of the proposals.

In short, these are significant proposals which, in principle, would introduce some major changes to how parts of the land market operate in Scotland and deserve serious consideration. It is disappointing, however, that the opportunity has been missed to enact more fundamental change. The proposals appear to be designed merely to introduce more accountability and transparency to the land market rather than enact structural reform.

In that regard, I am currently in the process of drafting a Land for the People Bill – a comprehensive set of proposals to democratise land governance in Scotland. This should be published by the end of August. I am also in the process of investing £8000 in updating and upgrading my whoownsscotland.org.uk website which will also be launched in September (if you want to be informed of its launch, visit the site and send me your details).

So, how to respond to this consultation?

This really depends on your perspective on what you want land reform to achieve. My own long-standing position is that land reform is about redistributing power over land in Scotland, democratising land governance and modernising the framework of law governing landownership and use. Land is about power. How that power is defined, distributed and exercised is the central concern of land reform.

In relation to the legal framework, land reform can be secured through reform,

  • to the tenure system,
  • to the fiscal framework and
  • to administrative law (eg environmental and planning legislation).

For land reform to be successful there needs to be a comprehensive, sustained and coherent programme delivered systematically over a period of years involving all three.

In that context, the proposals set out by the Government, though of some utility, are very partial and are unlikely to achieve significant change in how Scotland’s land is owned and used. After twenty years of devolution and with no shortage of ideas over the past few years on how to reform Scotland’s land, it is disappointing that the proposed Bill is not more ambitious and comprehensive. Here are just four examples of what could have been included

  • reform law of foreshore and seabed (been on agenda since 2003)
  • common good (been on agenda since at least 2005)
  • land taxes (long standing debate)
  • inheritance law (been on agenda since 2009)

The proposals in the paper are based on recommendations made by the Scottish Land Commission and it is worth reading its paper for further background to the proposals. (2)

These recommendations were for large landholdings,

  • to be required to produce a management plan,
  • to be made subject to strengthened duties under the existing Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and
  • to be subject to a public interest test when large landholdings change hands.

Approached from a different point of view, the proposals can be seen as a set of useful measures that are of some utility. I agree that they will bring benefits. But they will not deliver the outcomes claimed by Government and they do not represent more than a modest intervention in the way land is owned.

As SLC said in its 2021 paper,

It is very important that the proposed legislative mechanisms described in this paper are understood within this broader context, as part of a comprehensive package of land reform interventions

and

The measures will not, on their own, deliver the longer term systemic change in patterns of land ownership that are required to realise the full benefits of Scotland’s land resource. Achieving this will require more fundamental policy reform, probably including changes to the taxation system.

The Proposals

The proposals seek views on the following questions,

  • The definition of large-scale holdings (Part 4)
    (this definition is the used to define those landholdings that will be subject to)
  • Strengthening the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement (Part 5)
  • requiring compulsory management plans (Part 6)
  • a public interest test when land is transferred (Part 7), and
  • introducing new constraints on what entities can own land (Part 11)

The consultation also proposes,

  • new conditions for those in receipt of public subsidy (Part 8)
  • a new land use tenancy for tenet farmers (Part 9)
  • review of smallholdings legislation (Part 10) and,
  • an invitation to submit other ideas (Part 12).

Commentary on the Proposals

I will be blogging in more detail on these proposals over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile here are some initial thoughts and questions.

Will these reforms deliver?

There are two key issues here.

The first is the focus on tackling the scale and concentration of landownership in Scotland. The Minister states in her introduction that “we are driving forward reform to historically iniquitous patterns of landownership.” On page 6, it is stated that “The first three proposals we put forward are aimed at tackling the issues associated with scale and concentration of land ownership in Scotland.”

However, there is very little in these proposals to suggest that they will much if any have any impact on the scale and concentration of landownership. I will explore this in a future blog.

It is notable that there are no proposals to reform the law of succession (giving children the legal right to inherit land) or to reform land taxation. These are the two measures that have been proven historically to dismantle concentrated patterns of landownership.

The second major focus is on helping to deliver climate policy. Indeed the consultation paper is titled Land Reform in a Net Zero Nation. It is far from clear, however, how any of these proposals will help to secure net zero. The two proposals with the most claims in support are the prior notification to sell and the new land use tenancy.

The prior notification to sell is suggested as a means by which community bodies could be assisted in acquiring large-scale holdings. However there is little evidence that community bodies are interested in acquiring large-scale holdings beyond those which have either been historically badly managed or where there are substantial crofting interests.

Furthermore, the consultation suggests that these proposals could tackle the inflation in land values as a result of carbon speculation and offsetting. But the cost effective way to achieve that is not (as the Government currently wishes) to support carbon markets for offsetting but to ban them altogether. Every ton of carbon sequestered in Scotland and used to offset emissions elsewhere is a ton of carbon that is not contributing to cooling the planet.

Overall, the proposals will probably deliver some much needed accountability, engagement and transparency among large-scale holdings but they will not eliminate the concentrated pattern of landownership in Scotland. As mentioned above, it is measures such as taxation and succession law that will achieve that.

What are large-scale holdings? (Part 4)

The most significant proposals in the consultation are targeted solely at “large-sclae landholdings”. Part 4 of the paper seeks views on how to define this and suggests that meeting any one of the proposed criteria would classify a landholding as large-scale. These criteria are,

  • A fixed threshold of 3,000 hectares
  • Land that accounts for more than a fixed percentage of a data zone (or 
adjacent data zones) or local authority ward(s) designated as an Accessible Rural Area or Remote Rural Area, through our six-fold urban/rural classification scheme
  • Land that accounts for more than a specified minimum proportion of a permanently inhabited island.

Key issues are whether the proposals should indeed focussed exclusively on large-scale holdings and whether, if they should, that these are the correct criteria. A question also arises as to the data used to estimate the extent of Scotland covered by holdings of over 3000ha is accurate and I will explore this in a future blog.

Most importantly here is the question of why the proposals are only to apply to large-scale holdings (however they might be defined – do they for example include aggregate holdings across the country which would exceed the threshhold?).

The idea has its origins with the Scottish Land Commission whose advice to Government was that large-scale holdings are the most likely to pose a risk to the public interest by the excessive concentration of power over a large area.

