Image: Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wins the 2012 St James’ Palace Stakes, Royal Ascot

It’s hard to imagine the Government devising a new system of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Housing Benefit where the claimant is told they that their entitlement to such payments is just about to quadruple whether they like it or not. Indeed, with the total benefits cap set at £26,000 per year, the trend is in the opposite direction. It has long eluded me why, when the poorest in society suffer cuts and caps, some of the wealthiest (like the individual pictured above) not only appear to suffer no such pain, but are rewarded with largesse.

I met a tenant farmer recently who told me that under the existing system of farming subsidies he receives £18,000 per year. That’s a fairly generous allocation. But under current proposals for the new system (to be introduced in 2015) he will receive £80,000. “I don’t need it”, he told me. He is not particularly wealthy but he doesn’t need the money. So why does it look likely that he will get it?

The existing system of farm subsidies is coming to an end in December 2015 and the Scottish Government is currently finalising the details of the new system that will take its place and run until 2020. The existing (historic) system awarded subsidy (single farm payments – SFP) to farmers on the basis of what they received in 2000-2002. This is rather like paying tax this year on the basis of what you earned 14 years ago.

Some farmers “gamed” the system by increasing their farming activity in those years and thus have done very well out of it over the past decade. Others have bought “entitlements” to subsidy from farmers who, for example, retire from farming, and have “attached” those “entitlements” to poor quality land. They rent this land very cheaply and have thus been paid substantial sums of public money for doing nothing. They are the slipper farmers (so-called because they sit in front of the fire in their slippers being paid for doing nothing). Young farmers who entered farming over the past ten years have typically received no subsidy because the Scottish Executive back in 2003 conveniently omitted to make any allowance for them.

From next year, a new Basic Payments System (BPS) of farming subsidies will be introduced on the basis of a straightforward fixed payment per hectare of land farmed. The current proposal is that this payment should be made over two separate “regions” of land – €20-25 for rough grazing land and €200-€250 for better quality land. This means that the more land you own or rent, the more subsidy you will receive. This explains the pleasant dilemma faced by my farming friend above.

So, will the new system eliminate slipper farmers, support new entrants and direct subsidy where it is most needed? There will be support for new entrants although how much and how soon remains to be seen. But on the first and third points the jury is still out.

Scottish farmers do well out of the CAP – they receive the second highest average payments in the EU (€31,955). But that figure masks a few who do very well and the great majority who receive much less. In the latest data for 2013, the recipient of the largest payment was the King of the slipper farmers, Frank A Smart who was awarded the tidy sum of £3,226,492 for 35,379ha of land that he “farmed”. (1)

That’s right – over three million pounds.

The recipient of the least got £0.22.

Of the £439.8 million handed out in 2013, 45% (£198 million) went to the top 10% of farmers and the top third received over 81% of the total pot. This distribution is thanks to the system of historic payments and the scandal of slipper farming which, according to the farming journalist Andrew Arbuckle, has been responsible for between £50 – £100 million of payments each year – almost 20% of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture. His article is worth a read. So will the new system be any fairer? That depends on a number of factors including how much land is eligible for the BPS and how the new system is phased in. And this is where things get interesting.

Under the old scheme, some owners of very large tracts of land undertook very little farming and so have received relatively small payments. But under the new scheme their estates are all eligible for the basic payment. In 2013, there were 4,480,561 hectares against which subsidy claims were made. However, there are a total of 5,744,610 hectares  of land registered and eligible for subsidy – an additional 1,264,049 hectares. The Scottish Government intends, under EU rules, to restrict the land that can trigger payments by applying an “active farmer” test. It is unclear what this will mean in practice and in any event, it is not likely to be difficult to hire a shepherd and run a few sheep over the hills and qualify for subsidy.

Image: Extract from Scottish Government’s IACS Field Boundary dataset for Highland and Aberdeenshire

Smech Properties Ltd. for example, is a company registered in Guernsey and owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (pictured above). It owns the Killilan, Inverinate, West Benula and Glomach Estate in Wester Ross which has 21,424 ha of eligible land registered, received £26,406 in 2013 and could be eligible for £439,192 paid straight to a tax haven every year until 2020.

The Duke of Westminster owns 37,303 hectares of eligible land and could be eligible for £764,712 of public assistance for each of the next six years.

Braulen and Glenavon Estate, owned by a company in Grand Cayman (beneficial owner unknown) consists of 26,632 hectares of land potentially eligible for £545,956 of state handouts for doing next to nothing.

The Duke of Roxburgh received £204,374 in 2013 and his 4637 of claimed hectares would be eligible for £950,585 per year over the next six years

Letterewe Estate is owned by a company in the Dutch Antilles and could be eligible for £372,280 every year until 2020.

Even the Queen could claim over half a million pounds over the 25,000 hectares of Balmoral Estate.

In addition, there is a distinct possibility that, instead of the new system being introduced in 2015, it will be phased in over the next six years. And that would mean that Frank Smart (and the rest of Scotland’s slipper farmers) would continue to receive a substantial proportion of his £3,226,492 until 2020 for doing next to nothing.

The existing system of farm subsidies has been extensively abused. The new system must not be. And that is why I and others will be paying close attention to whether Sheik Mohammed is going to be allowed to pretend that he is a farmer and whether Frank Smart continues to get given millions of pounds for doing next to nothing.

