Thursday, 15 August 2013

A conflict of interest

I am really, really upset writing this.

The Farmer, Rosie and I had a meeting with the new shooting tenant plus the estate spokesperson today regarding a troublesome 'game strip' which was taken from us ten years ago; apparently when the laird executed his right as laird under the 1890 tenancy agreement.

There are no resumption papers, no signed documents, no rent reduction, no compensation, no land in lieu. On the contrary, we pay the full amount for land which we cannot use.
Here is an indication of what a 'game strip' looks like - yes, it is the entire area that you see.

It is a considerable area, two acres, plus it is two acres taken from the best field we have. The last crop which we grew in the 'resumed' strip was barley.

The issue I have, apart from the feudal, almost Medieval resumption is that the ground which once yielded barley is now sterile and sour. Ten years of 'land management' by inexperienced shooting tenants have resulted in two acres which is not fit for purpose. Nothing will grow on it as it has not seen crop rotation, no organic material, pheasant damage, in short, the land has been ruined by ignorance.
To what purpose? So a handful of people can shoot pheasant or other game regardless of the cost to the ground itself or the noise and nuisance to those who live in the area.

Things are potentially very awkward for our family as the new shooting tenant has moved in to the house which overlooks our farm. He has a family and we will be neighbours yet there is a real conflict of interest due to two businesses on the same piece of land. Furthermore, they are conflicting businesses especially if we wished to diversify into offering quiet rural breaks or wild camping.

What has upset me is the fact our family have to decide whether to take the ruined strip back, repair it at our own cost and time but if we do then we may have to give up the other end of the same field as a game strip. I wonder if this would fall under the 'Such cartage to perform yearly free of charge five day's work of any kind, by one pair of horses and one man, with suitable carts', as written in our 1890 lease and the terms of which we are bound today.
The estate resumed the land using terms from that lease so why not invoke the slavery bit too? In 2013. Why just pick and choose from the lease? Why not go the whole hog and go for absolute humiliation? It worked in 1890 and is still possible today if you ignore the tenant's Human Rights.

Why do an estate of some 28,000 acres require a two acre strip of our best farmland?
The reason, apparently, is because the land falls steeply to the river and the pheasants can be easily shot mid flight from the game strip.

Some tens of millions of pheasants have been bred for sport in this country and they are so prolific here that they are close to being vermin. They ruin silage bales by pecking at them and destroying the contents, attract rats to the feeding areas, pull up the young shoots of winter wheat or barley not to mention damage to vehicles when they fly out in front of a car, smashing a headlight or splattering their bodies over a windscreen.

We discovered too that if a  neighbouring shooting estate's pheasants cross the river on to our farmland then they are 'dogged' or chased back by dogs and their handlers to their side of the river. No permission asked for.

We are talking about life in 21st century rural Scotland here just in case you thought this was historic.

28,000 acres of moorland. How many people would that feed or house if the land was worked and opened up?
One of the points raised by those against a reform of the land was that "The land was not productive". Wrong.
I found reference in 'Present State of Husbandry in Scotland' 1778 (housed in the Innerpeffrey Library) on how to reclaim moorland and turn it into viable soil.

That is how moorland was reclaimed and used to grow crops in 1778. By hand.

I do not think our estate need our two acres when there are 28,000 other ones. I do not like having to decide which part of our best field we have to give up for 'sport'. It is a classic rhetorical question and one which has the potential to affect our farm business.
I loathe the feeling of sheer entitlement that 'sport' for an elite takes precedence of putting food on tables. A pheasant will feed very few, two acres of oats will feed many and is accessible to all.

Enough is enough.
We should not be put in a position that we have to decide which part of the land we pay full rent for should go for an elite sport. That is a hellish and despicable thing to do to a farmer and is no less than land grab by slyness, in my opinion.

We are supposed to be in a new era where communication was improved (which it is) but issues like this hellish choice are not conducive to building trust and mending bridges with the tenant farmer.

Look at the other 28,000 acres of desolate, uninhabited moorland then take a damn good look at your own motives.

Find somewhere else to shoot and ruin. Plenty of scope in 28,000 acres, I'm sure but remember that the farmer who knows proper land and soil management is looking over your shoulders with an eagle eye.