However, the inclusion of criteria b) and c) is an admission that other circumstances can lead to concentrations of power also. Indeed the SLC itself argued that monopoly ownership of strategic infrastructure such as slipways, petrol stations as well as important cultural facilities and housing land supply can also be characteristics of concentrated landownership that could create a structural risk of excessive power. (2).

It is hard to see what objective justification there is for proposing a land reform bill whose key powers are only to be used in relation to large-scale holdings. I will explore this further in a future blog but key questions relate to avoidance (easy to transfer 100ha of a 3099ha holding into another company or trust and circumvent provisions of the Bill) and what benefits to communities or the environment is expected to be delivered.

The focus of the proposals is very much on providing communities with greater opportunities but for many parts of Scotland dominated by large-scale landholdings there are no communities to speak of.

For much of Scotland that is covered by large-scale landholdings, the biggest challenge is the restoration of nature. I was walking in Glen Affric last week (see image b elow) and was delighted to see the extensive work on woodland restoration undertaken by Trees for Life.

If we live in a climate emergency and want land reform to help transition to net-zero then there is a strong argument that environmental bodies should be given new rights and powers as well as community bodies.

There is also a vital question of why existing legislation covering deer management and nature conservation is not being used more vigorously. Again, such questions expose the lack of a clear set of desired outcomes and anticipated timescales for reform.

There is further lack of logic in the proposal to exclude “family farms” (however they may be defined). What’s so special about family farms? And if family farms are to be excluded, why not family forests and family estates?
The image below (apologies for the quality) is of severe environmental degradation on a landholding of less that 3000ha on a family farm. The land is in a National Park and has recently been sold to a Danish company. Why should land which is part of a National Park be excluded from the provisions of the Bill?

Strengthening the Land Rights & Responsibilities Statement (Part 5)

The Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement was introduced by Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and is an expression of principles to guide land policy but has no statutory force.

My own view has long been that some form of statutory responsibilities should be embedded within the land tenure system (a system which currently bestows only rights to those who own land). The next best solution is give them statutory force and provide remedies for any breaches. The proposals here do the the latter but again only in relation to large-scale landholdings.

This proposal is fairly uncontroversial but could be strengthened further by applying it to all land across Scotland.

Compulsory Land Management Plans (Part 6)

The paper proposes compulsory land management plans for all large-scale landholdings. This is not an unreasonable expectation but as with the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement proposals, there is no good reason why it should not apply to all landholdings (or certainly far more of Scotland’s land than is encompassed by large-scale landholdings). They should be compulsory for example for all land in National Parks and National Scenic Areas.

Whilst such plans will produce some grater accountability, they (like the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement proposals) do nothing in and of themselves to tackle the concentrated pattern of landownership. Indeed they risk doing the opposite by (in the words of the consultation paper) allowing landowners to benefit “from being able to demonstrate they are responsible stewards of the land”.

There is nothing revealed about how such management plans will be drawn up where the land is tenanted either by agricultural tenants, crofting tenants or hunting tenants.

Public Interest Test and Notification of Intention to Sell (Part 7)

The proposed public interest test would apply to the acquisition and sale of large-scale landholdings and the purpose is stated as being

to assess whether, at the point of transfer of a large-scale landholding, a risk would arise from the creation or continuation of a situation in which excessive power acts against the public interest.”

Where the test is met, the Government proposes that the sale could only proceed subject to specific conditions reflecting the reason that the sale was not considered to be in the public interest. Two examples are provided. The first is compulsory lotting where no one party could acquire all of the lots and the second is where the land could be offered to constituted community bodies.

The concept of a public interest test is sound but restricting it to large-scale landholdings has little logic. Equally the public interest will inevitably extend far beyond the two conditions provided by way of illustration and could include, for example,

  • the sale of land to environmental bodies
  • the sale of land or property (leased mountaineering huts or tennis courts) to sporting bodies and
  • recreational organisations
  • the sale of land or property to local individuals, businesses and associations
  • the sale of strategic land to local authorities
  • compulsory leasing to such bodies

This proposal is fraught with complexity and is a good example of a measure that is only being proposed because of the existence of concentrated patterns of power. It is an ideological choice to choose to mitigate concentrated power structures rather than eliminate them.

The other proposal covered in Part 7 is the prior notification to community bodies to sell large-scale landholdings. The paper argues that

This proposal responds to concerns that a combination of rapidly rising land values, and a rise in off-market transactions, is in effect excluding communities from access to ownership of large-scale landholdings.”

I am not convinced by these concerns and they are a poor basis for such a major reform. Few communities have expressed any interest in acquiring the kind of large-scale landholdings that have been the focus of recent market activity associated with carbon sequestration (many of which do not exceed anything like the 3000ha threshold). A better approach is to eliminate the market in carbon altogether so as to eliminate this speculative gold rush.

Key to reducing land values is better regulation of the market in general (such as insisting that owners live join their holdings) and, crucially, reform of land taxes. It is ironic that the owner of the largest extent of Scottish land, a Danish businessman, is paying substantial taxes to his home municipality in Denmark and next to none to the local authorities in which his land is situated.

New Conditions on Receipt of Public Funding (Part 8)

Part 8 introduces proposals that, unlike this in Parts 5, 6 and 7, apply to all land in receipt of “land-based-subsidies” and require them to comply with the Land rights and Responsibilities Statement.

The paper is silent on what constitutes such a subsidy and only mentions tree planting and peatland restoration. The largest subsidies of course are provided by means of agricultural subsidies (over £500million per year). All such public subsidies should be within scope of this proposal.

Subsidies are also provided by way of tax breaks such as the Small Business Bonus Scheme which is claimed by some of the wealthiest landowners in Scotland including the North Affric Estate which I walked through last week (owned in the Seychelles) and Cluny Estate in Inverness-shire owned by the Qatari royal family. Such tax breaks should also be encompassed by these proposals.

The proposal also includes a requirement that all recipients of such subsidies be registered and liable to pay tax in the EU or UK (though neither Question 27 nor 28 ask for views on this). This is sensible though it is unclear why the EU is included given the lack of transparency in some EU member states and that fact that the UK is no longer a member state and thus no longer subject to freedom of movement to capital.

Finally, a proposal is floated that all land in receipt of land-based subsidies be registered in the Land Register thus stimulating more rapid completion.

Land Use Tenancy (Part 9)

The paper proposes a new tenancy that would enable tenant farmers to engage in activities such as agroforestry, nature restoration and peatland restoration alongside conventional agricultural activities. This is possible under existing agricultural tenancies but freight with difficulty in many cases. The proposal is to allow existing tenants to convert to a land use tenancy.

