Image: Badinloskin, Sutherland

This is the Keynote Address by Professor James Hunter given to the Community Land Scotland Annual Conference, New Drumossie Hotel, Inverness, 21 May 2015.

James Hunter

In September 2009, the best part of six years ago, I was opening speaker at a Community Land Conference held in Harris.

The people there – some of you here today – were mostly from localities – from islands and estates – that, since the early 1990s, had been bought by the folk living on them.

We recognised in that a big achievement.

Our purpose, though, was not to celebrate success.

But, in a way, to do the opposite.

That’s clear from my own words that day in Harris.

I spoke, of course, of what had been accomplished.

More homes. More jobs. New businesses. Locally controlled renewables. Rising populations.

And above all else, what’s always seemed to me by far the greatest gain that comes from effort of the sort you’ve been, and are, engaged in.

What, at that Harris gathering, I called: ‘The boost community ownership gives to the self-esteem, self-confidence, of everyone involved with it.’

‘All this you know,’ I said then, ‘and I don’t propose to dwell on it.’

What I said next was this.

‘What I want to focus on is the public policy environment in which community ownership has taken off and prospered.’

‘For while community ownership,’ I said, ‘could not have succeeded in the absence of the tremendous efforts made by groups represented here, neither could it have succeeded without support from government and its agencies.’

‘It’s my belief,’ I said, ‘that, since the present Scottish government took office, this support, which grew steadily under previous administrations, has lessened very markedly.’

The government I spoke of was the SNP administration that took office two years earlier.

And since, let me be clear, I’m an SNP member, I wasn’t motivated by hostility to that party.

I was, I think, expressing what was then a common worry in community land circles.

A worry that, while in the early years of Scotland’s restored parliament, land reform, community land ownership, had been way up there in bright lights, those things – politically at any rate – had somehow ceased to matter.

That’s why, I guess, that Harris conference was called.

To work out what was needing done to put community land ownership, the wider cause of land reform, back on the Scottish government’s agenda.

Well that, for sure, ain’t something that need worry us today.

With a Community Empowerment Bill well through the Scottish Parliament …

With a Land Reform Bill being published in the next few weeks …

With all of that going on right now at Holyrood …

If anything, you wonder – now that land, and who controls it, is so central to our politics – just how the Scottish government’s got time for other things.

Why exactly this has come about is a big question.

It’s bound up, very clearly, with the wider politics of Scotland – with the way that, over the last year or two, for reasons we all know about, there’s been far more engagement, than for several generations, with where Scotland should be headed.

And not just constitutionally.

What’s been, what is, central to the thinking of an awful lot of people who, this last year or two, have got involved in what’s been happening … is something that goes way beyond where sovereignty’s located.

That something is, I think, a feeling that unfairness, inequality have of late become so glaring, so destructive … that this unfairness, inequality, need one way or another reining in.

This feeling’s not peculiar to Scotland.

Nor is concern about the damaging effects of inequality confined to people on the left.

Over the last year or so, there’s been growing recognition, in very many quarters, that extreme concentrations of wealth are not just damaging the world’s poor.

They’re hampering development across the board … by undermining the effectiveness of every capitalist economy.

Gobally, that view’s repeatedly expressed now by, for instance, International Monetary Fund president Christine Lagarde.

More locally, here in Scotland, to repeat, demands for greater social justice are increasingly bound up with politics of the sort that brought about the electoral drama that unfolded just two weeks back from today.

What, down the track, might a socially just Scotland look like?

Well, I’ve no exact idea.

But it wouldn’t be a Scotland, I believe, where half the country’s privately owned land is controlled by just 432 owners.

A lot of folk think likewise.

And that, I reckon, is one reason why the cause of land reform has of late been getting the attention that it has.

But it’s not the only reason.

Another one is you – Community Land Scotland.

From that conference in Harris, there emerged one main conclusion.

That the community land sector – the individuals, the local groups involved in it – had somehow to get organised.

The sector, it was thought, required a means of working out, and getting over, its collective – and distinctive – point of view.

A means of influencing public agencies and politicians.

A means of pressing the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government, to recognise that the need for land reform, for more community land ownership, had not at all been satisfied by what had been accomplished in the Parliament’s first session.

Important though that was.

Well, that means of getting over a community land sector viewpoint, it isn’t missing any longer.

You, to repeat, are it.

And I reckon you’ve been doing pretty well.

For starters, you’re encouraging, assisting, continued effort on the ground.

More and more of it – and this is heartening – in parts of Scotland where community land ownership is new.

Which is not to say that things are at a standstill in the areas where community land ownership – as we know it here in Scotland – first began.

