Guest Blog by Dr Helen Armstrong

Wild deer in Scotland belong to no-one – in legal terms they are res nullius. Yet this public resource has traditionally been managed exclusively by the owners of land. How to ensure the public interest in the private management of a public resource remains a challenge and, in this guest blog, Dr Helen Armstrong provides some thoughts on the way forward.

Dr Armstrong is an ecologist who has spent more than 25 years providing advice and carrying out research on the management of deer, sheep and cattle, and their impacts, in the British uplands. She has worked for Forest Research, Scottish Natural Heritage and the James Hutton Institute. In 2012 she set up her own consultancy.

The future of deer management in Scotland

To continue the discussion of deer management started by Duncan Halley in his guest blog (Hjorteviltforvaltning i Norge, 23 Jan 2015), here are some thoughts on how deer management differs between Scotland and Norway, along with some suggestions of how we might start to make deer management in Scotland compatible with the regeneration and expansion of woodland (for a discussion of the advantages of increasing woodland and shrub cover in Scotland see: Armstrong, Holl & Halley, Restoring the Scottish Uplands). I have focussed primarily on deer management in the uplands i.e. the Highlands and Southern Uplands. The increase in roe deer numbers in lowland, and peri-urban, areas is also of concern but presents different challenges.

Differences between Scotland and Norway:

  1. In Scotland, there are far fewer land owners than in Norway. Since the right to shoot deer, in both countries, resides with the land owner on whose land the deer are present at any time, shooting rights are in the hands of far fewer people in Scotland than in Norway. This means that, in Norway, far more people hunt and many of these hunters harvest only a few deer to provide venison for friends and family. Deer hunting in Scotland is primarily carried out for sport; as let stalking or as a recreational activity for the family and friends of the land owner. In areas where trees have been planted, or are being encouraged to regenerate naturally, and where deer fences are not desirable or are too expensive, it is carried out principally to protect young trees from browsing. Venison is produced largely as a by-product of these other activities. This is despite the fact that demand for venison in the UK is growing rapidly, to the point where it is not being met by local sources. In 2012, around 20% of the venison coming onto the market in Scotland was imported, largely from New Zealand and Poland.
  2. In Norway, absentee ownership of productive land (as opposed to holiday cabins) is not allowed, unlike in Scotland where any individual or organization, based anywhere in the world, can buy land. Absentee landowners are often less involved, and less interested, in the approach taken to deer management on their land than are those are who are resident. As a result, persuading landowners in Scotland to adopt an approach to deer management that takes into account wider public interests can be a difficult task.
  3. In Scotland, Highland estates where deer stalking is the main land use tend to be valued on the basis of the number of red deer stags that are shot each year, regardless of the size and quality of the stags. This is despite many recent estate purchases having been by private individuals, or Non-Governmental Organisations, that have nature conservation, not sport shooting, as a primary aim. In Norway, by contrast, land is valued on the basis of its type and quality as well as that of all its potential outputs. Currently, maintaining the capital value of a Scottish stalking estate entails maintaining the annual take of stags at as high a level as possible. Traditional deer managers often believe that, to achieve this, the estate needs to hold large numbers of hinds that will, in turn, produce large numbers of stag calves. As a consequence of the resulting intense competition for food and the lack of shelter from woodland, Scotland’s hill deer are small and stag trophy heads are unimpressive by European standards. On many estates deer are fed in winter to avoid high levels of mortality. As in Norway, the social life of many of the people who own land in Scotland is bound up with the culture of sport shooting. The maintenance of these cultures is not dependent, however, on having artificially high populations of deer. The apparent reluctance on the part of some land owners to take action voluntarily to reduce the damaging impacts of the current high numbers of deer is therefore more likely to be related both to the outdated system of assessing capital values and to entrenched ideas of what constitutes good deer management, than it is to any potentially damaging effect on sporting culture.
  4. In Norway, the impact of deer on the environment is monitored by those who have the right to shoot deer. Numbers of deer are required to be maintained at a level that does not compromise the public good. In Scotland, those with the right to shoot deer have no duty to either monitor the impacts of deer or to limit their impact on the public good. As a result, high deer densities across much of the country are preventing woodland from regenerating naturally, cause large numbers of road traffic accidents (RTAs) every year and promote high tick numbers that, in turn, may be contributing to the increasing incidence of Lyme disease. All of these have a high public cost. There is around 2,250 km of fencing on the National Forest Estate in Scotland (land managed on our behalf by Forestry Commission Scotland; FCS). Between 2010 and 2013 FCS spent around £4 million on deer fencing to allow young trees to escape from browsing. This is a cost not borne by competing timber producers in other European countries such as Norway, where fencing for this purpose is unknown. The Scottish Government has a target to expand woodland cover from the current 17% to 25%. The cost of achieving this would be considerably reduced if deer numbers were brought down to a level where deer fencing was not needed.
  5. Unlike Scotland, Norway has in place a modern system of wildlife management. This requires annual counting of deer numbers over large areas, the collection of information on every deer shot and the assessment of deer impacts on woodland and other habitats. To achieve this requires a national system of oversight to ensure that appropriate methods are developed, that those doing the monitoring are trained and that the information returned is of a high quality. A similar system in Scotland would tell us how many deer there are and what impacts they are having. Data on RTAs and, ideally, also on the impact of deer on tick densities and the incidence of Lyme disease would also help inform deer population targets. A Government Agency (most likely Scottish Natural Heritage) would need to collate and analyse all these data, most of which would be provided by land owners and hunters. They would then advise each Deer Management Group, of which there are currently around 70 in Scotland, as well as individual landowners, on appropriate deer management. This would include the setting of harvest levels. All this costs money, but the Norwegian system is funded from fees paid by hunters and there is no reason why the same approach could not be taken in Scotland.
  6. Scotland currently has much less woodland cover than does Norway (17% v 33%), even though a greater proportion of Scotland is climatically suited to woodland. Much Norwegian woodland is semi-natural, and so contains more forage for deer than do our dense conifer plantations. Roe deer are almost always found living in, or near, woodland so they generally have access to relatively large areas of woodland. As a result, their impact on woodland is closely related to their density and this can be set such that woodland /RTA /tick objectives are met. Regular monitoring would allow any initial assessment of an appropriate density to be adjusted over time. Red deer are also woodland animals by preference but, in Scotland, the lack of woodland has forced many of them to live in the open where, unlike roe deer, they can survive, if not prosper. Red deer almost always seek shelter in woodland in winter, where it is available. Many of our open hill estates have so little woodland that the pressure on the remaining woods from deer (both red and roe) in winter is intense. As a result, densities of deer that are compatible with achieving woodland regeneration and expansion are often low and considerable effort would be needed to keep numbers low enough. The remaining deer would, however, produce more, bigger, and more viable offspring due to reduced competition for food. Individual deer would therefore produce more venison and stags would have bigger antlers that reached their full size at a younger age. As a result, sport shooting may remain financially viable. Numbers of jobs associated with deer management would need to be maintained, or increased, to keep up the high culling effort that would be needed.
  7. In Scotland, a ‘recovery’ phase is needed, where appropriate deer management allows woodland to regenerate and expand. Once we have increased woodland cover, higher numbers of deer could be supported and the sustainable harvest increased accordingly. Significant reductions in deer numbers are needed to give us the step-change in Scotland’s woodland cover that is needed to both meet woodland policy targets and to achieve the long-term health of the Scottish uplands (see Armstrong, Holl & Halley).

