Facing Scotland's rural issues
By Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance.
If our collective vision for rural Scotland is one of a growing and prosperous population, then why isn't it happening? It's remarkable that Scotland, a country with such a small land area, should offer such a wide range of sporting activities and that these should make such a significant contribution to our social, environmental and economic life.
Scotland may boast some of the world's finest landscapes, offering a natural and cultural inheritance for future generations that is the envy of the world, but I believe that legacy to be severely under threat.
For too long, rural Scotland has suffered out-migration with many of our young people leaving our villages and towns citing poor communications and job opportunities; leaving in the hope that successive political powers might recognize the importance of our rural economy and make the significant investment required for them to return.
However, with ministers buckling under pressure from raptor friendly groups, poor or restricted funding for rural broadband and transport networks, and unfounded proclamations from some political quarters that the Scottish countryside is the play area of the rich and famous, much is in need of reform. What certainty can we offer our young people that the Scottish countryside they leave today will remain or improve for them to return to?
No wonder then that tension is rising in the glens of rural Scotland!
So what's the truth?
The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, the Land Reform Review Group (LLRG) report published in late May 2014, could, if implemented to its fullest, change the very nature of land ownership in Scotland and, in my humble opinion, create a net loss for the economy and the biodiversity of our enviable landscape. The simple realisation that our agri- and aquacultural practices are changing at a pace seldom previously experienced, highlights the futility of creating a greater number of smaller landholdings to simply increase the volume of the bureaucratic exercise in EU subsidy funding applications.
Perceived or realised, the overall pot of money from Europe under common agricultural and fisheries policies is reducing, whatever cash is left is set to be redistributed, diluted and generally shaken up in a dozen or more different ways.
Compounded by the clamour to build largescale wind and solar farms and our national forest growth projection placing pressure on agricultural farmland, it is evident that all is not well down on the 'traditional' farm.
To those in urban areas, access to superfast broadband and 3G/4G mobile phone coverage are readily available, and in recent years have become basic amenities in the same way water and electricity are. In our countryside they are just as essential, if not more so, but nowhere near as available. Further to this, businesses in rural Scotland are severally hampered when faced with disproportionate and unfairly high mail/ parcel delivery costs when operating online. These things are essential if rural businesses and communities in Scotland are to survive, never mind prosper and grow!
However it's not all doom and gloom. Hunting in Scotland remains a vertically integrated activity. Different participants are attracted by different outputs; for the followers and supporters hunting may be a leisure activity, but for the farmers it provides a vital pest control service, while for the huntsmen and terriermen hunting is their livelihood. Hunting is more than an organised sporting show. It is integrated at all levels, supporting communities, providing employment and playing a pivotal role in the social cohesion of rural communities.
We have seen significant and meaningful engagement from many of our landowners who don't simply view land as an asset. The vast majority of Scotland's landowners are heavily involved in a great many sectors which are important for rural prosperity and job sustainability; it is important to recognise the real and genuine part they play in the land they own and manage.
Amongst the threats of increased powers for charity-based wildlife crime investigators, restrictions on our ability to remove pests and predators, and amendments to control ownership and use of low powered air weapons, even the Scottish government has tried to understand and alleviate the pressures on rural communities and businesses through various initiatives. Most notably the Broadband Reach Programme, the Statement of Principles for Parcel Deliveries developed in tandem with the Parcel Delivery Working Group and, most importantly, the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce and the recognition that the step-by-step journey from education to employment is one of the key times in a young person's life.
However uncertain Scotland's political future may be, I am most certain that regardless of who we vote to run our country, Scotland's rural communities will continue to face real and significant threats.
It is our collective challenge to work towards the vision of a growing and prosperous population, and I know in my heart that our collective expertise and representation will help us as we re-build Scotland's rural prosperity one generation at a time.