In the Outer Isles, for instance, the most endangered species isn’t any more the corncrake. It’s the Hebridean landlord.

But like six years ago in Harris, it’s the politics of land reform I most want to touch on – what I called, back then, the public policy environment.

The institutional back-up to community land ownership.

The stuff that doesn’t of itself take more land, more resources, into local, and community, control.

But the stuff – like legislation, public agency support, the cash that’s needed for land purchase – the stuff that makes it easier for people to take charge of what’s around them.

Community Land Scotland’s made a difference – a big difference – in that area.

The arguments you’ve developed, the contacts that you’ve made, the influence you’ve managed to exert – all that’s helped greatly to re-energise the land reform process – a process that, six years ago, we felt had almost stalled.

In doing what you’ve done, if I may say so, you’ve been helped by your leadership.

And not least by your chairman.

He told me that on no account was I to say this.

So I reckon that’s my dinner out the window.

But David Cameron, I believe, has helped enormously to get community land ownership to where this cause now is …

Some milestones:

First, the Scottish Land Fund.

It’s re-establishment was something we called for in 2009.

Now it’s back.

And with more money. Not enough of course. It never, ever is enough. But that the Land Fund’s up and running once again is evidence that progress is being made.

The same’s true of the setting of a target of one million acres – nearly twice the present total – in community hands by 2020.

Still more significant was the setting up by government of the Land Reform Review Group.

With which I had a brief connection.

And which, after I left … and I hope the one thing didn’t follow from the other … and which after I left produced a report that’s both a good analysis of what wants doing and a pointer as to how it might be done.

From that there’s followed legislation.

The Community Empowerment Bill owes quite a bit to Land Reform Review Group recommendations.

The Land Reform Bill will owe a great deal more.

A word now about that Bill.

Uninformed, I stress, by any inside knowledge of what it might, or mightn’t, look like.

But informed by the consultation paper that was issued late last year.

And especially by what I think is the paper’s key suggestion.

In its Chapter Two.

Where you find what’s called a Draft Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.

‘This [draft] statement,’ I quote, ‘ proposes a vision and a set of principles to guide the development of public policy on the nature and character of land rights in Scotland.’

I leave aside, for present purposes, the vision.

And of the consultation paper’s seven principles, I’ll touch on only one.

The first and – I believe – the most important.

It reads: ‘The ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.’

By way of underlining that, a borrowing from Donald Dewar.

When, in 1998, he introduced the Scotland Bill – the devolution Bill – he read out its first sentence:

‘There shall be a Scottish Parliament.’

Donald paused then for a moment, and said, ‘I like that.’

‘The ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.’

I like that.

Because it makes the point that ownership of land is in no way absolute.

What owners do, or don’t do, with their land, that statement says, is not, and can’t be, wholly up to them.

It’s contingent on the agreement, the consent, of the society, the community of which they’re part.

In some ways, to be sure, there’s nothing new about such thinking.

Although Scotland’s never experienced land reforms of the sort that long ago rid other European countries of the concentrated ownership that we alone still have, more limited reforms have several times been put in place.

Reforms made in the public interest.

Like giving crofters security of tenure in the 1880s.

Like giving tenant farmers similar – though less generous – security in the 1940s.

But reforms of that sort have had specific, limited and clearly stated purposes.

As did the Scottish Parliament’s Land Reform Act of 2003.

The new Land Reform Bill, if it includes a Land Rights Statement of the sort set out in last year’s consultation paper, will signal the arrival of a different approach.

One that opens the way not just to one or two particular measures but to an ongoing and evolving programme of reform.

A programme predicated on this powerful notion:

That the ownership and use of land in Scotland should be in the public interest and contribute to the collective benefit of the people of Scotland.

So how might a long-run programme of reform be developed?

Well, December’s consultation paper gives a steer on that as well.

Where it suggests that, in line with a Review Group recommendation, the Scottish government should establish a Land Reform Commission.

Which will have the job, presumably, of working out exactly what, beyond next month’s Reform Bill, will still need tackling if the public interest is to be secured.

Which is why the Land Reform Commission, if indeed we are to have one, has got to be got right.

This from Andy Wightman:

‘Key to the success of any such Commission will be its structure and remit. Clearly it needs to be autonomous and independent … [Members] also needs to be free of vested interest and [be] able to respond to a clear statutory remit without compromise.’

What might that remit be?

Well, I offer this from guidance given to the first Scottish Land Fund.

Not the present Fund. But the Fund launched in 2001 and afterwards – inexcusably – wound up.

One of that Fund’s objectives was simply this: ‘To diversify the pattern of land ownership in Scotland.’

Beyond that lay a recognition we need now to get back to.