This proposal is a sensible modernisation of agricultural tenancies to reflect modern land use priorities. Again, however, if the aim is to redistribute power and tackle concentration of landownership then an absolute right to buy for tenant farmers is what would represent serious land reform.

Small Landholdings (Part 10)

No proposals are presented in Part 10 which is about modernising smallholdings legislation. Consultees are invited merely to be kept informed of a separate small landholding consultation.

Transparency (Part 11)

A sense of deja vu here as the Government finally accepts that land (or at least large-scale landholdings) can only be acquired by legal entities registered for tax purposes in the EU or the UK. It is unclear why the proposed restriction is not simply a requirement to be registered in Scotland or at least the UK when the UK is no longer a member state of the EU.

The paper argues that this could “help deal with instances of absenteeism” but fails to say how this is to be achieved. In fact it will do no such thing unless there is a requirement for those in control of such entities to live on their landholdings or at least in Scotland and be a Scottish taxpayer.

This reference to absenteeism is curious as tackling this could and should be a central plank of land reform. It is hard to justify crofter with a few acres of bog and rock having by late to be resident within a set distance of their holding but owners of tens of thousands of acres can live anywhere they like in the world.

Other land related reforms (Part 12)

Finally, Part 12 asks consulters if they have any views on the future role of taxation to support land reform and about community benefits from natural capital.

Taxation has always been the ghost in the room of land reform. I have hinted above at how significant it is and will blog in more detail about it. The Scottish Government has been extremely reluctant to engage seriously with this question. During the passage of the Non-domestic Rates Bill in 2016-21, for example, opposed (together with the Conservatives) proposals to ensure that all rural land was on the Valuation Roll so that even if it were to be given 100% relief, could at least help to quantify the cost of such relief in relation to all other ratepayers.

Much of the intellectual work in this area has already been done by, for example, the Mirrlees Review and the Land Reform Review Group but Government has neglected it to such an extent that it offers no concrete proposals.

This is an area therefore where consulates should make suggestions (a more detailed blog on this topic will be published soon).

Some Final Thoughts (for now)

This blog is already very long and thus I shall not say much more but conclude on three final reflections.

Firstly, the neglected role of local government must be addressed. Far too much land reform decision making is centralised in Edinburgh when local authorities are perfectly capable of administering the kind of new regulatory functions envisaged by these proposals. As the Scottish Land Commission note in its 2021 Legislative proposals paper, (2)

The potential role of local authorities should also be considered. Running through all three proposed mechanisms is the underlying intention to better connect landownership and decision-making with local democratic accountability. In most northern European countries that have regulatory mechanisms for land ownership, decision-making is generally embedded at a municipality level. Sufficient connection to local authorities, as a means of connecting decisions with local and regional circumstances, should be built into consideration of these measures.”

There is no evidence that they have been. Indeed aside from some contemporary context, local authorities do not feature at all in the proposals.

Secondly, it is very unclear how exactly the proposals are envisaged to actually tackle Scotland’s uniquely concentrated pattern of private landownership. As mentioned previously, proven methods include inheritance land and taxation but neither of these feature as proposals.

As a consequence, the proposals legitimise the existent of large scale landownership whilst only introducing some accountability (a worthy aim) rather than the systematic elimination of concentrated patterns of power over land.

In my 1999 book, Scotland, Land & Power: an agenda for land reform, I wrote that

Land reform is not simply about tactical interventions in the status quo.¨ It involves reform in the way power is derived, distributed, transferred and exercised. It involves meaningful reform of the tenure system, the ownership of land, the market in land, the division of land, the use of land, the fiscal status of land and the occupation of land. And it involves eliminating those characteristics of the current system which serve to perpetuate the status quo, which frustrate the public interest and which are antithetical to a just, fair and open society in a new Scotland. It is thus a highly political venture because in order to promote social, economic and environmental advancement, it needs to challenge and reorganise existing power structures.”

These proposals are a good example of tactical interventions in the status quo.

This blog has been supported by donors to my defamation crowdfunder who kindly donated their eligible refunds to my work on land reform.

NOTES

Details of the consultation can be found here.

(2) See Legislative proposals to address the impact of Scotland’s concentration of landownership. A discussion paper from the Scottish Land Commission, February 2021

 

Thirty years ago, from 3-14 June 1992, countries met in Rio de Janeiro at the ground-breaking Earth Summit. The conference agreed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles. The conference also agreed two legally binding treaties, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite these agreements, progress on securing the future of the planet has fallen way short of the ambitions of those who gathered in 1992.

For example, the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions ever released into the atmosphere have been emitted SINCE the Climate Change Convention was signed in 1992 (see image above) Although rates of deforestation have slowed since 1992, deforestation remains a significant global phenomenon (see image below).

Graph from FAO, State of the Word’s Forests 2020

As part of an international coalition of NGOs concerned with deforestation in the North, Reforesting Scotland published the Scottish Forest Charter (6.6Mb pdf) in association with The Ecologist magazine. We used it to lobby world governments at Rio and to highlight the role played by northern countries in historic (and continuing) deforestation. I was empoloyed by Reforesting Scotland 1990-1993 and continued as its voluntary International co-ordinator for a further two years. Thirty years on, it is instructive to read the Charter and reflect on the extent to which its ten principles have been implemented in Scotland.

Opening pages of the Scottish Forest Charter

We called for expansion of Scotland’s forest cover to deliver primary objectives of protecting soils, water, biodiversity and climate and a series of secondary goals including timber production, recreation and spiritual values. We called for

  • a resource owned and managed by local businesses, communities and individuals
  • that delivered a wide range of local benefits
  • a radical increase in timber production and,
  • effective carbon management and budgets.

Reading through the Charter today, thirty years later it is evident that we remain a long way from realising its ambitions. Deforestation continues even in our National Parks (see below) and forestry expansion remains dominated by external capital encouraged and supported by generous Government grants and tax breaks.

Deforestation and soil erosion in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on an estate in receipt of Scottish Government agricultural subsidies. Photograph taken March 2019.

With official Government ambitions to increase forest cover in Scotland, it remains deeply concerning that management such as that pictured above continues across vast areas of Scotland and that new forest resources remain dominated by absentee investors and corporations.

