Tweeds, Drams and Ponies:
Bulldozing the Sporting Estate Image from Benevolent Rural Institution to Modern Commercial Business
Graham Boyd, November 1998,The Caledonia Centre for Social Development
This paper was first published in issue 20 of the Reforesting Scotland magazine, Spring 1999.
For more than twenty years the damage to the upland landscape and environment by the construction of badly engineered bulldozed tracks on sporting estates has been of major public concern. This concern has been reflected in the strong views expressed on the subject by recreational users and countryside amenity groups to the Scottish Office, Planning Authorities and the Press. The extent and scale of these tracks has been accurately recorded since the early 1970s particularly in the Grampian Mountains and Northeast uplands. Issues relating to the problems of route planning and siting, drainage, erosion, scouring, construction standards, damage to landscape and the destruction of rights of way by bulldozing of footpaths have also been equally well documented and report to Government bodies and Local Authorities.
What has not been examined are the reasons why bulldozed tracks have been allowed to proliferate in the uplands and why the Government has responded so slowly and with little direct control.
The Keystone of Rural Life
There is a general lack of awareness about the complex business structure of estates and in particular sporting estates. Estates are seldom viewed as commercial businesses run on current and modern management principles. Instead they are perceived as a backward traditional 19th Century rural institution that has changed little since its inception. This view is reinforced by the way in which it has created the perception that it is part of the keystone of a rural community in a similar way as the school, church and village shop. However the estate and sporting estates in particular, are modern enterprises and like any business company have a number of parties requiring their interests to be satisfied. The owners, the bankers, the mangers, the clients, the employees, the Government and the rest of society are interested and affected by the way they act and behave. The estate like it or not, does not exist in a vacuum as some Lairds and land agents would have us believe. However due to the peculiar way that sporting estates evolved as modern businesses certain land use and management practices have been allowed to go unchallenged and regulated. Bulldozed tracks, overgrazing by red deer and the exemption from local authority taxes are cases in point.
Self-interest and the Myth of Highland Backwardness
The answer to some of these issues can be traced to the last half of the 19th Century and the early decades of this century. During this period the notion of enlightened self-interest was a cause dear to the hearts of estate owners. It was fashionable in the Establishment and Ruling Class power circles to justify the sporting estate as a benevolent rural institution satisfying a yawning social and economic need in the countryside. A sort of privately run and financed modern day workfare scheme for the underemployed peasant population of the Highlands. The sporting estate was thus presented as both an important local employer and a civilising force on Gaelic backwardness. History today permits us to recognise this as a thinly veiled half-truth. Sporting estates are commercial businesses and operate within the world of international property and financial markets. They grew out of the slump and decline of the sheep industry in the Highlands and were the product of sheep properties and leases being purchased by the leisured ladies and gents of the then aspiring British Empire Class.
The State as the Lairds Milch Cow
Sporting estates are a different type of business from agricultural and forestry enterprises and as such should be openly and specifically identified as being different. This would allow them to be subject to a clear set of Central and Local Government rules and regulations. At present the sporting estate is the least regulated or taxed of any upland commercial business. The lack of any positive Government action during the last 50 years on the issue has allowed the Lairds and their financial and political friends to manipulate the fiscal, planning and tax systems established for agriculture and forestry enterprises to their advantage. This has resulted in substantial amounts of taxpayers money and resources being diverted in the interests of sporting estate owners and their wealthy shooting clients.
The Client Group: the Toff, Rifle and Gun
The shooting client has long been a key interest group in the overall management and marketing strategy of sporting estates. However the composition and social background of shooters (The Toff, Rifle or Gun) has dramatically changed since the Victorian period such that by the late 1960s the majority of shooters were foreign businessmen from Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. The British aristocracy, Westminster politicians and military shooters of earlier times are no longer the major client group. These changes in the social and cultural backgrounds of the shooting clients are partly due to the shift away from the traditional Victorian practice of the long lease-shooting tenant. This was brought about by the depressed state of the sporting estate economy in the 1960's that coincided with a period of rapid inflation in land values in the early 1970s. These economic forces thrust the re-structuring process onto the Laird's business agenda. The sporting estate could no longer sustain itself by laundering British capital and sought new sources of international capital, clients and game meat markets overseas as a means of expanding income margins which had been in decline for well over a decade.
