Mike Robinson, RSGS CEO, introduces Dick Balharry’s vision for land use in Scotland
Our most recent Geddes Environment Medal was awarded to the highly respected conservationist Dick Balharry, at a special event in Glenfeshie on 18th April 2015. A popular awardee, Dick has influenced, inspired, advised and encouraged so many institutions in Scotland and helped establish the country’s first nature reserves at Beinn Eighe and Creag Meagaidh. Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, Dick, who was terminally ill, asked to share the award with his wife Adeline, and used the event to highlight his hopes for the future of environmental land management in Scotland.
His belief was that the current tools used to encourage environmental land management were not sufficient, and that in addition to the basic legislative carrots and sticks, there was a need for a scheme that could give formal recognition to good practice and be respected by all interested parties. For instance, he asked, how is it fair that a land manager who chooses to reduce deer numbers to enhance the habitat and forest cover, has to pay to ‘fence out’ deer from neighbouring estates who continue to artificially prop up high densities of deer, instead of those neighbouring estates being forced to fence high numbers ‘in’? He also stressed the apparent absence of any integrated vision as to what constitutes the ‘public interest’ in Scotland.
His paper is critical of both government and landowners but seeks to provide a middle ground for discussion rather than further polarised debate. As Dick is someone who has worked at the forefront of Scottish land management for the past fifty years, we thought more people should be given the chance to hear his views, and have reprinted his paper in full below.
DELIVERING CHANGE THROUGH VISION, EMPOWERMENT AND RECOGNITION
Dick Balharry MBE FRSGS
Today I would like to promote the concept that an ‘agreed vision’ for land use has the potential to be a powerful motivator for change. The basis of the concept is simply that with a vision you open up the possibility of recognising and celebrating success. As I will explain, the idea is based on adding value to the existing tools of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to empower change.
If the opportunity allows I would welcome discussion.
Before that I would like to say a little about my formative years, where the ideas I wish to share today have, at least in part, their origin.
As a boy, living in a small village on the outskirts of Dundee, I was fascinated by the natural heritage. I was given total freedom to explore the woods, marshes and fields and these became my natural habitat. Little escorted walks soon became lonesome adventures. My interests took many forms including creating collections, hunting and hand rearing wild animals. Through these activities I gained an insight into the lives of many different animals: including rabbits, kestrels, jackdaws and jays.
I soon realized that the natural world presented more questions than answers, not to mention that my activities also provided me with a healthy diet and a fast pair of legs.
At sixteen years old, on completion of a year at Dundee Engineering Trades College I turned up for work at an engineering plant. Whatever my destiny I knew then that working in a factory was off the agenda; the noise, the smell of hot oil and cigarette smoke were simply alien and a far cry from my interests; I was gone within the hour.
As is often the case with youthful poachers, my first job was as a gamekeeper. The job was on an estate near Tighnabruach and involved controlling predators to protect wild pheasants, and patrolling a river against salmon poachers.
In essence, I was charged with sterilizing the environment of predators in order to maximize the number of birds and salmon available for guests.
However, it soon became clear that the keeping of a fox and a raven did not meet with the Landlord’s image of a gamekeeper. An ultimatum was given to the head keeper: “either the pets go, or he goes” – so I left with my furry and feathered friends.
From there I became a deerstalker in Glen Lyon under the watchful eye of Archie MacDonald the Head Stalker. Archie mentored me in the soft skills of the hill and it was always a privilege to be in his company. He was a sincere man of carefully chosen words, immense knowledge and a sensitivity to all that was around him. I have much to thank him for and I remember him fondly.
When the Red Deer Commission advertised for stalkers in 1959, Archie’s teachings gave me an advantage. The combination of the increased salary and opportunity to work across the whole of Scotland pulled me into a new phase of my life, albeit still focused firmly on red deer. While travelling the length and breadth of Scotland culling marauding deer and marking deer calves, I often found my attention diverted to the signs, tracks, dens and eyries of other animals – wildcats peregrines, eagles and even martens.
My career in conservation started in 1962 when, at the age of 24, I was appointed warden on Beinn Eighe NNR in Wester Ross. I was given responsibility for over 10,000 acres of mountain and Caledonian pinewood. This was the first NNR in the UK and the focus was primarily on research. At that time the public were regarded by The Nature Conservancy as more of an inconvenience than an asset.
In addition to working with scientists, being a Warden was also my first introduction to what I might loosely call ‘the establishment’. The establishment can be defined in many ways and it is fascinating, even today, to see how networks based on wealth, social status, formal qualifications and public education influence decision making and how they often override logic and evidence to protect their own interests. Being ‘out of the loop’ as one might say, it was soon clear that my dream job came with limited ability to influence decisions taken in Edinburgh and London. Tactful advocacy, persuasion, passion and promoting public support became the tools of my trade.
