Land, Green Lairds and Rewilding

It’s been a minor wonder over the last year in some land reform circles to discover who first coined the term ‘Green Lairds’. My own curiosity got the better of me and I had resorted to asking likely candidates whether they could claim credit for the term, unfortunately no one came back willing to own up. 

Land campaigner Peter Peacock brought the issue out in force in the pages of the Press and Journal in April 2021 with suggestions that government agencies should be “aggressively” purchasing land for communities. Community Land Scotland can take a considerable amount of credit in popularising the term to the stage that it’s been debated in parliament thanks to Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant and is frequently used by the media. 

As of this month there’s a legitimate looking claim that the credit lies with veteran Highland journalist David Ross who suggests the term was used first in his Press and Journal column, Fairness key amid surge of ‘green lairds’ from March last year

Another land campaigner, Andy Wightman, recently tweeted that he found the term “extremely unhelpful. Although disagreement can be found with the usefulness of the term it can’t be denied that it’s caused a reaction in the landed sector with Scottish Land and Estates Chair Sarah-Jane Laing writing a piece for The Herald titled ‘Green lairds’ should be celebrated – not sneered at

Late last year I was told about the frustration felt by one new entrant into the green land sector who felt the term unfair. They had thought that the term should only be considered against large corporate interests, as opposed to one person buying an estate for green uses. In Scotland it should come as no surprise to anyone that laird for centuries has usually been one person and male, and that in 21st Century Scotland laird is generally loaded with negative connotations. 

For almost all in the land reform movement the negative connotations of ‘Green Laird’ do not come from green but laird. The negativity here stems from private large-scale ownership of land rather than the land being utilised for climate or biodiversity reasons. Land reform after all is about the reform of ownership and management in the public interest. ‘Green Lairds’ only address the latter and not the former. 

To reinforce this point ‘Community Lairds’ is seldom used as the negative connotation of laird would be a contradiction of positive community ownership, that is an oxymoron. Environmental NGO owners have largely escaped the ‘Green Laird’ badge by pre-dating it as a significant landowner definition, but they may well yet face that association.  

Some opponents of ‘Green Lairds’, usually from the traditional landed sector, do see the green element of the term as a negative. They are quite comfortable with concentrated and large-scale private landownership as long as it works in their favour and to their values. 

The term has been useful in capitalising on negative connotations towards large scale private land ownership in Scotland but the conflation of various types of ‘Green Lairds’ under the one term is at times unhelpful, especially now that ‘Green Lairds’ is fast becoming a term specific to corporations.

The increasingly accepted definition of ‘Green Laird’ sits with the likes of Brewdog, Standard Life, or Aviva. Corporates or pension funds looking to decarbonise business emissions, offset future tax liability, cash in on public subsidy, benefit from land speculation, or all the above. Moor reform organisations such as Wild Moors UK have shown enthusiasm for ‘Corporate Green Lairds’ with the purchase of all three. The obvious drawbacks to corporate ownership of land have started to play out in public with estate staff being sacked and their homes put for sale being widely reported. There will be some who celebrate gamekeepers being made redundant and there will be others who see this as the opposite of a Just Transition

Whilst the term ‘Green Laird’ is new, green landowners aren’t. Associating ‘Green Lairds’ only with corporates will risk a lack of scrutiny towards prominent landowners looking to environmentalism as an antidote to negative perceptions of landlordism. 

A subsect to add to corporates is the ‘Trophy Green Laird’, with two stand out candidates since the turn of the millennium being Tom Lister, who inherited £50m when his family sold the MFI furniture business, and Anders Holch Povlsen who inherited the family retail clothing business and is subsequently now a billionaire

Anders Polvsen through his company Wildland Ltd is Scotland’s largest private landowner and is well known as a rewilding proponent due to significant levels of deer management, as seen at Glen Feshie. Ownership of his estates, found in the Cairngorms, Loch Ness, and north Sutherland, have all the hallmarks of the traditional gentry Highland past time: absenteeism, exclusive high-end stays, usual traditional sporting pastimes, in addition to less traditional ecotourism. Not quite progressive new ownership, rather more of the same but with less deer. 