A recognition that to have half of our privately owned land in the hands of 432 owners is, in itself, plain wrong.

 

Which is why a Land Commission needs to test, to scrutinise, each land-related measure to see if it’s …

Contributing to the collective benefit of the Scottish people … AND …

Helping to diversify the pattern of land ownership.

One more thought.

Arising from my having gone, on a Saturday in mid-April, to Glenfeshie.

Where Dick Balharry, who did so much for nature conservation, was being presented with a Geddes Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The day was, weather-wise, spectacular.

Some sun. Some cloud. Near perfect visibility. Snow still on the high tops that separate Glenfeshie from the upper part of Deeside.

The place a place of beauty. Seen that day at its best.

Which was good.

Because Dick, whom I’d known for a long time, was dying.

And just days later would be dead.

What Dick had meant to say that day was said for him by his son David.

There was media coverage of Dick’s message.

And if you didn’t catch it, you should maybe look it up. Because that message is important.

It has to do with how we might restore and rehabilitate environments and habitats that have been desperately degraded by misuse.

Evidence of just such restoration was all around us that day in Glenfeshie.

I hadn’t been around there for maybe 20 years.

And what I saw was truly heartening.

The rebirth of a native pinewood that, despite it’s having existed for millennia, appeared, until quite recently, to be headed for extinction.

Because of the priority given for ages in Glenfeshie – the priority given everywhere on properties like that – the priority to keeping up deer numbers.

With the outcome, in Glenfeshie, that no scots pine seedling there had reached maturity for at least a hundred years.

That the Glenfeshie pinewood’s now returning – without planting, without fencing – is down to stringent deer culls.

Conducted by a management team led by Thomas MacDonell – a local, Badenoch, man.

This team advised by Dick Balharry.

A team in place there in Glenfeshie because it’s owner is Anders Holch Polvsen – now in charge of more of Scotland than any other individual – except for the Duke of Buccleuch.

Mr Polvsen’s objectives are: ‘To purchase wild land to protect it against exploitation and to preserve as much wild nature … as possible for future generations.’

What might our prospective Land Reform Commission make of that?

Will what Mr Polvsen’s doing be judged to be, or not to be, ‘to the collective benefit’ of Scots?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that putting right the past misuse of Highland land requires more subtlety than seems to be allowed for in attempts to map what’s wild.

Not long after my trip to Glenfeshie, I was in Strathbrora.

I’ve been there quite a bit of late because, as David mentioned, I’m writing something presently on Sutherland.

My destination was a place called Ascoilemore.

Whose community, I think, I’ve got to know a little bit.

Which is a wee bit odd, I guess.

Because no-one’s lived in Ascoilemore for the best part of two centuries.

This being one of sixty-two Stathbrora townships destroyed in the course of the Sutherland Clearances.

There were eight, nine, ten, eleven dwellings there in Ascoilemore.

Now reduced to little more than squared off undulations in the turf.

I don’t know which of these vestigial ruins were once part of the house that – until Thursday 31 May 1821 – was home to a woman by the name of Jessie Ross.

I do know something of what happened there when, at two o’clock that Thursday afternoon, the house was entered forcibly by around a dozen men.

Those men, headed by a sheriff-officer called Donald Bannerman, were there to evict this young mother, her two small daughters, aged five and three, and her two-month old baby girl.

They were also there to empty the building of everything the Rosses owned.

Jessie’s baby, whose name was Roberta, had been born less than a year after another baby, a boy who hadn’t lived.

So Jessie Ross, then 27, had gone through, in twenty months, two pregnancies – one of which had ended tragically.

Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t in good health.

To Bannerman and his subordinates, this mattered not a bit.

They began by ordering out the little girls, Elizabeth and Katherine.

Their mother, unwell and hoping to safeguard the family’s belongings, refused to join them.

‘She would not leave … until the furniture was off,’ it was afterwards explained.

On Jessie Ross also refusing to help move the wooden cradle in which her baby was sleeping, one of the party, William Stevenson, picked it up – angrily it was said – and made to carry both cradle and baby outside.

Perhaps, as was later alleged, Stevenson was drunk – he and his colleagues having got through ten bottles of whisky the previous night and another three that morning.

Or perhaps he was just clumsy.

At all events, he somehow ran the cradle up against the house’s door or doorframe.

The baby, though not tumbled out, was badly shaken – and started crying in alarm.

She was still in distress when her cradle was set down in such shelter as a nearby dyke provided from a chill wind out of the north-east.

Here Roberta was found by someone by the name of Mary Murray – on her way to offer help to Jessie.

Like Jessie, Mary was a nursing mother.

