New land re­form leg­is­la­tion in Scot­land is com­plex and di­vi­sive. Helena Ven­ables looks into how it has come about, what it means in prac­tice and why coun­try­side or­gan­i­sa­tions, landown­ers, shoot­ers and ru­ral work­ers are up in arms about it

Sporting Shooter - - June 2017 -

On 1 April this year the sport­ing rate tax was rein­tro­duced for ‘shoot­ing and deer forests’ in Scot­land. The tax forms part of the Land Re­form (Scot­land) Act 2016, which was given Royal As­sent on 22 April last year. The Act, which has the ba­sic premise that land should ben­e­fit every­one, not just a priv­i­leged few, has been de­scribed dra­mat­i­cally as “the bat­tle to de­cide who owns Scot­land”.

The aim

In brief, the new Land Re­form Act aims to widen own­er­ship of land through­out Scot­land; cur­rently around 432 pri­vate landown­ers own 50% of the coun­try’s pri­vate ru­ral land. The Scot­tish Na­tional Party (SNP) wants change and the new leg­is­la­tion is ac­com­pa­nied by the Scot­tish Land Fund, which opened on 1 April this year and makes £10m avail­able to help com­mu­nity buy­outs.

As well as the rein­tro­duc­tion of sport­ing rates the Act also in­tro­duces in­creased trans­parency of land own­er­ship, gives fur­ther pow­ers to Scot­tish Na­tional Her­itage (SNH) on deer man­age­ment, brings in a Land Com­mis­sion and a Land Rights & Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties State­ment, and a com­mu­nity ‘right to buy’ to fa­cil­i­tate sus­tain­able lo­cal de­vel­op­ment (which does not re­quire a will­ing seller). Much of the Act also cov­ers agri­cul­tural hold­ings leg­is­la­tion.

Di­vided opin­ion

Not sur­pris­ingly the Land Re­form Act, and specif­i­cally the parts on deer man­age­ment and the rein­tro­duc­tion of sport­ing rates, has caused con­ster­na­tion among coun­try­side and shoot­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions, landown­ers, farm­ers, game­keep­ers, ghillies, shoot own­ers, deer man­agers, shoot­ers and ru­ral work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Ju­lia Stod­dart, head of policy at the Scot­tish As­so­ci­a­tion for Coun­try Sports (SACS), Scot­land’s big­gest coun­try sports or­gan­i­sa­tion, “the statis­tic that fewer than 500 peo­ple own more than half of Scot­land is highly ob­jec­tion­able to many peo­ple in Scot­land, in­clud­ing the cur­rent SNP ad­min­is­tra­tion. This is viewed as hold­ing back Scot­land as a coun­try, with the re­sult­ing eco­nomic, so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal in­equity con­sid­ered anachro­nis­tic in the 21st cen­tury. Many peo­ple, how­ever, do not agree that this is the case; it is a di­vi­sive is­sue.”

Di­vi­sive it is, es­pe­cially if you can­vass opin­ion from those in­volved in land own­er­ship, man­age­ment and use in Scot­land. Sen­si­ble change is in­evitable but many be­lieve landown­ers should be en­cour­aged to en­ter part­ner­ships with com­mu­ni­ties, as many have al­ready done, as that would bring ben­e­fits in terms of in­vest­ment and em­ploy­ment. In­stead, the SNP ap­pears to want to sweep aside vi­able es­tate busi­nesses that are owned and funded by tal­ented peo­ple, who of­ten sub­sidise them out of their own pock­ets.

Fall­ing on deaf ears

De­spite con­cerns be­ing raised in many quar­ters dur­ing the con­sul­ta­tion process, it

‘On is­sues such as sport­ing rates and agri­cul­tural hold­ings, where ev­i­dence didn’t suit the po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, our con­cerns were not lis­tened to’

ap­pears that the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment has not lis­tened.

