Land use is now the big question

Land use is now the big question

John Mackenzie ,
11 Apr 2018

A few weeks have now passed since the transmission of BBC Scotland’s documentary The Battle for Scotland’s Countryside, and the intervening period has allowed a chance to ponder on what the programme explained – and some of the points it didn’t manage to reflect.

Before I go any further, I would recommend anyone with a keen interest in Scotland’s land to set aside an hour to watch the show whilst it is available on BBC iPlayer until this Friday (April 13, 2018). For those of us who have so much invested in the land, emotionally more than anything else, there are frustrations about some aspects of the programme but it has to be recognised that cramming such a difficult subject into 60 minutes of content, both in terms of historical and modern day issues, is never going to satisfy every interested party.

I was approached in January by the BBC Scotland production team, who had read a case study about Gairloch and Conon Estate from the Modern Face of Scottish Landownership publication on the Scottish Land & Estates website.

Presenter David Hayman and the BBC team travelled to the estate and spent a morning and asking for my perspective on various matters, both on and off camera. My broadcast contribution was limited due to the confines of time available but having watched the programme, I’d like to pick up on two of the main themes – access and ownership.

Regarding access, the programme looked at the historical path which led to the 2003 Land Reform Act but it has to be acknowledged that whilst this was a landmark piece of legislation, in many cases it simply codified in law what was already happening in practice. The law was preceded a decade earlier by the Letterewe Accord, an agreement between landowner the late Paul Van Vlissingen and outdoor organisations on the terms of access to the Letterewe Estate.

In our case at Gairloch, just across Loch Maree from Letterewe, we had been welcoming unrestricted access to the entire estate for many decades prior to the Letterewe Accord, including during the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001 when restrictions had been placed on access across the country. The outbreak led to many additional visitors to Gairloch from far and wide in the knowledge that we were able to offer risk free access thanks to the deer fencing we had erected to protect a large newly planted area of native woodland.

It was encouraging to hear Cameron McNeish’s clear acknowledgement that landowners “almost to a man or woman” have positively embraced access legislation and that problems over access are pretty few and far between. However, as we saw during the programme in the much-discussed case at the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, it is not simply a case of people now enjoying access – the issue of the responsibilities of a landowner and access taker has come to the fore.

One issue which the BBC documentary did not address in its look at the “right to roam” is the duty of care imposed on landowners in respect of risks to access takers. In our case the duty of care changed the way we operated in a couple of remote locations. The risk of possible action against us led to us removing two footbridges which were useful not only for estate business but also to access takers. The bridges were serviceable for our purposes but would not have met modern engineering standards. In light of the 2003 Act, we had to remove the risk of claims being made against us but could unfortunately not justify the expense of replacing the structures – miles from any road – with more robust bridges.

That decision was vindicated around five years ago when we were sued by a walker who apparently slipped on a very substantial, wooden decked bridge built by the Army ‘for community benefit’ on a marked and well used estate path some years earlier. The man said that the wet wooden decking was slippery, causing him to fall and irreparably damage his camera. Our insurers paid a substantial bill on that occasion but it highlights that the “right to roam” brought with it not just issues of littering and anti-social behaviour, such as those experienced at Loch Lomond, but also real financial implications despite the estate making no gain (nor wishing to make money) from access takers enjoying the countryside.

Ownership was clearly the key strand running through the programme, but it noticeably looked at it in a very broad-brush manner and as a result, I believe missed some key nuances in the debate around land reform.
I explained in the programme how my family came into ownership of the estate and for some, this would make me a ‘wealthy landowner’. However, as I would argue, this is a political term rather than a reality. A lot of estates are worth substantially less in monetary terms than single houses both in London or even the central belt of Scotland (without wishing anyone to feel sorry for us!)

Many argue passionately for land reform that will lead to break up of the large estates, as is their right. However, the arguments that are proffered in national debate, on the pages of newspapers or on social media often bear little resemblance to what happens on the ground.

In my experience, local people in this region have little or no problem with estates, nor any desire to take or be presented with ownership. There is a realisation locally that despite a headline number of acres, ownership of land in the Highlands is no licence to print money and I believe that most of the objections to large landholdings emanate from south of the Highlands. Whilst it is true that there are many owners who do not reside on the land they own, this is frequently because they are earning money working elsewhere to subsidise the estate’s upkeep. Each case has to be viewed on its merits, but it is love for an estate and a countryside, rather than seeing it as a plaything, that encourages owners to keep investing their money from elsewhere into a largely unprofitable landholding.

Although community ownership is in some circles trumpeted as the Holy Grail, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in many cases it would not work without substantial public support. And inevitably, with community trusts there are often diverse views on how land should be managed with The Stornoway Trust apparently providing the exception to prove the rule. However, if community ownership is to develop even further, it should not on public funding beyond that which is available to all for land management, such as agriculture, forestry or development grants.

The critical point in all of this, as every reader will know, is that how land is managed rather than ownership should be the key consideration. Do what you can with the land that provides both a sustainable business model and opportunities for others where achievable. Again, that debate was largely absent from the programme – but many would argue that it has been largely absent from the debate on land anyway. 

John Mackenzie, Gairloch & Conon Estates