Scottish Landscape

OCH: Land

Robin McAlpine – 30th June 2022

It is almost impossible to properly separate any aspect of the fight against the environmental crises from land issues. Again and again they are entwined in ways that we just can’t ignore; getting the future of our nation rights means getting land issues right.

But what does that mean? What do we need to do with our land? There are some pretty straightforward answers to this which are becoming increasingly well-known. But to separate these answers out, it is worth thinking about the kinds of land we have.

From least to most productive (certainly by the value they create in the economy), we start with our hillsides. As you will be aware we have loads of these and they really don’t do very much. We have some incredibly inefficient hill farming which mostly means rough grazing for sheep. But the average income of a hill farm is lower than the subsidy we pay them.

The land is tricky (but not impossible) to make economic use of but it is still an enormous resource. Then we get the uplands which are not hillside. These are also mainly used for rough grazing but this is much more accessible land. It isn’t going to be suitable for prime agriculture or pasture but it is far from useless.

Then we move into agricultural land. Prime agriculture land starts with grazing pasture (mainly cows) until it gets to the highest quality of soil which tends to be used for crops. But that’s not the land with the most value – the most value you can add to land is building houses on it so there is then a section of land which is about expanding communities. 

Inevitably we’re not going to take the same approach to all of these types of land, but there are certain things we do want to encourage across all of them. We want to maximise the extent to which they support biodiversity. We want to enable them to store the maximum amount of carbon. We want to maintain and improve the soil quality. We want them to be effective at absorbing water.

So what would all of that look like in practice if we put together these goals with these different types of land? To get a fuller picture of what we could do with our less desirable land (hillsides and upland), it is very much worth reading Mosaic of Life, a report Common Weal published last year.

First, hillsides. We need to stop using them for rough grazing because it is both uneconomical and deeply damaging. Sheep are ‘close grazers’ which basically means they munch everything down to close to the roots. That means it is very difficult for diverse plant species to establish themselves and in turn that means it is very hard for other wildlife to make a home there.

This is a large part of why Scotland is dominated by ‘wet deserts’, the massive amount of Scotland’s land which has few shrubs or trees and few animals living there. For biodiversity, carbon capture and long-term soil health, we need to bring these wet deserts back to life.

This doesn’t mean one thing; what we do on a remote hillside and what we do on a former grouse moor will not be identical. That’s the point – success will be a patchwork. Where it isn’t feasible to manage land for productive purposes (particularly hillsides which are inaccessible to machinery) we should be rewilding with shrubs and trees. The biodiversity will return on its own if we do.

But where we have more accessible land which is not suitable for prime agriculture there are many productive uses we can make which are also good for nature. We can obviously grow timber crops (whether full forestry or fast-growth coppicing). But there are other crops we can grow like hemp or bamboo.

And if we do we must also start seeing that kind of rural land as being a green industrial hub for Scotland. These crops are incredibly valuable in replacing environmentally harmful materials like concrete and plastic – but they need to be processed (we’ll look at this a bit more next week).

So next to these fields of bamboo and hemp we should have processing plants turning them into materials and light manufacturing plants turning those materials into products with which to replace the harmful ones we use. 

(Just incidentally, you may have heard some large landowners rejecting land reform on the basis that there is nothing useful to do with their land anyway so we should really be thanking them for taking it off our hands. Just remember, 98 per cent of Scotland was once forest so it’s nonsense – there is hardly any of Scotland’s land which isn’t useful for growing something).

All of this is also bringing back wildlife, capturing carbon and managing water and soil much better. Last week we looked at how agriculture should change, shifting towards agroecology as a way of managing land, disturbing soil less, using less pesticide and weedkiller, using mixed planting and interspersing little patches of wild land.

And then there is our urban or semi-urban land. This has major social need – we still need much more housing and it needs to be much more genuinely affordable. That should be the prime strategic focus of using land which is suitable for housing. And when we do we should be using primarily organic construction materials.

But that is not all we should be doing. We can make urban land much, much better in terms of environmental performance. From urban growing and gardening (better provision of allotments) to more landscaping which encourages wildlife to less use of concrete coverings which prevent the soil from absorbing water naturally, we can most certainly do better.

