Roddy D'Anyers Willis of Savills Brechin calls for a balanced view following the radical proposals put forward by the land reform review group
The early 2000s saw considerable investment in grouse moors and the rural economy in the glens flourished as a result. Local tradesmen including architects, surveyors, fencers, forestry contractors and plant operators have all benefited from large contracts boosting employment in what is normally a fragile economy.However, there are signs of disinvestment, due in no small part to the current political uncertainties. Grouse Moor News was quoted in the Land Reform Review Group proposals recently submitted to the Scottish Government, so this publication is evidently read by a wider audience than we anticipated. There may be some unforeseen readers who might well gain a better understanding of the merits of investment in the hills.
It is difficult to criticise what grouse moor owners have achieved, but, of course, there are those who do. Landowner activity is constantly abused in both the press and social media.The extensification of hill tracks is an easy target, but today those tracks are built with much greater care and attention, albeit at a greater cost, to ensure that in time they will blend into the landscape and last with minimal repair for all time. Without a comprehensive network of hill tracks it is virtually impossible to manage a moor effectively and in line with regulations; the majority of hill walkers continue to reap the benefits of improved access. Muirburn is another easy target. Hill walkers with purist wilderness ideals appear to dislike the sight of a patchwork of mixed age heather but the benefits to grouse and herbivores such as deer and sheep are immense; this practice must be allowed to continue.Then there is the control of predators, an essential ingredient of moorland management. Without it the hills would have far fewer moorland birds. One can walk for miles on the west coast of Scotland, where keepering can no longer be justified, and encounter only crows, gulls and an occasional raptor; grouse have largely disappeared and moorland birds are scarce.
So what about the future? The critics will say that grouse shooting is the preserve of the wealthy, but in practice it is now enjoyed by a much wider sector of the shooting fraternity than it was in the past and this includes the keepers themselves, some of whom prefer to spend their money on grouse shooting in the latter half of the season rather than heading off to the sun for a week or two. If investment in grouse moors is stifled by regulation and statute there will be fewer grouse to shoot; owners will no longer be prepared to fund a loss-making enterprise and keepers will be laid off; families will move away from the glens, schools will be closed and rural communities will dwindle.
At this stage, the proposals put forward by the Land Reform Review Group are just proposals, but amongst them is a worrying mention of sporting rates. Those of us who were around in the 1980s will remember the relief felt when sporting rates were abolished. They penalised estate owners and very little, if any, of the funds gathered by local government found their way back into the countryside.The mention of a phased re-introduction of non-domestic rates certainly causes alarm bells to ring. In the past, the Rateable Value on sportings was intended to reflect the level of rent that a tenant would pay (subject to the tenant bearing all expenses) if the sportings were offered for let on the open market. The rating system was unsatisfactory and unfair, the rates being assessed on average game bags over a five year period. Whilst in theory this might seem sensible, in practice the payment of sporting rates in years when there was poor grouse stock was penal for estate owners. The re-introduction of sporting rates in any form would be most unwelcome; it would be another disincentive for owners to invest in sporting estates.
In the 1990s and the early part of this century when the grouse stock in many parts of Scotland plummeted, mainly as a result of parasites, tick and the stronglye worm, many grouse keepers were forced to become “jack of all trades”, tending to newly developed low ground shoots and other estate chores, doing the job of two and thus losing the focus of grouse management. Inevitably the grouse stock suffered and in some cases it became perilously low.We must not allow this to happen again and somehow the message has to be conveyed that managed moorland actually provides public benefit. It is important that landowners promote good stewardship of the land and counter the opinion of the critics.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust works tirelessly to provide science based evidence that best practice moorland management, sustained by a viable shoot, is good for the hills and also good for those who frequent the hills.The majority of landowners and keepers take great pleasure in showing their guests healthy broods of plover, curlew and other waders as they head up to the heather hill through marginal ground. Losing the weakest birds to raptors is not a problem, but it is all a question of balance. The overall increase in predators, particularly generalists such as ravens and buzzards, makes life very difficult for the keepers who want to protect not only their grouse stock but also the other valued moorland species. There is room for all forms of wildlife, if managed appropriately.
There is an urgent need for the Scottish Government to help achieve a balance that benefits all interested parties, not least the general public.Without driven grouse shooting, the Scottish economy would suffer. One could continue with walked up grouse shooting, providing one for the pot on hunter gatherer terms and one could conduct wildlife safaris, both commendable hill activities in their own way but the drawback is that they don’t produce the goods. Rents for driven grouse of £150/brace drop back to £120/brace for walked up shooting over pointers, and if you have a bag of perhaps only 15 brace over dogs, compared to 150 brace for driven grouse, the variance in revenue is considerable. In the case of a wildlife photographic safari, where a keeper can be tied up all day for perhaps only £400, it is hardly viable.
As if the problems and costs facing the grouse moor owners described above are not enough, we then have to consider how the Land Reform Review Group’s proposal to introduce a Land Valuation Tax might affect sporting estates. LVT is an annual levy collected by the government on the value of the land, with no account taken of capital improvements such as buildings, drainage or fixtures of any kind.Whilst in years when grouse are abundant surplus revenue may cater for LVT, the majority of moors would struggle to pay a levy in years in which there is no harvestable surplus to shoot. Any such tax will stifle investment and development in the glens, and one can only too easily envisage how much time could be taken up arguing about the property values.
The Land Review Reform Group’s proposals are radical. It is crucial that landowners take professional advice when planning ahead. It is the duty of this generation to preserve our grouse moors for future generations. Grouse shooting is revered by sportsmen throughout the world; we lose this asset at our peril.