There is an old Gaelic saying that "everyone has a right to a deer from the hill, a tree from the forest, and a salmon from the river" yet that salmon that yesterday was miles from the land is instantly claimed by the landlord the moment it reaches the shore.
The image of the Scottish Highlands as vast and empty and full of sheep is misleading. The Highlands were once heavily populated. It is estimated that 85-90% of the population were forcibly cleared from the land. There exists a delusion widely held in Scotland that the Highlands are a paradise in a state of natural grace, which might more properly be held in public ownership. The Scots must be told again and again until they start to believe it, that their hills are in reality intensively and expensively managed by private landowners
The Glorious Twelfth of August is the start of the red grouse shooting season. Scotland’s sporting estates have seen their profits soar after massively hiking the fees they charge for shooting grouse, prompting landowners to increase the number of moors open to commercial shooting. There are around 340 sporting estates in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland covering 5.2 million acres of land. They represent over 30% of the total privately-owned land in Scotland and over 50% of privately-owned land in the Highlands and Islands. A study, published by the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde, found grouse shooting sustains up to 1,072 jobs across the country and contributes £23.3 million to the economy. Critics argue that such employment is low paid and encourages a servile mentality. The supposed virtue of capital inflows only serves to sustain an outdated and inappropriate form of land use whilst incurring opportunity costs in doing so. It should be pointed out, sporting estates have never been rational economic holdings in the sense that owners either expect or derive a revenue surplus from them. They have always been, by contrast, a form of conspicuous consumption which, together with retainers (ghillies), uniforms (tweeds) and large country houses (hunting lodges), provided a forceful statement of social and financial standing within the leisure classes. An outdoor playground for the upper strata of society. John McEwen, in the 1970s argued: “My own estimate of the quality of husbandry, over all, is that, in the ‘arable areas productivity is around 60 per cent of its potential, whereas in the huge ‘upland’ or marginal land area it barely reaches the 50 per cent mark…The use of the uplands and rough grazing areas as a playground for blood sportsmen accounts for the huge loss we estimated there.” Hill-walking and mountaineering are quite clearly more valuable use of recreational landhills and moors of the Highlands and Islands in terms of revenue and employment.
The Chair-person of Scotland's Rating Valuation Tribunals in a report to the Scottish Office observed, sporting estates like to describe themselves, when it suits them, as being part of a sporting industry. In fact, they are part of an inefficient trade which pays inadequate attention to marketing their product, largely because profit is not the prime objective. He goes on to say the local staff are poorly paid, their wages bearing no relation to the capital invested in the purchase price, and it is not unusual to find a man responsible for an investment in millions being paid a basic agricultural wage. Many of the estates use short-term labour during the sporting season, leaving the taxpayer to pay their staff from the dole for the rest of the year. Estates can in many cases be deliberately run at a loss, thereby reducing their owner's tax liability to central funds elsewhere in the UK.
What is very clear is that sporting estates are directly responsible for the widespread persecution of a range of bird species and some mammals considered to be a threat to populations of game. Conservationists claim thousands of wild animals are being killed by gamekeepers in the name of country sports. Eggs are crushed, chicks trampled, nests smashed, baits poisoned, birds trapped and shot – and all to line the pockets of the landowners. Mark Rafferty, a former police officer who now investigates wildlife crime for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said “To suppress a whole population takes a huge amount of organised effort, and that’s what’s happening. It is the grouse industry that is responsible. They simply won’t tolerate birds of prey on grouse moors.” The owners of sporting estates are keen to control the numbers of birds of prey, because they eat or scare grouse. This leaves fewer to be shot by paying visitors, many of whom come from abroad.
Anything that can't be shot and eaten is shot and hung from fences.
50 golden eagles are being illegally poisoned, shot or trapped every year in Scotland. A report on hen harriers says: “Illegal persecution is causing the failure of a majority of breeding attempts.” The Scottish population of hen harriers is reckoned to be about a third of what it should be. That means that up to 2,300 birds are missing because they are being killed, or otherwise prevented from breeding. Areas where the birds are illegally killed nearly all take place on or near grouse moors belonging to sporting estates. Much is made by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association of their claim of increasing wader numbers through their work on estates. The only reason there are good numbers of waders is because they pose no threat to red grouse. If they did they would be as rare as hen harriers on grouse moors.
