There are more black grouse in Strath Don than almost anywhere else in Scotland, but what would happen if the big estates were broken up?
While Scotland is whisked up into an exaggerated frenzy by the Nationalist harpings of “land reformers” and xenophobic pseudo-socialists, it is worth considering the impact that any move to break up the traditional highland estate would have on Scottish wildlife. As the great belly of Alex Salmond begins to rumble in anticipation of the independence referendum, it is a time of strange curiosity for those of us who support the Union. Amidst limitless promises of public funding for everything that you can ever dream of, elements of the SNP government are finally turning their sights on the country estate as the iconic symbol of Scotland’s colonial subjection beneath a “foreign” yoke.
There are so many problems with the proposed “land reform” that I don’t even know where to begin to tackle them. That said, I don’t want this blog to become a political platform (although I will certainly return to the subject in due course), but the idea of deliberately breaking up large estates into a mosaic of small, community owned holdings will have immediate ramifications for the hills and moors and the birds that crouch upon them. You need only return to my homeland of Galloway to see what became of the uplands when the traditional estate system was abandoned after the First World War.
The first signs of collapse came when big estates were broken by debt and could no longer afford to maintain themselves, selling off farms to tenants and other landowners. Smaller, independently run upland farms became hard places, because without the financial support and backing from “the laird”, resources were tightly stretched. While the estate was alive, a bad year on the hill could be balanced with a profitable year on the low ground. Hill ground could be run for a poor profit because it was an important asset as part of a larger entity, providing summer grazing for sheep and cows. Try to run hill ground independently and you are forced to stock heavily to make the most of the ground (and today, the headage subsidies), and in no time at all the heather has gone.
It is absurd to imagine that you could farm hill country today and make money doing so without subsidised input, and I can’t think of a single hill farm around my ground in Galloway that is not farmed as part of a larger venture which includes low ground. In other words, they form part of an estate. Even my own tenant brings cows and sheep up to the Chayne in the Spring from his own farm down by the Solway, and the idea of using the Chayne as an independent agricultural unit is financially unthinkable.
When the Forestry Commission came to Dumfries and Galloway after the Second World War, many of the independent upland landowners breathed a collective sigh of relief. The unprofitable ground couldn’t pay for itself without support from downhill, and they threw their arms around any new way of making money. Within 40 years, hundreds of thousands of acres of marginal land vanished beneath commercial woodland. In the absence of integrated land use as part of a larger estate, landowners had to make the best of each independent parcel of land, and this never happened without exerting a major toll on the wildlife. In fifty years, we have lost the huge majority of our black grouse, mountain hares, golden plover, ring ouzel, lapwing, curlew and wild goats. The few areas of red grouse are now dangerously fragmented, and eagles and hen harriers are few and far between. It is certainly worth noting that the area where wildlife has suffered worst is already owned by the people of Scotland – and lovingly ruined in our name by the Forestry Commission.
The collapse of the traditional estates opened the door for habitat degradation, and in South West Scotland, the coup de grace was administered by commercial woodland. As “land reformers” build up a head of steam about breaking up estates, the Scottish government is talking about further expanding Scotland’s forest coverage, and without cohesive involvement from large landowners who would be able to integrate trees into the landscape, history could well repeat itself with devastating effect North of the Highland Line.
The structure of these huge highland estates is not sprawling and haphazard, but actually acts as a cohesive unit made up of several disparate land types. The farming is integrated with the sporting interests, which is linked to the woodland, and all depend upon one another to function. It is easy to imagine that the scale of these huge estates is a result of financial posturing, but their very scale is part of their conservation success. Chippy suburban goatees may not like the idea of the “laird”, but in wildlife conservation terms, it makes total sense to look at management on a landscape scale with a single individual making the key decisions on land use over many thousands of acres.
How on earth the Scottish Government plans to build conservation into a Scotland made up of a million tiny, disparate interests all trying to make a viable business by pulling in different directions, I don’t know. The best places I know for black grouse are where the moor is run to complement the adjacent woodland and farmland. What would happen to these delicate balancing acts if their various fragile components were pulled apart and given to different parties? Simply, it would spell disaster for black grouse in particular and upland wildlife in general. Once the squeeze is felt, the Scottish Government will be obliged to fund extensive conservation measures, which for any other government would be a major demand, but which would present no problem for Alex Salmond and his legendary bottomless sporran.
I am quite confident that there are some careless lairds who could do more for their tenants. I think I know some of them. But the stupidity of a few individuals is a poor reason to re-invent the entire system, and risks throwing an extremely complex infrastucture into turmoil. Many of the most ardent reformers present their arguments with such an unsavory “Violet-Elizabeth Bott”-style that it is difficult to imagine that they would be any more popular as land managers than even the most despised laird. Scottish wildlife hangs in the balance in many places, and it surely makes sense to improve on what we have, rather than embark on some politically motivated journey into the unknown.