Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber week 19

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Who really owns Scotland?

It jokingly used to be said that the definition of a croft is an area of land surrounded by a sea of legislation.

Pity the Argyll farmer who, on being asked recently who owned the land on which he was standing, replied: ‘Scottish Natural Heritage’ – even though his family have held the title deeds for many generations. He was, of course, being slightly facetious and referring to the number of controls imposed upon him by this government agency whom some are beginning to complain wields far too much power and, more worryingly, appears to be unaccountable for its actions.

One of the problems which folk have with SNH is its attitude towards wild red deer and the heavy culls it insists on to meet EU habitat directives from which common sense should have dictated they be largely exempt.

Those estate owners, crofters, farmers and land managers who have shooting and sporting rights and know the countryside intimately consider SNH’s estimation of deer numbers and the supposed damage they do to be well out of proportion to the carrying capacity of the land.

For years, rumblings have been going on between the warring factions until June 2017, when the board of SNH forced matters to a head by using its draconian powers to compel the Assynt Crofters Trust (ACT) and other landowners in the neighbourhood to raise the traditional deer cull to ‘protect the native woods at Ardvar’ and elsewhere in north-west Sutherland.

The local Deer Management Group (DMG) was having none of it. With tact and diplomacy no less masterly than that which must have been used to bring Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in together in the South Korean Peace House last month, they put forward a plan to suit all sides.

And so, after years of wrangling, a line was drawn under a seemingly intractable argument that had dominated the land-use debate in Scotland for years.

But the matter did not end there. Elated that common-sense had prevailed, Ray Mackay and Victor Clements of the Assynt DMG issued the following shortened statement: ‘Now that the argument has been won and common sense has prevailed, we feel we are in a position to explain our own side of the story, aided by a knowledge of SNH decision-making gained through Freedom of Information (FOI).

‘We have not been able to get SNH to explain their recent change in policy, far less apologise for the years of disruption they have caused in Assynt. It is important for us to do so because, in addition to the huge public cost, the ability of the ACT to manage their own land has been publicly questioned; relationships within Assynt have been put under strain, and the time and effort required to deal with all these issues has been immense.

‘While salaried SNH staff have been, for years, getting well paid to provide often misleading and inaccurate information to their board at Holyrood, we have had to fight our case in our own time and at our own expense against a full array of public agencies and politicians.

‘All of this has been damaging and unnecessary. Issues with deer management in Scotland are not going to go away any time soon. SNH needs to be restructured to provide for a small problem-solving unit, concentrating mostly on deer-related issues. It must have a short chain of command.

‘Removing the Deer Commission and then the Wildlife Operations Unit from within SNH has been a mistake, and such a unit needs to be reinstated. Deer-related work requires a particular skill-set which involves empathy, and ability to deal with conflict and a working knowledge of both sides of the deer-natural environmental debate.

‘Senior SNH staff presented Ardvar to their board as a ‘case study’ in how voluntary deer control was not working. The issue became very complex and heated, and it frequently spilled over into the press. Government ministers had to be briefed, and questions were asked in the Scottish Parliament.

‘Everyone wanted to know what was happening at Ardvar, and the impatience to see an example made of the people in Assynt was obvious. Campaigners tried to steer the narrative towards a very simplistic view of ‘big landowners putting deer before trees and the natural environment’, all the while failing to grasp that the biggest landowners on the Assynt Peninsula were actually the local crofters themselves.

‘Throughout all this, and for many decades beforehand, trees had been regenerating and growing in Ardvar. The site became politicised.

‘MSPs came to accept the view that the Ardvar situation was symptomatic of the wider problem of deer impacting on the natural environment. But they did this without any critical analysis or real understanding of the site or the wider issues.

‘The high profile of the site meant that many SNH personnel were engaged with the issue. These should have been people with the necessary knowledge who could have commanded the respect of the local players by listening, before coming to a decision.

‘Instead, most of the officials we dealt with had neither a background in deer management nor in-depth knowledge of the woodland management. What they attempted to do was to manage the problem rather than solve

‘The SNH board decision to intervene in Assynt was based on deeply flawed information. When that decision was challenged, the case quickly fell apart and SNH withdrew from its position.

‘When SNH finally agreed to simplify communications by proving a single point of contact and concentrate on the actual evidence, the situation very quickly resolved itself, and we now have a situation that all Assynt Peninsula sub-group members, SNH and the Forestry Commission are happy to sign up to.

‘The cost of SNH’s involvement in Assynt runs close to £1 million. This is the price of inappropriate analysis and indecisive leadership stretching back years. Politicians contributed to the situation by becoming involved in the detail of an argument without fully understanding it. It is significant that no member of the Scottish Parliament has yet seen fit to accept our invitation to visit the Ardvar woods.

‘To that extent, the people of Assynt have been let down by their elected representatives. We have articulated our view of what has happened here, because others appear unwilling or unable to do so. The local deer management group has been very sorely tested but it has survived and has grown stronger, and we will ultimately be the better for that.

‘In the future, we hope that SNH as an organisation can change along the lines we have suggested. If it can, the land managers will find it easier to arrive at working solutions, local communities will have more faith in what SNH is trying to achieve and Scotland’s natural heritage will ultimately benefit.

‘That is should be what we are all striving for.’

It is clear that the deer cannot readily adapt to all the demands of today. It is equally clear that for them to survive, we must do the adapting, with enough humility to give this ancient race its place on the planet. Full text of the Assynt report on request.

Iain Thornber

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