If you are interested in how we could achieve the scale of reforestation needed (40% by 2040) as opposed to the current target (25% by 2050), have a read of the Woodland Nation report (3.7Mb pdf) I commissioned and published in 2021. Sub-titled “pathways to a forested Scotland owned by the people” it is the most ambitious programme of land use transformation for people, the climate and the economy ever published. I will be blogging more on this in future.

Meanwhile I hope you enoy reading the Scottish Forest Charter.

Dear Oscar Nominee,

Congratulations on your nomination for an Academy Awards 2022. According to media reports, I understand that as a nominee you have received a gift pack that contains, among other things, a purported gift of a plot of land (perhaps just a square foot) in Scotland from a company called Highland Titles and the right to be styled Lord or Lady of Glencoe.

You may be wondering what this is all about. Let me explain.

First and foremost, you are not the owner of any land in Scotland despite what this company might have led you to believe. See Section 22 of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. (1)

You have also not been given any right to style yourself Lord or Lady of Glencoe. Highland Titles has no authority or power to bestow such a title on you.

You have a piece of paper (several probably) with impressive sounding claims and illustrations. They remain just pieces of paper, however and provide you with nothing more than that.

Highland Titles Ltd. is not a conservation organisation. It owns some land including part of a National Nature Reserve and it plants some trees and puts up some bird boxes. The company’s purpose, however, is to enrich those involved with it. Highland Titles put up in excess of £100,000 for a company it then supported (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC) to sue me for defamation claiming £750,000 in damages. I won and in the process learnt quite a bit about Highland Titles business model. Believe me, they appear to be making very substantial sums of money and spending very little of it on any meaningful conservation work.

The plot you purportedly own is not in Glencoe. It is 20 miles away in Duror.

Highland Titles Ltd. is not a Scottish conservation organisation. It is a company based in the secrecy jurisdiction of Guernsey.

The office of Highland Titles in Scotland is located in Lochaber and is part of a larger property owned by Quexus Ltd. a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Highland Titles was a registered trademark to another company called Highland Titles Ltd registered in the British Virgin Islands but transferred in 2019 to Highland Titles Ltd. (Guernsey)

Beware that “Lord of Glencoe” and “Lady of Glencoe” were registered trademarks to a company called Highland Titles Ltd. registered in the British Virgin Islands but transferred in 2020 to Highland Titles OU registered in Estonia.

Highland Titles Ltd., being registered in a secrecy jurisdiction and despite owning land in Scotland is not obliged to publish annual reports or accounts and thus its affairs cannot be scrutinised or challenged.

You can read some more about Highland Titles in a blog I published in 2015 (2)

If you wish to help the conservation of Scottish habitats and species there are a range of organisations that would welcome support. The vast majority of them are members of Scottish Environment Link and you can see them all here.

(1) https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2012/5/section/22/enacted
(2) http://www.andywightman.com/archives/4152

On 19 February, the Chief Executive of Scottish Land and Estates (the body representing 1351 landowners owning 29% of Scotland) wrote the following in his weekly newsletter to SLE members.

Mr McAdam’s grievance stemmed from the fact that the Scottish Government had not consulted him over the contents of a letter written on 15 February to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. It is not entirely clear why he should have been consulted. As far as I am aware the Scottish Trades Union Congress was not consulted either. Reading the letter, it appears to be well informed and draws on a range of evidence.

No matter.

On 18 February, Commonspace ran a story on the letter outlining how shooting estates were paying wages below the national minimum wage and citing a report that Dr Ruth Tingay and I had written last October in which we had first made this claim. This report, The Intensification of Grouse Moor Management in Scotland, was referenced once more in Mr McAdam’s newsletter as a “poorly researched report”.

The figures we used in the report were straightforward. In 2011/12, grouse shooting generated 2460 full time equivalent jobs (i.e. taking account of part time and seasonal employment) with a wage bill of £30.1 million. We made the simple observation that this equated to an average FTE wage of £11,401 which was below the national minimum wage in 2011/12.

This claim was attacked by Tim Baynes from the Gift of Grouse Campaign and Scottish Moorland Group (part of SLE) as well as cited by Mr McAdam as evidence of a “poorly researched report”.

In that context it is worth putting on the record that the figure was derived from a Scottish Moorland and Grouse Management Factsheet published in July 2013.

And who was the author and publisher of this factsheet?  None other than Scottish Land and Estates and Scottish Moorland Forum although I have yet to see Mr Baynes or McAdam describe their paper as “poorly researched”.

This episode highlighted the fact that the Gift of Grouse campaign is a well financed operation producing blogs, videos and reports in an attempt to persuade politicians and policy makers that driven grouse shooting is a benign undertaking. A good example was the contrasting way in which the campaign responded to two reports about birds.

The first report, “81 and Flying” was a report prepared by the Gift of Grouse Campaign/Scottish Moorland Group and launched in the Scottish Parliament at a reception hosted by Graeme Dey MSP on 23 November 2015.

When I asked Mr Baynes for a copy of the report, I was told that the report had been “posted” here. Unfortunately this page has since been deleted. But it contained merely a blog post with a summary of the findings of the report.

These findings have been questioned by experts (see latter part of this post on the excellent Raptor Persecution Scotland blog for example) but requests to publish the report by a number of interested parties have all been denied.

 

Fortunately, we know that the report was published. Copies can be seen in the photograph of the launch above. But unless the “report” is published it is impossible to know what to make of the claims made during a prestigious Scottish Parliamentary launch (accompanied by extensive press coverage). When will this report be published?

In contrast to this non-existent report making claims that are not open to scrutiny but yet were felt to warrant an expensive public relations event, another report a few weeks ago received a rather different treatment.

A scientific study of the breeding status of hen harriers in North East Scotland published in a peer reviewed journal was published in the February 2016 edition of British Birds. (1)

It documents the decline in the population of hen harriers in North East Scotland and attributes the main cause to illegal persecution and grouse moor management. A summary of the findings have been published on the RPS website here.

The Gift of Grouse campaign didn’t host a Parliamentary Reception or provide goodie bags or make a video about this scientific, peer-reviewed paper. Instead, it and Scottish Land and Estates published an angry denunciation of the “deeply flawed” report which, Mr Baynes asserted, showed a “lamentable lack of evidence.”

These claims were comprehensively demolished in a further blog by RPS here which includes a transcript of a twitter conversation with Mr McAdam in which he continues to challenge the idea that the peer-reviewed scientific article has any validity.