Creating the Hunting Brand
The modern business relationships of sporting estates are very diverse and range from land agents, letting agencies, sporting organisers, travel agents, hoteliers, game meat contractors, animal feed suppliers, vets, gun manufactures, sporting outfitters, manufacturers of four-wheel drive vehicles to taxidermists! Some of these businesses are more important than others in securing clients for the shooting season. Sporting agencies and letting agents are key businesses in procuring customers and as such they along with the sporting estate have been central in the process of moulding the modern concept of what hunting is perceived to be in the Scottish Highlands. This branding of sports hunting in the Highlands has been instrumental in packaging the sporting estate. The image makers and game brokers have played a key role in constructing and devising the image, quality and standard of the hunting package. A number of flagship sporting estates have played a leading role in pushing the modernisation into existence where it has suited their interests.
Maximum bag to the nearest Landrover road head
The bulldozing of tracks into remote upland areas and onto moorlands has been an important element in this modernisation strategy. The justification given by sporting estate owners and their agents for the roading of the uplands has been the need to meet European game meat regulations and the requirements of modern game management. The failure to regulate these activities has been primarily due to Public agencies and Local Government having a weak understanding and knowledge of the manner in which sporting estates operate as commercial businesses. Maximum bag has been the real driving force combined with a change in the type of shooting clients being attracted to the region. It has suited sporting estates to change practices such as a day's deer stalking (6 to 8 hours) on foot on a particular beat with a stalker, ghillies and a pony to a few hours driving and as little walking for the clients as is possible. This permits several beats to be covered in one day and enables a maximum bag to be achieved. The roading of the uplands has also assisted estates to dispense with the upkeep and maintenance of satellite lodges and to reduce the number of skilled stalkers and other ancillary workers that it requires to run the enterprise.
Tweeds, Drams and Ponies
Sporting estates like other commercial tourism businesses are extreme aware of the image that they are manufacturing for their clients. Traditional sporting estate imagery and qualities from the Victorian period such as taking the 'beast' off the hill by pony to the nearest road head, dour and surly stalkers in estate tweeds with wee yapping dugs and the downing of lots of drams of whisky are all important parts of the recreational experience. These and other traditional imagery and qualities such as dining with the Laird in the 'big hoose', enjoying the music of his piper as he struts in full Highland regalia around the dining table and photographs of the stalker, client and trophy (the dead stag's head) are all part of the trophy oriented hunting market that sporting estates have manufactured. Such traditional images are considered to be important elements in the hunting experience and thus valuable to the overall marketing of the estate business. However the recreational experience must include all the elements - game, scenery, weather, companionship and tradition - if it is to be sustainable and compete in the global sports hunting markets.
Modern sporting estate businesses have consistently ignored and downgraded other more valuable, marketable and sustainable tourism aspects of their properties such as remoteness, landscape and scenery. They have done this in a very systematic way in which neighbouring land users, other interests and recreational users such as hill walkers, climbers and wildlife enthusiasts have been made to go on foot and accept inequitable restrictions backed up by the force of law. The roading of the uplands, the inequitable restrictions, the overgrazing by deer and the despoiling of landscapes and scenery have all been pursued to enable sport hunters to have an exclusive and effortless hunting experience paid for by the external costs to other users of the uplands and society as a whole. Government has a clear role in situations where commercial activities result in social and environmental costs that need not be paid for by the business activity nor the direct consumer who causes them.
Government regulation of sporting estates as commercial businesses is required and it should be a priority of Land Reform legislation in the new Parliament.
The new Parliament requires to quickly grasp a number of strands of the debate and link them together into a coherent policy with regard to sporting estates. These three inter-related strands are: company registration and public accountability; local community accountability; and State funding and incentives.