NOTES

(1) The matrix files for 2012 and 2013 in Microsoft Excel format

WR1826_SFPS_2012_Natural_Person_Obfuscated_Town_Removed.xlsx

WR1826_SFPS_2013_Natural_Person_Obfuscated_Town_Removed.xlsx

The files provide the following information

Name of the claimant for legal persons only. Natural persons names are redacted. See here for details.

Postcode District where the claimant’s business is registered.

2013 SFPS Payment – the sum in Euros (all sums been converted to £ for this blog)

Ha Paid is hectares over which payment was claimed

Person Type – Natural or Legal

UPDATE 7 May

Figures in the original blog for 2013 payments were expressed in Pounds Sterling when they were in fact Euros (this includes payment made in 2013 to Frank A Smart). All now been corrected. This does not affect the projected sums which were converted already.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-r_J14n100

Forty-one years ago today, the play that revitalised Scottish theatre had its first theatrical performance in public at Aberdeen Arts Centre on 24 April 1973.(1) Above is the BBC’s Play for Today version – a fascinating mix of live performance and documentary that ends with moving sequences on the impact of oil in Aberdeen and interviews with Texan oilmen, roustabouts and young folk made homeless by the price of houses.

Having spoken at two public showings of the film in the past two years, it is remarkable how the key theme of the play – control of natural resources – remains as vital and relevant today as it did when the 7:84 theatre company toured Scotland in the 1970s.

An account of the play and its significance can be found at the National Library of Scotland’s website here and this academic article in International Journal of Scottish Theatre provides much more detailed analysis of the play. On 26 January 2010, the National Library of Scotland hosted a discussion of the play which can be heard here.

Here’s what theatre writer and director Davey Anderson said about the play.

“I saw the Cheviot on my honeymoon. It was October 1973, we’d got married in my home town, Rutherglen, and decided to take a road-movie holiday, hippies that we were … 

“First stop Kyleakin, Skye. The gig – Kyleaking Village Hall. The Audience – the good people of Skye. The Performers – a bunch of folk who didn’t seem ready: five minutes to go and they were still setting costumes, tuning instruments and blethering with each other and the audience. 

“Where were the curtains, the hushed reverence, the dinner jackets, the blue rinses? 

“… That night in a community hall in Skye proved to me that theatre was far from dead, as I has assumed it to be. 

“All the mince in the West End, where the actors couldn’t even be arsed acknowledging the presence of the audience was forgotten. Here was theatre that spoke to you about your life, the important things, the daft things, the things that give you joy and the things you can change. The company were startling in their energy, anarchic versatility and joyous commitment.”

Time for a revival?

(1) It was first performed at the What Kind of Scotland Conference in Edinburgh in April 1973. Thanks to Rob Gibson MSP for that clarification – he was at both performances. Another informant tells me of an earlier performance at a conference of the same name but held in Callendar Park College of Education.

Hilltrack on Ledgowan Estate

Last year, in a series of blogs, I highlighted a number of issues relating to Ledgowan Estate – in particular the controversy over the construction of an ugly bulldozed track.

The story was promoted by an incident over public access which arose during an inspection of the track by Dr Kenneth Brown who was investigating the track as part of a research project by Scottish Environment Link. Its report – Track Changes – was published in October 2013 and called for hilltracks to be subject to full planning control rather than the existing system of Permitted Development Orders. A Parliamentary Briefing can be found here and the full report here (5.3Mb pdf).

Last month, Scottish Land and Estates published a response to this report – The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks – which challenged many of the findings of the Link report and asserted that the Track Changes report “has not been helpful in the debate” and “should have been more closely scrutinised, especially as it makes allegations about specific estates and was written with public funding.”

Scottish Environment Link has refuted these and other allegations made against its report in a further report published today in which it argues that,

“We find Scottish Land and Estates’ statements in their report about scrutiny and LINK’s charitable status strange and inappropriate. The issues raised in the Track Changes report fully comply with LINK’s charitable purposes and funding for the report was received from member contributions and charitable trusts. It is entirely proper that LINK uses its funds for this purpose.

The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks makes a number of specific criticisms of our report, and we respond to these below. Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) claim that Track Changes contained ‘fundamental misconceptions’, ‘incorrect information’, ‘out of date photographs’ and ‘misleading’ points. These claims are baseless, and are not supported by anything in The Way Ahead for Constructed Private Tracks. It is unfortunate that Scottish Land and Estates have simply sought to discredit Track Changes without engaging with its main arguments, and while ignoring much of the evidence it contains. The basis for our campaign remains unaltered by their response..”

In the Spring edition of the SLE’s magazine, it argues that voluntary guidelines are adequate and urges its members to follow them.

The debate continues.

Meanwhile, a wee bit of history. One of the tracks that attracted a deal of criticism over the years was the one up Beinn a Bhuird in the Cairngorms. It has now been restored by the National Trust for Scotland but here’s an article from the January 1968 edition of Scottish Field explaining the background and purpose of its construction in 1966.

On 15 October last year, I was preparing to leave home and travel to the Isle of Skye to visit my parents for the weekend. Shortly before I left, an email arrived from John Clegg & Co. advertising for sale 6,356 acres of land owned by Scottish Ministers in Strathnaver, Sutherland at offers over £1,850,000.

Aware that 2014 is the bicentenary of the infamous Strathnaver Clearances, I was surprised to see that the sales particulars not only included one of the best-preserved Clearance Villages at Rosal but described the land as “one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland”. (1) In further banal witterings, the sales brochure went on to opine that “ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land”

So, before leaving the house, I wrote a quick blog to express my doubts about the wisdom of this sale and the vacuousness and offensiveness  of the blurb. Within twenty-four hours, I was told that the land would be withdrawn from the market. The Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse had asked Forestry Commission Scotland to halt the sale and a FCS spokesperson said that “We are no reviewing options.” (see Herald report).

