Morvern Lines – 5.11.20

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Estate stalkers counting deer on Kingairloch estate over a century ago. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.As the days shorten and the land is impregnated with the seeds of winter, the red deer begin to leave the high corries and make their way down to the low ground in search of shelter from whatever Mother Nature is about to throw at them. Come the first snow they will be forced onto road sides and other unfamiliar territory where they will no doubt be called a problem.

Now, as anyone familiar with the animal kingdom knows,  it is not the animals that are the problem but the humans. From a deer’s point of view there are three major threats these days. Those who own the land, trees and over-management. Time has moved on yet some of the wealthiest landowners in Europe are still able to lasso huge tax-free grants to plant millions of trees without being means-tested or having to give any thought as to where the poor displaced deer, including pregnant hinds, are to end up other than in a slaughter house by way of what Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) now NatureScot (at last dropping the word Heritage) refer to as  ‘compensatory culls’.  One estate factor complained to me a few years ago that he had made only £150,00 profit on one Woodland Grant Scheme after clearing his expenses.

Looking across Cul Beag from Inverpolly and over part of the Eas Brachaidh estate. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber.

At the end of the Second World War, a shortage of timber resulted in the recognition of the potential of the Scottish hills for forestry as well as sheep. Exploitation of the land below the tree planting line soon deprived the deer of much of their traditional winter shelter. Shelter is vital, particularly for the females nurturing unborn calves. Only in rare instances does anyone along the way, including Forest and Land Scotland who have the final say in the matter, care where fences are built.

Why give eye-watering grants to grow quick growing, unsightly, non-native conifers under which nothing flourishes? Answer – land nationalisation. Take away the deer and the ‘toffs with guns’ will lose interest, leaving their property to commercial exploitation and so-called community buy-outs which governments will ultimately control and eventually tax to the hilt. Yes, there are issues about land in the Highlands especially wherever there is absenteeism. A prime example is to be found in Morvern where 400 square miles are owned by less than 20 people – none of whom are resident. Another is the 5,000 acre Eisg Barchaidh estate in Assynt whose owners – who live in Australia – have, allegedly, secured more than £420,000 of public money to build a 12-mile long, six feet high fence around the estate to keep deer out and to make it easier for those trapped inside, to be shot.

As if the cost wasn’t controversial enough, the fact that there was no local consultation with affected communities makes it worse.  Could this be the forerunner of an enclosure for wolves and lynx?  Locals are asking if it is appropriate to build such a massive fence visible from Suilven in a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area (for birds), a National Scenic Area, a Wildland Area and a Special Area of Conservation.  It would appear the intention is to fence in all the deer on Eisg Brachaidh, which is estimated to be 300 stags, hinds and calves, and then exterminate them when there may not be a market for their carcasses because of Covid-19.

Hinds and calves are slaughtered before large areas of good hill ground are planted. Photograph William Cameron.

David  Davies, the owner of nearby Inverpolly and agricultural tenant of Eisg Brachaidh, says such an ambitious replant would normally be done through a standard Forestry Grant Scheme, but because there is an agricultural tenant (himself), organisations who do not have the processes in place to run such a project, have been handed the reins and are trying to rush the project  through under cover of Covid.  They are doing so, he says, in defiance of the Scottish Land Commission’s Good Practice Programme. Instead he says, ‘there has been no consultation. The core problem is that the cash has been allocated first, and then the detail has been left for others to work out’. David Davies’ argument is that the whole decision-making process has been flawed from the beginning. He cites the fact that there was only one tender, when public procurement rules state that there must be five tenders for any project over £50,000 to proceed. Phil Jones, the secretary of the Assynt Community Council, claims that many in the locality regard the scheme as an extraordinary waste of public money. Little wonder bats are fluttering in the trunk strewn attics of Great Glen House (SNH’s prestigious Inverness headquarters) and a wobble is being felt in the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.

‘Who or what is a Scottish landowner?’ someone jocularly asked from the audience during a conference about deer management in Inverness some years ago. The reply, from a self-deprecating laird sitting on the panel, was equally amusing, ‘Lives in a large house, wears knickerbockers; controls – or thinks he does – everything that moves on the adjacent hundred thousand acres. Is reported to be stinking rich, but mean. Drinks a lot – hereditary. Hates mountaineers and ramblers. Destroys the habitat with hydro electric schemes and by driving hideous roads across the glens to allow his gin-slinging, gun-toting friends who have lost the use of their legs, access to the stalking corries and grouse moors in tracked vehicles and Range Rovers. Plants trees for profit and doesn’t care if his employees’ houses leak like sieves, so long as there is plenty water for the fish to run – most certainly not for his whisky. Makes a fortune out of his crofting estate and bends Scottish Natural Heritage to his will by devious connections and subscriptions to the Labour Party. Belongs to committees that control the population.’

To be continued next week.