Mountain hares have inhabited the uplands for more than 130,000 years but are culled in their tens of thousands by estate owners trying to halt the spread of fatal diseases in valuable red grouse. But now a new report suggests that the yearly slaughter of iconic mountain hares on the Scottish hills to protect the prized game birds from tick-borne conditions may be unnecessary. A study, published in the Journal Of Applied Ecology by Scottish scientists, claims that on estates where there are other "hosts" on which the blood-sucking ticks can feed - such as deer or sheep - the culling of mountain hares has little effect on the spread of tick-borne diseases, such as louping ill virus. The report, produced by academics from Glasgow University's Biomedical and Life Sciences department and the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen, says: "We conclude that there is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities." It is estimated by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust that around 25,000 of the hares are shot or snared every year. More than 95 per cent of the UK's mountain hare population is found in Scotland - with just a small number found in the Isle of Man and Derbyshire.
Deer in Scotland are legally res nullus – not owned by anyone – so the right to kill them rests with the owner or occupier of the land. Deerstalking became a sport in the Victorian era with many estates encouraging the growth of deer herds to provide profits. But despite efforts by landowners to reduce numbers of the browsing animals, in the abscence of predators, stocks have continued to rise in Scotland and there are now an estimates 350,000 to 500,000 red deer roaming the Highlands. The result is that large tracts of the Highlands are are grazed to the quick, hampering plans to bring back thousands of trees. In Sutherland, a wide territory covering 5,200 sq km. a report reveals, 4,000 sq km are in the hands of estates, which number just 81. In other words, three-quarters of one of the biggest counties in Britain is owned by 81 families. The population of Sutherland is around 14,000. If 81 families consist of around 10 people each, then 75% of the land is controlled by around 6% of the population. The income generated by deer stalking on the estates throughout Sutherland is £1.6m (a tiny sum when spread across 4,000 sq km). Their expenditure on deer management is £4.7m. Professor Douglas MacMillan, head of the School of Conservation at Kent University and a long-standing adviser to the Scottish Government on countryside issues, says "There are too many deer out there, and not enough of them are being shot. Part of the problem is that landowners promote the idea that deer hunting is about solitude, privacy and exclusivity." MacMillan interviewed 127 landowners and found that many relied on family, friends and business contacts to carry out the shooting on their estates, excluding anyone who lacked the necessary social networks. The figures seem to support this view, with less than 0.001 per cent of the population – 3,500 people – taking part in deer hunting, according to the most recent survey in 2004. Those that do take part are usually white, over 50 and in the upper social classes, claims the study. They are also able to pay up to £1,000-a-day fees for stalking. Scotland, he suggests, should follow the example of Norway where most deer hunting is carried out by young working class men. Charles Fford, whose family own the Arran estate, has retorted :"...You can't have Rab Nesbitt wandering off into the hills to shoot a deer. How would he get it home for a start?" A survey by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation showed that 65 per cent of their members would like to go deer hunting, but were not able to do so. The main reason is they lacked the contacts within "hunting circles" to get a chance to hunt deer.
Today, just 1250 or so landowners own two thirds of Scotland. 25% of estates over 1 000 acres have been held in the same family for over 400 years. In the Highlands, 50% per cent haven’t been exposed for sale since World War Two. This is mainly the aristocracy and rich individuals: the largest landowner, after the Forestry Commission, is the Duke of Buccleuch (270,900 acres). He owns estates, castles and palaces. A keen hunter, he is said to have donated £3/4m to the Countryside Alliance. It is necessary to challenge the hegemony of the sporting estate owners to offer a different and alternative different future for 5.2 million acres of land. Common landownership, in general terms, is an ownership regime whereby a group of resource users share rights and duties towards a resource. The primary motivation for many of the frequently absentee landlords - which may comprise as many as 66% of the land-owners - is simply sport and private enjoyment, not the needs of the community as a whole.