Doing something we’d think unacceptable – but which, from the way it was reported, must have been common practice then – Mary Murray lifted the crying infant and quietened her, as a bystander put it, by ‘giving the young child a suck’ at her own breast.

The older Ross children weren’t so readily comforted.

Not long after the evicting party got to work, Elizabeth, the five-year old, was struck in the face by a piece of planking thrown from the house – Stevenson again responsible.

Elizabeth began to cry and, her injuries aside, neither she nor Katherine, her sister, could have been anything but traumatised by what was happening to them.

Both were said to have ‘looked cold’ and to be ‘trembling’ or shivering – their misery compounded by the fact that they already had, or were incubating, whooping cough.

Now rare, whooping cough was once a common childhood illness.

Its symptoms – a fever and the drawn-out cough from which the infection got its name – were always unpleasant, sometimes severe, occasionally fatal.

So what happened to Katherine Ross, might arguably have happened anyway.

But when, some three weeks later, the little girl died, it’s understandable that her father, Gordon Ross, unavoidably elsewhere when Ascoilemore was cleared, should have attributed her death to what he called the ‘inhuman treatment’ she’d experienced when the Rosses’ home was taken from them.

That, then, is how Strathbrora got to be the way it is.

From the hillside above Ascoilemore, the middle reaches of Strathbrora are laid out in front of you.

Devoid of habitation.

But awash with indications of there having for a long time been a lot of people here.

A mile or so away, at Kilbraur, another of the strath’s cleared townships, you can pick out the remnants of a broch.

From perhaps two thousand years back.

And in the shape of hut circles and the like, there are plenty signs of older settlements nearer hand.

Which is to say that, out of the last fifty centuries, this part of Strathbrora’s been lacking people for just two.

In relation to what went before then, Strathbrora’s present emptiness is very, very new.

And being new, might it not also, in the end, prove temporary?

Getting a new community, or new communities, established in Strathbrora, and the many places like it, will be more challenging than getting pines back in Glenfeshie.

It won’t happen this year.

Or next year.

It might not happen this century.

But my plea to Aileen MacLeod, who’ll be speaking here tomorrow, is this:

Don’t let any Wild Land Map close off that possibility.

Image: Commission on Local Tax Reform. Oral Evidence Session 2

Today, the Commission on Local Tax Reform held its second oral evidence session. I am  member of the Commission representing the Scottish Green Party. The event was streamed live and you can view the whole proceedings here together with the slides used by Stuart Adam of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In addition to Stuart’s evidence, we heard from Professor John Baillie – a member of the Local Government Finance Review Committee (chaired by Sir Peter Burt), and  the immediate past Chair of the Audit Commission and of Audit Scotland. We also heard evidence from Ken McKay who was Head of Local Government Finance in the Scottish Office between 1989 and 1997 and was the advisor to the Burt Committee.

The Committee was established in 2004. Its remit was:

To review the different forms of local taxation, including reform of the Council Tax, against criteria set by the Executive, to identify the pros and cons of implementing any changes to the local taxation system in Scotland, including the practicalities and the implications for the rest of the local government finance system and any wider economic impact, and to make recommendations.”

The Committee published its final report on 9 November 2006 (news report here).

The current Commission is keen to learn from the experience of Sir Peter Burt’s Committee and so invited Professor Baillie and Ken Mackay. You can watch the whole session and download the slide presentation here.

I relate the following exchange in order to highlight the potential political difficulties that might lie ahead and to alert interested parties to the vital need to achieve a degree of political consensus on the findings of the Commission. The exchange speaks for itself as to the challenges of making progress in this area of public policy.

After the Chair had opened question of the witnesses , I asked why Burt had died a death before it was even published. Here is the exchange at 52 minutes and 10 seconds into the session.

Andy Wightman

I’ve got quite a few questions on the technical detail of all of this  but first of all, Ken and John, perhaps on the politics of all of this because this appears to be where Burt stumbled and where possibly the biggest challenges facing this Commission are. Why did Burt die a death before it was even published?

John Baillie

We submitted our report and we actually gave an advance copy as you would expect out of courtesy to the First Minister among others. And we heard the day before we were publishing and having our press conference that it had been dismissed. I to this day do not know why and I think the easiest way to find out the justification for that wholesale rejection is possibly to invite those who rejected it. I can speculate but it’s worthless.”

Ken Mackay

I have no …. I was inside the Scottish Office at one time and I have no idea .. and I have tried .. I have seen Jack McConnell on the golf course and I’ve often wanted to ask him .. because the Burt Committee  .. well I’d better be .. I better bite my tongue a bit because there’s politics in this especially now but they were treated appallingly. They did a very, very good piece of work and it was rubbished the day before it was published.”

