The topic of land ownership in Scotland is one that I have tackled on a number of previous occasions on this blog, for it is an important issue and one that affects all hill goers whether they notice it or not. I’m going to revisit these issues this week, armed with some hard numbers about the contribution of various types of outdoor-related tourism to the Scottish economy.
Currently almost all of the uplands of Scotland are managed purely for the benefit of field sports; hunting, fishing and shooting. Thanks to our enlightened access laws we are entitled to wander freely, but we do so on land that is managed for another purpose. There are some notable exceptions, such as the lands owned by the National Trust and by the John Muir Trust. There is also some exemplary land management by sporting estates themselves, such as in Glen Feshie.
My personal views on the best way to manage Scotland’s wild land are controversial. I would nationalise the sporting estates and establish an extensive network of national parks. This may seem radical, but it is the only way that re-wilding – specifically the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, which require large territories, could be achieved. Any attempts to effect such re-introductions within the limited confines of a single estate, such as Lister’s proposals for Alladale, will be no more than zoos.
When I advanced these ideas previously some commenters leapt to the defence of the sporting estates, trumpeting their enormous contribution to the economy and the employment that they create in rural areas. Now, thanks to an article I found in the Spring 2011 edition of SNH’s
‘Nature of Scotland’ magazine
(available free online but I’m typing this on my phone so can’t link to it easily) I can present the relevant figures.
Outdoor tourism contributes £1.4 bn, 40 percent of tourism spending, and creates 39000 jobs. The breakdown is as follows:
Walking + landscape tourism £900 m
Adventure tourism £178 m
Field sports £136 m
Wildlife tourism £127 m
So you can see that the sector for the benefit of which the land is managed, field sports, contributes less than 10 % of the total. It seems incredible that even the adventure sector – skinflint climbers, mountainbikers and stag doos on canyoneering trips – brings in much more than hunting and fishing per year. Imagine by how much the total might be increased if the land were instead managed for the benefit of nature and those who wish to enjoy it, unarmed?
Before I visit a country, when I am deciding which parts of it I will visit, I often pore over maps and identify the National Parks, under the – often correct – assumption that a country will seek to protect its most beautiful landscapes. Were a prospective visitor to Scotland to engage in a similar pre-travel exercise to my own, they may arrive at the incorrect conclusion that the only parts of Scotland that stand out are our two National Parks, Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms. The map provides no explicit encouragement to visit other outstanding areas; the Cuilin of Skye; the sandstone peaks of the northwest; Fisherfield; Glens Affric or Strathfarrar to name but a few.
I will happily concede that if these areas were to be given the National Park treatment it would not all be good news. In ‘Desert Solitaire’ Edward Abbey described the changes that occurred in Utah’s Arches NP following its upgrade. He hated the intrusion of tarmac, of visitor centres, of the motorised tourist hordes whose very presence destroyed what he had found so special about the place. Arches was not an isolated case and Abbey wrote scathingly about the National Park Service and the manner in which it capitulated so readily to the demands of the chambers of commerce in neighbouring settlements.
Offensive as the development of infrastructure, of visitor centres and car parks, may be, I would argue that the benefits would likely outweigh the disadvantages. We must not forget that the land is already managed intensively and often insensitively, and that this management is for the benefit of the moneyed few. The numbers above show that this management is of relatively little benefit to Scotland’s economy.
Widening access through an extension of the National Park network (ideally more along the lines of the Norwegian than the US model) would be to the benefit of the land itself, to the wildlife, to the nearby communities and to the wider economy. I don’t accept the line peddled by the pro-field sports lobby that preserving the jobs of gamekeepers is any argument in favour of the status quo. For example deer and mink numbers would still need to be controlled, paths, bridges and huts maintained, woodland managed. This work would surely be done by the same people, for if you were recruiting park rangers you would struggle to find better qualified applicants than those currently employed in gamekeeping and associated professions.
As windfarm developments spring up throughout the countryside I have come to realise that, were it not for the likes of grouse shooting, more of our uplands would have been turned over to the turbines. Though the management of land for shooting is far from optimal it is far preferable in my eyed to this particular alternative. The current protection of wild land from windfarm development provided by the very wealthy and their appetite for blasting birds is both entirely accidental and extremely fragile.
On my recent trip to Iceland I learned that their first national park was established to protect the Jukulsa river and its canyon, in which is found Europe’s most voluminous waterfall, Dettifoss. I presume that the underlying reason for its designation was that, where some saw the wonder of nature, other, less imaginative people could see only the potential for one of Europe’s largest hydroelectric power generation schemes.
My vision of a future in which wild land is protected and nature is encouraged to flourish on the land currently occupied by sporting estates is a bold and controversial one. To reap the full benefits – including the economic benefits – we must follow the example set by the Icelanders and act sooner rather than later.