:Update 16th August 2013.

We were under the impression that the meeting with the shooting tenant and estate would provide us with shooting dates, etc. This would enable us to move livestock and provide the children with ear protection plus prevent them straying into shoot areas. No dates were forthcoming.
The meeting at the farmhouse with our MP, CEO of the SL&A plus the estate spokesperson was an extremely positive one yet none of us were made aware that this crass proposal was in the offing.
Alternatives were mentioned but no direct reference to what occurred yesterday.

I do not lay blame with the estate spokesperson as they are only following order but who gave the order? Who came up with this suggestion? Were they unaware of the fragility between landowner and tenant despite the best efforts of Doug McAdam to smooth the issue?

This does look like our roof is being dangled like a carrot but first we have to forego certain conditions. A wind and water tight house, clean water and a right to a peaceful life ought to be a given in 2013 Scotland as opposed to being railroaded into giving up areas of productive farmland.

No, is our reply. No, our land is not up for grabs for game shooting.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Guest blog by Scottish Anglers for Change

Scottish land reformation is due for a radical change in the not too distant future.
The reform of the land ownership, tenant farming, land use, community ownership has been due for a very long time. Too long have these issues been ignored or shelved by those who had the clout to change our country for the better.
There are many articles on land reform. Andy Wightman's excellent blog informative, intelligent and hosts some cracking discussions.
Lesley Riddoch plus the 432:50 briefing paper written by Professor James Hunter, Andy Wightman, Peter Peacock and Michael Foxley. Please take time to read it.

I have, however, read very little indeed on reform for our rivers, burns, lochans and lochs so I hand you over to an article written by Scottish Anglers for Change, a group which is campaigning to bring about reform to what it sees as an exploitative, hierarchical and outdated system.

Growing up in Ayrshire, I fished. I fished in the sea, I fished in the rivers, the reservoirs, the flooded quarries, the lochs - I even fished for goldfish in the garden pond. Tales told by my paternal grandmother of her second husband's fishing skill, of Canadian aunties' cousins' trips to the wilderness for lake trout in waters that would swallow my whole country, of conger eels pulled from local harbours as thick as myself, drove me wild with excitement and wonder as to what I might catch.
There's something about fishing which is far more than the catching though: it's an attachment to the land and the wildlife, and perhaps the retaking of our place amongst nature itself, something often lost by those growing up in towns. For some folk the therapy comes in the cooking, for others it's in the growing, for me it was in the hunting, and still is more than ever.

Of course, at seven years old, we tend to follow the rules. In the sea, fishing was free, in freshwater, one paid for a permit - that's just how it was. That this was due to the lack of any meaningful reform to the elitist structure of recreational freshwater angling since 1868 (when Jesse James was at the height of his powers) probably wouldn't have bothered me when my local fishing was cheap enough and I'd enough trouble getting a lift to the local river never mind the Tay.

It is only in recent years that the difference between Scotland and the majority of the Commonwealth, the US and much of Europe has struck me. New Zealand's riparian strip system, ironically initiated by Queen Victoria, allows anglers access to all freshwater, and with it some of the finest trout fishing in the world, whether land is adjacent or not, for the price of around £80 a year. This would buy you a few hours on the Cargill beat of the Tay in September. Nova Scotia, to which the same species of salmon – Atlantic – migrate to spawn as come to our rivers, has similar rules regarding land access, with the permit around $35 a season, and free to under thirteens. Each US state, of course, has its rules and regulations, but for the most part, wonderful fishing is available very cheaply. The world's beacon of capitalist evils and whipping boy to champagne socialists the country-wide, it would seem, appear to view the right to fish through far more socialist eyes than Scotland.

Scotland, under the rule of supposed left wing governments since the first Scottish elections, sees fishing under the control of the Crown Estate, landed gentry, and new rich who move in, some of whom then decide that no fishing should be allowed, others that it should be let on a day-to-day basis, or syndicate, at ludicrous costs.
To be fair, it would be harsh to criticise any of the governments. Fishermen are hardly the most vocal in this country, despite angling being the nation's largest participation sport, probably as a result of the 'We cannae dae it, nuhin will ever chinge' attitude that permeates us. Calling round the various political parties last year, I was greeted with initial silence on the other end of the line when asking of their policy on freshwater angling, then, 'Well the government is in discussions with the Faroese over mackerel catches at the moment', or something similar. Quite simply, it's unlikely any young researcher with dreams of a future cabinet position has ever picked up a fishing rod – or kicked a football for that matter – in these days of the professional politician.