Katy Dick­son, se­nior policy of­fi­cer at Scot­tish Land and Es­tates (SLE), which rep­re­sents landown­ers across Scot­land, ex­plains that the or­gan­i­sa­tion has spent many years mak­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the land re­form de­bate at the same time as rep­re­sent­ing its mem­bers’ in­ter­ests. “Our in­volve­ment has in­cluded re­sponses to con­sul­ta­tions; ev­i­dence dur­ing the Bill; vis­its for politi­cians to in­crease un­der­stand­ing of ru­ral is­sues; sup­port­ing mem­bers to make in­di­vid­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion; par­tic­i­pat­ing in stake­holder work­ing groups; and meet­ing politi­cians from all par­ties. Some of our con­cerns were heard but on is­sues such as sport­ing rates and agri­cul­tural hold­ings, where ev­i­dence didn’t suit the po­lit­i­cal rhetoric, our con­cerns were not lis­tened to.”

Jamie Ste­wart, di­rec­tor of the Scot­tish Coun­try­side Al­liance, agrees that the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment has been deaf to valid ob­jec­tions. “We have worked alone and in as­so­ci­a­tion with other or­gan­i­sa­tions to present ev­i­dence to stop or at least mit­i­gate the pro­jected im­pact of land re­form on ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses,” he said. “Whilst we have al­ways cham­pi­oned ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and sup­ported them through di­rect lob­by­ing on key is­sues, we do not sup­port the ag­gres­sive na­ture of land re­form and the threat of the re­moval of land from one owner in favour of an­other, per­ceived or oth­er­wise. We have en­gaged with cabi­net sec­re­taries, MSPs and as­so­ci­ated com­mit­tees di­rectly and in­di­rectly linked to land re­form. There have been few con­ces­sions from Scot­tish gov­ern­ment.”

The po­ten­tial break-up of sport­ing es­tates through the ‘right to buy’ is also a great worry, as Jamie Ste­wart states: “The plau­dits from the SNP and its back­ers in­clud­ing words such as ‘rad­i­cal’, ‘trans­for­ma­tive’, and ‘a new dawn for land re­form’ means the gen­eral pub­lic have been mis-sold a vision of Scot­land as Shangri-La, an earthly par­adise where money grows from ev­ery heather shoot.

“In re­al­ity, the break-up of Scot­land’s sport­ing es­tates would see them lose eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity, if they had any in the first place. The en­vi­ron­ment would suf­fer with the loss of land man­age­ment, bio­di­ver­sity and a di­rect im­pact on our wildlife tourism.”

Deer or pawns?

In ad­di­tion, the fur­ther pow­ers given to SNH on deer man­age­ment and the rein­tro­duc­tion of sport­ing rates, last in force in 1994, are also caus­ing much disquiet.

On the is­sue of deer the Act pro­vides SNH, the gov­ern­ment agency re­spon­si­ble for deer, the power to re­quire own­ers to pro­duce deer man­age­ment plans, most likely in con­junc­tion with deer man­age­ment groups.

In some ways the ul­ti­mate po­si­tion has not changed in that SNH, which as­sumed the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the Deer Com­mis­sion for Scot­land dur­ing 2010, has the power to im­pose con­trol agree­ments and con­trol or­ders – statu­tory pow­ers set out in the Deer (Scot­land) Act 1996 – but there is no doubt that the new leg­is­la­tion in­creases the role of SNH in deer­re­lated mat­ters.