Deer Management Groups across the Highlands, with some financial support from SNH, are currently writing deer management plans. The aim of the plans is to present information, where available, on deer populations and impacts, and set population and cull targets in light of both private and public objectives. These plans will be publicly available and the success of DMGs in writing the plans, and making progress towards sustainable deer management, will be assessed in 2016. While many estates and DMGs are fully committed to producing well informed plans, some are less committed.

While the system remains voluntary it is unlikely that all estates, and all DMGs, will put in place modern deer management systems that adequately address public as well as private objectives. Those that do will need to bear the additional costs of taking this approach while those that do not will have fewer private costs but their deer management is likely to have higher public costs. A fairer system would legally oblige those who have the right to shoot deer to put in place a high standard of deer management that takes into account public as well as private objectives.

An Initial step towards this would be to put in place a modern, state-of-the-art system for the monitoring of deer populations and their impacts so that local population sizes, compatible with acceptable impact levels, can be determined. Deer population and harvest targets could then be set. Currently deer management is often tradition-based rather than being based on carefully collected deer population and impact information. This approach needs to change.

There should be a legal requirement for land owners to regularly count the deer on their land (including the number of young per female) and return this information to SNH. Count methods should be specified by SNH and regular checking would be needed to ensure accuracy. There should also be a requirement to return basic data on all deer shot (sex, weight and age class as a minimum). This would provide information on the deer population that could then be used to determine the size of harvest that will be needed to adjust deer numbers to a level that best meets all objectives. It would also allow land owners, and SNH, to track improvements in deer weight and productivity resulting from better management of populations.

Land owners should also be required to collect basic habitat impact information and return it to SNH. All of this is standard practice and legally required in most other European countries. A levy on land owners in return for the right to shoot deer, which in Scotland are currently owned by no-one, would pay for the system. The fee could be set at a rate per ha of land and might be increased if targets were not met, to reflect the consequent costs to society. The fee should not be per head of deer shot, since that might provide a dis-incentive to control populations. A land owner who did not participate, would be obliged to pass the deer management on their land to a person, or group, who would. If they could not find anyone else to run the deer management then, as a last resort, SNH would need to take over deer management on the estate. This might mean either carrying out appropriate deer management themselves or letting the hunting rights to others who will. Deer are a national resource and information relating to deer management should be publicly available.

