Thursday, May 19, 2022

Winds of change are blowing over Scotland’s ancient moors

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Residents of the historic town of Langholm, near the Scottish-English border, could hardly believe it when they learned last year that thousands of acres of moorland belonged for centuries to the Dukes de Buccleuch were for sale.

It seemed inconceivable to many that the Buccleuch Estate, which is owned by trusts created for the current Duke and his family, would forgo so much of an aristocratic legacy that surrounds Langholm and spread to other parts of southern Scotland.

“It came out of nowhere. . . people were shocked the estate sold out, ”said Magaret Pool, chairman of the Langholm Initiative, a community development trust that will complete the £ 3.8million purchase of 5,200 acres this month. the land.

The deal is the largest buyout of community land ever in the south of Scotland by area or value, and is a test case for efforts to promote a form of property previously limited mainly to Highland areas. It also highlights Buccleuch Estates’ decision to downsize what until a few years ago was the UK’s largest private landholding by area.

Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch, told the Financial Times in 2015, plans to significantly reduce his holdings, a move he attributes mainly to concerns about the efforts of the ruling Scottish National Party to pursue land reform and promote greater community ownership.

The Buccleuch Estate was until a few years ago the largest private landholding in the UK by area © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / FT

Since 2010, Buccleuch Estates has sold or agreed to sell over 41,000 acres of land in Scotland, leaving them 186,500 acres. He has another 11,000 acre estate in the English Midlands.

For Benny Higgins, former CEO of Tesco Bank who was appointed executive chairman of Buccleuch Estates in early 2019, the sale is just the start. Over the next decade, further divestitures would make the Ducal company look “very, very different”, with perhaps 50,000 acres or more at risk of extinction, Higgins said.

“I’m pretty determined to reduce land ownership. . . such a focus on land is just not reasonable, ”he said, adding that he wanted Buccleuch Estates to be known for its diversity of interests and that he was not interested in retaining the ‘one of Scotland’s largest landowners’ label.

“We would be very happy to let this go,” said Mr. Higgins.

Benny Higgins, executive chairman of Buccleuch Estates in early 2019, says such a focus on land just isn’t reasonable

Buccleuch has already been moved as the UK’s largest private landowner by Danish billionaire fashion investor Anders Holch Povlsen, who over the past 14 years has acquired a series of Scottish estates totaling over of 220,000 acres.

Mr Povlsen’s plan to rebuild large swathes of the Highlands has been hailed by many environmental activists, but has also raised questions about the influence of individuals in a country where, in a widely cited estimate By author and activist Andy Wightman, just 432 landowners make up 50 percent of all private land.

In 2016, the Scottish Parliament adopted a land reform legislation intended in part to increase community ownership. And last year, a report by the government’s Scottish Land Commission warned that the high concentration of land ownership in the country was damage fragile rural communities.

Community groups usually have to pay an estimated market value for the land they buy © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / FT

Mr. Higgins, tasked in 2020 by the SNP government with advise on the post-coronavirus economic recovery, said he supported the goal of communities to acquire more land across Scotland. “A more diverse property would be a good thing,” he said.

But the Langholm agreement underscored the challenges facing community groups, who typically have to pay an estimated market value for the land they buy. Since 2016, the government has allocated £ 10million per year to a Scottish land fund to help finance the purchases, but it has been oversubscribed and its current term expires in May.

The Langholm Initiative, a public-private partnership set up in 1994 to try to revive the city, received £ 1million from the Land Fund, but a tight deadline in October was set for the group to raise the rest. money – a feat barely achieved on time thanks to grants from private trusts and £ 200,000 from individual donors.

The trust had to delay plans to purchase an additional 5,000 acres in Buccleuch – including a beautiful part of the river valley that was traditionally a summer picnic spot – until new funding is available.

The view of the Tarras river, part of the land of the Buccleuch estate sold © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / FT

Buying the land is just the start. Community groups then need to ensure that they can generate enough income to make their farms sustainable – this is no simple task in mountain areas like Langholm Moor. Buccleuch Estate and government agencies spent over £ 2million in the decade of 2008 trying to increase grouse numbers on the moor while protecting other wildlife, but have not been able to make it commercially viable.

Still, Mairi Telford Jammeh, a member of the Langholm Initiative, was bursting with excitement as she showed recent visitors the vast expanse of wintery brown heather that will soon be owned by the trust. A bend in the single-track road that crosses the moor was one of the best places in the UK to see hen harriers and also the scene of recent encounters with wild goats and short-eared owls, said Ms Telford Jammeh.

“We have a gem on our doorstep,” she said.

The trust hopes to develop the heathland as a nature reserve that will promote tourism while restoring peatlands and planting native forests, converting an existing farm to commercial property, building new housing and eventually setting up a small scheme. solar power and a wind turbine.

Kevin Cumming, Langham Initiative board member © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / FT

Kevin Cumming, board member for the Langholm Initiative, said that as long as it was financially viable, community ownership meant the trust could push forward its central goals of protecting the environment and regenerating the environment. the city before maximizing profits.

“We are not naive about the scale of the task, but the hope is that we provide a plan for what other communities could do in the south of Scotland,” said Mr Cumming.

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