the Deer to the Community
Growing up on the Isle of Lewis as a boy in the sixties and seventies, I can remember the community ownership of natural resources. Shooting game and catching migratory fish was off limits, of course, but the sea was largely ours. Fishing and gathering shellfish was both a pastime and a dignified subsistence economic activity. Often I would row a boat out into Lochs Leurbost, Erisort or Grimashader, drop anchor in six to twelve fathoms of water, and haul up a goodly catch of haddock, whiting and flounders.
In those days, most people did not have deep freezes. We therefore only caught what we could eat or share with neighbours. It was not until around 1972 that new technology and impending entry into the Common Fisheries Policy emptied our sea lochs. I was therefore fortunate in being just in time to grow into adulthood with that sense of purpose, usefulness and identity that intimate relationship with a natural resource can offer. It left me and others like me with an education that could never have been bought. Meaningful access to a rich natural resource taught social co-operation. As a small boy out in a small boat often in big weather and sometimes alone, elemental experience became melded to the mindset. That’s how most of us grew up in those days, added to which much of what we ate was locally caught or grown. Sense of place was thereby woven into the very molecular structure that, to this day, composes our bones. And more than that, structures were laid down in the psyche that, perhaps rather quaintly to the modern mindset, made it self-evident for many of us to come to think of nature as Providence.
I believe that this opportunity for social, ecological and spiritual relationship is a vital part of being fully human. It grounds one’s sense of personhood, community and even of nationhood. A people without meaningful access to nature are deracinated – cut off from being rooted in that which makes life meaningful. As such, land reform is about something much deeper than mere political process or economic power. It is about looking at bioregions in a way that asks, “How can this place best grow the people who could and should be germane to its ecology?” It is about human-scale development in the village. It requires cultivating beauty - right relationship - between people, place and the passions of life’s deepest meaning.
As well as being a fisher, crofter and student, I used to work on sporting estates both as a ghille on the salmon lochs and as a pony boy with stalkers out on the hill. At first I thought nothing of the fact that vast tracts of local land were managed primarily for recreational killing. But as I slowly woke up to social and ecological justice the deprivation of the poor from place increasingly angered me.
the summer of 1993 I went on a fact-finding visit to Ireland with Tom Forsyth of
Scoraig. Tom and I with Bob Harris and Liz Lyon had together founded the
original Isle of Eigg Trust with a 73% community mandate for our actions. In
Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo, we met a community activist, Bobby Bashford, and shared
with him the decline of rural Scottish communities. He told us that even Ireland
had residual problems with landlordism. A few years ago his village had
organised a public meeting to decide what to do about the fact that it was
dying. There were no opportunities for the young. From a local resource
appraisal they recognised that their only real asset was the excellent salmon
river and loch. This had for generations been in the hands of an English
syndicate. Members would come over to fish from London. Their cars would be full
of supermarket provisions, they’d stay in their own lodge, and leave virtually
nothing behind in the local economy.
Bangor Erris community in desperation decided to go for bust. They raised £8,000
for legal costs and dragged the syndicate up to the highest court in Ireland.
They laid a community claim of right – just as is now happening with the
Cuillins – and challenged the syndicate to prove their goodness of title. Of
course, the syndicate’s lawyers knew that the basis of titles first
established under feudal law is often dodgy, and so they settled out of court
and literally, Bobby said, on the steps of the court. The deal was that they’d
keep the lower portion of the river, and the community would get the upper
reaches and the loch.
life had now returned to Bangor Erris. People like Bobby are self-employed as
ghillies. Visitors stay, not in feudal castles or colonial lodges, but in
ordinary folks’ bed and breakfasts. Poaching has stopped because, as Bobby put
it, “why should we need to poach from ourselves?” Light industry is being
attracted to the area with the offer of free fishing as part of the enterprise
incentive package. Locals are challenging new conifer plantations by
multinationals because, they say, peat wash-out causes silting of their
spawning beds. A new sewage treatment plant has been built to clean up the
estuary, and the community are negotiating to buy out the estuarine fishing
rights and gradually complete the decolonisation process. Above all, the people
feel empowered. As Bobby said, “When the MEP told us how little he could do,
my twelve-year-old daughter went up to his car, rapped on the window, and said,
‘Just you get busy or we’ll sort you out at the next election.’”
Now, what might such community ownership models mean if applied to Scotland’s red deer resource? One option would be to continue working with the “big house.” The “laird,” if that would be the right name, could still live in his lodge, but rent the sporting resources from the local community. (Maybe it could rent him the title too!) He would then benefit from being of genuine value to the wider community, which, in recognition of mutual interests, would reduce his need to spend money on watchers. The costs of hind-culling could also be slashed by treating them as a community resource. With due licensing for firearms control and animal welfare considerations, this would restore the ancient but long-lost right of the common person to take a deer for the pot from the hill. It could also be a community business opportunity.
Wider society would also benefit because, if the laird does not own the resource, it would be less easy for him to set it up as “a business” and put everything from Landrovers to buckshot down as tax-deductible “expenses.” After all, why should the relatively rich get their hobbies tax free when those without chartered accountants at their behest pay income tax, national insurance and VAT on every penny?
Another option, if the resource was community owned, would be to substantially reduce deer stocking levels and manage hunting on the self-employed continental model, alongside a range of integrated activities such as forestry and organic cattle ranching. The economics of such alternative ways of running an estate are to be the subject of a forthcoming ESRC funded study by Andy Wightman and Pete Higgins. Again, if the rental benefit comes to the community then the community will have a vested interest in managing for social and ecological cohesion. This, in a nutshell, is what “sustainable development” means.
As matters stand, red deer are a liability for the common person. Overstocked as the present system encourages them to be, they cause considerable danger and damage to cars on the roads, they damage the natural environment and they represent an added cost to tenants who have to fence to keep the laird’s deer out instead of him fencing to keep them in. Such a status quo is not sustainable. It squanders a resource that could, like the fishing activities that I have described, help to heft rural people more strongly to their place. The Scottish Executive might bear these considerations in mind. Presumably the opportunity to act will come as it moves over the next few years to honour Lord Sewel’s 1999 “Green Paper” pledge: namely, “that we regard land reform not as a once-for-all issue but as an ongoing process.”
Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and an honorary fellow of the Schumacher Society.
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