Traditional estates often push themselves as loss making exercises where only the benevolence of the laird keeps the money flowing into rural communities, when in reality they are largely loss making as a fault of design, and when benevolence makes way for truth, it’s the estate as a status symbol and hobby that the laird is willing to pay for. Wildland Ltd, despite culling deer, don’t differ here. 

Tom Lister perhaps achieved a first for a pioneering ‘Green Laird’, he managed to unite ardent environmentalist land reform campaigners against his approach to rewilding. With his failed plan for a Jurassic Park style wolf compound at his Highland estate, he won the ire of access savvy land reformers who should naturally have a desire to see rewilded landscapes. For others the act of calling his estate a ‘wilderness reserve’ so close to Croick Church is unforgivable. 

For both men you can’t help but feel there’s a sense of egotism underpinning the trophy-ness of their ownership. The first, the biggest, the best. The litmus test of this green egotism is whether they aim to transfer their estates to community ownership. There’s hope that at a statutory public interest test in the proposed new land reform bill will legislate more for people as well as environment on large scale landowners, and that Scotland’s public won’t have to rely on rich men doing the right thing, but will it go far enough?

As a new entrant on the block and an ‘Entrepreneurial Green Laird’, Jeremy Leggett’s plans for Bunloit can be seen as the least worst. Leggett is happy to acknowledge his privileged position, the “insane inequalities” in land ownership, and seeks to transfer ownership to a mass ownership model. His work is underpinned by pioneering scientific research, and he is adopting a ‘smart clachan’ type approach to re-peopling albeit not in name

You can’t help but feel for Leggett who seems keen to shake the ‘Green Laird’ badge. However, there’s still scepticism in many circles, who see a keenness in new capital raising community of interest financial methods, at the expense of existing geographic community centred models, combined with the purchase of Beldorney, as a move towards further land concentration under the guise of altruistic land and finance innovation. Businessman Ian Wace, new owner of Tanera Mòr also gets a notable mention in the ‘Entrepreneurial Green Laird’ camp for his plans for high end exclusive retreats

Bamff Estate, well established in environmental circles thanks to Paul Ramsay’s enthusiasm for beaver reintroduction, has shown tentative steps in following the English model of Kneppification. Employed with success by the namesake Knepp estate in West Sussex, the push is to transition a cash poor, asset rich minor aristocratic estate into a successful rewilded business. 

Adopting a crowdfunded model of rewilding, some see this as an incredulous exercise in the laird going cap in hand to the people and others a head start on rewilding efforts which aren’t currently met by public subsidy. Arguably both not too different, and highlighting that with a move to publicly funded ecological restoration and Scotland’s concentrated land ownership model, a huge amount of public money is going to be transferred to a small number of private landowners. 

The Ramsay Family can certainly be considered ‘Green Laird’s but it’s difficult to fit them against any subsect so far, although they may well find fame and a name as the pioneers of Kneppification in Scotland. With economics stacked in favour of ecotourism it will be interesting to understand the scalability of the model elsewhere but they’re certainly looking at a first mover advantage and are ones to watch develop.

There’s an interesting, and not without merit, line of thought from some environmentalists that an emphasis on the bad practice of ‘Green Lairds’ lets traditional landowners, often doing worse for the environment, off the hook. On social, economic, and cultural considerations the lines are much more blurred but on environmental grounds it’s clear that many ‘Green Lairds’ are ahead of their more traditional counterparts. Many traditional lairds of course have instigated, presided over, and exacerbated ecological, as well as social, economic, and cultural, degradation in rural Scotland and this shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush to chastise ‘Green Lairds’. 

Whilst ‘Green Lairds’ are grabbing headlines it’s not to say that traditional landowners do not still face scrutiny. The emergence of a fairly strong, albeit at times poorly evidenced, campaigns against driven grouse moors in Scotland can be seen as one branch of this debate. Perhaps more widely at both Scottish and UK level campaigns such as Wild Justice and Raptor Persecution Scotland respectively, continue to focus on traditional estate practice. 