Throughout my life I have seen the establishment work in weird and wonderful ways. For example, I was once informed that educative foreign travel was the province of the Officers, in essence those with degrees rather than Wardens with field skills. However, despite this rebuff, with determination and family support, I broke the format and in 1969 attended a course on the Administration of National Parks visiting most of the mid-west National Parks in the USA and Canada along with 40 other delegates chosen from around the world for their experience rather than academic prowess. This was a turning point in my life and fueled my desire to drive change and promote the benefits and joys of Scotland’s natural heritage to a wider audience, by whatever means I could.
Since then I have spent my life improving my knowledge and enjoying the opportunity to enthuse others. I have engaged with everyone I could, including shepherds, stalkers, urban audiences, land owners fellow campaigners, hill walkers, top civil servants, leading politicians and royalty. I have made extensive use of the media. Those who know me well, know that my language still gives away my prejudices and frustrations with the establishment.
On reflection my career has been a vocation, privileged and fortunate.
It was a career that brought me close to many of Scotland’s iconic species and allowed me to discover the magic of the Highlands and Islands. It introduced me to the knowledge and the culture of the people who live and work there and it allowed me to meet many of the scientists whose names were made by the opportunity to work in the Highlands and Islands.
I am always pleased to hear that my interest in the natural world has helped inspire others and if, through my talks and media presentations, I have contributed to developing the interests of a wider public then that is a worthwhile legacy.
Sometimes I am asked to name a favourite animal, plant, bird or place and I give an answer. However, as Patrick Geddes would have said, to give an answer is like plucking one petal of the six lobed flower. This is an easy trap to fall into: the simplicity of the individual is always easier to describe than the whole.
Now with the focus of mortality, single and sectorial interests seem less important. Rather it is the whole which captures my imagination: the need for quality jobs in rural areas, the need to break the dependency cycle, the need to see our wildlands as an economic asset, the need to have regard to carbon emissions and the need to think long term.
We depend on our rural environment and it depends on the public being interested. It is this phrase ‘public interest’, used so freely by many that now strikes me as of paramount importance in the land use debate and is central to our ability to make change.
I have no quarrel with wealth, who owns the land, how they were educated, or their country of origin, so long as they manage the land giving due respect to the interests that we all rely on.
Public Interest and Vision
So what does ‘public interest’ mean? or indeed look like?
The uncertainty and absence of clear thinking around this commonly used phrase is the main problem as I see it. Managing the land with respect for specific interests and specialisms is fairly straightforward and one that defined our approach to nature conservation from the 80s through to today.
However, integrated land management for a collective ‘public interest’ remains to be addressed. The main challenge being the absence of any understanding as to what the collective ‘public interest’ looks like at a landscape level.
Change requires vision and leadership. Without the vision and the necessary clarity of purpose, the debate on rural land-use has become polarized and permeated by the politics of envy and criticism.
It is not only the vision that is important for change but also how it is presented, the weasel words of ‘balance’ and ‘sustainability’ need to be avoided if we are to progress. It should have been done long ago and I cannot help wonder why not? Is it simply too difficult? Perhaps the structures of government with their respective experts are too divided? Perhaps there are too many interest groups? Perhaps as a society we are too fragmented to allow for a simple vision to emerge?
Whatever the excuse, it is my personal belief that the vision can, and indeed must be defined in order to promote integrated delivery and empower those who own the land with responsibility. It is my view that the vision needs to be defined in a way that provides scope for flexibility, allows owners to make choices and provides the opportunity to be respected for the approach they take. Our current system, focused on protecting single interests, was necessary and while it continues to have its place it has its limitations. My objective here is to suggest an additional approach that adds value to the existing system.
I ask you to think for a minute and consider, if it were possible, where is the vision and the leadership necessary to make it happen going to come from? Who is going to lead the charge against the sectorial approach and promote the need for an integrated approach? Who is going to review public policy mechanisms from outside the box and come up with new thinking?
I do not know the answer to these questions, but to future leaders who have the opportunity to respond to the challenge, I would like to make an observation.
Formal Recognition and Empowerment
Existing attempts to deliver public policies rely on two simple means of influence, offering monetary incentives (carrots) or punishing through regulation (sticks). In effect a two-legged stool.
This is a shooglie stool and it is my belief that a third leg of influence could be added to help promote a more sophisticated approach to influencing human behaviour. I believe this type of approach will empower those who own land to take responsibility and make changes. That third leg is ‘formal recognition’ and I believe it is necessary, for three reasons.