Niall Rowantree is sport­ing man­ager at West High­land Hunt­ing on the Ard­na­mur­chan Penin­sula and also man­ages a num­ber of sport­ing es­tates, wood­land prop­er­ties and com­mer­cial farms where deer are present. He says wild deer have be­come a po­lit­i­cal pawn. “Much of what we have seen in the re­cent re­view by SNH dis­ap­pointed pro­fes­sional wildlife man­agers. The pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties pro­jected in its re­port were at best un­re­li­able and cre­ated a mis­lead­ing pic­ture as to what had been achieved by the vol­un­tary ap­proach in the past few years. The in­creas­ing de­mands on deer man­agers to mon­i­tor im­pacts and the de­sire to lay blame for all up­land deer prob­lems leaves us with lit­tle con­fi­dence at this stage. I can only hope that ma­tu­rity will en­able those with in­creas­ing pow­ers to ap­proach the sit­u­a­tion with a can-do at­ti­tude. You can­not mon­i­tor one sin­gle species in the Scot­tish up­lands with­out tak­ing into ac­count the im­pacts of other her­bi­vores such as sheep, hares and rab­bits. Sim­i­larly in wood­lands, you have to look at all fac­tors that pre­vent or re­strict the re­gen­er­a­tion of nat­u­ral species be­fore lay­ing blame on deer. In the Su­nart oak wood­land, for ex­am­ple, alien plant com­mu­ni­ties present a big­ger threat to habi­tat re­cov­ery than deer. In a nut­shell, the as­pi­ra­tions of pol­i­tics should not be al­lowed to turn our nat­u­ral re­source – deer – into po­lit­i­cal pawns.”

The new Act does en­able as­ses­sors to ap­ply a dis­count to a rates bill for good deer man­age­ment, but what is good man­age­ment? For the Forestry Com­mis­sion, it is no deer; for shoot­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions, deer stalk­ers and es­tates it is a healthy sur­plus pop­u­la­tion to har­vest, and one that does not com­pro­mise lo­cal bio­di­ver­sity.

Ac­cord­ing to Ju­lia Stod­dart of SACS, the big­ger is­sue for deer pop­u­la­tions is that “the gov­ern­ment keeps re­peat­ing the mis­truth that there are too many deer in Scot­land. There aren’t. Un­doubt­edly, there are ar­eas where there are too many deer, and over­graz­ing is dam­ag­ing bio­di­ver­sity. But there are also ar­eas where the deer have been vir­tu­ally ex­ter­mi­nated, an­cient red deer hefts de­stroyed, and such a small pop­u­la­tion (if any) left that there is lit­tle hope of re­cov­ery or re­coloni­sa­tion from neigh­bour­ing ar­eas. This anti-deer at­ti­tude in the cor­ri­dors of power is the real threat.”

Rates ra­tio­nale

An equal depth of con­cern ex­ists around the rein­tro­duc­tion of sport­ing rates, with many peo­ple be­liev­ing there was no policy ra­tio­nale for bring­ing them back and that the rein­tro­duc­tion was sym­bolic rather than ev­i­dence driven. It is telling that non-do­mes­tic rates on shoot­ing and deer forests were abol­ished in the mid 1990s be­cause the process of val­u­a­tion was so dif­fi­cult that re­al­is­tic rates could not be de­ter­mined and, as a re­sult, lit­tle tax rev­enue was raised.

A ma­jor is­sue now is that the cost of rein­tro­duc­ing sport­ing rates could sig­nif­i­cantly out­weigh the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to the gov­ern­ment. Iron­i­cally, one of the or­gan­i­sa­tions that will be most heav­ily af­fected by the new re­quire­ment to pay the tax will be the Forestry Com­mis­sion in Scot­land, a gov­ern­ment de­part­ment.

Wor­ry­ingly the rates will af­fect all land hold­ings in Scot­land as they are based on the hy­po­thet­i­cal sport­ing value of the land re­gard­less of whether it is shot over or not. There is also a mis­un­der­stand­ing about some landown­ers who think that can­celling shoot­ing leases will mean they do not have to pay the rates; this is not true. More­over, while the rate of tax­a­tion will be about 46p in the pound, what is not yet clear is how the sport­ing value of any one piece of land will be as­sessed.

