The trend for buying land to improve "green credentials" will be a disaster for rural communities
Land with potential for tree planting is becoming increasingly expensive up and down the UK, as carbon offsetting becomes increasingly popular, and tree planting an easy way to boost your green credentials – and claim government grant money for doing so.
Scotland, in particular, has seen a huge rise in the number of what are being referred to as ”green lairds”. This refers to people buying up land – often vast tracts of land – for so-called green projects; whether that’s rewilding, tree planting, eco-tourism or simply to boast that they are balancing out their own carbon footprints.
The price of land bears this out. Data published by land agent Strutt and Parker showed rough grazing and hill land suitable for forestry in Scotland made up to £3,000 more an acre in 2021 than land that couldn’t be used for tree planting.
Some of these “green lairds” are rewilding their estates and going into conservation tourism; take Anders Povlsen, the billionaire ASOS owner who has been gradually buying up estates across Scotland for the last twenty years and is now the country’s biggest landowner. The company he has created to manage his 200,000 plus acres of Scotland is called Wildland – which gives a good clue as to what he is all about. A “200 year vision of landscape-scale conservation”, is how they describe their plans. “Through our custodianship of three significant Scottish estates, we work to let nature heal, grow and thrive.”
Not all of those buying up hill land are private individuals. A number of them are companies who want to appear more environmentally aware, particularly to their investors and customers. The likes of Aviva, Standard Life and BrewDog have recently bought up large estates in order to offset carbon emissions; often they claim that these estates, once the peatland restoration and tree planting is carried out, will form part of their ‘Net Zero’ pledges.
But these land purchases are not without controversy. In Wales, in particular, there has been outcry over farms being bought up for planting – by companies such as British Airways, who have bought farmland in Carmarthenshire which they plan to plant with trees. The Welsh Farmers Union say they have been receiving reports “almost on a weekly basis” of entire Welsh farms being snapped up for tree planting.
There are two issues here. Firstly, if farms are being planted with trees, then what about food production? Britain has gradually been moving away from being self-sufficient in the last few decades. We are currently only around 55% self-sufficient food wise, and that number is falling. Surely the last few years; the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the current crisis in Ukraine, would have reinforced the fact that we are an island, and of the importance of having our own food industry.
The second problem here is one of people. Because if the likes of British Airways, or Aviva, are buying up farmland in order to plant trees, then what of the farming communities? Trees are, for the most part, fairly self-sufficient, so the staffing levels aren’t needed; and either way, most farmers don’t want to transition to forestry. This is an issue that has been raised in the Welsh Senedd, for example by Aberconwy Senedd Member Janet Finch-Saunders MS. She highlighted the fact that the Welsh Government had previously pledged that woodland creation targets should not affect communities – but they appear to be doing so. “I believe it wrong to be seeing our farms and agricultural land in our strong Welsh-speaking communities simply being bought up in huge investments for companies and people from over the border”, she said. Companies buying up vast tracts of Welsh land for tree planting means a loss of productive farmland, loss of family farms and loss of the Welsh farming communities.
And it certainly is people from "over the border", as Janet said. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of people with non-Welsh addresses applying to be part of the Welsh Government's tree planting scheme – the Glastir Woodland Scheme – rose from 3% to 8%. It seems likely that number will only go up. According to Plaid Cymru, more than £1.3million of Welsh Government funding for tree planting has gone to applicants outside of Wales in the last 10 years.
This “brazen greenwashing”, as Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs, Cefin Campbell MS, has referred to it, doesn’t just happen in Wales. It’s happening in Scotland on a huge scale – as we have already referred to – and it seems likely that England will see a similar trend.
Rural communities are, as is so often the case, the ones who will suffer from this. Not just farmers; gamekeepers too – after all, even if the new owners do understand the need for predator control, on their estates stalking and shooting will most likely go out the window, as has been seen in Scotland already.
One of the most interesting cases in Scotland is that of BrewDog, the Scottish-based craft beer brewer. They bought the 9,300-acre Kinrara Estate, on the edge of the Cairngorms, for £8.8m at the end of 2020, and swiftly announced their plans to create a ‘Lost Forest’. They suggested that each can or pack of ‘Lost Lager’ that they sold would fund a tree at Kinrara, using the line, “for every pack [sold] we plant a tree in the BrewDog Lost Forest.” In a promotional film, they stated that their new forest would be “capable of sequestering up to 550,000 tonnes of CO2 each year”.
The first issue is that these claims didn’t pan out as BrewDog implied. The correct carbon capture figure was in fact up to 1m tonnes over 100 years, which they have now admitted, and there was some confusion over tree planting in the Lost Forest; some of the trees would be planted in Madagascar not, as promised, in Scotland.
As in Wales, the new landowners are claiming government money for their new plans; Scottish Forestry is spending an average of £70m a year over three years to hit a government target to plant 46,500 hectares of new woodland and forest by April 2025, and BrewDog have, of course – and like many others – applied for forestry grant scheme subsidies.
And, as in Wales, the people are being moved along. An interview in The Sunday Times with the estate’s two former gamekeepers – Alan McIntyre and his son Scott – confirmed that BrewDog had moved them along. Alan’s father had also worked on the estate; these aren’t simply transient workers, but a hugely important part of the sparsely-populated rural community of the Highlands.
“When it was sold to BrewDog in December 2020, we guessed there would no longer be a use for gamekeepers,” McIntyre told the paper. “But we hoped there might be other land management roles.” There weren’t.
And what of the SNP’s land reform proposals? Rightly or wrongly, the Scottish government have pledged to “ensure that the public interest is considered on any particularly large scale land ownership and introduce a pre-emption in favour of community buy-out where title to land is transferred.” How do these ‘green lairds’ fit into the SNP’s promise of being ‘for the people’? Not only are locals being excluded from buying land in rural areas, as rural land prices rocket, but they are also losing their jobs and seeing rural communities disintegrate.
The SNP’s land reform bill will be introduced next year, but Nicola Sturgeon is being urged by the likes of Community Land Scotland and the Community Woodlands Association to act faster. In September, the SNP Land Reform Minister, Mairi McAllan, said she believed there to be an “immediate window of opportunity to take action to ensure that increasing levels of natural capital value are harnessed in a way that benefits communities”. She added: “this work will help us find a pathway that balances the need for private sector investment, which has been discussed, with community rights."
Land reform isn't necessarily the best answer for rural or moorland communities; and either way, it isn't something that is likely to become popular in England. But the fact that the SNP see the rise in 'green lairds' as a reason to speed up their land reform bill shows that even they recognise the fact that the purchase of vast tracts of land simply for the purpose of gaining carbon credits or aiming towards net zero is not a good thing for rural communities.
Restoring peatlands – as many grouse moor owners do and have been doing for decades – is of course a good thing. But when carbon capture comes at the expense of rural economies, communities and, most likely, the upland ecosystem, these land purchases are surely something that should be challenged, if not stopped.