Today, Rosal Forest is back on the market (5.9Mb pdf brochure here and 3.7Mb plan here).

Rosal Village in 2013 sale

Rosal Village excluded from 2014 sale

Rosal Clearance village has been removed from the sale and the nonsense about “wilderness” and “fascinating insights” has also now thankfully been omitted. A total of 5,962 acres of land is offered for sale at offers over £1.750,000. The sale forms part of the Forestry Commission’s “re-positioning” programme whereby, “subject to the approval of Ministers” land is sold and the proceeds used to invest in projects that “increase the contribution of the national forest estate to the delivery of Forestry Commission Scotland and wider Government objectives.”

Whilst this development is welcome, wider questions remain about the elite interests that continue to dominate private forestry in Scotland (see e.g.  here and here plus a research report from Feb 2012). For now at least, Scottish Ministers appear to have taken account of the historic significance of one of Scotland’s most important historical sites relating to the “ongoing struggle for ownership of this land.”

UPDATE 1 1512hrs 7 April 2014

Forestry Commission Scotland issued the following Media release today.

7 APRIL 2014 NEWS RELEASE No: 16241

Rosal clearance village secure for future

In recognition of the cultural and historic significance of Rosal clearance village, Forestry Commission Scotland is to continue managing the historically significant site as part of the National Forest Estate.

After consulting local community groups, the Commission will retain the historic village and 100 hectares surrounding it.

Working with local community groups, this will ensure the village is accessible and well interpreted as part of the wider Strathnaver Heritage Trail.

There had been plans previously to sell the whole of Rosal Forest but this was halted after concerns were raised over the future of the historic village.

The Rosal village is the remains of a once thriving Highland township, which was cleared of its inhabitants to make way for sheep back in the early 1800s.

Tim Cockerill, Forestry Commission Scotland’s manager in the North Highland’s said:

“We have fully consulted local groups again and have now taken positive action to ensure Rosal Village is protected as part of Scotland’s National Forest Estate.

“We are now exploring ways with the local community on how we can work closer together over the promotion and management of Rosal village in the future.”

The rest of the woodland area is due to be sold as part of Forestry Commission Scotland’s ‘re-positioning programme’. Under this programme, land delivering relatively low public benefits is sold to fund the purchase of new land which can bring about wider benefits.

In this case, some of the money raised will be invested in the creation of new woodland and recreation facilities at Sibster in Caithness and the recently announced starter-farm for new farmers at Achnamoine near Halkirk.

The sale of the rest of the woodland could also provide buyers with a secure supply of timber in the north of Scotland. This could be especially attractive to companies wishing to develop bio-energy projects in the area.

Lotting of the land for sale is not practical in this case, although it is the Commission’s preferred option as a way of offering more opportunities for woodland purchase to a wider range of people.

Communities can acquire land for sale through the National Forest Land Scheme, but there has been no interest in this case following ongoing discussions with local stakeholders.

Notes to news editors
1. Forestry Commission Scotland is part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

2. For news, events and recreation information log on to www.facebook.com/enjoyscotlandsforests For Twitter: www.twitter.com/fcscotlandnews

3. Tha FCS ag obair mar bhuidheann-stiùiridh coilltearachd Riaghaltas na h-Alba agus a’ riaghladh nan 660,000 heactairean ann an Oighreachd na Coille Nàiseanta, a’ dìonadh, a’ cumail smachd air agus a’ leudachadh nan coilltean gus buannachdan a thoirt dha coimhearsnachdan, an eaconamaidh agus, ag obair an aghaidh atharrachadh gnàth-shìde. www.forestry.gov.uk/scotland

4. Media enquiries to Steve Williams, Forestry Commission Scotland press office 0131 314 6508.

(1) For further information on the historic sites in Strathnaver, see Strathnaver Museum page.

UPDATE 2 2100hrs 26 October 2015

Royal Forest was sold in June 2015 to Simon Brooke Mackay (Lord Tanlaw) and Rina Siew Yong, both of Queenstown Road, London, for £1,500,000

The latest news from Ledgowan Estate is that the owner has distributed an access policy to residents of Achnasheen. According to this report (online here and pdf here)in the West Highland Free Press from 27 December 2013,

“The access policy states that all walkers met on Ledgowan will be asked for contact details, adding: ‘If this is not forthcoming or staff consider there is any reason for doubt they will take a photograph of the individuals and or their vehicle.’

The following points are also listed.

No-one is denied access – we abide by the law.

No-one is allowed to walk in the curtilage of our property.

gates will remain locked due to security reasons (citing thefts and keeping poachers out).”

UPDATE 24 JANUARY 2014
A copy of the letter written by Richard Simpson is now available here (507kb pdf). In one comment on this blog, John (24 January) writes that he is unaware, nobody has actually received this letter. I can confirm that at least one person has. The letter contains an alternative account of the incident which began this story (see original blog here). Dr Brown rebuts this account in this report in the West Highland Free Press. Further developments can be read by clickign on the “Ledgowan” category on right.

Image: Courtesy of To Hatch a Crow

I have not had time to publish many blogs in the past 2 months or so and hope to get back to a regular weekly or twice-weekly schedule as soon as possible. I would also like to stress that this blog reflects my own personal views on the matters under discussion. A statement to that effect is now in the page header.

