Progressive land managment models based on rewilding and natural asset thinking can benefit local communities, wild nature and bottom lines. Some Scottish landowners are proving early adopters.
The Glenfeshie Estate. Photo: Daniel Allen
The Scottish Land Commission wants new legislation to diversify Scottish land ownership. The commission, which has just published an investigation into the issues associated with the "unhealthy" concentration of large-scale land ownership in Scotland, found that many major landowners had too much control over land use, economic investment and local communities across large areas of rural Scotland.
To many of us, the term Scottish estate conjures up images of grouse hunting, mounted stag's heads and musty stately homes. Yet this stereotype overlooks the efforts of many Scottish landowners.
One example of a pioneering Scottish estate is Glenfeshie, owned by Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen as part of the Wildland Limited property portfolio. The estate has already adopted a future-oriented land management model based on rewilding principles.
Today red deer numbers on Glenfeshie are kept to a natural level to prevent overgrazing. Previously denuded landscapes are undergoing an evolution, with native tree species such as Scots pines recolonising valleys and slopes. There have been increased sightings of field voles, red squirrels, pine martens, golden eagles and tawny owls, while populations of endangered black grouse and capercaillie are also thriving. This comeback is leading to greater opportunities for nature-based tourism, thereby benefitting local livelihoods.
A bothy on the Glenfeshie Estate. Photo: Daniel Allen
While Glenfeshie is still some way from being economically viable - across the Wildland portfolio of estates Povlsen ploughed in £2.4 million in 2017 - the aim is to generate sustainable revenue for the estate and community as soon as possible. Glenfeshie itself already supports 59 (mostly local) employees, with more jobs in the piepline as the estate's natural comeback continues and renovated lodges and bothies (small cottages) open to the public. Those visiting the estate can now hike, bike, ride horses, swim and go birdwatching.
Glenfeshie is not the only body of land within the Cairngorms National Park looking to boost biodiversity by controlling deer numbers. The recently established Cairngorms Connect project has seen the estate team up with RPSB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Enterprise Scotland. The four neighbouring landowners, whose combined properties extend over 230 square miles, share a long-term vision to restore habitats and grow nature-based tourism.
Drawn to the returning wild nature, more and more people are already visiting the Cairngorms Connect area, with active pursuits and nature-based experiences multiplying.
Bikers explore the RSPB's Abernethy National Nature Reserve, which is part of the Cairngorms Connect project. Photo: Daniel Allen
James Shooter is a photographer, filmmaker and guide who has lived and worked in the Cairngorms National Park for five years, running a series of wildlife photography hides for species like osprey, red squirrel, crested tit and black grouse. He believes Cairngorms Connect should be a role model for other conservation initiatives across the UK.
"This is exactly the kind of ambitious landscape-scale restoration project that we need in this country if we are to improve the overall health of our habitats and wildlife," says Shooter. "With Cairngorms Connect developing and the wild gradually becoming wilder, so the local economy is really taking off. It's great to see more and more people reconnecting with nature here."
The Scottish Land Commission will now engage widely with stakeholders and the public on the findings and recommendations contained within their study, culminating in a land reform conference in October this year.
The efforts of the Glenfeshie Estate and the other Cairngorms Connect partners show how the restoration of wild nature through rewilding can generate multiple forms of value, both for the owners of the land, and other stakeholders, such as local communities and visitors. This value can either be commercial (i.e. monetary) or non-commercial (e.g. health and wellbeing, scientific knowledge and cultural appreciation). The extent to which this value accrues with the landowner depends on how they choose to engage with their land and its restored nature. This is the essence of natural asset thinking.
It would be well to bear in mind that while natural asset thinking is not a panacea, it does offer solutions to many of the problems highlighted in the Scottish Land Commission study. As such, any new legislation should call for Scottish landowners to recognise that land assets are both a private and a collective asset. Only by doing this can such land owners earn political legitimacy.
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Today, underpinned by the principles of recoverable Earth, natural asset restoration and rewilding offer rewarding and potentially lucrative opportunies for land management. Capturing the zeitgeist, the new Ecosulis Natural Asset Framework offers a new, viable and forward-looking alternative to the status quo.