Two other actions would help to ensure that deer numbers are brought down to sustainable levels:

  1. Extend harvest seasons. There is no welfare reason for not having a year-long season for stags and the hind season could be extended (deer managers can currently apply to SNH for an extension for reasons of habitat /forestry/ agricultural protection). The current seasons were put in place to protect deer when numbers were low; but that is not the current requirement. All hunters should be required to hold an appropriate qualification (as in Norway).
  2. Discourage winter feeding of deer. This is a common practice for hill red deer and results in populations that are artificially higher than the habitat can support. If deer numbers were lower there would be no need for winter feeding.

These three actions would have a major impact on the way that deer are managed as well as on their numbers. They would also provide the information needed to take the next steps of setting target deer densities and harvests at a local level to minimize conflicts and maximize the benefits of the national deer resource to all the people of Scotland.

Helen Armstrong
Broomhill Ecology
1 April 2015

The Scottish Government has announced the remit and membership of the Commission on Local Tax reform. I am very pleased to have been nominated as a member of the Commission on Local Tax Reform and look forward to meeting the other Commissioners on Monday at our first meeting.

The Commission will be co-chaired by Local Government Minister Marco Biagi and President of COSLA Councillor David O’Neill. The Commission will meet for first time on February 23 and will report to the Scottish Government and COSLA in the autumn.

Marco Biagi said:

“The Scottish Government believes the current council tax system is unfair and we are acting on our manifesto commitment, and the recommendations of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, to look at alternative approaches to local taxation.

“The Commission on Local Tax Reform will consider progressive, workable and fair systems, taking into account domestic and international evidence on tax powers and wealth distribution, the autonomy and accountability of local government and the impact on individuals who pay the tax.

“The members bring a broad range of expertise and experience and I look forward to starting this important work.”

David O’Neill said: “A great deal of work lies ahead, but this Commission is a chance to take a step back and think about the best way to pay for the local services that communities rely on every day.

“Across Scotland people are looking for the debate to break new ground, and that’s why I am determined that this Commission will be listening to people and organisations from all parts of the country, and setting out what it would take to give our local communities a real say about what matters most to them, and the best way to pay for it.”

The Commission’s Remit is:

“To identify and examine alternative systems of local taxation that would deliver a fairer system of local taxation to support the funding of services delivered by local government. In doing so, the Commission will consider:

  • The impacts on individuals, households and inequalities in income and wealth;
  • The wider macro-economic, demographic and fiscal impacts, including housing market and land use;
  • The administrative and collection arrangements that apply, including the costs of transition and subsequent operation;
  • Potential timetables for transition, with due regard to the 2017 Local Government elections.
  • The impacts on supporting local democracy, including on the financial accountability and autonomy of Local Government;
  • The revenue raising capacity of the alternatives at both local authority and national levels.

In conducting its work, the Commission will engage with communities across Scotland to assess public perceptions of the emerging findings and to reflect this evidence in its final analysis and recommendations.

The Commission will be supported by an independent secretariat comprising staff seconded from COSLA and the Scottish Government.

The membership is as follows (the Scottish Conservative Party has declined to take part).

  • Councillor Susan Aitken, SNP Local Government Convenor and Leader of SNP Group, Glasgow City Council;
  • Councillor Catriona Bhatia, Leader of Liberal Democrat Group and Deputy Leader, Scottish Borders Council;
  • Marco Biagi MSP, Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment (Co-Chair);
  • Councillor Angus Campbell, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Leader of the Independent Group at COSLA;
  • Councillor Rhondda Geekie, Leader Of East Dunbartonshire Council and Leader of Labour Group at COSLA;
  • Dr Angela O’Hagan, Research Fellow in the Institute for Society and Social Justice Research and Convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group;
  • Isobel d’Inverno, Convenor of the Tax Committee of the Law Society of Scotland and Director of Corporate Tax at Brodies LLP;
  • Mary Kinnonmonth, Manager of Dundee Citizens Advice Bureau and Member of Citizens Advice Scotland Board of Directors;
  • Dr Jim McCormick, Scotland Advisor, Joseph Rowntree Foundation;
  • Councillor David O’Neill, President of COSLA (Co-Chair);
  • Don Peebles, Head of CIPFA Scotland;
  • Alex Rowley, MSP for Cowdenbeath and Shadow Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment;
  • Andy Wightman, Writer and Researcher, representing the Scottish Green Party.

 

I will be using this blog to explore in an open manner some of the issues to be resolved in devising an enduring and robust system of local taxation. The focus is very much on what to replace the Council Tax with but of course that replacement could involve not just a better system of domestic property taxation but the repatriation of non-domestic rating, sales taxes, local income taxes and other sources of local finance.