In light of the widespread interest, I am publishing this quick update on the Ledgowan story (previous blogs can be seen by selecting “Ledgowan” in the Category menu on the right). This is also an opportunity to wish all the readers and contributors to the blog a very happy christmas and best wishes for the new year.

Mass Walk

On 30 November, around 30-40 walkers visited Ledgowan. Here is one account of the day from David “Heavy” Whalley.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)

SNH replied to my enquiry about the hill-track crossing the SSSI. Here is the response from Steve North.

Hi Andy – you may already be aware that my colleague Nicola Tallach has recently responded to a query on this track fromCalum Brown who is writing a report on tracks built under ‘permitted development rights’ for Scottish Environment LINK. She advised him:

“As you have identified, the first section of the track from Ledgowan Lodge, crosses Achnasheen Terraces SSSI therefore on the 18 March 2011 I had a site visit with the owner, Steve North (South Highland’s Operations Manager) and John Gordon (one of SNH’s geological advisors). During this visit it was established that the line of the track crossing the SSSI had not caused serious damage to the landforms. Continuation of the track route along the foot of the lower slope above the main terrace was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. At this time the only track being discussed was the one which led to the loch edge and the route to this, across the SSSI had already been constructed.

 The track which you are no doubt referring to, going up the hill, branches off the original track which was discussed on site however access to this branching off point is across the track which SNH saw on site and agreed was acceptable/ did not cause serious damage to the land form. 

Any track work out with the designated site would be a matter for the planners and as such I was in touch with the Highland Council planners on several occasions to inform them of track progress. The track is not within the Wester Ross NSA therefore permitted development rights are in place and the owner claimed the track was for agricultural purposes therefore he did not need planning permission. The Highland Council were not therefore able to do anything to prevent the construction of the track within existing planning regs”.

So, to answer your specific question, because the track was considered to fall within permitted development rights, SNH were not consulted on any planning application for the tracks and made no response to Highland Council (objection or otherwise).

However, the SSSI status of part of the estate did result in us meeting Andrew Simpson on site with our expert geomorphologist to assess the implications of the tracks for the nationally important features. As Nicola says, our conclusion and advice to Mr Simpson was that the track that was being developed within the SSSI had not caused any serious damage to the landforms and continuation along the foot of the steeper slopes (above the main terrace) was also likely to be compatible with the key features of the site. We identified how the kettle holes could be safeguarded and highlighted the benefits of following SNH’s published best practice guidance on track construction in upland areas. We also reminded Mr Simpson of the requirement of the legislation behind the SSSI that land managers contact SNH before they carry out works which may affect the special features of a site.

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Following the reported breach of EU regulations in relation to the lochside track (see this previous blog), I asked SEPA to confirm whether the main hilltrack had been built in accordance with the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011. Here is the reply received from Alastair Duff.

SEPA have visited the Ledgowan Estate and driven the length of the hill track in the company of estate staff.

There are several crossings that are of a size that should have required a Registration from SEPA in order to permit their construction, but these were not applied for. However, upon inspecting these crossings, the works undertaken would almost certainly have been licenced by SEPA.

SEPA has made a few minor recommendations in relation to some of the crossings, but is not taking any further action in relation to the works undertaken in the construction of the hill access track.

Highland Council

Highland Council was asked to release material released under the FoI request made by the estate employee (see previous blog). Here are the various communications (10Mb pdf download)

Ledgowan Estate

Finally, Ledgowan estate owner Mr Simpson, has compiled an “incident report” which has been given to a resident of Achnasheen. An account of this is given in the West Highland Free Press today. (see copy of story here).

I and others have, on a number of occasions attempted to contact Mr Simpson during the course of this story. He has never returned any calls to me or to media outlets. It turns out, however, that Andrew Simpson is a subscriber to my www.whoownsscotland.org.uk website. His subscription was due to expire this month and so an automated email was sent to him thanking him for his subscription and inviting him to renew it. As a consequence, he made the only contact he has ever made with me and replied to the email simply,

What an arsehole you are goodby” (sic)

Merry Christmas.

Image: Track constructed on Ledgowan Estate – a track for which Highland Council observed that “no real evidence has been provided which demonstrates that the tracks are reasonably required for the purposes of agriculture” See previous Ledgowan posts here.

Nine of Scotland’s leading environmental charities are calling on the Scottish Government to put an end to the unregulated system for hill track construction which allows landowners to build tracks without any public oversight. Instead, they want hill track construction brought within the planning system.

Working under the umbrella of Scottish Environment LINK, the organisations today published ‘Track Changes’. This report shows evidence of the huge damage caused to landscapes, wildlife and habitats across Scotland by some of these tracks, carved across the landscape for motor vehicles. The aim is to persuade the Scottish Government to remove ‘permitted development rights’ (PDRs) for building such tracks, thus enabling public scrutiny of all proposed track construction.

Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland and co-convener of the campaign group said:
“We asked Scottish hill walkers to send us photos of tracks which have damaged our countryside. The report gives compelling photographic evidence of the degradation being caused by this planning-free-for-all. In some cases it amounts to nothing short of environmental vandalism.

“Our organisations have been concerned about the unrestrained development of hill tracks over many decades, but the situation has become much more serious in recent years with the increasing use of diggers, bulldozers and other vehicles that can better cope with Scotland’s mountainous terrain. We are seeing tracks going into areas of wild land, gouging large trenches out of landforms which were laid down in the last Ice Age. Tracks are dug deep into peat, destroying fragile and sensitive habitats and disturbing wildlife – and they are proliferating across our hills, seriously scarring the landscape.”