The Commission is currently undertaking a public consultation. Further details here.

Dick Balharry, one of Scotland’s foremost naturalists died today. Last week, in Glen Feshie, he was awarded the Geddes Environment Medal for a lifetime’s achievement in environmental work by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (pictured above). I am grateful to the Society for its permission to reproduce Dick’s paper together with an introduction by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the RSGS.

Mike Robinson, RSGS CEO, introduces Dick Balharry’s vision for land use in Scotland.

Our most recent Geddes medal was awarded to the highly respected conservationist Dick Balharry, at a special event in Glenfeshie this past weekend.    A popular awardee, Dick has influenced, inspired, advised and encouraged so many institutions in Scotland and helped establish the country’s first nature reserves at Beinn Eighe and Creag Meagaidh.    Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, Dick, who is terminally ill, asked to share the award with his wife Adeline, and used the event to highlight his hopes for the future of environmental land management in Scotland.

His belief was that the current tools used to encourage environmental land management were not sufficient, and that in addition to the basic legislative carrots and sticks, there was a need for a scheme that can give formal recognition to good practice and be respected by all interested parties. For instance, he asked, how is it fair that a land manager who chooses to reduce deer numbers to enhance the habitat and forest cover, has to pay to ‘fence out’ deer from neighbouring estates who continue to artificially prop up high densities of deer, instead of those neighbouring estates being forced to fence high numbers ‘in’?He also stressed the apparent absence of any integrated vision as to what constitutes the “public interest” in Scotland.

His paper is critical of both government and landowners but seeks to provide a middle ground for discussion rather than further polarised debate. As someone who has worked at the forefront of Scottish land management for the past fifty years we thought more people should be given the chance to hear his views, and have reprinted his paper in full below.

DELIVERING CHANGE THROUGH VISION, EMPOWERMENT AND RECOGNITION

by Dick Balharry

Today I would like to promote the concept that an “agreed vision” for land use has the potential to be a powerful motivator for change. The basis of the concept is simply that, with a vision you open up the possibility of recognising and celebrating success. As I will explain the idea is based on adding value to the existing tools of “carrots” and “sticks” to empower change.

If the opportunity allows I would welcome discussion.

Before that I would like to say a little about my formative years, where the ideas I wish to share today have, at least in part, their origin.

Background

As a boy, living in a small village on the outskirts of Dundee, I was fascinated by the natural heritage. I was given total freedom to explore the woods, marshes and fields and these became my natural habitat. Little escorted walks soon became lonesome adventures. My interests took many forms including creating collections, hunting and hand rearing wild animals. Through these activities I gained an insight into the lives of many different animals: including rabbits, kestrels, jackdaws and jays.

I soon realized that the natural world presented more questions than answers, not to mention that my activities also provided me with a healthy diet and a fast pair of legs.

At sixteen years old, on completion of a year at Dundee Engineering Trades College I turned up for work at an engineering plant. Whatever my destiny I knew then that working in a factory was off the agenda, the noise, the smell of hot oil and cigarette smoke were simply alien and a far cry from my interests, I was gone within the hour.

As is often the case with youthful poachers my first job was as a gamekeeper. The job was on an estate near Tighnabruach and involved controlling predators to protect wild pheasants, and patrolling a river against salmon poachers.

In essence, I was charged with sterilizing the environment of predators in order to maximize the number of birds and salmon available for guests.

However, it soon became clear that the keeping of a fox and a raven did not meet with the Landlord’s image of a gamekeeper. An ultimatum was given to the head keeper “either the pets go, or he goes” – so I left with my furry and feathered friends.

From there I became a deerstalker in Glen Lyon under the watchful eye of Archie MacDonald the Head Stalker. Archie mentored me in the soft skills of the hill and it was always a privilege to be in his company. He was a sincere man of carefully  chosen words, immense knowledge and a sensitivity to all that was around him. I have much to thank him for and I remember him fondly.

When the Red Deer Commission advertised for stalkers in 1959 Archie’s teachings gave me an advantage. The combination of the increased salary and opportunity to work across the whole of Scotland pulled me into a new phase of my life, albeit still focused firmly on red deer. While travelling the length and breadth of Scotland culling marauding deer and marking deer calves I often found my attention diverted to the signs, tracks, dens and eyries of other animals – wildcats peregrines, eagles and even martens.

My career in conservation started in 1962, when at the age of 24, I was appointed warden on Beinn Eighe NNR in Wester Ross. I was given responsibility for over 10,000 acres of mountain and Caledonian pinewood. This was the first NNR in the UK and the focus was primarily on research. At that time the public were regarded by The Nature Conservancy as more of an inconvenience than an asset.