I am very clear that we need a new system of local government finance. Any new property tax should be designed in such a way as to endure over the long-term. It should be more reflective of land and/or property values, more transparent and be capable of contributing a greater proportion of autonomous local finance than is currently the case. Local finance and taxation is a vital part of rebuilding and strengthening local democracy.

Finally, this job is unpaid. On the face of it, this means that I will have to inevitably devote less time some of my other unpaid work on, for example, land reform. However, I plan to launch a crowd-funding appeal soon that will allow me to continue (and indeed increase) the time I can devote to that topic in what is a vital year ahead.

Later this afternoon I will publish a link to the Commission’s website. Meanwhile I welcome all views on the challenge that lies ahead.

Guest Blog by Fred Harrison, Land Research Trust.

Scotland’s First Minister has created an awkward rod for her political back. Her attack on the Coalition Government’s “austerity” policies renders the SNP vulnerable to its enemies in Westminster. Speaking in London on Wednesday (video above, text here), Nicola Sturgeon trashed the UK Government’s policies on three counts. She condemned the economic policies pursued by David Cameron for failing to deliver long-term growth, increased productivity and fairness. Her own government in Holyrood will now be judged on those tests.

Fortunately for the SNP, the new powers on taxation that are being devolved to Scotland will enable her to undertake reforms that can shift Scotland in the direction of an alternative economic path. But this will require a major change to the way Scotland funds its public services. The taxes employed by the London government certainly fail the first test: long-term growth. Tax policies are rigged against people who earn their incomes by working and saving. The revenue system is biased to favour land as an investment asset. And the pages of history leave us in no doubt that those fiscal policies drive the boom/bust business cycle that terminates long-term growth.

The productivity test is an awkward one. How inefficient is the current tax regime? I will explore that issue at a public conference in Glasgow on 25th February. But there is no doubt that performance of the Scottish economy could be dramatically enhanced if the Sturgeon government decides to rebalance the tax regime. It will need to shift the emphasis away from Income Tax and onto a re-based property tax.

There is no ambiguity about the third test: fairness. At present, the tax regime discriminates against families that rent their homes, and favours the owners of residential property. So the SNP’s commitment to land reform will challenge Ms Sturgeon to find a way of shifting the structure of taxation so that people are treated as equals.

In her London speech, Ms Sturgeon pointed out that the austerity programme was being forcefully opposed throughout Europe. But she is now in a unique position. Unlike the newly elected Greek government, the SNP administration does not have to secure the permission of others to change course. It has the political mandate to launch the reforms that would shift Scotland onto the high productivity growth path. Those reforms would be fair to everyone willing to work by adding to the sum total of Scotland’s wealth and welfare.

Ironically, the SNP government’s enemies within Scotland will not invoke Nicola’s three tests. Already, the opponents of land reform are mobilising their ammunition to try and defend the status quo. The last thing they want is a shift in the direction of efficiency and fairness! The tax regime, after all, was created by those who sought privileged treatment, and to hell with the unfair impact on others. So it will be up to Nicola’s friends to hold her to account, by invoking the three tests to measure the performance of the SNP government.

The attempts by South Cowal Community Development Company (SCCDC) to acquire Castle Toward in Argyll have attracted widespread media attention. See reports here and here as examples.

Last week I was sent an email by one of those behind the acquisition. It was entitled HELP!!! and sought my assistance in trying to resolve the current impasse between the community and Argyll and Bute Council. Alas, I have no magic wand and replied to say that, while I had been following the story, I did not know enough of the detail to provide any advice or assistance. Matters might not have proceeded any further but something was niggling at the back of my mind. I decided to find out the factual details behind the case.

Background

SCCDC first applied to register an interest in Castle Toward under Part 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (the community right to buy) in January 2011.(1) This application was rejected by Scottish Ministers because it was “late”. In other words, steps were already being taken to market the land and, as stated in the letter, “Ministers have previously stated that being reactive to a proposed sale of land for specific purposes is not a “good” reason for submitting a “late” application (letter here pdf).

In November 2013, SCCDC applied once more to register an interest in Castle Toward. Scottish Ministers approved this application and it was registered on 23 January 2014 (see letter here 1.1Mb pdf). The effect of registration is that the landowner (Argyll & Bute Council in this case) cannot sell the land without the registered community body being notified, expressing its wish to exercise the right to buy (or not) and having that wish granted by Scottish Ministers.

Argyll and Bute Council notified Scottish Ministers that it proposed to sell the property, SCCDC were then informed and indicated that it wished to exercise its right to buy. Scottish Ministers gave their approval on 22 October 2014 (see letter here pdf). Under the Land Reform Act, the community has six months (from the date on which it indicated it wished to exercise the right to buy) within which to complete the acquisition. This period expired on 31 January 2015.