Beryl Leatherland of Scottish Wild Land Group and co-convenor of the campaign group said: “We are not trying to stop the development of all tracks, but the current system is unfair to the public interest. It does not allow for any public consultation or proper consideration of the value of landscapes and wildlife. In our report we show evidence of tracks being bulldozed across some of the country’s most iconic landscapes, even parts of our national parks, without any care for their design or impact.

“It is hard to believe that if you want to build a conservatory on a house in any street in Scotland you have to go through a rigorous planning process and yet a track can be bulldozed through even a designated nature conservation site without any scrutiny at all. We think that regulation is essential and should be welcomed by all concerned.”

In December 2012 the Scottish Government dropped its proposal to bring tracks with purported ‘agricultural or forestry purposes’ into the planning system, but said that it would keep the situation under review. It is hoped that the evidence gathered by the LINK campaign will persuade Ministers to reconsider this decision. The Planning Minister, Derek Mackay MSP, visited the site of one of the tracks highlighted in the report with members of LINK and has been sent a copy of the report.

Scottish Environment Link Parliamentary Briefing on Hill tracks

Full Report ‘Track Changes

Campaign website

IMAGE: Loch Garry 2010. Source: walkhighlands

I am particularly pleased to publish this article by Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell. In light of the ongoing problems with landslips on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful and further west in Glen Kinglas, Ron and Derek remind us that they were advocating substantial ecological restoration over 30 years ago. They pioneered, from first principles and scientific observations, an approach that would restore the ecology of much of Upland Scotland. But official Scotland and vested interests blocked their plans. 

Ron Greer is, by profession, a freshwater biologist with a 40 years specific interest in Arctic Charr, Ferox Trout and the management of the large glacial ribbon lakes/hydro-electric reservoirs that are their primary habitat. He is co-author of several seminal papers on Scottish Arctic Charr and author of the book ‘Ferox Trout and Arctic Charr’.  He is one of the Scottish representatives in the International Society of Arctic Charr and has been a participant in and co-organiser, of their international conferences over the last 25 years

As a corollary of the above, he has developed a parallel interest in strategic land use/tenure reform, riparian silvicultural management  and Boreal biogeography. He initiated the Loch Garry riparian woodland project in 1974 and was co-founder with Derek Pretswell, and others, of the Loch Garry Tree Group in 1986. He was a member of the Highland Forum team who helped organise the 1987 Land and Community conference at Drumossie and considers the outcomes from it as a work still in progress. He was co-founder and initial Convenor of Scottish Native Woods and worked with Derek in its formative years.

He is widely travelled in  North America, Fennoscandia and Northern Europe, both in relation to study trips pertinent to  freshwater  and land use issues and as a guest lecturer in these subject areas at various universities/colleges, NGO institutes and sporting organisations.

Derek Pretswell is a zoology graduate of Aberdeen and started working on forestry and landuse with Ron in 1982/3 while both of them were fishery biologists with the Department of Agriculture for Scotland.  A founder member of the Loch Garry Tree Group and Perth Bat Group, he served on the management committee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Loch of the Lowes and was a Trustee of Scottish Native Woods for 10 years. In addition, he was a member of the Cairngorm Community Circle and a member of the SNP environmental policy group which, along with Ron and under Roger Mullin’s leadership, formulated the SNP’s main policy document.  

Together with Ron, Derek founded Natural Resources Scotland in 1992 and developed the New Caledonia Project which is a holistic long term project that encapsulates the three tenets of sustainable development to bring about the ‘blossoming’ of our biological, social and economic landscape. Derek now teaches environmental education to schoolchildren from North Lanarkshire at an outdoor centre in Oban and during the summer takes to the lochs with Ron to research Arctic Charr populations.

ERODING THE MOUNTAINS OF INERTIA

Ron Greer and Derek Pretswell

Sitkasaurs and Contortasaurs still stalked the Earth.  There had been no substantive land tenure reform for 900 years.  A tribal confederation of the ‘Negataibh’, more especially the clans of McCannae, MacShouldnae and their even more dangerous comrades, the Clan MacWulnae, managed the landscape on behalf of the Moorland Myth Brigade, The Cellulose Factory Managers, The Starbirders and other sectional vested interest groups with a finger in the subsidy pie and a ticket for the gravy train.  Aye, such was the state of Highland Scotland in the early seventies of the last century.  A region variously described as a ‘wet desert’, a ‘wasteland ripe for development’ or ‘the last great unspoiled wilderness in Europe’.  Would anyone out there recognise this picture today?

Into this world of private and State sectional vested interests, replete with a compartmentalised bureaucratic administration (bunkered in intellectual fall-out shelters), a young freshwater biologist, blissfully unaware of the atavistic nature of most of the above, initiated a pioneering study of Arctic Charr and Brown Trout in Loch Garry, a long established hydro-electric reservoir, lying at 400 metres altitude and a cat’s spit away from Perthshire’s Drumochter Pass (of winter notoriety).  Details of this fisheries study have been published in the relevant peer-reviewed literature but even more important wider strategic issues and conclusions arose from it that not only challenged established shibboleths and perspectives in terms of freshwater ecology in Scotland, but also in a much broader, regional and national environmental sense.  Charr, previously considered a rare fish in Scotland, turned out to be very common here and indeed in many other lochs in the Highlands which begged the question – why?  Was there perhaps something wrong with the received wisdom on the perspective of Scotland’s bio-geographical realities?  A question which kept arising as the follow on from the fisheries study developed.