Traditional landowners in many areas, for better or worse, are the status quo. There’s benevolence, perceived or real, as well as apathy from many communities. ‘Green Lairds’, for better or worse, risk that. Whether it’s Lister’s plans to fence off large sections of land where access is currently enshrined under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 or Povlsen’s legal objections to locally supported economic development in onshore wind and the space industry, there’s an attitude of entitlement and power with ownership. For local communities they’ve thankfully to date only been met with failure, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion. 

There are also delicate historical comparisons to be drawn out today of rich industrialists approaching land ownership and management choices with improver mentality. 

Whilst corporates potentially offer the most concern with “monochrome” approaches to land management, we’ve seen trophy ‘Green Lairds’ clash heavily with local and interest communities. ENGO buyers can’t escape criticism for contributing to inflating land prices. Whilst the Scottish Government have increased the Scottish Land Fund to £20m, the maximum grant cap of £1m hasn’t, and with inflated land prices larger estate purchases look increasingly challenging. Are ‘Green Lairds’ risking the future of large new scale community ownership opportunities? Yes. 

The ‘Green Lairds’ phenomenon has received well deserved scrutiny due to emerging discourse around Just Transition. The trend risks exacerbating existing social inequality under the umbrella of environmentalism and against the backdrop of climate and biodiversity crisis. Some are better than others, but all seek to capitalise on Scotland’s unjust land system and unregulated land market. Without social justice there is no environmental justice, and there’s no environmental solution that can answer the problem of Scotland’s land inequality. 


*My thanks go to Theo Stanley who has helped develop the thinking in this piece on subsects of ‘Green Lairds’.


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Comments (11)

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  1. Hector says:

    Estate workers , farm workers and farm tenants should be given full security of tenure to prevent the brewdog mass clearance model.
    Any tree planting application should put people before trees.
    Only a maximum of one third of any property should be allowed to be planted, if forest deserts are to be avoided.
    What is currently going on is no better than patrick sellars antics.

    1. David B says:

      A 1/3 limit on afforestation is completely arbitrary. Some estates will take much more than that, others much less. Forestry (both conventional and ‘conservation’) provides rural employment. (I say that as someone who works in it). Any afforestation in a National Park and certain other designated sites requires Scottish Forestry consent, as does afforestation above a certain size on any site, so there are already controls in place. I’ll be interested to see how Brew Dog get on with their afforestation plans as I don’t see their ‘punk’ approach going down particularly well when it comes to Environmental Impact Assessment processes.

      1. Hector says:

        Forestry does not provide continuous employment in the way that farming or keeping does.
        Farming and forestry need to co exist, and not have these horrible miles and miles of biologically dead sitka spruce.
        The highland clearances happened because the govt needed wool, now its trees they think they need, dont let history repeat.

        1. David B says:

          Well it provides me with continuous employment and many other people I know. I’d be interested to see any actual studies but anecdotally I’d suggest forestry compared to game keeping supports more independent sole traders and SMEs, but fewer jobs tied to specific estates. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It also supports more jobs down the supply chain – sawmills, timber merchants, builders, joiners. If you take a grouse, pretty much all you can do with it is eat it.

          I agree we need more diversification of species. The number of sitka that have gone over in Aberdeenshire in recent storms will provide a commercial imperative for that.

          I also agree there’s an issue with ‘farming’ carbon rather than farming food. It’s the sort of thing an independent Food Commission could look at – if only the SNP/Greens stop blocking it.

  2. Graeme Purves says:

    ‘Excellent piece. Might this be why efforts were directed to securing landowner representation on the NatureScot Board last year?

  3. Axel P Kulit says:

    “The litmus test of this green egotism is whether they aim to transfer their estates to community ownership. There’s hope that at a statutory public interest test in the proposed new land reform bill will legislate more for people as well as environment on large scale landowners, and that Scotland’s public won’t have to rely on rich men doing the right thing, but will it go far enough?”