Case Exposes Flaw

At this point I realised that there was more to this story than just the behaviour and actions of Argyll and Bute Council and that it exposed a significant weakness in the legislation. The act is currently being amended in Parliament as part of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill. Due to lack of time, I took a decision not to follow the Bill through Parliament but I now wish that I had taken more interest.

The flaw in the legislation is that, whilst the community body has six months within which to complete the sale, the landowner can withdraw the land from sale at any time and can refuse to sell the land to the community body. In other words, an owner’s intimation that they plan to sell (which triggers the right to buy process) is not an obligation to sell even if the community wants to exercise its right-to-buy and has the money. It’s rather like offering a child a sweetie if they jump through certain hoops then at the end saying “sorry you cant have the sweetie”.

[Update – note Neil King’s comments below. In this case, the valuation placed on the property under the Land Reform Act is £1.75m. SCCDC are not offering that and thus, in law, the Council are entitled not to conclude a sale].

Of course, the owner cannot sell to anyone else so long as there is a registered interest so the scene is set in certain circumstances for a stalemate such as we have at Castle Toward. This is not the first time that this problem has surfaced. From memory, it has occurred on at least one other occasion.

I had presumed that this (and other weaknesses in the legislation) would have been dealt with during the passage of the Community Empowerment Bill. But I’ve had a quick look at it and it seems the only reform is to make the owner liable for the costs of the valuation should the sale not proceed (Section 44). I have contacted others who have taken a close interest in the legislative process and, although this issue has, apparently, been raised, it has not been dealt with.

Thus I suggest that at Stage 2 of the Bill, an amendment is introduced to the following effect .

Where an owner of land, over which there is a registered interest, decides to sell the land and, as a consequence, triggers the community right to buy, the owner shall be obliged to transfer the land within the six-month period on the terms specified in the legislation. Failure to do so shall allow Scottish Ministers to acquire the land using powers of compulsory purchase.

Is that a) feasible and b) politically acceptable?

NOTES

(1) See the Register of Community Interests in Land for details of registered interests.

“I’m deeply dismayed that this issue has been re-opened again. I can understand that there are always going to be some people who object to large-scale landownership but we felt that that was dealt with at the time of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

What is being done challenges the nature of the society we live in and property rights. It also, in practical terms creates deep uncertainty in planning for the future and I think that’s going to be the disadvantage of the rural economy……..”

Image: Map of Applecross Estate

Proposal 6 in the Scottish Government’s consultation paper on land reform (see link here) is to introduce a statutory duty of community engagement on charitable bodies that own land. There are four main types of charitable bodies that own land and property.

1. Environmental charities such as the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds;

2. Educational bodies such as universities, colleges and private schools;

3. Community bodies that own anything from a village hall to large estates such as South Uist, Assynt and Knoydart; and

4. Landed estates formerly owned by private individuals that have been transferred into charitable company and trusts. These include estates of Applecross, Isle of Bute, Drummond Estate, much of Atholl Estate and Conchra Estate.

Environmental and community bodies have reacted to the proposal with irritation, claiming that they already engage with communities. Likewise with community bodies which already have membership open to all who live in the community and are run by boards of directors elected by the community.

In a blog on the Scottish Community Woodlands Association website, Jon Hollingdale makes the case that imposing such a duty across the board is an over-reaction to a problem which is quite modest in scale.

If the issue is with the tiny cohort of private Scottish charities whose landholdings give them a local monopoly, then, rather than imposing general burdens on all, the smart answer is to take another look at the charitable status of these organisations.”

There are a number of charitable bodies that were set up by previous private owners (often for tax purposes) and which, today, own quite large landholdings. Typically, the membership is restricted to a fixed number and with special appointment rights in the hands of the former owner.

For example, the Mount Stuart Trust owns 23,800 acres of the Isle of Bute. It was set up by the 6th Marquess of Bute in 1985 as a charitable trust and incorporated as a company limited by guarantee with no share capital in May 1989.

Under Article 21.1.2 of the Articles of Association of the company, the Marquess of Bute has the power to appoint up to four Directors even though he himself is not a member, a tax-exile and non-resident in the UK.

The Applecross Estate extends to 61,600 acres in Wester Ross. It was bought by the Wills tobacco family in 1929 and is owned today by the Applecross Trust, a company limited by guarantee with no share capital. Back in 1978, the Wills family were worried about the impact of capital transfer tax and, to avoid exposure to it, decided to transfer the estate into a charitable body. As they noted in a letter to residents at the time,

It continues,

Copy of full letter here (2Mb pdf)

Today, the estate is still owned by the Trust and its membership is still associated with the Wills family, Richard Wills being the current Chair of the Board. None of the board members lives in Applecross.

In 2012, around 100 people applied as part of the Land Action Scotland campaign to become members of the two charities the, Mount Stuart Trust and Applecross Trust. All applications were refused. The Applecross Trust response is outlined here & a media report here.