Image 1 – Loch Garry truncated morraine 1990

A core outcome of the study was that hydro-electric regulation causes profound and negative impacts (largely through destroying littoral zone aquatic plants) on the ecology of the lake concerned.  In similar Scandinavian lakes  classic ‘before and after’ studies revealed  that up to 70% of the aquatic invertebrate that supports higher animals can be lost (with important depressive effects on subsistence and commercial fisheries).  We are without the great detail of these studies, but recent work indicates that the barren stony shores of reservoirs like Ericht, Cluanie and Quaich are every bit the aquatic desert they appear to be.  Further background research however revealed that a massive potential (up to 90%) source of plant material to support the aquatic food-chain could be derived from riparian deciduous woodland.  The main fisheries management problem turned out to be what was happening on the land.  What was happening on the land was derived from its land tenure system and the aims and management of its owners, historically and extant. Why was that land treeless?  The then ‘orthodoxy’ was that it was because of the harsh climate and the poor soil; perhaps scrubby birch and willow?  Challenging that orthodoxy were the basic bioclimatic facts, ecological history and empirical experience in other montane ‘Arctic Charr countries.’  The challenge of re-establishing deciduous riparian woodland was taken up.  In so doing it opened up even bigger challenges in realising a wider strategic potential.

Image 2 – Loch Garry truncated morraine revegetating

The first inklings of the potential were stimulated by both a literature review related to the physical habitat requirements of Arctic Charr and site visits to Norway in 1971, 1973 and 1974. But the biggest single advances in this area, both in respect of the specifics of tree species/origin/provenance selection and the wider national strategic overview we were developing (in parallel to other initiatives we were involved in) were study visits to Iceland in 1981 and Vestlandet in Norway in 1984. In respect of the former we were lucky indeed, before his death not long after, to draw on the extensive knowledge of Hakon Bjarnasson, the father figure of Icelandic forestry who, apart from his silvicultural expertise in a country where the most favourable tree growing conditions were climatically closely akin to Drumochter Pass, had a profound interest and experience of soil conservation and environmental protection issues in challenging boreal and austral conditions.  Proud as he was of his country’s culture and living standards, Hakon was fully open about the shocking devastation that comprised much of the Icelandic environment, perhaps the most eroded country in Northern Europe and had spent much of his professional life trying to redress it.

George Monbiot has described the Scottish and British uplands as ‘sheep-wrecked’ (see for example this article in relation to the A83 Rest and Be Thankful slope failures).  In comparison, Iceland has had a thousand years of ovine-wrecking, (compared to our  mere 300 years), where a land once 40% covered in mixed broadleaved forest (of species also once common in Scotland), had been reduced to looking like a movie set from a desert world in Star Wars.  Though the cessation of headage payments may have helped us a little, nonetheless, Iceland gives a stark warning of what might occur if we don’t change our perception of what the uplands can biologically sustain. Indeed, Hakon, on seeing photographs of erosion gullies in the Grampians, opined that unless restorative, protective forestry took place, that we would, in two or three generations, perhaps 100 years at the most, have no vegetation left on the hills.  He would not be surprised to see the repeated landslips on the A83 (the Rest and Be Thankful) or the A85 at Glen Ogle, and neither very sadly, are we.

IMAGE: Slopes to north of A83, Glen Kinglas, the site of a recent landslip of 100 tonnes of soil. The red circles indicate existing slope failures on this overgrazed terrain. Click on picture for a larger image.

More prosaically, was the comment proffered without sarcastic irony, of another Icelandic forester on being presented with a fairly comprehensive bioclimatic profile of Loch Garry ‘oh you have a very good place to grow trees then’.  Which then begs the question of what else it and much of the Grampians as a whole, might be capable of more than we currently believe.  The advice on tree species and origin provided by the Icelandic foresters has been invaluable over the years as was their introduction to the potential of Nootka Lupin as a soil improvement and erosion control agent.  The future might be more blue, but not necessarily more sad.  Unless of course, we continue to go down (or rather up) the exponential Humpty Dumpty curve of deforested erodability, with the politicians shouting out ‘so far so good’ before we all pay for the splat, as the mountain comes down to the A83 and other roads like it.

Image 3 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Trees well-established.

It is almost de rigueur these days for those promulgating land tenure and land use reform in Scotland to compare our situation with Norway.  As major promulgators of that comparison since 1984, after a ‘culture  shock’ study trip with Angus McHattie  of the Scottish Crofters Union, participants in several media documentaries on the subject and providing technical support to the later Reforesting Scotland Norway Study Tour, we can hardly decry that comparison.  However please nota bene, we do not consider simply copying Norway as the final destination, but rather that it helps point the way to a ‘better place’ than we are in now.  The geobotanical, phytogeographical and bioclimatic similarities to the Vestlandet of Norway and the vibrant cultural landscape obtained within it, give the lie to accusations of the ‘McCannaes’ that there is no other end point of tenure and use possible for upland Scotland, than the current indulgence of a landed minority in what for many of the rest of us is a quasi feudal, Victorian-Edwardian nightmare-world supported by public subsidy.