I had the good fortune to sit at dinner on Friday evening in the company of a number of the paper’s authors. As someone who knows very little about hen harriers or the scientific study of bird populations, I was deeply impressed to learn of their lifelong work in this field of study and the bemusement at the reaction their peer-reviewed paper had generated.

So, the next time you read a press release or a blog from the Gift of Grouse/Scottish Moorland Forum/Scottish Land and Estates that makes claims about other people’s research, probe a little deeper into the matter. And if they make claims about their own reports, you should pehaps check to see if it even exists in the first place.

NOTES

(1) Rebecca, G., Cosnette, B., Craib, J., Duncan, A., Etheridge, B., Francis, I., Hardey, J., Pout, A., and Steele, L. (2016) The past, current and potential status of breeding Hen Harriers in North-east Scotland. British Birds 109: 77– 95

UPDATE 19 APRIL 2020

This blog, together with a previous one published on 29 September 2015 were the subject of defamation proceedings brought by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC against myself in a citation from the Court of Session served on me on 21 March 2017. Since 30 March 2017, following legal advice, the blogs have been password protected. The case (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC vs. Andy Wightman A111/17) was heard by Lord Clark at the Court of Session from 29 October 2019 – 8 November 2019. A Decision by Lord Clark was published on 11 March 2020 which rejected all of the pleas of the pursuer in what was a comprehensive victory for me. As a matter of law therefore neither of these two blogs are defamatory. The Pursuer issued a statement to the media on 11 March stating that “we will certainly appeal the decision”. However, the 28 day period in which to appeal has now expired and no appeal has been lodged. I am pleased therefore to now remove the password protection and enable them to be read as they were published subject to one caveat.

Lord Clark concluded that in the blogs (and a few tweets which were also complained of) I had made four untrue statements. Contrary to claims by my detractors, none of these was a lie. Indeed Lord Clark made clear that I was a “credible and reliable witness” who “gave his evidence in an honest, straightforward and coherent manner”. Lord Clark stated that “I accept his evidence about what he knew and did not know at the time of the various publications” and that “the suggestion he made statements that he knew were untrue simply has no proper basis.” [Lord Clark at 73]. I have thus edited the two blogs with a footnote marked in (red) to indicate the relevant untruths and why they arose.

Finally, what was revealed of this case in Lord Clark’s decision was a fraction of what was revealed in Court. What was revealed in Court was a fraction of the evidence assembled in the 1494 Productions (written documents lodged as evidence) lodged in the Court (59 by the Pursuer and 1435 by Defender). And what was revealed in the Productions was a fraction of what I have learned in the course of extensive preparatory research over the past 3 years about the activities of Highland Titles and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. I will be publishing a detailed blog revealing what really went on over the past three years. Given the litigous nature of both parties, I will, of course, have these blogs legalled before publication.

UPDATE ENDS

I intended to have published this blog on Highland Titles Day (10 February – see Malcolm Combe’s blog) ) Apologies to those who were expecting it then.

Last September, I blogged about the latest effort by Highland Titles Ltd. to raise lots of money from people who think they get to own some land in Scotland and help conservation at the same time (see a recent advert in BBC Wildlife magazine – 1.6Mb pdf – for a flavour of their business model).

Highland Titles Ltd. is a company registered in Alderney. It is owned by Highland Titles Charitable Trust which is registered in Guernsey. See my blog of 12 Feb 2015 for further background. The company makes its money from purporting to sell small plots of land as “souvenir plots”. The controversy over the affairs of this company has been generated because no-one who buying such plots can in law become the owner of the land and because the financial affairs of the company remain opaque, being registered in a secrecy jurisdiction.

In its latest efforts to garner greater respectability, Highland Titles has become involved with a conservation project called Wildcat Haven CIC. The fundraising arm of this organisation is a Community Interest Company called Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC with its registered office at Sage & Co Chartered Accountants in Denbighshire, North Wales. There are two Directors of the company, Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson. Mr Wilson is resident in Alderney and is also a a Director of Highland Titles Ltd (1) and a Trustee of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.(2)

One of the requirements of a Community Interest Company is the provision of an asset lock that restricts the disposal of assets of the CIC. Assets can be transferred to another CIC or charity and such a body must be designated in the Articles of the CIC. In the case of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC, the designated body to become the potential recipient of the assets is Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.

In response to my September blog, Emily O’Donoghue (who is a Director of both Wildcat Haven CIC and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC) responded and I published the response as an update to the blog. In turn, I then posed a number of questions to Emily as follows.

  1. It may be a bit of fun but you are asking folk to help you by “actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve” You need to be much clearer that people who spend £100 do not become owners of the land.
  2. You say that part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to you. Can you tell me when this transaction took place and when it was submitted to the Registers of Scotland for recording? Can you advise the extent and location of this land?
  3. Are there any wildcats on the Loch Loyne land?
  4. Why is my IP address blocked from viewing your website?
  5. What is the role of Highland Titles in your fundraising? Do they receive any payment? Do they receive any commission on each plot sold?

I never received a reply but can provide an update on some of the questions.

  1. The Wildcat Haven website still contains the claim that “We are asking you to help us by actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve.”
  2. Following Emily’s claim that part of the land had been gifted “to us”, I checked the title and discovered that Highland Titles Ltd. remained the owner and had gifted no land to Wildcat Haven. Interestingly, on 9 December 2015, however, Highland Titles Ltd. made an application to the Registers of Scotland to transfer part of Paitna Wood/BumbleBee Haven/Wildcat Haven to Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC.
  3. No response.
  4. No response.
  5. No response.

It remains unclear what financial arrangements have been entered into and why Douglas Wilson is a Director and why Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland is the designated beneficiary of the assets of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC.

As I pointed out in my September blog, if all of the 75 hectares of Paitna Wood/BumbleBee Haven/Wildcat Haven/Wildernesse Wood were sold even as 10 square foot plots, this would generate £40.35 million in sales revenue paid to a company in Alderney in the Channel Islands. In normal circumstances, a conservation project would be established as a charity and a trading body or fundraising enterprise would be established as a whole owned subsidiary of the charity. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Most recently, Wildcat Haven has been seeking to become involved in the community acquisition of a Forestry Commission forest by Loch Arkaig.

Finally, a very significant development took place in early June 2015.

Highland Title’s bankers and corporate service providers in Guernsey gave notice of the termination of their services.

Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC was incorporated in 30 June 2015.

UPDATE FOOTNOTE 19 APRIL 2020

(1) Douglas Wilson in fact was not a Director of WHE at the time of publication of this Blog. He was a Director of Wildcat Enterprises CIC from 6 June 2015 to 21 August 2015 (when he resigned) and again from 21 October 2015 until 17 February 2016 when he again resigned. Guernesy does not have a very transparent, publicly accessible registry of companies being one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world. Thius, in order to obtain information about when a Director was appointed or resigned, one has to contact the Registry with a specific request. As with my research for Blog 1 in September 2015, I phoned the Registry to find out if Douglas Wilson was still a Director of WHE and was informed that he was. Critically, as noted in the first sentence of this Blog, I had intended to publish it on Highland Titles Day, 10 February and had by then completed all of my research including this call to the Registry. For reasons I cannot recall (although I was very busy with the forthcoming Holyrood election and my partner was abroad in India) I did not publish the Blog until 24 February 2020 by which time Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of Highland Titles Ltd. It was thus an oversight on my part not to have checked the whole Blog for any factual matters that might have changed between 10 February 2016 and the date of publication.

(2) Douglas Wilson was in fact not a Director of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland at the time of the publication of this Blog. Unlike the Guernsey Registry of Companies (see footnote (1) above), the Registry of Charities is publicly available online. I checked the entry for HTCTS during research for the Blog and noted that Douglas Wilson was recorded as a Director of HTCTS. I therefore relied upon this official source in good faith in writing the Blog. In fact, Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of HTCTS on 6 July 2015. This was not reported in the Guernsey Registry of charities until an update was published on 20 June 2016.

In January, I blogged about the opaque ownership of Kildrummy Estate in Aberdeenshire. A gamekeeper, George Mutch, had been convicted of wildlife crime. Under Section 24 of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, an employer or agent of George Mutch can be charged with vicarious liability.

I asked a simple question – against whom would such a charge be brought? The estate is owned by Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. and, having outlined the complex ownership structure of Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. (see below and January blog for a full explanation), I speculated that the Crown Office might have a job on its hands to determine who (if anyone) could be prosecuted.

This week, thanks to the diligent and dogged investigative work undertaken by Raptor Persecution Scotland (RPS), we are now closer to answering that question. In  September 2015, the Crown Office told RPS that,

“Despite further investigations including investigations which focused on establishing vicarious liability, no-one else has been reported to COPFS in relation to the events which took place in Kildrummy Estate in 2012 and accordingly, no further prosecution, including any prosecution for a vicarious liability offence, has taken place

RPS followed this up by asking Police Scotland why they had been unable to report anyone to the Crown Office who might be considered to be vicariously liable for the crime carried out by George Mutch. Police Scotland’s response was published by RPS yesterday. The key part of Police Scotland’s reply is as follows

“Significant international investigations were undertaken……..it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled“.

This suggests that it was impossible, within the resources available to investigators, to identify with sufficient certainty who is actually behind Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. The Police may well know who could be libelled for the offence but had insufficient evidence to connect that person with Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. for the simple reason that is is virtually impossible to ascertain the answer to that question. If the Police, with the full range of investigatory powers available to them (including powers to force the Jersey authorities to divulge what information they hold), cannot find that answer, it is hard to see how anyone else might be able to.

Beyond the implications for wildlife crime legislation (and the Police note that “The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations….”), this raises questions about Scottish Government policy in relation to the offshore ownership provisions in the Land Reform Bill.

In a blog – Scottish Land and Secrecy Jurisdictions -from last month, I refuted the Scottish Government’s arguments as to why they could and would not implement the recommendation by the Land Reform Review Group and the proposal in their own consultation paper to restrict the registration of land by legal persons (companies etc) to those registered within the EU. The provisions currently set out in Sections 35 and 36 of the Bill merely allow authorised persons to ask the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to, in turn, ask further questions about the true ownership of companies in secrecy jurisdictions. It is a meaningless provision since authorities in Jersey, British Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman are under no obligation to provide any answers. If even the Police cannot find such answers, what hope has the Keeper?

Included in the Scottish Government’s reasoning was a bullet point 3 that

There is no clear evidence base to establish that the fact that land is owned by a company or legal entity that is registered or incorporated outside the EU has caused detriment to an individual or community.”

The Kildrummy case is prima facie evidence of precisely the circumstances in which opaque ownership in a secrecy jurisdiction has caused detriment – specifically to the ability of the Police to gather the necessary evidence to pursue a prosecution under an important statute passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Had Kildrummy Estate been owned by a company registered in the EU, the Directors of that company would be easily identified and could have been charged with vicarious liability.

The Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee is currently preparing its Stage One report into the Land Reform Bill due to be published in early December. It might like to reflect on the Kildrummy case

Image: Intensive grouse moor management on Millden Estate, Angus.

A report on the damaging environmental and social impacts of the intensification of grouse moor management in Scotland is published today by the League Against Cruel Sports. The authors of the report are Dr Ruth Tingay and myself. The report can be downloaded here (658kb pdf) and a short video here.

The report highlights a land use that where Scotland’s hills are being turned into intensively managed game reserves, where protected species are being persecuted, where electric fencing and roads are being constructed with impunity, and where much of this is eligible for public subsidy.

Image: New grouse butt construction with Firmounth and Scottish Rights of Way sign indicating junction between the ancient Firmounth and Fungle routes (Grid Ref. NO499853) Photo: James Carron

The evidence we have uncovered is a shocking indictment of a land use that is out of control. The methods being deployed to maximise grouse numbers are damaging the environment and are subject to no effective regulation or oversight by the Scottish Government and other public authorities.

The report is published days after a scientific assessment of many of these issues was published by Scottish Natural Heritage. The report was requested in response to concerns of SNH Board members about intensified moorland management practices in some areas, including the spread of hill tracks, increase in muirburn, heavy culling of mountain hares, and using chemicals to dose red grouse to increase numbers of grouse for shooting.

It also comes on the day that the Office for National Statistics published data showing that 33% of jobs in Angus pay below the living wage – the highest percentage of any Scottish local authority. Two of the case studies in the report focus on grouse moors in Angus. This may have something to do with the fact that, as the report reveals, the 2640 full-time equivalent jobs in grouse moor management pay an average of £11,041 which is below the national minimum wage.

