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

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

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

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

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

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

He told the Telegraph that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Johnstone concluded,

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

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

If you say so.

NOTES

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

(2) See Economic Contribution of Estates in Scotland

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Hunting in Norway (Erling Solberg)

Who does what?

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Harvest levels

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

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

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

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

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

Using harvest permits

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

Reporting requirements

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

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

Training requirements

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

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

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

Financing the system

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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