Lesley Riddoch: ‘Tenants versus trees’ row has echoes of the Highland Clearances

Forestry in the Borders  Pic: Neil Hanna
Forestry in the Borders Pic: Neil Hanna
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Tenant farmers still have a precarious existence in Scotland 250 years after the Highland Clearances, writes Lesley Riddoch.

The “tenants versus trees” row brewing in the Borders took a surprising turn this weekend with an astonishing attack on Buccleuch estate plans for large-scale forestry in the Eskdale area by local conservative MSP Oliver Mundell.

In a letter delivered to every home in the area round Langholm, Mr Mundell says he’s been contacted by “many concerned individuals who face losing their farms (a completely unacceptable and very unpleasant situation)”, and he is now worried “about the risks this kind of aggressive forestry poses to the wider community and future sustainability”. He continues; “There is always an important need for forestry… but when grants and forestry schemes are abused and imposed by landowners purely for profit and against local wishes then that is not acceptable.”

The letter is accompanied by a petition headlined; “Send Buccleuch Estates a message – No more trees here”, which calls on the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission Scotland to impose a moratorium on all new large scale forestry planting in the Langholm area, and concludes, “Trees cannot come at the expense of people and unless action is taken, our historic Upland Hill farming traditions are going to be wiped out.”

All of this will come to a head at a “public meeting” arranged by Buccleuch Estates in Langholm on February 27. At the estate’s insistence, the meeting will be a “drop-in session” where each complainant will be dealt with individually. In his letter, Mundell says the format “is designed to avoid tough questions and accountability”.

Well, well. At long last someone in a position of authority has articulated worries that have been circulating in Borders communities for months - in plain English and plain view. The Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser carries a response from John Glen, Buccleuch chief executive: “We would like to make it clear that in broad terms our current plans for forestry in the Langholm area are limited to three tenanted farms or parts of farms. The area of land involved is about 2.3 per cent of our agricultural land on the Eskdale and Liddesdale estate and most farmland will continue to be farmed by tenants or by new owner occupiers who have bought their farms from Buccleuch.”

Indeed, this weekend, news also emerged that Buccleuch intends to offer 24 secure tenants the chance to buy all or parts of their farms. Whilst that’s a step forward, it’s important the price is reasonable, improvements are taken into account and the sales actually happen. But tenants on limited partnership tenancies are still in a very weak position.

Of course, 2016 land reform legislation did improve conditions for farmers with secure tenancies who cannot be arbitrarily evicted and can hand on their farm to a wide range of relations or even sell the tenancy to retire with dignity yet keep the land in the tenanted sector. But there are two big snags. Firstly, even secure tenants are loth to plant trees. Despite planting healthy saplings at the right time in the right soil, some forests don’t succeed. If this happens and a tenant farmer leaves his farm through illness or is evicted he could face penalty payments to reinstate the land to its pre-forest condition. New legislation could declare that approved tree farming by tenant farmers, cannot be subject to penalties levied by landlords (known as dilapidations). But more legislation takes time, and more protection could just trigger more evictions.

Which leads to the second problem highlighted by Oliver Mundell – the ongoing vulnerability of many tenant farmers. Just like Andrew Stoddart near Haddington and the Paterson family on Arran, the farmers most vulnerable to eviction are on limited partnerships. These “LP” tenants do not have a leg to stand on legally, and past attempts to strengthen their status have simply resulted in terminated contracts. They are currently like fish in a barrel, so a moratorium on planting round Langholm may offer a temporary lull in hostilities, but it doesn’t make the lives of these tenant farmers secure. It doesn’t tackle similar problems brewing in large estates around Scotland. It doesn’t put cash for developing natural assets directly into the hands of local people and it doesn’t raise the morale of ground-down rural communities.

So what’s to do? Local campaigner, Aeneas Nicholson wants a legal change so no tenancy can be terminated for a landowner to access public funds. It’s an admirable objective that might be hard to frame into law, and raises the strong possibility landowners would simply clear tenants meantime. Angus McCall of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association wants a change in planning law so any material change of use on tenanted land needs government approval. But what constitutes “material change” and will tenants feel protected by a mechanism that relies on speedy, bold, government intervention?

The truth is that sticking plaster solutions are no longer the answer for tenants on Scotland’s large quasi-feudal fiefdoms. Oliver Mundell’s intervention, together with behind the scenes lobbying by Joan McAlpine MSP and earlier support from Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens means there is cross-party support for change. To stay ahead of the curve and deliver fairness, the Scottish Government must bite the bullet and grant tenant farmers the right to buy, at current use, not market value with a long-term loan to finance the purchase – the same package offered by a Westminster Government to Irish farmers in 1903 which transformed rural life. Such bold action is urgently needed here and if landowners threaten to block legislation with legal action, the Scottish Government should call their bluff.

First it was deer, then sheep, then wildlife and landscape conservation, then wind farms, then fracking and now large-scale forestry. The cause varies but the pattern over centuries is the same. Every time there’s a chance to make money from land, locals are shoved to one side as some landowners behave like de facto planning authorities and veto local plans for development whilst accelerating their own. Government bodies may have laudable land use and energy objectives, but right now the most concentrated system of land ownership in the developed world guarantees that only a handful of wealthy men directly benefit. If a tenant farmer’s right to buy isn’t the right long-term solution – then what is?