The most interesting response came from the Tories. 'Well we tend tend to side with the landowner', came the reply in a thick European accent. 'What's the fishing like in your country then, does it cost much?', I asked. 'Oh, of course we don't charge for fishing in my country. It's all free', came the reply, with a tone suggesting that such an idea would be utterly ludicrous.

For anglers desirous of reform, the main hope is that we can hang on to the coat-tails of the land reform movement, which has far more momentum and academic weight behind it. Strangely, from what I have noticed anyway, land reformers rarely seem to have an interest in fishing rights, and indeed in some community buy-outs, North Harris in particular, they were happily to allow salmon rights to stay under the ownership of the local landowner. 
If owning such vast swathes of land as is common in Scotland whilst growing rich on subsidies, rent from tenants etc is unfair, then the ownership of fishing rights, both those which can be held independently of the land (salmon and sea trout) or those tied to ownership the land (mainly brown trout, but essentially all other freshwater fish), is as equally out of place in a modern country. Similarly, anglers will feel very aggrieved should such communities then decide to keep the salmon fishing for themselves; it is as much the disadvantaged of our cities right to fish the River Lochy as anyone else's, and a small landowner charging a fortune is the same as a large one to us.

Scottish Anglers for Change is calling for the a complete review of angling from grassroots level. Primarily, a national body, controlled by the majority of association anglers, not the minority who own the fishing rights, should to be set up to which all anglers, whether resident or visiting, pay a national license. This funding would then allow a proposed national angling association to buy both salmon rights and riparian strips from estates and landowners if and when their salmon rights become available, and to allow members of angling associations the freedom to roam on all other association waters in what is simply an extension of the current, and rather outdated, exchange ticket system now in place.

Another aim would be the conservation of stocks. As it stands, some clubs, such as the River Kelvin Angling Association, have a tagging system in place similar to that in Nova Scotia. Five fish per year is the maximum to be killed. However, other associations don't, and it's all up to a local committee, many of whom lack the expertise to make such decisions, and others who simply don't want to stop taking as many salmon as they can.
The protection of pike and wild trout anglers from further commercialisation should also be a priority as it increases in popularity. The only reason this is as cheap as it is is that it was never a fashion in the 19thcentury. This will soon change if money can be made.

This country is blessed with thousands of miles of lochs and rivers and some wonderful wild trout fishing, some of which is never touched. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, however, suggests that wild trout lochs should be 'promoted, marketed, and policed' by district salmon fisheries boards, i.e. there should be a price put on fishing them in order landlords can grow richer on the back of fish they don't own. This must be stopped, and trout rights either separated from the land such as is the case with salmon, and the brown trout's genetically identical wandering friend, the sea trout, or a riparian strip system put in place.

This is only a very brief outline of Scottish Anglers for Change's aims, with a more detailed explanation found on our website. The first sallying-forth into the world of reform has brought with it an expected reaction – anti-Scottish racism, prejudice against 'Chimney sweep Bobs' who apparently don't belonging on the big rivers, and the cries of 'It'll never work' All a good sign, in my opinion, that something's been hit quite close to the mark.
All feedback is welcome from land reformers, anglers, and the prejudiced alike.

Thursday, 1 August 2013


"I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall the buildings of concrete are; but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man"

Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe

We were happy to have the company of our MP, the CEO of the SL&E plus a representative from our estate round the table at our farmhouse yesterday. It was the first time in years that we had folk in and despite the lack of electricity so no tea, it was good to meet the faces behind the emails or phone calls.

Communication was first on the agenda and whether it is due to a new estate representative or something else, I have noticed an improved communication between estate and ourselves.
As it should be.
It should not have to take several years of legal battles, blogging, etc in order to sit round the table as equals and have a say on what will affect your home, family life, business and other issues. It has only taken 123 years but we finally discovered who actually owned our farm and farmhouse. The landowner himself, apparently.
This ought to be obvious but not necessarily so as the estate is owned by various trusts, individuals and others. A bit of a burach, in my opinion, but at least we know who is responsible for our bit.
The estate representative is able to approach the landowner directly and request our farmhouse receives a new roof, external building repairs and windows to make their house wind and water tight.