Ni­colle Hamil­ton, press and policy of­fi­cer at BASC Scot­land, com­ments on the many un­knowns: “Small shoots may ben­e­fit from small busi­ness rates relief but larger es­tates will un­doubt­edly be af­fected. As we have lim­ited in­for­ma­tion we do not know what th­ese rates will be or what, if any, relief will be avail­able. BASC mem­bers are anx­ious to know how this will af­fect their sport. Prices may rise and some shoots may find that they are no longer sus­tain­able and will cease to op­er­ate. If this hap­pens, re­mote ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties would un­doubt­edly suf­fer through re­duced em­ploy­ment, lack of trade for ru­ral busi­ness and a re­duc­tion in in­vest­ment for con­ser­va­tion.”

Alarm­ingly, while every­one awaits the val­u­a­tions, there will un­doubt­edly be an ad­di­tional tax bur­den for those who do not qual­ify for a relief, which could re­sult in the re­struc­tur­ing of sport­ing en­ter­prises, the ma­jor­ity of which al­ready run at a loss. Ac­cord­ing to the 2015 PACEC re­port, The Ben­e­fits and Vol­ume and Value of Coun­try Sports Tourism in Scot­land, 88% of shoot­ing and stalk­ing providers sur­veyed said ei­ther that their shoot roughly broke even or ran at a loss, and only 12% of providers re­ported their shoot as self-fi­nanc­ing and prof­itable.

“There has been no eco­nomic or en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment on the rein­tro­duc­tion of sport­ing rates and we are con­cerned they may de­crease in­vest­ment and em­ploy­ment and have a detri­men­tal im­pact on con­ser­va­tion ef­forts,” com­ments Katy Dick­son of SLE. “They could also mean the loss of ru­ral jobs, such as game­keep­ing, and will also un­doubt­edly place a fi­nan­cial strain on the many busi­nesses sup­ported by sport­ing en­ter­prises, such as game deal­ers and pro­ces­sors, those in the hos­pi­tal­ity sector and oth­ers down the sup­ply chain. Once the method­ol­ogy is es­tab­lished and val­u­a­tions are pub­lished, busi­nesses will be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to plan but only then will the sector’s re­ac­tion be known. Shoot­ing rights con­tinue to be un­taxed in Eng­land, and Scot­land is there­fore now at a pric­ing disad­van­tage.”

An­drew Grainger, project co­or­di­na­tor at the Scot­tish Coun­try Sports Tourism Group, the na­tional web por­tal for shoot­ing, stalk­ing, hunt­ing and fishing in Scot­land, agrees. “Many sport­ing providers of­fer sport at lit­tle profit, ac­cept­ing that it is good for land con­ser­va­tion and pro­vides em­ploy­ment in re­mote ar­eas. How­ever, the in­tro­duc­tion of rates will, in many cases, re­quire an in­crease in the cost of the sport, mak­ing it less com­pet­i­tive in the global mar­ket­place. This would have an ad­verse ef­fect on at­tract­ing tourists to Scot­land. Hav­ing said that, Scot­land will re­main an iconic coun­try sports des­ti­na­tion able to draw vis­i­tors from around the world.”

Ju­lia Stod­dart of SACS doesn’t mince her words ei­ther. “The rein­tro­duc­tion of shoot­ing rates is pure folly. The Scot­tish gov­ern­ment, hav­ing ini­tially wanted to tar­get large com­mer­cial shoot­ing en­ter­prises, found that it could not pick and choose and so ploughed on re­gard­less of our warn­ings that or­di­nary shoot­ing men and women would be ad­versely af­fected. Our warn­ings have been borne out: sev­eral SACS mem­bers have called me to say that they have lost their leases be­cause land­lords have mis­un­der­stood the leg­is­la­tion and be­lieve that ces­sa­tion of shoot­ing on their land will re­sult in no bill to pay.