Firstly it will require an agreed vision
Secondly it will empower owners to manage with confidence
Thirdly it will promote transparency
These are the three reasons why I think it is necessary. The reasons why I think it has potential to deliver are simple and both come from familiar observations of human behaviour. We are all aware of the motivational benefits of rewarding people with recognition and we are equally aware that people need to fit in and feel secure, comfortable, safe and protected.
Throughout my career I have seen the insecurity and fear of being different from the norm of a social group working to maintain inertia and stifle change. The establishment, I mentioned at the start, relies heavily on this insecurity to protect its interest in the status quo.
The beauty of ‘formal recognition’ is that, if well designed, it offers security. The key to this security comes from the level at which the recognition is awarded. The concept will only work if the recognition provides an effective shield from the critics in the establishment, interest groups and government.
The detailed basis and process for awarding ‘formal recognition’ is for others to think through, but to me the key elements are, that formal recognition:
is respected, not necessarily liked, but respected.
comes from both government and interest groups.
is based on robust logic and best evidence.
is an award given to landowners for all their holdings.
is based on a flexible and intelligent understanding of the integrated land management challenges, rather than being prescriptive.
Whether ‘formal recognition’ as a scheme would have levels of award and how long the award would last for are details to be worked out in the future.
It is the simplicity of the principle and its potential to empower that I would like you to take away today.
So, given the known benefits and the simplicity of the approach why is ‘formal recognition’ missing from the government tool kit?
It strikes me that the problem is that no one has taken responsibility to grasp the nettle and explain what the ‘public interest’ looks like at a landscape level. The consequence is that we live with no clear vision and we have developed a culture that highlights what we don’t want rather than what we need.
If we could describe the vision, then that would open up the possibility for this third leg of formal recognition to be added, alongside the carrots and sticks, as a complementary means of influencing land owners.
In summary, if the public interest was expressed at the level of land management units and high profile recognition was given to those who deliver it, then I have no doubt that the associated benefits of security and marketing would help change the behaviour of those who own the land.
In effect you have set out the safe, moral high ground and you have provided security for those who wish to break from what has become the established norm of ‘traditional sporting estates’.
Remember not everyone wants to lead when it involves sticking his or her head above the parapet.
An example is Glen Feshie; where we are today.
I have had a long history with Glen Feshie that spans from 1964 to 2015 involving six different owners. I have seen the result of the carrots and sticks at work here, indeed I spent many years doing my best to deliver a positive outcome with these limited tools.
But did these two tools achieve the desired results? No they did not, as a critical look at the evidence shows.
Consider the facts, the current owner has neither taken full advantage of all the carrots offered by government, nor been cowed by legislative sticks nor indeed been restricted by sectorial interests. He is delivering well beyond what these crude tools ever sought to achieve.
Glen Feshie has remained a ‘sporting estate’. Yes, a ‘sporting estate’, and like you I am fully aware of other ‘sporting estates’ in Scotland where large tracts of land are managed solely for the benefit of a few wealthy people with little or no regard for the public interest. However these are the ‘sporting estates’ of the past and the ones to which Glen Feshie sets an example for the future.
So how does Glen Feshie estate differ?
Well, it generates income by providing opportunities for paying guests to shoot deer and grouse just like any old fashioned estate. But there the similarity ends. Today, Glen Feshie is being managed towards a vision, a vision of stewardship, inward investment, local employment and public interest. This vision is delivering tree regeneration without fences and allowing for the development of a natural tree line. It is welcoming to all who take responsible access into the glen. It maintains, and landscapes the foot paths along with the few hill tracks that are necessary for management.
The result is an estate that matches and possibly out performs any government owned land that I can think of, especially in terms of attracting private inward investment, delivering conservation benefit and generating income.
I respect that the results we see here today have come from a visionary land owner who was willing to put his head above the parapet and never sought recognition. It is my belief that if we recognise leaders who are willing to change, others will follow.
Red Deer and Fencing
Finally, and without apology, I would like to speak about the management of red deer and the regeneration of trees without fences.
Those who said it wasn’t possible spoke loudly, and those with a vested interest in managing the land for the benefit of the few, still do.
I suspect that the reality is that those who objected never doubted that trees would grow or that deer numbers could effectively be reduced, but rather they realised it would be a long costly road and one they didn’t relish having to travel themselves or indeed could not afford to travel. Controlling deer numbers at low levels is costly and requires resources including young fit men. However, it also presents the opportunity for marketing an activity that is essential for protecting our wildland and one that requires greater levels of skill from both the stalker and the client.