In addition to working with scientists, being a Warden was also my first introduction to what I might loosely call “the establishment”. The establishment can be defined in many ways and it is fascinating, even today, to see how networks based on wealth, social status, formal qualifications and public education influence decision making and how they often over-ride logic and evidence to protect their own interests. Being “out of the loop” as one might say it was soon clear that my dream job came with limited ability to influence decisions taken in Edinburgh and London. Tactful advocacy, persuasion, passion and promoting public support became the tools of my trade.

Throughout my life I have seen the establishment work in weird and wonderful ways. For example I was once informed that educative foreign travel was the province of the Officers, in essence those with degrees rather than Wardens with field skills. However despite this rebuff, with determination and family support, I broke the format and in 1969 attended a course on the Administration of National Parks visiting most of the mid-west National Parks in the USA and Canada along with 40 other delegates chosen from around the world for their experience rather than academic prowess. This was a turning point in my life and fueled my desire to drive change and promote the benefits and joys of Scotland’s natural heritage to a wider audience, by whatever means I could.

Since then I have spent my life improving my knowledge and enjoying the opportunity to enthuse others. I have engaged with everyone I could, including shepherds, stalkers, urban audiences, land owners fellow campaigners, hill walkers, top civil servants, leading politicians and royalty. I have made extensive use of the media. Those who know me well, know that my language still gives away my prejudices and frustrations with the establishment.

Reflections

On reflection my career has been a vocation, privileged and fortunate.

It was a career that brought me close to many of Scotland’s iconic species and allowed me to discover the magic of the Highlands and Islands. It introduced me to the knowledge and the culture of the people who live and work there and it allowed me to meet many of the scientists whose names were made by the opportunity to work in the Highlands and Islands.

I am always pleased to hear that my interest in the natural world has helped inspire others and if, through my talks and media presentations, I have contributed to developing the interests of a wider public then that is a worthwhile legacy.

Sometimes I am asked to name a favourite animal, plant, bird or place and I give an answer. However as Patrick Geddes would have said to give an answer is like plucking one petal of the six lobed flower. This is an easy trap to fall into: the simplicity of the individual is always easier to describe than the whole.

Now with the focus of mortality, single and sectorial interests seem less important. Rather it is the whole which captures my imagination: the need for quality jobs in rural areas, the need to break the dependency cycle, the need to see our wildlands as an economic asset, the need to have regard to carbon emissions and the need to think long term.

We depend on our rural environment and it depends on the public being interested. It is this phrase “public interest”, used so freely by many that now strikes me as of paramount importance in the land use debate and is central to our ability to make change.

I have no quarrel with wealth, who owns the land, how they were educated, or their country of origin, so long as they manage the land giving due respect to the interests that we all rely on.

Public Interest and Vision

So what does “public interest” mean? or indeed look like?

The uncertainty and absence of clear thinking around this commonly used phrase is the main problem as I see it. Managing the land with respect for specific interests and specialisms is fairly straight forward and one that defined our approach to nature conservation from the 80’s through to today.

However, integrated land management for a collective “public interest” remains to be addressed. The main challenge being the absence of any understanding as to what the collective “public interest” looks like at a landscape level.

Change requires vision and leadership. Without the vision and the necessary clarity of purpose, the debate on rural land-use has become polarized and permeated by the politics of envy and criticism.

It is not only the vision that is important for change but also how it is presented, the weasel words of “balance” and “sustainability” need to be avoided if we are to progress. It should have been done long ago and I cannot help wonder why not? Is it simply too difficult? Perhaps the structures of government with their respective experts are too divided? Perhaps there are too many interest groups? Perhaps as a society we are too fragmented to allow for a simple vision to emerge?

Whatever the excuse it is my personal belief that the vision can, and indeed must be defined in order to promote integrated delivery and empower those who own the land with responsibility. It is my view that the vision needs to be defined in a way that provides scope for flexibility, allows owners to make choices and provides the opportunity to be respected for the approach they take. Our current system, focused on protecting single interests, was necessary and while it continues to have its place it has its limitations. My objective here is to suggest an additional approach that adds value to the existing system.

I ask you to think for a minute and consider, if it were possible, where is the vision and the leadership necessary to make it happen going to come from? Who is going to lead the charge against the sectorial approach and promote the need for an integrated approach? Who is going to review public policy mechanisms from outside the box and come up with new thinking?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but to future leaders who have the opportunity to respond to the challenge, I would like to make an observation.

Formal recognition and Empowerment

Existing attempts to deliver public policies rely on two simple means of influence, offering monetary incentives (carrots) or punishing through regulation (sticks). In effect a two legged stool.