Many local people in Applecross would like to become members of the Trust and play an active role in the management of the estate. The peninsular is very rural and has a fragile economy. Development to retain and create jobs is vital and yet the trust’s charitable objectives are restricted to preservation, environmental protection and amenity, public access and the advancement of education, arts, heritage, culture and science.

This makes it difficult, for example to develop housing since the charitable objectives do not include economic development and thus any sale of land has to be at open market value which is beyond the reach of most local people.

Meanwhile, the Chair, Mr Richard Wills, through a partnership of which he is a member (Deer Management Consultants), rents the deer stalking on the estate. The rent is negotiated on an independent basis with no involvement from Mr Wills. Similarly, Mr Wills rents Applecross House (pictured above) and fishings in the Applecross River for £10,200 per year from 2014-2029. When not at his country house in Applecross, Mr Wills lives in a large country house in Hampshire (pictured below)

Despite the independent arms length negotiation, it is open to question whether these rents represent the best that can be obtained on behalf of the charity in the market. Other similar country houses are available on estates in the region for between £2000 and £2800 per week. Applecross Estate rents the Applecross Manse (sleeps 7) for £1080 per week on the open holiday lets market.

The question raised by the consultation is whether these estates should continue to be owned and managed by charitable bodies that restrict membership to a few members of family and friends, provide exclusive nomination rights for tax-exiles such as the Marquess of Bute, but yet refuse to allow the beneficiaries of the charities – the local population – any right to become members or Directors of the respective company boards. The Applecross Trust even has a vacant on its Board following the resignation of Charles Peregrine Albermarle Bertie in December 2012. But it remains unfilled.

I think it is time to open up these closed shops, review their governance and allow the wider community to have the opportunity to have a stake in the future of their community.

Yesterday the Daily Telegraph published an article (pdf here online here) based on an interview with David Johnstone, the Chair of Scottish Land and Estates (SLE). Mr Johnstone has been a frequent contributor to the media arguing the case on behalf of the members of his organisation. This is all just grand.

However, in his media appearances and in this article he makes a number of claims that don’t appear to accord with the evidence available.

On 2 December 2014, he was interviewed by James Naughtie on the Today programme. I do not have a transcript of the interview and it is no longer available online but shortly afterwards I received two emails. One was from a civil servant and the other from a Parliamentary official. They both asked me if I had heard the interview and if I knew of any evidence to back up his claim. I said I hadn’t but I then listened online. Mr Johnstone made a claim that the extent of absentee ownership of Scottish land was very small. As I don’t have the transcript I cannot be sure of his exact words but the impression was clearly given that absentee ownership of land was very modest. He was not challenged on this by Mr Naughtie. So what do we know?

One study by Edinburgh University conducted 2000-2002 looked only at hunting estates. Of 218 estates that were studied, 66% were owned by absentee owners. This is illustrated on the map below. Another source of data that I am aware of is from a study by Armstrong and Mather from 1983 which examined landownership in the Scottish Highlands which found evidence that approximately 50% of owners live outwith the region. (1)

A study of forest ownership found that 55% of the privately-owned forest area was owned by absentee owners. Research may be limited but it does suggest that absenteeism is not the very modest phenomenon that Mr Johnstone alleged that it was.

Yesterday’s article in the Daily Telegraph contains a further unsubstantiated allegation.

He told the Telegraph that,

..most estates make little or no profit…..

I know of no evidence to support this statement (which is not to say it is untrue of course).

There is very little information on profitability. Scottish Land and Estates conducted a significant study on the economic impact of estates but (rather curiously) chose not to gather data on profitability. (2) In Savills’ Scottish Estates Benchmarking Survey 2013, it was reported that,

Rural assets continue to outperform alternative assets and our survey again records a healthy investment performance on ‘All Estates’

In the year to 5th April 2013 the average Total Return for ‘All Estates’ in Scotland for all Let Property was 10.8%, the sum of a net income return of 1.3% and capital growth of 9.5% (see graph below)

In an interesting observation of the political process, Mr Johnstone said,

many MSPs and some ministers lavish high praise on the estates in their constituencies only to lambast landowners when they are at Holyrood…he said there was a gulf between SNP and Labour MSPs telling landowners in their constituencies they are the “good guys” and their “aggressive” rhetoric on a national stage where all the praise is “forgotten”.

SLE has indeed invited a significant number of MSPs to visit landholdings owned by its members but Mr Johnstone takes a rather naive view of the political process and confuses the role of MSPs as representatives of their constituents and as legislators. An MSP visiting an estate in their constituency is very unlikely to criticise the owner unless for very good reason. As a constituent, they are as entitled as any other to have their views and opinions heard with respect. A good constituency MSP will seek to do what they can to resolve any problems or issues the constituent has. If I were an MSP I would happily visit landowners and seek to assist them in any way I could.