Company Registration and Public Accountability
The Parliament should legislate to convert all family executry land trusts into private companies limited by shares1. They should be stripped of all charitable and tax benefits that are incompatible with company registration. The use of these private land trusts to secure charitable recognition for tax purposes is an abuse of the widely held public view on what constitutes a charitable organisation in Scottish society. This reform is urgently required and would remove from the charities sector those trusts that have been primarily established for private family benefit.
All companies that hold land or trade in land in Scotland should be compelled by land reform legislation to be registered in Scotland through the Registrar of Companies. This would remove the ability for companies and their agents to operate in a secretive way as some do at present in which ownership and other commercial details are hidden away in offshore tax havens. Furthermore, it would also remove the secrecy that charitable family trust have been able to hide behind through making disclosure an accountable public process. The Registrar of Companies requires all companies to provide a snapshot of the company's details at a particular time through the provision of an annual return (directors names, registered office address, names of shareholders and share capital) and to submit annual accounts. These documents are subject to full public disclosure and must comply with set standards. Such a process would allow public scrutiny. In addition it would permit land researchers and others to undertake comparative studies and publish analysis in a similar way to that of other businesses sectors.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is at present carrying out a consultation exercise into what standards of ethical, social and environmental reporting companies should be expected to comply with. The consultation period finishes in Spring 1999. Hopefully this may lead to the Companies Act being revised in such a way as to place the onus upon companies to undertake greater disclosure in these matters. This would considerably enhance and complement the financial and ownership information that is currently disclosed. Greater disclosure of company information in these spheres would considerably boost the capacity of public domain research to make clearer judgements about whether companies were acting in both an ethical and environmentally sustainable way.
Local Community Accountability
All estates and land holdings over a certain acreage should be compelled to produce whole estate plans (a form of environmentally sustainable development plan). These plans should harmonise with the Government's current Community Planning initiative2. They should be the land owners (State, private, voluntary and community) contribution to an effective Community Planning process. These whole estate plans should be rolling five-year plans with a strong element of local participation and consultation built into the plan-making process. Such plans should be registered with and available for inspection at the offices of the Locality Land Councils or Local Natural Resources Agency.
On a periodical basis landowners should be required to undertake social and environmental auditing. Social auditing is a process that enables an organisation in this instance a sporting estate company to assess and demonstrate its social, economic and environmental benefits and limitations. It is a way of measuring the extent to which an estate lives up to the shared values and objectives it has committed itself to. Social auditing provides a systematic assessment of the impact of an estate's non-financial objectives through regularly monitoring its performance and the views of its stakeholders (owners, employees, clients, suppliers, contractors, local communities, public funders, etc).
State Funding and Incentives
All forms of State funding and incentives such as (tax breaks) should be openly accounted for through publication in hard and electronic format. This information should be readily available on the Internet and published in the local press. Public agencies such as Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Homes, the Crofters Commission, the Forestry Authority, the Agricultural Department and Inland Revenue should publish details of grant assistance and tax breaks in a similar way to that of the Local Enterprise Agencies. Furthermore all Public sector grants should be based upon the principles of cross-compliance.
To implement such a package of strategic reforms would cost both the sporting estates and the public purse little in the way of new additional money. However it would rapidly bring in a high level of local and national accountability much of which is already being practised by the more enlightened members of other sectors of the business community. Introducing such a package of reforms into the sport hunting sector of the tourism industry would greatly assist in preparing it for the New Millennium while retaining what is of value from an earlier period. Such changes would permit the Scottish people to finally feel that guns, rifles, tweeds, drams and ponies was part of an inclusive rather than an elitist rural culture.
Many of the ideas contained in this paper have their origins in the late 1970s. They emanated from two key sources. Coffee room discussions and challenges posed by Ian Carter then a lecturer in rural sociology at Aberdeen University and now Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland. The other inspirational source was Norman Keir the provost of the 'Free University of the Cairngorms'. Norman roamed the Cairngorms on his weekends in all seasons and taught in the magnificent learning centres of our upland classrooms and laboratories - the howffs, bothies, woods, plateaux, tops, coires and granite craigs. He was mentor, critical friend and climbing partner to a generation of Aberdeen hill-goers. He died in September 1995.