This is a shooglie stool and it is my belief that a third leg of influence could be added to help promote a more sophisticated approach to influencing human behaviour. I believe this type of approach will empower those who own land to take responsibility and make changes. That third leg is “formal recognition” and I believe it is necessary, for three reasons.

 Firstly it will require an agreed vision

 Secondly it will empower owners to manage with confidence

 Thirdly it will promote transparency

These are the three reasons why I think it is necessary. The reasons why I think it has potential to deliver are simple and both come from familiar observations of human behaviour. We are all aware of the motivational benefits of rewarding people with recognition and we are equally aware that people need to fit in and feel secure, comfortable, safe and protected.

Throughout my career I have seen the insecurity and fear of being different from the norm of a social group working to maintain inertia and stifle change. The establishment, I mentioned at the start, relies heavily on this insecurity to protect its interest in the status quo.

The beauty of “formal recognition” is that, if well designed, it offers security. The key to this security comes from the level at which the recognition is awarded. The concept will only work if the recognition provides an effective shield from the critics in the establishment, interest groups and government.

The detailed basis and process for awarding “formal recognition” is for others to think through, but to me the key elements are, that formal recognition:

 is respected, not necessarily liked, but respected.

 comes from both government and interest groups.

 is based on robust logic and best evidence.

 is an award given to landowners for all their holdings.

 is based on a flexible and intelligent understanding of the integrated land management challenges, rather than being prescriptive.

Whether “formal recognition” as a scheme would have levels of award and how long the award would last for are details to be worked out in the future.

It is the simplicity of the principle and its potential to empower that I would like you to take away today.

So, given the known benefits and the simplicity of the approach why is “formal recognition” missing from the government tool kit?

It strikes me that the problem is that no one has taken responsibility to grasp the nettle and explain what the “public interest” looks like at a landscape level. The consequence is that we live with no clear vision and we have developed a culture that highlights what we don’t want rather than what we need.

If we could describe the vision, then that would open up the possibility for this third leg of formal recognition to be added, alongside the carrots and sticks, as a complementary means of influencing land owners.

In summary if the public interest was expressed at the level of land management units and high profile recognition was given to those who deliver it, then I have no doubt that the associated benefits of security and marketing would help change the behaviour of those who own the land.

In effect you have set out the safe, moral high ground and you have provided security for those who wish to break from what has become the established norm of “traditional sporting estates”.

Remember not everyone wants to lead when it involves sticking his or her head above the parapet.

An example

An example is Glen Feshie; where we are today.

I have had a long history with Glen Feshie that spans from 1964 to 2015 involving 6 different owners. I have seen the result of the carrots and sticks at work here, indeed I spent many years doing my best to deliver a positive outcome with these limited tools.

But did these two tools achieve the desired results? No they did not, as a critical look at the evidence shows.

Consider the facts, the current owner has neither taken full advantage of all the carrots offered by government, nor been cowed by legislative sticks nor indeed been restricted by sectorial interests. He is delivering well beyond what these crude tools ever sought to achieve.

Glen Feshie has remained a “sporting estate”. Yes, a “sporting estate”, and like you I am fully aware of other “sporting estates” in Scotland where large tracts of land are managed solely for the benefit of a few wealthy people with little or no regard for the public interest. However these are the “sporting estates” of the past and the ones to which Glen Feshie sets an example for the future.

So how does Glen Feshie estate differ?

Well it generates income by providing opportunities for paying guests to shoot deer and grouse just like any old fashioned estate. But there the similarity ends. Today, Glen Feshie is being managed towards a vision, a vision of stewardship, inward investment, local employment and public interest. This vision is delivering tree regeneration without fences and allowing for the development of a natural tree line. It is welcoming to all who take responsible access into the glen. It maintains, and landscapes the foot paths along with the few hill tracks that are necessary for management.

The result is an estate that matches and possibly out performs any government owned land that I can think of, especially in terms of attracting private inward investment, delivering conservation benefit and generating income.

I respect that the results we see here today have come from a visionary land owner who was willing to put his head above the parapet and never sought recognition. It is my belief that if we recognise leaders who are willing to change, others will follow.

Red deer and fencing

Finally, and without apology, I would like to speak about the management of red deer and the regeneration of trees without fences.

Those who said it wasn’t possible spoke loudly, and those with a vested interest in managing the land for the benefit of the few, still do.

I suspect that the reality is that those who objected never doubted that trees would grow or that deer numbers could effectively be reduced, but rather they realised it would be a long costly road and one they didn’t relish having to travel themselves or indeed could not afford to travel. Controlling deer numbers at low levels is costly and requires resources including young fit men. However, it also presents the opportunity for marketing an activity that is essential for protecting our wildland and one that requires greater levels of skill from both the stalker and the client.