However, MSPs are also legislators and those who are members of the SNP are relied upon to secure support for Government business in the Scottish Parliament. It is perfectly consistent for an MSP to, on the one hand, visit constituents and represent them and, on the other, to speak frankly about the iniquities of the system by which Scotland’s land is held. Winston Churchill put it very well.

I hope you will understand that, when I speak of the land monopolist, I am dealing more with the process than with the individual land owner who, in most cases, is a worthy person utterly unconscious of the character of the methods by which he is enriched. I have no wish to hold any class up to public disapprobation. I do not think that the man who makes money by unearned increment in land is morally worse than anyone else who gathers his profit where he finds it in this hard world under the law and according to common usage. It is not the individual I attack; it is the system. It is not the man who is bad; it is the law which is bad. It is not the man who is blameworthy for doing what the law allows and what other men do; it is the State which would be blameworthy if it were not to endeavor to reform the law and correct the practice.

We do not want to punish the landlord. We want to alter the law.

Mr Johnstone concluded,

People equate the idea of owning the land with having the ability to release all this money, and the income is all going to come flowing in. But it doesn’t happen – landowners aren’t sitting there stifling investment.

They are doing everything they can do to generate the income in these places. It’s not bloody easy.

If you say so.

NOTES

(1) Armstrong, AM & Mather, AS, (1983) Land Ownership and Land Use in the Scottish Highlands. O’Dell Memorial Monograph No. 13. University of Aberdeen.

(2) See Economic Contribution of Estates in Scotland

 

In this article, entitled Hjorteviltforvaltning i Norge (Deer management in Norway), Dr. Duncan Halley and Dr. Erling Solberg of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research describe the framework for deer management and wildlife management in Norway.

Dr. Duncan Halley was born and educated in Scotland. He moved to Norway in 1993, where he works on wildlife management, restoration ecology, and Scotland/Norway landscape management comparisons. Dr. Erling Solberg is a leading researcher on deer management in Norway and an active hunter. They are research ecologists at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), Norway’s leading applied ecology institute (www.nina.no). Contact: duncan.halley@nina.no 

The Scottish Government’s proposed land reform bill contains a very modest proposal for improving the democratic accountability in relation to the management of this public resource by private interests. To achieve a wildlife management system fit for the 21st century, however, more fundamental reform is needed. The Norwegian experience offers some insight into what might be involved.

Guest Blog by Duncan Halley & Erling Solberg, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research

Land Reform legislation in 2015 will include strengthened powers to allow the authorities to regulate deer populations in Scotland. Further action is promised from 2016 if the current voluntary system “has not produced a step change in the delivery of effective deer management”.

It seems likely that action would follow the precedent set in the recent Wild Fisheries Review, where the remit was to:

“develop and promote a modern, evidence-based management system for wild fisheries fit for purpose in the 21st century, and capable of responding to the changing environment”;

and

“manage, conserve and develop our wild fisheries to maximise the sustainable benefit of Scotland’s wild fish resources to the country as a whole and particularly to rural areas”.

Here we present a brief look at what a modern system, functioning not far from Scotland, can look like. South West Norway is on the same latitude as Northern Scotland and is similar in landforms and climate – hilly to mountainous and highly oceanic. The deer resource in the region is mainly red and roe deer, though there are also some moose and reindeer. (1) Here we discuss the system as it applies to red and roe deer.

Landowners in Norway, as in Scotland, do not own the wildlife on their land but do own the hunting rights to game animals such as red and roe deer, and the carcasses that legal hunting produces. These rights can be, and in many cases are, sold.

Modern deer management in Norway is the result of development and refinement over many decades. The core of the system is a partnership of government, landowners, and hunters, each with a defined role. This is backed by professional wildlife management skills, monitoring of harvests and populations to provide high quality data for future management, and binding harvest management plans which regulate and maintain population levels of the national game resource in accordance with democratically accountable national, regional and local goals. This has included in some regions managed reductions in populations to ensure natural forest regeneration (which local and regional authorities are required to plan for, and landowners to achieve, see below).

The system has been effective in managing the resource at sustainable levels, which take into account wider environmental, social and economic interests. It enjoys broad public support.

The government has been keen to encourage a market for wild game meat. Food Safety Authority regulations for sale of meat on the open market by hunting rights owners, hunting teams, and/or individual hunters are simple and the system efficient. This has considerably expanded the market, to the benefit of hunting rights owners, hunters, and consumers.

Image: Hunting in Norway (Erling Solberg)

Who does what?

The Norwegian Environment Agency oversees the regulation of the system. It determines and finances research and monitoring requirements and determines the normal hunting seasons.