I thought about the people from Applecross and Mount Stuart on the Island of Bute estates where the tenant is excluded from decision making on issues which affect their lives. I thought of the tenants who want to speak but are afraid to speak, so great is the divide between them and their lairds or hurt by high handed land agents. Inclusion is paramount for so many reasons but it brings an equality and balance to discussions. Nuances, body language, eye contact all bring a discussion to life.
The tenants sometimes have no idea who the people are who make the decisions which are so vital for their future, some have discovered that the people on these boards do not live locally or indeed, do not even live in Scotland. Exclusion breeds contempt, creates barriers and negativity.

The crux is that we are offered some hope that our farmhouse will indeed receive a new roof and fairly soon. I cannot say for certain as the landowner must decide then legal documents drafted up, read and considered, yet, we are hopeful.
We will hopefully be meeting the new shooting tenant and estate next week in order to address some of the conflicts of interest that shooting/ farming bring plus addressing the resumed land which used to be our barley field - ten years of bad management by inexperienced game keepers has rendered the soil sterile. We did ask why an estate of some 28,000 acres needed two acres of our best land for a few weeks shooting and if I am not mistaken, the estate are willing to move this game strip. I hope they move it off the farm completely and utilise the 28,000 other acres more efficiently.
Guns and family homes do not mix. Best there is a lot of distance.

It has not been easy this past seven years, watching the decline of our home, treated poorly by past factors and estate agents whilst plodding on with our daily work and trying to raise a family but with hope and a new inclusion of sorts, we look forward to the future.

We have gathered around our kitchen table and had a decent discussion with various people who have differing political opinions and aims yet the outcome was one of calm and agreement.

Which is as it should be.

We are all Jock Tamson's bairns; each of us have something valuable to bring to the table. I ask other estates to consider what I am saying here and begin to include the tenants, not exclude them. Estates wonder where the animosity stems from or why things get out of hand and communication breaks down....ask your tenants. They are the ones who know the very ground the best.
Reply promptly to your tenants if you receive a letter, listen to the issues which are upsetting people, do not make the mistake of remaining silent, aloof and as untouchable as the English royal family who appear to be role models for certain lairds.
Life is a struggle enough without added complications and burdens.

I will still shout from the rooftops about the need for the Absolute Right to Buy and equality. Some of our guests will disagree completely but that is their choice in a free world. We can agree to disagree but that is the beauty of a democracy.

I will shout from the roof top when there is a roof top but in the meantime will extend our family's thanks for the first moves towards progress and agreement to our MP, estate spokesperson and to the CEO of the SL&E. It was a big step forward for all, I think you will agree?
If this a new era in the SL&E then Luke Borwick must consider that he has made a good choice with Douglas McAdam. I liked the man even although our points of view are polar opposites. He is energetic, intelligent and keen to make amends, admirable qualities.
Those around the table who have clout are going to work together to try and get a public water supply to our area; a very positive aim indeed.

There are a good few hundred tenants who will serve up something more palatable than water and a dish of biscuits  (the best chocolate ones wolfed by the youngest bairn before guests arrived).
Listen to them, include them and get to know them. Here are the people who have worked the land you own, some for generations. Feelings run strong, especially just now; some may refuse to talk for various reasons and this has to be considered too, what has happened to create such a barrier? Were they included or excluded when the decisions were made? Were they made to feel unwelcome and inferior by their lairds? Do they feel ripped off and cast aside when they had given the best years of their lives to their farms?

"“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” 
― Paulo Freire
See the human. See the family. They have a Soul, they bleed when wounded, hurt when excluded.

I don't know what will happen in the future, when land reform will bring in changes and where the Scotland of old finally blows the stour of past away but right now the scent of change is in the wind and it smells sweet.
It won't happen overnight but it will happen.

I think there are five and a half million of us in Scotland and I doubt there is a single one of us who does not agree that our country is worthy of change by the people, for the people.

All Jock Tamson's bairns.