The sad fact, witnessed throughout Scotland today, is that in many areas fencing deer out of young native woodland has become a way to maintain easier stalking opportunities and to protect established relationships and social networks. In effect many deer fences are built to protect the interests of the few.

In the context of red deer and of Scotland I see this as a major injustice. If people wish to manage land exclusively for the benefit of the few without regard to the wider public interest then they will never have my support. To those who argue that fences are required to make sport shooting economically viable I would simply say that you are inviting society to question the legitimacy of your ownership model – one that places trophy stags higher than the long term interest of the public and the planet.

But if you must fence then it is my view you should, at your own cost, erect high boundary fences to keep your deer in. This is “not natural”, but then what is natural about maintaining deer at artificially high densities for the benefit of a few?

Higher densities help maximize the sporting opportunities for a few but they also increase the numbers of deer that die in winter from lack of food and shelter. Owners tend to distance themselves from this responsibility claiming that deer are wild animals for which they cannot be held entirely responsible. As it stands that is indeed the law. However the decision to have high numbers of red deer on the hill and the decision not to provide native woodland for shelter remain unequivocally the management choice made by owners.

The result is that, on what we have come to call “traditional sporting estates,” most owners receive the benefit of income from shooting red deer without either accepting effective responsibility for their welfare in winter, or having true regard to a wider public interest. “Traditional sporting estates” cannot stand on the moral high ground of estate ownership as they have tried to claim for over the last 200 years. Rather they embody the selfish greed of a Victorian era, outdated and ludicrous.

The moral high ground of the future will be for those who wish to hunt deer in a natural environment, free of fences, where deer have access to the food and shelter they require; where there is a natural tree line and the public are welcomed and give recognition freely for a job well done.

These are the “sporting estates” of the future and I believe we are standing in Scotland’s first.

If a mechanism existed to formally recognise the results that have been delivered here, then I have no doubt that the positive outcomes would be replicated on other large estates in Scotland.

As I mentioned earlier not everyone is a visionary leader willing to challenge and make changes from the front. Most like to remain within the fold of the status quo until the route to the “safe ground” has been mapped out for them. The route I am outlining is a position of transparency and clarity where the public interest is genuinely delivered within a wide range of different approaches to management: a route that provides others with the confidence to break from the establishment.

In the 1980’s all the vegetation in this Glen, including the heather, was shaved bare by the incessant demand of hungry red deer. Today, following a few years of investment by a visionary, the natural processes that began 9000 years ago are giving revival to the land.

I have lived to see an impossible dream come true and that – is very special.

I sincerely thank Anders Povlsen, Thomas & Ali MacDonnell for hosting this day and for working so hard to make it very special and thank all the estate staff, whose efforts we now witness in this beautiful glen. A Natural Living Caledon Forest Treasure with all its associated life dating back to the ice age, approximately 30 tree generations. Here we have an example of how a sporting estate and the public interest can work together.

The challenge I leave behind for those who follow is to clarify the vision, devise a method of formal recognition respected by all sides in the debate, give rewards on delivery of results and seek change through empowerment.

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) is the leading educational charity in Scotland providing geographical understanding on contemporary issues which shape our future.

Established in 1884, it has a long and distinguished history of promoting an understanding of the natural environment and human societies, and how they interact. In addition to awarding prestigious medals RSGS seeks to make connections and contribute to scientific and policy debate, so as the years march on it is my hope RSGS along with others will help provide the motivation required to make “a vision”, “formal recognition” and “empowerment” central parts of public policy.

It is an honour to be asked to accept the Patrick Geddes Medal and I am delighted that Glen Feshie was chosen as the venue.

Patrick Geddes, biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner was born in Ballater 1854. He was well known for innovative thinking and promoting the idea that physical geography, market economies and anthropology are

inseparable interwoven structures, akin to a flower

He was famous for, amongst many things, being critical of thinking that focused on single elements. In 1917 he commented that

Each of the various specialists remains too closely concentrated upon his single specialism, too little awake to those of the others. Each sees clearly and seizes firmly upon one petal of the six-lobed flower of life and tears it apart from the whole.”

I think the concept of formal recognition for land management that delivers on an agreed long term vision chimes well with Patrick Geddes’s approach and I hope my career has contributed in some small way to increasing the value we place on our people and our natural resources.

It is with pleasure that I accept the Patrick Geddes Medal in Glen Feshie.

Thank you.

Dick Balharry MBE

Glen Feshie 18 April 2015