    Community ownership tends to end up meaning the council and community leaders are often just as egotistical but more interested in getting things done their way. Who will guard the guardians?

  4. George Gunn says:

    “Without social justice there is no environmental justice, and there’s no environmental solution that can answer the problem of Scotland’s land inequality.” This, as Magnus, has pointed out in his conclusion, is the problem. Landlordism is perpetual poverty. The Highlands are not an empty landscape but an emptied landscape. We need to find ways to get people back into living and working in the straths and glens. I would be interested to see more articles from Magnus Davidson on this issue. It is at the heart of our future.

    1. Hector says:

      The first step is to stop the depopulation , before you can start to reverse it.
      Greenwashing and misguided scotgov agri policies since 2014 have seen massive numbers of rural people removed from the land.
      The coming new schemes for rewilding etc will accelerate it.
      Landowner – centric policies need rewritten urgently

    2. 220223 says:

      A lot of work has been done in relation to ‘finding ways to get people back into living and working in the straths and glens’ in Canada, Iceland, Norway, and Russia. See, for example, the Arctic Council’s 2004 Human Development Report to the Nordic Council of Ministers.

      Many local communities in those countries have also experienced population declines as people leave to find livelihoods elsewhere (outward migration) with few if any others moving in (inward migration). There has been a lot of focus (that’s, dare I say it, missing from ‘the SNP, independence, and wider politics in Scotland’) on processes that allow communities to survive and even to prosper in depopulated areas and on the factors that underpin community viability.

      Four key strategies have emerged from this work:

      The first is to form partnerships with outside agencies in developing the depopulated area’s natural resources (e.g. forestry, leisure, and tourism).

      A second is to combine subsistence activities with government employment and welfare (e.g. small businesses and public works, with the former servicing the latter and the latter providing custom for the former).

      A third is to negotiate regional development opportunities for job creation with government agencies (e.g. ‘remote’ working and the creation of ‘virtual workplaces’ for government bureaucracies).

      And a fourth (which has been successful for many fishing villages) is to develop local business and political networks to ensure access to international markets.

      The common trend in all of these themes is increasing connections to global economic processes, rather than retreating into a nostalgia for traditional forms of life, and the key role that local governments and communities themselves play in developing those connections.

      The work ‘finding ways to get people back into living and working in the straths and glens’ in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia has also identified a
      a number of challenges that depopulated areas face in their rapid transition from pre-industrial isolation to being part of a global market economy.

      The key one is viability: working communities need a ‘critical mass’ of population in order to work. Maintaining that ‘critical mass’ depends on the community’s own success in nurturing the creativities and links generated through emigration and immigration. Emigration creates such links with the destinations that the leavers leave for. The challenge is for communities to increase their viability through the ‘linking back’ of the sort of development opportunities referred to above by their diasporas.

      The good news is that a ‘minimum viable community’ (MVC) – the minimum you need to start or revive a ‘community of practice’ (CoP) or working community – can be just a small handful of people who have a general concept and vision for what the desired community of practice might look like. The development of an MVC gets you started. The MVC then looks for partners and allies, in both the public and private sectors, and builds on these relationships. As these partners and allies come aboard, the community, its concept, and its vision are fleshed out a little more, until you have a prototype CoP, something tangible that can experiment with ways of bringing in still more people, thus further defining its scope and nature as a community.

      Worth thinking about?

  5. SleepingDog says:

    ‘Green Lairds’ appear to be on the wacky feudalist-humanist end of green authoritarianism, but any justification for their existence surely applies vastly more to the formal codified constutitional model of biocracy, where the living world proxies have a majority in political decision-making, and the global idea communism of life sciences provide the most objective measure available of the health of ecosystems.

    1. 220223 says:

      Don’t the ‘green lairds’ claim to be ‘living world proxies’? (‘Stewardship’ and all that.)

      More broadly, how does the living world nominate its proxies in the biocratic processes of political decision-making? Or are these self-appointed?

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