 

Heatmap of Confirmed and Probable Raptor Persecution Incidents 2005-2014

The report will be launched at a fringe meeting at the Scottish National Party conference on Thursday 15 October at 6.30pm.

UPDATE 19 APRIL 2020

This blog, together with a subsequent one published on 24 February 2016, were the subject of defamation proceedings brought by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC against myself in a citation from the Court of Session served on me on 21 March 2017. Since 30 March 2017, following legal advice, the blogs have been password protected. The case (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC vs. Andy Wightman A111/17) was heard by Lord Clark at the Court of Session from 29 October 2019 – 8 November 2019. A Decision by Lord Clark was published on 11 March 2020 which rejected all of the pleas of the pursuer in what was a comprehensive victory for me. As a matter of law therefore neither of these two blogs are defamatory. The Pursuer issued a statement to the media on 11 March stating that “we will certainly appeal the decision”. However, the 28 day period in which to appeal has now expired and no appeal has been lodged. I am pleased therefore to now remove the password protection and enable them to be read as they were published subject to one caveat.

Lord Clark concluded that in the blogs (and a few tweets which were also complained of) I had made four untrue statements. Contrary to claims by my detractors, none of these was a lie. Indeed Lord Clark made clear that I was a “credible and reliable witness” who “gave his evidence in an honest, straightforward and coherent manner”. Lord Clark stated that “I accept his evidence about what he knew and did not know at the time of the various publications” and that “the suggestion he made statements that he knew were untrue simply has no proper basis.” [Lord Clark at 73]. I have thus edited the two blogs with a footnote marked in red to indicate the relevant untruths and why they arose.

Finally, what was revealed of this case in Lord Clark’s decision was a fraction of what was revealed in Court. What was revealed in Court was a fraction of the evidence assembled in the 1494 Productions (written documents lodged as evidence) lodged in the Court (59 by the Pursuer and 1435 by Defender). And what was revealed in the Productions was a fraction of what I have learned in the course of extensive preparatory research over the past 3 years about the activities of Highland Titles and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. I will be publishing a detailed blog revealing what really went on over the past three years. Given the litigous nature of both parties, I will, of course, have these blogs legalled before publication.

UPDATE ENDS

If you plan to set up a fundraising campaign for an environmental project, it is a good idea to think carefully about who is involved and what techniques you plan to use.

Wildcat Haven is a project designed to protect the Scottish Wildcat by preventing hybridisation with feral cats and providing a network of reserves to manage as wildcat habitat. (1)

Yesterday, it launched its campaign. Sponsorship has been provided by Volkswagen, a company responsible for polluting the environment with nitrous oxide emissions that it attempted to conceal through one of the biggest corporate frauds of recent decades. The other sponsor is our old friend Highland Titles, a company based in Alderney that is wholly owned by a charitable trust (Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland) registered in Guernsey. See my blog of February for further information on their operations.

Some time ago, Highland Titles Ltd. blocked my IP address but it came as something of a surprise to discover that I have also been blocked from Wildcat Haven’s website despite only having just seen it. Despite this, I have access via a proxy IP in Germany.

Highland Titles appear to have established a very close relationship with Wildcat Haven which operates via Wildcat Haven CIC (Community Interest Company) and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. The Registered Address of both is in Cornwall. One of the defining features of a Community Interest Company is the asset lock – provision that in the event of winding up, the assets must transfer to a nominated body that is a community interest company, charity or Scottish charity; or a body established outside Great Britain that is equivalent to any of those persons.(2)

In the case of Wildcat Haven CIC, the nominated body is a community-based company, Sunart Community Company. The money, however, is being raised by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC and the nominated body here is Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. Thus, in the event of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC being wound up, its assets will be taken over by Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland in Guernsey.

Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC was incorporated on 30 June 2015 with two Directors, Mrs Emily O’Donoghue and Mr Douglas Wilson. Wilson is a Director of Highland Titles Ltd (1) and a Trustee of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. (2)

Wildcat Haven has adopted Highland Title’s dubious methods of selling small souvenir plots of land and claiming that the purchaser is the owner (see extensive faq to this effect). This claim was comprehensively debunked in February this year by legal blogger loveandgarbage. If there remains any doubt, here is the content of a letter written by Professor George Gretton, Lord President Reid Professor of Law at Edinburgh University to the Daily Record newspaper.

Dear Mr Ferguson,

Under Scots law, ownership of land passes from seller to buyer by registration in the Land Register of Scotland. No registration? Then no transfer. This is currently set out at section 50 of the Land Registration etc (Scotland) Act 2012. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

(“Souvenir plot” is a term defined in section 22 of the 2012 Act.)

Therefore, if a souvenir plot is sold, registration is required, if the buyer is to acquire ownership of the plot.

But the Land Register does not accept souvenir plots: this rule is set out at section 22 of the 2012 Act. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

So if a company sells a souvenir plot, the sale cannot be completed. The buyer of the plot does not become owner of the plot. Ownership of such plots remains with the company.

Whether buyers of souvenir plots are informed that the seller will retain ownership is something I have no information on.

Sincerely, George L Gretton

Lord President Reid Professor of Law University of Edinburgh
School of Law
Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh 
EH8 9YL

Professor Gretton should know – he wrote the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. See also, a recent academic paper by Jill Robbie and Malcolm Combe which reviews the law in this area.

The plots being offered for sale by Wildcat Haven cost from £30 to £250 for one square foot of land which purchasers are assured, gives them a “personal right to a souvenir plot of land in Wildernesse Wood and the opportunity to change their name to Lord or Lady Wildernesse. Wildernesse Wood is described as “part of the first Wildcat Haven”. “We are asking you to help us by actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve.”, the website claims.

So where is Wildernesse Wood? The Wildcat Haven website does not say, but from this promotional video, it is clear that it is a plot of land above Loch Loyne on the A87 between Invergarry and Glen Cluanie.

In the video, Dr Paul O’Donoghue is filmed standing in the wood. He claims that “Every square foot of land we buy has a direct positive impact on the Scottish wildcat. By supporting this project, you’re helping save the Scottish wildcat step by step.”

There are two problems with this claim.

First of all, this land is, in fact owned by Highland Titles Ltd. who are already selling souvenir plots in a “nature reserve” they have named Bumblebee Haven where you can purchase plots ranging from 10 square feet (£49.99) to 1000 square feet (£499.99) and call yourself Lord or Lady Glencoe (even though the land is 50 miles north of Glencoe).

