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MAGNUS DAVIDSON: Watch out – a new generation of 'green lairds' is coming our way

By Contributor

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Planting native trees is important for biodiversity and climate change.
Planting native trees is important for biodiversity and climate change.

Last week I was driving south on the A9 and noticed new deer fence and a hillside covered in the tell-tale pock marks of new tree planting.

Those that know the area understand that it has been supported with millions of pounds of public funding from Scottish Forestry. The carbon savings are not insignificant – I could ‘offset’ my lifestyle today for 5000 years with the carbon to be stored in the growing wood, and the trees being planted are natives such as Scots pine and birch rather than less popular sitka spruce.

Rumours have been travelling around the north that this estate has recently been sold in a secret off-market sale to a new owner.

The story of this estate has been playing out across rural Scotland at a blistering pace over the last year. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Land Commission, a public body set up in 2016 to advise Scottish ministers on land reform, released a new report, Scotland’s Rural Land Market and Natural Capital.

The report highlighted empirically what many of us working in the sector have been finding anecdotally, that Scotland’s rural land market is overheated with buyers scrambling for limited land for green investments and tree planting.

Nearly half of estates bought last year ended up in the hands of absentee owners, a majority were done in secret off-market sales, and the average price of these estates has increased by close to 120 per cent.

In a time of climate emergency and biodiversity loss we need to plant trees, natives for biodiversity and increasingly productive, and non-natives such as sitka to provide much more net-zero building material of the future.

Not to forget that natural regeneration, where woodland exists to provide a seed bank, and deer numbers brought low enough, is the gold standard. But we should be asking ourselves questions of who is undertaking this activity, for what reason, and who is benefiting?

Anders Povlsen is Scotland's largest landowner.
Anders Povlsen is Scotland's largest landowner.

In some areas decades of land reform is being reversed as land is concentrated further into the hands of the few, which often leads to detrimental monopoly land ownership. Sutherland may currently host Anders Povlsen, Scotland’s largest ‘green laird’, but we are yet to see the new breed of pension funds and corporate off-setters, as found in the Central Highlands, move this far north.

Their arrival will not be long, especially when the Peatland Code matures into a profitable revenue stream and the Flow Country is ‘rediscovered’ by those wanting to offset tax in new ways.

Over the last year countless pages have been set aside to discuss ‘green lairds’ and I have contributed my own fair share. Those pages are good at capturing ‘official’ responses, policy and commentary, but there is an undercurrent, which may be missed, of something stirring in a younger generation of academics, activists and many others with interest in the land question.

Adversity stimulates action and the current situation our rural youth finds itself in is bleak, with little access to land, crofts, and homes. We cannot deny the advances land reform has seen since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament, but belonging to a generation who has lived most of their life under devolution we need to be asking, is this as good as the land reform debate gets? I hope not.

My day job is with UHI North Highland and, as part of the wider university partnership, we are involved with the recently launched Community Landownership Academic Network. I am hoping that this network can stimulate the university into taking a stronger stance on the land question – after all, it aligns perfectly with the university’s mission “to have a transformational impact on the prospects of our region, its economy, its people and its communities”.

I am also a director of Community Land Scotland and with that role I travel to Jordan later this month for the Global Youth Land Forum. This will be the first conference organised by the International Land Coalition representing those of us under 35 and among other actions we will develop a youth declaration on global land issues.

From here in the Highlands, to across the globe, the question of how land is owned and used has never been more fundamental.

I am fortunate to continue to learn from those older and with more experience, but as I look to my younger friends and peers, I am encouraged by the hunger to go beyond any answer the land question has given us to date.

Magnus Davidson.
Magnus Davidson.
  • Magnus Davidson is a researcher based in Thurso.
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