‘The gov­ern­ment keeps re­peat­ing the mis­truth that there are too many deer in Scot­land. There aren’t’

“An­other worry is that ad­di­tional costs could mean driven shoot­ing costs rise fur­ther to be­come the pre­serve of the very rich. This is a con­cern not just be­cause we want more peo­ple to go shoot­ing, but be­cause shoot­ing is much eas­ier to at­tack when it is viewed as a rich per­son’s sport.”

Plus points

So far, so neg­a­tive. Are there any pos­i­tives to the new Land Re­form Act? Katy Dick­son points to mea­sures within the Act that SLE has con­sis­tently sup­ported: “Mech­a­nisms to in­crease the trans­parency of land own­er­ship as well as mea­sures around com­mu­nity en­gage­ment are con­sis­tent with our Landown­ers’ Com­mit­ment which Scot­tish Land & Es­tates pub­lished in 2014.” Jamie Ste­wart of the Scot­tish Coun­try­side Al­liance adds: “We whole­heart­edly sup­port the de­vel­op­ment of land by those who live on it, as op­posed to the po­ten­tial of the re­source ly­ing re­dun­dant. We also sup­port the ethos of col­lab­o­ra­tion and would only sup­port im­ple­men­ta­tion of dra­co­nian leg­is­la­tion if all else fails.”

Back to a man on the front line, West High­land Hunt­ing’s Niall Rowantree: “As with all hu­man an­i­mals each be­lieves that their po­si­tion is the only pos­si­ble way for­ward for Scot­tish land. Some­where in the mid­dle ground lies the truth. The chal­lenge for the gov­ern­ment now is to map, fund and de­liver a route for­ward which has the ma­jor­ity’s sup­port, be they ur­ban or ru­ral. Alarm­ingly, this di­vi­sion is more ap­par­ent now than at any time in my ca­reer.”

The is­sues and im­pacts sur­round­ing land re­form in Scot­land are clearly hugely com­plex and more so when looked at in the con­text of other pro­pos­als such as rewil­d­ing. Not sur­pris­ingly, those in­volved in the man­age­ment and use of Scot­tish land feel the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment’s view on land own­er­ship is based more on po­lit­i­cal rhetoric than on ev­i­dence-based, work­able change. The re­cent in­tro­duc­tion of air­gun li­cens­ing in Scot­land (where Scot­tish gov­ern­ment ig­nored the re­sults of a con­sul­ta­tion in which 87% of re­spon­dents were against li­cens­ing and rode roughshod over proven ev­i­dence and crime statis­tics) is tes­ta­ment to an ur­banised Holy­rood de­ci­sion-mak­ing process that takes no ac­count of re­al­ity or rea­son.

“The ques­tion boils down to how do we sus­tain com­mu­ni­ties and do with­out the di­rect sup­port of wealthy landown­ers who se­cure their core in­come from out­side the ru­ral area,” says Niall Rowantree. “And how do we mit­i­gate the con­flict from dif­fer­ing land uses, be it preda­tor rein­tro­duc­tions or nat­u­ral for­est ex­pan­sion, in the face of in­creas­ing com­mer­cial tim­ber de­mands… to say noth­ing of the pres­sures on

agri­cul­ture post Brexit? I be­lieve the shoot­ing lobby holds one of the keys and should of­fer the gov­ern­ment sup­port through its mem­bers’ skills and knowl­edge to present cred­i­ble op­tions of man­aged wild­ness to se­cure the ru­ral econ­omy.”

Sadly, on past ev­i­dence it would ap­pear that the cur­rent Scot­tish gov­ern­ment would re­ject such sup­port.

Around 432 landown­ers own 50% of Scot­land’s pri­vate ru­ral land

Sport­ing es­tates could be bro­ken up through the ‘right to buy’

Grouse shoot­ing in Scot­land could be­come the pre­serve of the very rich The new land re­form bill has pro­voked fears that many sport­ing es­tates may have to close due to the im­posed sport­ing rates.

The new Act will en­able as­ses­sors to ap­ply a dis­count to a rates bill for ‘good’ deer man­age­ment

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