In over three decades of establishing and managing grass roots organisations, e.g. Scottish Native Woods, Highland Forum, Loch Garry Tree Group, or developing the New Caledonia project or cooperating with other established organisations and individuals that arose in the euphoria of the environmental movement in 1975-1995, we have seen, shared and experienced, shattered hopes, plagiarism and sheer outright betrayal on the attempted road to a resolution of environmental degradation and conflict.  For example we were in at the grass roots level with the Millennium Forest Project and were part of a small committee to look at locations.  We originally thought committees were platforms for compromise, but our experience makes us believe that they are cul de sacs up which good ideas are lured, then silently strangled.

The agendas of Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will always prevail when individuals are outnumbered by such organisations. Our argument was based on generating a momentum that would carry past 2000 and create a platform of reforestation that everyone could be part of, based on 5 major forest centres; Glen Affric (Trees for Life), Cairngorms, Central Belt and one each in the Southwest and Southeast Borders, with a target of joining them all up creating one contiguous forest linked by forest corridors, allowing communities, local forest groups and  FC plantations and their grannies to take part and have ownership of the process.  Had we gone down this road there would have been no better way to say that we all live in the environment and it is not something that ‘happens over there’ and that we all inclusively contributed towards it.

Image 4 – Loch Garry truncated morraine. Forest ecosystem restored.

We have always been centred round the idea of revitalising the soil/vegetation complex and using this landscape, when functioning as the best it can be biologically, as a platform for social and economic development.  Two things shocked us in the development of this philosophy; the complete underestimation of what is possible due to the lack of perception of where we are bio-climatically, coupled to the habitual mismanagement by generations of landowners and land managers; and the conservatism, generated by the vested interests of the resource holders and policy makers.  This includes NGOs, though there are as always exceptions at all levels.  The mismanagement is not obligate, it is facultative, and the managers choose their endpoint, having inherited their start point, for the bulk of our rural landscapes. We need rurality built into the urban environment and not urbanity into the rural one, as is happening.

Patrick Geddes talked of work people and place, sustainability models talk of environmental, social and economic factors, most of the ‘environmentalist movement’ and politicians use the word sustainable, but how many have read the Brundtland Commission Report or the earlier World Conservation Strategy that coined and defined the phrase and intend to implement the recommendations. In many cases it is a bit like the bank that likes to say yes but doesn’t understand the question. We are driven to solve problems, Loch Garry being a case in point, but our solution is to focus on the problem and this in turn exerts an enormous influence on our thinking.  What was initially perceived as an aquatic problem at Loch Garry was in fact a land problem and likewise the A83 events are not a road problem, but a land one.  Well for forestry’s sake there are too many problems for us!  If we go back to the basics of the soil vegetation complex then we need to make it the best it can be, so plant the trees that originally created the organic layers that are there and held it all in place.

Let’s work towards goals – you know, ideal situations that could make these problems disappear.  At one point in relation to the A83, there was talk of tunnels and a budget of £90 million, well for that money we can buy the land, reforest it, give it to the people to manage and still have money left over to build a better road!

We live in the world’s most beautiful ecological slum but we have the advantage that this slum is not on the northern edge of the Mediterranean it is on the southern edge of the Arctic and it has an amazing northern potential.  Our challenge is to bring about the realisation of that potential and so finally, a recommendation to politicians. If you want ideas that are outside of the box don’t go into the box to look for them!

FOR SALE

Rosal Forest 6356 acres

Offers over £1,850,000

“A unique opportunity to acquire a large commercial forest situated in one of the last wilderness areas of Scotland surrounded by stunning scenery. Offering a significant volume of commercial conifer timber, areas for replanting and excellent deer stalking potential, all set within a unique landscape in the North of Scotland. Sporting rights included.

Rosal Forest is located within one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland. The area is known as Strathnaver and Naver Forest, renowned for its excellent salmon and trout fishing and deer stalking. 

Human settlement in this area dates back at least 6,000 years, but Strathnaver is known more for the Sutherland Clearances of the 1800’s when the locals were displaced from their lands to re-settle on the coast or travel by sea to the eastern seaboard of America and New Zealand to make way for a new era of sheep farming. Indeed, within Rosal Forest there are many historical features dating back to this period and beyond. The ruined settlements of Rosal Village in the north of the forest and Truderscaig in the south, provide a fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Scottish Ministers are selling Rosal Forest in Strathnaver, Sutherland. Included in the sale are numerous clearance villages including one of the best preserved at Rosal itself (see sales brochure 6.5Mb and  sale plan 3.9Mb pdf).

This forest will probably be sold to an absentee investor from England, or a Russian oligarch, or a multinational timber corporation. Scottish forestry will remain in the hands of elites as it currently is and as highlighted in this report from last year.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Strathnaver Clearances.

“..one of the few remaining wilderness areas in the north of Scotland

A fascinating insight into the struggle for ownership of this land.”

Indeed.

UPDATE 16 October

At 1530 today, a Scottish Government spokesperson said “Rosal has been removed from selling agent’s website.”

The story so far…….

Dr Kenneth Brown wrote a guest blog (here) discussing the harassment he faced going about his lawful business at Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen, Ross-shire. This led to quite a few comments and emails recounting similar such incidents at Ledgowan over the past few year since Andrew Simpson took over ownership of the estate.

This in turn led to the revelation (to me) of the 18 km track that has been crudely bulldozed across the hills under Class 18 Permitted Development Rights whereby developments for agricultural use are exempted from the need for planning consent. Despite recommendations from Scottish Government officials in 2012 that such tracks be subject to normal planning rules, Derek Mackay (Minister for Local Government & Planning) under pressure from farming, landowning and forestry interests, refused.