The land was acquired in February 2014 and the title can be seen here and the plan here  The land is 75ha in extent which, if all sold in 10 square foot plots would generate £40.35 million in sales revenue paid to a company in Alderney in the Channel Islands.

But the more fundamental problem is that the Wildcat Haven project is in Ardnamurchan and Morven – see map below.

The land that supporters are being invited to acquire is not only already owned by a company in Alderney and being sold plot by plot for bumblebees, this “first wildcat haven” is 60 miles to the north of Ardnamurchan and Morven and well outside the area being promoted for wildcat conservation.

I offer this information in the spirit of consumer advice to anyone considering taking up the offer to become the owner of a square foot of land to create a Wildcat Haven.

AN ADDENDUM

As an addendum to the Highland Titles blog in February, I contacted the Chief Minister of Guernsey Jonathan Le Tocq to ask whether it would be possible to examine copies of Annual Returns and Accounts of both Highland Titles Ltd., registered in Alderney and Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, registered in Guernsey. As I argued then,

Revenue is paid into a company registered in Alderney but as no accounts are published, it is impossible to be sure. The sole share is held by Wilson and McGregor as Trustees for the Guernsey charity. Under the law of Guernsey, no charity is obliged to provide accounts for public inspection and it need only file accounts under certain circumstances.

Thus nobody knows if in fact the charity is in receipt of any funds whatsoever. As the sole shareholder it is not entitled to have any of the revenues of Highland Titles Ltd. transferred to it. These revenues may well be paid out by the Alderney company as management fees or any manner of other payments to third parties.”

Mr Le Tocq informed me that under Guernsey law, the charity is not required to submit any financial returns and access to the Alderney company records would only be available to law enforcement agencies if there was evidence of criminal conduct.

Thus, because this land is owned in an offshore tax haven, we are unable to obtain any information about what happens to the money generated by selling off souvenir plots.

(1) There is some disagreement over the appropriate strategy to be adopted to save the Scottish wildcat. An official project, Scottish Wildcat Action is being run by 20 organisatiosn with the support of the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission among others. Those behind the Wildcat Haven project, however, have criticised the official programme.

(2) The Community Interest Company Regulations 2005

UPDATE 1500hrs 30 Sep 2015

The following response was emailed to me by Emily O’Donoghue and posted on the Wildcat Haven website here. The response is also contained in a comment below this post together with my follow up questions.

Dear Andy,

Just hoped to respond briefly to your primary concerns about the Wildcat Haven project.

Highland Titles Charitable Trust is currently listed as our nominated body, it is acting as a placeholder whilst we agree with a few local organisations in the West Highlands who would be best placed to become the ongoing nominated body. Of course, you’ll have to wait and see on this one, but we have already sent in paperwork replacing HT with another organisation, I’m sure records will be updated shortly.

Our website repeatedly states that the plots being sold are souvenir plots and “a bit of fun”, our own FAQ outlines that registration of souvenir plots is legally impossible so this seems little revelation.

In terms of location, the current Haven fieldwork area is in West Lochaber (Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Sunart).  We have been highly successful in neutering feral cats in this area (we have neutered 50 in the last 7 months alone, leaving close to 500 square miles free of intact feral or pet cats) and are now ready to expand. You are right to highlight that the land in Loch Loyne is north of the current Haven area, however that is the very point, we are expanding northwards and the the long term goal has always been to cover the entire Highlands west of the Great Glen. Loch Loyne is ideally situated being to the east of the Knoydart peninsula and near to a major land bridge to the rest of the Highlands, which needs to be protected from feral cat migration. Wildcat monitoring activities are already underway in the area, we are also looking to start operations in Sutherland which you will note is also well north of the current Haven zone, as well as looking to buy land within the current fieldwork area.

Part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to us by Highland Titles and no plots in the area provided to us have been previously sold, so it was free for them to pass on, allowing us to offer actual physical plots to customers immediately, rather than just a promise of buying land in future.

Wildcat Haven has been around protecting wildcats since 2008, our team comes with considerable scientific and conservation credibility, we are currently the only effort to protect wildcats in the wild rather than place them in captivity and our work has been commended and supported by organisations such as Humane Society International for its exceptional standards of animal welfare and delivery of humane feral cat control, as well as receiving considerable coverage across national media recording our work with feral cats, wildcats, local schools and communities for many years.

We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for providing us with reduced rate access to the Who Owns Scotland database around 2008/2009 when the project was starting up and needed to start communicating with landowners; you helped us get where we are today, thanks a lot for your support and promotion of the Wildcat Haven project.

Emily O’Donoghue,
Director,
Wildcat Haven

I replied as follows.

Emily, 

Thanks for your response. 

1. It may be a bit of fun but you are asking folk to help you by “actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve” You need to be much clearer that people who spend £100 do not become owners of the land.

2. You say that part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to you. Can you tell me when this transaction took place and when it was submitted to the Registers of Scotland for recording? Can you advise the extent and location of this land?

3. Are there any wildcats on the Loch Loyne land?

4. Why is my IP address blocked from viewing your website?

5. What is the role of Highland Titles in your fundraising? Do they receive any payment? Do they receive any commission on each plot sold?

Thank you.

UPDATE FOOTNOTE 19 APRIL 2020

(1) Douglas Wilson in fact was not a Director of WHE at the time of publication of this Blog. He was a Director of Wildcat Enterprises CIC from 6 June 2015 to 21 August 2015 (when he resigned) and again from 21 October 2015 until 17 February 2016 when he again resigned. Guernesy does not have a very transparent, publicly accessible registry of companies being one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world. Thius, in order to obtain information about when a Director was appointed or resigned, one has to contact the Registry with a specific request. During my research for this blog, I thus phoned the Registry to find out if Douglas Wilson was still a Director of WHE and was informed that he was. I thus made the claim I did in good faith relying upon the only official source able to provide the information.

(2) Douglas Wilson was in fact not a Director of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland at the time of the publication of this Blog. Unlike the Guernsey Registry of Companies (see footnote (1) above), the Registry of Charities is publicly available online. I checked the entry for HTCTS during research for the Blog and noted that Douglas Wilson was recorded as a Director of HTCTS. I therefore relied upon this official source in good faith in writing the Blog. In fact, Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of HTCTS on 6 July 2015. This was not reported in the Guernsey Registry of charities until an update was published on 20 June 2016.