So why are we not doing these things? The answer sadly comes down to the basic idiocy of contemporary capitalism. In theory land is a capital asset that we should be making the most productive use of, but that is not what we do. Mostly land is held as an asset for speculative purposes. The new ‘green laird’ phenomena shows how you can use land unproductively to harvest subsidies and cause the land to accumulate in value without making productive use of it.

The rest is just cynicism – it is less labour-intensive to do the wrong thing than the right thing. So we need to do two things. First we need to change land ownership patterns. We desperately need land reform in Scotland if we’re going to achieve any of the above in a way which is at all equitable or in the public interest.

Common Weal wants to see mass compulsory purchase of poorly-used land which can then be broken up and sold in smaller plots. This means that potential land-based businesses can actually have a chance of getting land, rural communities can expand and grown and ordinary people can own land either as an investment or perhaps so they can build a cabin and turn it into a family holiday home.

The potential is pretty unlimited – there hasn’t been space here to even start to consider other great opportunities like eco-tourism or energy generation. But the potential needs to be put in the hands of many, many more people.

And then they need to be compelled (but supported) to do the right thing. Everything we are calling for above is the province of land managers – and we’re going to need an awful lot more of them. They will be repairing soil, replanting, supporting the return of biodiversity, improving waterways and everything else we need to do.

In fact Common Weal calculates that we probably need about 20,000 full-time land managers. But since the land they will be managing will either be highly-productive (so the management pays for itself) or are in areas where public subsidies already exist (but are being hoovered up by speculative landowners), there doesn’t need to be massive public investment other than in training.

But to make this work we need one last thing; we need planning standards for land. You can do almost anything you want with rural land and yet urban land is all subject to very stringent planning conditions. We need to extend planning and zoning to all of our land. There must be rules about how it is managed and maintained and they must be enforced.

(And apologies that for reasons of space I’ve not been able to consider the third of Scotland’s land which is underwater – seas and seabeds are Scotland’s land as well.)

We can’t get our environmental performance sorted without addressing land issue. Scotland has waited far, far too long to do something purposeful – perhaps climate change will finally give us the kick up the bum we need to do it.

2 thoughts on “OCH: Land”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    Undoubtedly land, and who owns it, is a huge issue and has been for many hundreds of years. (indeed, probably, since humans appeared on the Earth). The difficulty for most of the population is that for these hundreds of years an increasing number of us have been living in towns and cities – usually coercively – and so we lose the connection with the land, even though we walk on it. Much of it is under hard surfaces and so we do not always see it.

    Thus the day-by-day, minute-by-minute awareness of land has declined in urban dwellers. We are blind to the large numbers of unused spaces in our cities. And many of us are blind to the connection between this unused land and the cost of housing.

    Fortunately, in the past twenty years, increasing numbers of us are becoming aware of ‘land’ as an ‘issue’. And, fortunately, the concept has been on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament since its inception. There has been progress but, it has been slow. But, it is slow mainly because of the dense thicket of regulation and ignorance that the landowners and their lawyers have planted over the centuries, precisely to make it difficult for politicians to understand and to penetrate.

    I look forward to subsequent pieces on this.

    Thank you.

    For decades, the land registers were, wilfully, allowed to moulder

  2. Donald McPhillimy

    The land most crying out for change is the least productive land- grouse moor. It should be banned. It is deeply unpopular and benefits a tiny minority. See Revive campaign for details.
    Next the sheep have to come off the next least productive land- hill sheep country, to allow it to recover to scrub and native woodland.
    Scotland is mostly livestock country and there is room for regenerative agriculture here. We just need to follow the lead of the best and most innovative land managers.
    Finally, we have limited areas of top quality arable land but almost all of the production goes either to animal feed or the brewing industry. Very little goes to feed humans. Again, the best and most innovative farmers are showing the way. We need smaller fields, bigger hedges, less pesticides and fertilisers and more market gardens.
    A mosaic of land uses rather than the silo thinking we have over the majority of land at present. The innovative farmers are already doing it. The incentives should reward them and encourage the rest to change.

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