The sad fact, witnessed throughout Scotland today, is that in many areas fencing deer out of young native woodland has become a way to maintain easier stalking opportunities and to protect established relationships and social networks. In effect many deer fences are built to protect the interests of the few.
In the context of red deer and of Scotland I see this as a major injustice. If people wish to manage land exclusively for the benefit of the few without regard to the wider public interest then they will never have my support. To those who argue that fences are required to make sport shooting economically viable I would simply say that you are inviting society to question the legitimacy of your ownership model – one that places trophy stags higher than the long term interest of the public and the planet.
But if you must fence then it is my view you should, at your own cost, erect high boundary fences to keep your deer in. This is ‘not natural’, but then what is natural about maintaining deer at artificially high densities for the benefit of a few?
Higher densities help maximize the sporting opportunities for a few but they also increase the numbers of deer that die in winter from lack of food and shelter. Owners tend to distance themselves from this responsibility claiming that deer are wild animals for which they cannot be held entirely responsible. As it stands that is indeed the law. However, the decision to have high numbers of red deer on the hill and the decision not to provide native woodland for shelter remain unequivocally the management choice made by owners.
The result is that, on what we have come to call ‘traditional sporting estates’, most owners receive the benefit of income from shooting red deer without either accepting effective responsibility for their welfare in winter, or having true regard to a wider public interest. ‘Traditional sporting estates’ cannot stand on the moral high ground of estate ownership as they have tried to claim for over the last 200 years. Rather they embody the selfish greed of a Victorian era, outdated and ludicrous.
The moral high ground of the future will be for those who wish to hunt deer in a natural environment, free of fences, where deer have access to the food and shelter they require; where there is a natural tree line and the public are welcomed and give recognition freely for a job well done.
These are the ‘sporting estates’ of the future and I believe we are standing in Scotland’s first.
If a mechanism existed to formally recognise the results that have been delivered here, then I have no doubt that the positive outcomes would be replicated on other large estates in Scotland.
As I mentioned earlier, not everyone is a visionary leader willing to challenge and make changes from the front. Most like to remain within the fold of the status quo until the route to the ‘safe ground’ has been mapped out for them. The route I am outlining is a position of transparency and clarity where the public interest is genuinely delivered within a wide range of different approaches to management: a route that provides others with the confidence to break from the establishment.
In the 1980s all the vegetation in this Glen, including the heather, was shaved bare by the incessant demand of hungry red deer. Today, following a few years of investment by a visionary, the natural processes that began 9,000 years ago are giving revival to the land.
I have lived to see an impossible dream come true, and that is very special.
I sincerely thank Anders Povlsen, Thomas & Ali MacDonnell for hosting this day and for working so hard to make it very special, and thank all the estate staff, whose efforts we now witness in this beautiful glen. A Natural Living Caledon Forest Treasure with all its associated life dating back to the ice age, approximately 30 tree generations. Here we have an example of how a sporting estate and the public interest can work together.
The challenge I leave behind for those who follow is to clarify the vision, devise a method of formal recognition respected by all sides in the debate, give rewards on delivery of results and seek change through empowerment.
The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) is the leading educational charity in Scotland providing geographical understanding on contemporary issues which shape our future.
Established in 1884, it has a long and distinguished history of promoting an understanding of the natural environment and human societies, and how they interact. In addition to awarding prestigious medals, RSGS seeks to make connections and contribute to scientific and policy debate, so as the years march on it is my hope RSGS along with others will help provide the motivation required to make ‘a vision’, ‘formal recognition’ and ’empowerment’ central parts of public policy.
It is an honour to be asked to accept the Patrick Geddes Medal and I am delighted that Glen Feshie was chosen as the venue.
Patrick Geddes, biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner was born in Ballater in 1854. He was well known for innovative thinking and promoting the idea that physical geography, market economies and anthropology are
“inseparable interwoven structures, akin to a flower”
He was famous for, amongst many things, being critical of thinking that focused on single elements. In 1917 he commented that
“Each of the various specialists remains too closely concentrated upon his single specialism, too little awake to those of the others. Each sees clearly and seizes firmly upon one petal of the six-lobed flower of life and tears it apart from the whole.”
I think the concept of formal recognition for land management that delivers on an agreed long term vision chimes well with Patrick Geddes’s approach and I hope my career has contributed in some small way to increasing the value we place on our people and our natural resources.
It is with pleasure that I accept the Patrick Geddes Medal in Glen Feshie.
Dick Balharry MBE
Glen Feshie 18 April 2015