Since publishing these blogs, more information and insight has come to light and I thank all those who have been in touch.

Agricultural Use

It is now confirmed that the road was built for agricultural activities. A number of hill farmers have been in touch with me. None can see any conceivable use for a road of this length, routing, construction or quality in this particular place. So what is it for? Simpson’s own website implies it is for trout and salmon fishing and wildlife safaris.

A previous application for a windfarm was refused on landscape grounds. A second application for a smaller development of two turbines was submitted and then withdrawn. Andrew Simpson currently has a live application for one 50kw turbine (Ref 12/03182/FUL). How convenient it is that there is already a road built to service it. How convenient also that any opposition to an application for a bigger scheme on landscape grounds is now much weakened by the fact that the road has now inflicted significant damage to the landscape.

Interestingly, SNH concede this fact in their comments in the current application where they point out that “the proposed turbine is located on terrace 2 within the SSSI. We agree that a turbine located here, with no need for additional tracks minimises damage to the main features of the site.” This  remember is a track that has smashed right through Terrace 1 and 2.

Pollution

The unauthorised construction of this track raises questions about pollution. A prominent expert in such matters has highlighted to me the possible issues with drainage, run-off and sediment loading. The road has been hastily constructed in an inexpert manner across numerous watercourses. It is clear that substantial works have been carried out on the loch shore. Have these works ever been approved by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)?

UPDATE 25 OCTOBER 2013

I wrote to SEPA on 14 October 2013 and asked them,

Could you provide me please with any information that SEPA holds in relation to activities on Ledgowan Estate, Achnasheen.In particular I am interested in the road that has been constructed and, for example, whether the estate has a CAR licence under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) Regulations 2011 for the water crossings and works by Loch a Chroisg.”

SEPA replied today and told me that they held no information in relation to the track, pointing out that if the watercourse crossings had been “done in accordance with General Binding Rule 6, then SEPA would not need to be involved”. We do not know, of course, whether such rules were followed.

More interestingly, in relation to the works on the shore of Loch a Chroisg, SEPA refused to release the relevant information.

Please note that SEPA is aware of engineering activities in Loch a Chroisg undertaken by Ledgowan Estate in June 2011 which resulted in the alteration of the watercourse. The work was carried out without a licence. SEPA holds information relating to this however the information has been withheld from release at this time under Regulation 10(5)(b) of EIR which states:

’10(5) A Scottish public authority may refuse to make environmental information available to the extent that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially … (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of any public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature.’

The Public Interest Test was carried out in relation to the information to be withheld under regulation 10(5)(b). To disclose evidence in a case prior to it being considered by the Procurator Fiscal, thus putting it in the public domain means the accused may not receive a fair trial.”

It therefore seems clear than an alleged offence has been committed under Section 44 of the Regulations and that criminal proceedings may follow.

The full reply from SEPA is here.

I have written to SEPA inviting them to investigate whether or not the 2011 Regulations have been followed in the construction of the new track.

UPDATE 29 OCTOBER 2013
SEPA has responded:-

SEPA will arrange to visit the site and look into your complaint. Once we have done so, we will get back to you and let you know the outcome of our findings.

 

It appears that the new landowner takes quite a hostile approach to the local community as is evident from this Community Council minute of February 2012 regarding a dispute over pedestrian access along a now disused public road.

The Chairman read out a letter from Helen Christie raising issues about access to Ledgowan Estate, threatening behaviour, construction of hill roads and the access across the bridge. Dave Mackenzie (an employee of Ledgowan Estate) stated he hadn’t stopped anyone and that the estate will abide by the law.”

Highland Council has now issued a Traffic Regulation Order permitting pedestrian and cycle traffic to continue to use this short stretch of the former A890 (council paper and minute).

During 2011, there was considerable disquiet among residents of Achnasheen about the construction of the new track and numerous complaints were made to Highland Council. On 5 August 2011, Dave MacKenzie submitted a Freedom of Information request to Highland Council asking for details of complaints that the Council had received. The Council complied with the request but redacted the personal details of those who had made the complaints. Mr MacKenzie asked for a review of the decision and subsequently appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner who, in her decision, stated that,

Mr MacKenzie is an employee of the owner of the Ledgowan Estate. He has explained that his request was motivated by the harassment and disruption to the progress of work that he was feeling as a result of the Council’s response to complaints, which he considered to be made by individuals or organisations that appeared to be either ill-informed or motivated by malice. He explained that he wanted to know the identities of those making complaints in order to inform them of the reason why work was being carried out.”

Creepy.

As is clear from Mr MacKenzie’s attendance at the Community Council meeting, he had (and continues to have) ample opportunity to “inform” people of “the reason why work was being carried out“. As for the harassment, disruption and malice which he refers to, let’s note one incident that took place just before Christmas 2011.

A number of residents noticed that their oil-fired heating systems stopped working. Upon inspection, an engineer found that holes had been drilled in their oil tanks, with the the contents seeping into the ground all over their gardens. The police investigated these criminal acts but found insufficient evidence to take further action.

In another incident, a person closely connected with the estate was caught digging a badger sett. Again the police were called but insufficient evidence was available and the perpetrators claimed that they had been looking for foxes.

Earlier this year a black-throated diver was found dead having been “shot by a high velocity projectile”.

The above incidents may have nothing to do with the estate. They may (although it appears unlikely) have entirely innocent explanations.

What’s going on?