The Regional authorities (fylkeskommuner) are responsible for building management competence at local level among Municipalities (kommuner) and landowners, for guidance on population management at a regional level in accordance with wider societal goals such as biodiversity, prevention of overgrazing, and road safety; and for overseeing coordination among hunting rights owners and local councils to attain regional management goals. (2)

Municipalities (kommuner) have the authority and responsibility for managing local harvest levels in accordance with overall regional goals and with directing harvest levels at a local level with regard to minimizing conflicts with e.g. traffic safety, biodiversity, woodland regeneration, agriculture, and public enjoyment of nature. They issue the final harvest permits, can extend the usual hunting season, and must report permit levels and actual harvests to the National Deer Register. They may also report results of local monitoring. Section 9 of the Forest Law of 2005 mandates that Municipalities (kommuner) investigate deer damage to woodland regeneration and incorporate this in harvest management planning.

The owners of hunting rights are responsible for population regulation through a binding harvest plan for the hunting beat (vald), a defined area of land for which a named individual is responsible for relations with the authorities; and for coordination with neighbouring beats. They must also comply with Section 6 of the Forest Law of 2005, which requires satisfactory levels of woodland regeneration following any harvest of wood.

The police and National Nature Inspectorate have a legal right to inspect hunters in the field (to check licences, etc.), which may be delegated to Municipality (kommune) hunting monitors. Municipalities (kommuner) can require that harvested deer are brought to designated points for inspection.

Setting Harvest levels

Data on deer populations is collected centrally and maintained by the National Deer Register (www.hjortevilt.no) on a public internet database. This data, and the population plan submitted by the hunting rights owner, is the basis for determining harvest permit levels for each beat. Deer may not be hunted without a harvest permit.

Permits are issued by the Municipalities (kommuner) to the hunting rights owner, based on the tools available at the National Deer Register website, local consultations, and the population management plan for the beat submitted by the owner.

A population management plan for up to 5 years ahead (may be for a shorter period) is obligatory and can be for one or more (contiguous) beats. It must specify annual harvests (stags and hinds by age group), often in the form of a minimum % of younger animals and a maximum of older ones. The authorities must approve these plans, and in particular must ensure harvest levels are in accordance with local, regional and national population management goals. Approval can be withheld for not being compatible with, or withdrawn for failure to achieve in practice, these goals.

In the absence of an approved plan the Municipality (kommune) sets a harvest quota in accordance with local and regional and national population management goals.

Image: Hunting in Norway. Taking a meal break (Erling Solberg)

Using harvest permits

The owner of the hunting rights may use him/herself, give away, or sell any part or all of the permitted offtake in a free market. Typically, the sale of hunting rights is financially structured by the owner in a way that gives a strong incentive to achieve the required offtake, as the owner remains legally responsible for achieving offtake levels.

Reporting requirements

Each hunting beat must report annually offtake levels broken down by age and sex, within 14 days of the end of the hunting season. These are publically available in the National Deer Register.

The hunter individually must also, when required by the authorities, report the number, age, and sex of harvested deer; report total numbers of deer seen; and provide specified animal parts (typically one side of the lower jaw) for verification of harvest levels, population monitoring, and research purposes.

Training requirements

All hunters resident in Norway must pass a written exam on hunting law and regulation, reporting requirements, species identification, and firearms safety to obtain a hunter’s licence. They must also pass a test of shooting accuracy every year at an approved firing range.

Non-resident hunters may hunt if they can produce equivalent qualifications from their home country.

Image: Grouse shooting and fishing for char and trout (Erling Solberg)

Financing the system

To hunt in Norway a hunter must purchase an annual Hunter’s Fee Card from the central government. This is separate from any fees paid to the owner of hunting rights. Hunters also pay tag fees for each red deer harvested to the Municipality (kommune). There is no tag fee for roe deer. The revenue generated is dedicated to running the management system and to support local game promotional projects.

Norway is of course socially different to Scotland, and has had a different institutional history. Introducing a modern system of deer management would have to take this into account. However, the principle of managing a public resource for the common good through a democratically accountable system, on the basis of solid information on actual populations and on the population levels which will maximize that common good, and where landowners have the right to the offtake determined and the responsibility for achieving it, is fully transferable. A system attaining these goals and enjoying broad public support is achievable, and can be achieved.

A working example can be seen an hour’s flight from Scotland.

NOTES

(1) Moose were native to Scotland. It is probable that reindeer became extinct naturally, as suitable habitat is restricted for climatic reasons.

(2) There is a two tier system of local government in Norway in some ways analogous to the former Scottish Regional/District system. The powers at each level are more extensive than was the case in Scotland. Municipalities have an average population of 11,800 compared to 163,000 per local authority in Scotland.

A briefing by Andy Wightman on the Scottish Government’s proposals for a Land Reform Bill has been published. It is available from the Land Reform 2014-16 page on this website (menu item Hot Topics/Land Reform 2014-16). Further briefings and blogs on this subject will be published and collated on that page.

The consultation closes on 10 February 2015. Please make your views known to the Scottish Government.