Published: 12/08/2011 11:00 - Updated: 10/08/2011 14:24

There is money in the hills

Written byNorth Notes by Jim Millar

Grouse shooting makes a significant contribution to the economy.
Grouse shooting makes a significant contribution to the economy.

FROM this day forward, all grouse are well advised to keep their feet firmly planted in the heather. Any excursion aloft is likely to bring a blast of buckshot up the egg-laying apparatus from some toff who has forked out a large sum for the privilege.

This is the Glorious Twelfth. I expect that many of the shooters I heard murdering clay pigeons at the Highland Field Sports Fair at Moy last Friday will be out today among those hoping to chalk up a respectable bag.

The Moy game fair, as it is more colloquially known, has been running for 33 years. It is the “big day oot” for gamekeepers, their employers, camp followers and the curious, as it offers a fascinating glimpse of a side of country life that escapes most of us who live in the country.

The tents and stalls provide the opportunity to talk to investment managers, forestry consultants, purveyors of antiques and fine paintings, vendors of plus-four suits, sellers of grouse grit – “everything for the big hoose”.

There is, in fact, something for everybody. Last Friday I could have bought pick ’n’ mix sweeties, a quad bike, country and western CDs, gourmet chocolates, an Afghan carpet, a shotgun, and a Harris Tweed tammy – all from the same tented bazaar.

A bunch of interest groups also are there to declare their hand. Many changes have been afoot in the world of the estate in recent years, a process of adaptation. Where once the hordes of unwashed may have been kept firmly beyond the march stone, tourism is now an area of growth.

Keepers, once notorious for killing any beast that threatened the wellbeing of the few species of economic importance, now bill themselves as experts in the conservation of our wildlife heritage. There is now such a thing as wildlife crime. Farmers – and crofters, although they were not noticeable at Moy – are now protectors of the countryside, wildlife rangers to a man and woman.

I am not being overly cynical. This is a big improvement. When I was studying conservation and ecology we often spoke of the need to get the knowledge out of the lab into the field where it belonged.

There are more folk living in towns and cities now than in the countryside – only around one-fifth of Scotland’s population is rural – and many of our urban neighbours have a romantic vision of what it must be like to live full time out there past the last filling station.

The rural organisations have to lobby to remind government that the countryside is still a full-time place where folk need jobs and houses and services like everybody else.

In the current issue of its newsletter, the Scottish Countryside Alliance considers the rules of engagement with Holyrood now that the SNP has a majority government for the first time. It is not clear yet where and over what the clashes will come in the next few years but the SCA has written to all the MSPs “with a proffered hand of introduction, welcome and congratulations”, as director Ross Montague puts it in his editorial.

“We will set out to continue our good relationship with the SNP and [his italics] with all other parties,” he says.

THE famous grouse. Note the absence of capitals. I am not talking about a well-known brand of popular beverage but of the bird itself.

Grouse shooting – whatever you think of it – makes a significant contribution to the economy, according to a report by the Fraser of Allander Institute, published last year by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. I picked up a copy at the trust’s stand.

“Grouse shooting may sustain up to 1072 jobs and contribute £23.3 million to Scottish Gross Domestic Product,” it reads, adding that the employment is likely to be in remote upland areas where there are comparatively few alternative jobs. The management of a grouse moor is also becoming more profitable. This is a trend that has been observed since the mid-1990s and, according to the report, is “almost certainly” due to a real increase in fees.

So, there is money in the hills and a lot of it is on the wings of one particular species.

A WEEK before I went to Moy, I visited the Farmers’ Show at Nairn. This annual gathering tends to be overshadowed by the much larger Black Isle Show but it is a source of local pride, a reminder that Nairn was a county in its own right, like Caithness, before the almighty Highland Region was nailed together in 1975.

The show took place on the fields of Kinnudie, about a mile to the east of the town, on rising ground with a fine view of the Black Isle to the north. What looked like a fog bank on the horizon out over the Firth stayed there all day.

Prominent among the stalls at the Nairn show but not, curiously, at the Moy fair were firms offering small-scale wind turbines for the individual farm. “Have your very own wind turbine,” suggested one brochure from a company of Danish origin that now has a base in Glasgow as well.

It had a photo of farmland, with trees and grass and, rising above the steading, the latticed towers with the turbines at the top. The towers are 18 metres (58 feet for the unconverted) and the tip of the turbine blade 25 metres (81 feet) high.

The turbine generates power for the household and the farm and the surplus can be sold through a grid connection. Where the latter does not exist, the electricity can be used to heat water or stored in some other way.

Seeing these brochures reminded me that years ago, before large wind farms became the controversial installations they are now, it had seemed to be sensible to encourage every farm and croft to have its own wind generator.

For us in Caithness this seemed an obvious thing to have. In this vision there would have been a small factory making the things and a mannie in a van employed to go round servicing and fixing them. Your wind turbine would be nothing more unusual than your washing machine or your telly, and the lattice tower would be as common a feature of the landscape as the peat stack or the grain silo.

Too late for that now, I suspect, but not for another type of free energy – solar power. This seems to be catching on in a small but steady way. The Inverness firm, Cairngorm Windows, has reported that it is installing panels on five houses a week across the north. The strong demand for solar panels has led to 14 new jobs.

REAP Scotland had a presence at the Nairn show. This is a social enterprise with its office in Keith that has its own community solar panel project. The first panels went up on the roof of a house near Elgin at the start of this month.

Caithness could be getting in on this act. We should not allow dreams of the immense power potential of the Pentland Firth and offshore wind farms in the Beatrice Field to lead us to forget the more humble opportunities from small-scale energy generation.

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