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In a climate crisis, land is power
Slow Views

In a climate crisis, land is power

Wednesday 27 October 2021

“Green lairds” are buying up Scotland to offset emissions and green their reputations. They can make a difference – but communities must have more say


On a hot July day, I took a trip to the Kinrara estate, to the west of the Cairngorm National Park, and followed a track into the Monadhliath mountains. Kinrara, nine miles long and three miles wide, has been misused for decades: almost bare of trees, overgrazed by deer, and scarred with great rectangles of burned heather and grouse shooting hides plunged into the earth. It is perhaps one of the most contentious plots of land in Scotland – not because of its dire state, but because of who wants to save it.

In March 2021, Brewdog, the $2 billion beer company known for its publicity stunts and self-declared “punk” identity, announced it had bought Kinrara, and would transform it into a “Lost Forest”. It said it would plant three million trees by 2025 – including native Scots pine, downy birch, silver birch, aspen, willow, oak and alder. It pledged to restore thousands of acres of peatland – which is a natural store of carbon when protected, and a source of carbon when damaged or dried. In doing so, it would create a broadleaf forest, boosting biodiversity and eventually pulling tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The announcement sounded great, on the face of it. But it caused a stooshie because, as Cop 26 approached, it was a reminder that while we all have a stake in our land being managed well, in Scotland, as across the world, just a few have a say. Even before the pandemic, during which estate agents reported a boom in interest in rural estates, just 87 landowners held 1.7m hectares and 1,125 possessed 70 per cent of Scottish land. That is an inequality which stings rural communities where the history of Highland Clearances – when landowners forced crofters out of their homes in the 18th Century – still resonates. But, in a climate crisis, it also means that the capacity to sequester or release carbon in the land lies in the hands of a few, not necessarily well-informed hands.

Brewdog was right to see an opportunity – both commercial and environmental – at Kinrara. The company markets itself as being climate-friendly, already claiming to sequester twice the volume of CO2 it emits. At Kinrara, it could boost that record by switching deer and grouse stalking for carbon-sequestering, biodiversity-boosting forestry (rewilding land which is inefficient for food production may, Dave Lewis told Tortoise last night, be a wiser way to use it). Scottish land already sequesters more carbon per hectare than land in the other UK nations because a greater share of the land – 18.5 per cent – is forested. Scottish peatlands, like those on the estate, also currently store 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 140 years’ of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Landowners of estates like Kinrara, which have peatland and little forest cover but the capacity for much more, can greatly increase the carbon sequestered if they protect and expand those natural resources. A company is then able to calculate the emissions it has saved through its good work, and either market those savings as offsets to its own emissions, or sell them, through a carbon credits system, to others looking to account for their own. Kinrara, to Brewdog, must have looked like a quick win.

In practice, Brewdog’s plans have attracted more criticism than praise. For months, the company stayed quiet about its plans for Kinrara – working with Scottish Woodlands, a commercial forestry company, while not speaking to sustainable forestry experts and the community living around the estate. The lack of news left those with a stake in Kinrara’s future wondering and worrying about exactly how Brewdog could create the forest, and whether it would do a good job.

Those worries weren’t put to rest when Scottish Woodlands finally published plans in July, which showed that Brewdog would focus on actively planting trees at low altitude (rather than letting natural afforestation take place), fenced-off from the deer which roam and graze on young saplings (preventing their growth). Matt Hay, Director of Reforesting Scotland, was broadly reassured that all the planting mentioned would be of native tree species, rather than those like sitka spruce that bring more financial than ecological benefits. “It’s better than I feared,” he said. 

But there was no mention of which areas of peatland would be restored – although this was promised in Brewdog’s initial announcement. Neither was there a mention in the public proposal of plans to cull deer – which left rewilders who believe deer must be culled to allow saplings to grow, and neighbouring landowner Jamie Williamson, who fears if the animals are shot, he will lose income, equally worried. “Nobody has a clue what they really want to do with this land, apart from planting trees and encourag[ing] some tourism,” Dave Morris, environmental and land access campaigner, and former director of Ramblers Scotland, told Tortoise after the plans were published. “It’s about time they engaged in a proper dialogue with stakeholders and community interests about sensible future ideas.”

Therein lies Brewdog’s mistake. Scotland’s skewed pattern of land ownership means that wealthy individuals or companies can buy swathes of land without presenting plans or including experts and communities around the land in discussions about its future. This unilateral power bought by green lairds need not be bad for the planet – Anders Povlsen, the Danish billionaire owner of the Glenfeshie estate, has transformed it in just 15 years into a habitat where 5,000 bird and animal species, like otters, wildcats, pine marten and eagles have been recorded – 20 per cent classed as “nationally rare” or “scarce”. But Povlsen’s conduct is just one good example, among many bad ones. By failing to consult, and then publishing plans that experts found lacking, it could be argued that Brewdog lined itself up with the absentee lairds of old, who kicked communities off the land, and ruled from afar, in their own self-interest.

If green lairds want to manage land in a truly sustainable way, they need to go beyond the requirements of the law, and bring the people who have a direct stake in the land – those for whom it is a playground, a workplace and a home – with them. Acting fast doesn’t have to preclude acting fairly, and transparently. But in the long term, systemic change is needed, too. 

The climate crisis means the value of Scotland’s natural capital has never been higher. Brewdog isn’t the most recent company to find opportunities in the sequestration capacity of Scotland’s land – in September, Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust announced it had also bought 1,447 hectares in Cairngorm National Park as part of its own offset plan – and in the next decade, many more will follow. 

They can’t be relied upon to always do the right thing – but involving communities in their planning processes could help hold them to account. Currently, just 20,000-30,000 hectares of woodland in Scotland are currently community owned – a smaller total size than Glenfeshie, which is just one of Povlsen’s estates. Scotland can do better – in Scandinavia, more people have a say in how land is managed, either because they own a fragment themselves, are part of a cooperative that does, or engage in local government which is, in Scotland, much more centralised. Land reform has been on the political agenda of Scottish MSPs since devolution in 1997, and last autumn, the Scottish Green party renewed their call for reform, and the creation of new community-owned public forests, but today ownership remains opaque and unequal.

And what of the Lost Forest? Brewdog hasn’t started planting trees yet – but advertises that it will stick one in the earth for every multipack of a conveniently created beer someone buys. There may have been more activity at its recent Lost Forest themed cocktail bar in the heart of central London, complete with “biodegradable bangers”, and windowsills decked in ferns and moss. In the midst of a climate crisis, such gimmicks feel a long way, in distance and spirit, from the bare sides of the Monadhliath mountains. But as world leaders head to Glasgow, and attempt to iron out policy agreements between multiple, sometimes competing interests, we must remember that the real action to cut emissions happens on the ground. It happens when those who govern our natural resources – be they a government, a corporation or a community – act to protect it. Here’s hoping that Brewdog gets cracking on the work that really matters.

Photograph Getty Images