For decades, the way we farm has been degrading land and destroying wildlife. Now there’s a revolution coming – but is it going to create more problems than it solves?
In the last years of the 20th century, Glenfeshie, a 17,000-hectare estate in the Scottish Highlands, was in steep decline. Decades of overgrazing by deer had reduced its hillsides to clipped lifelessness. Denied the protection afforded by tree roots, the banks of the River Feshie were losing soil each time it flooded, the water depositing silt downstream. Those few Scots pines that had survived the browsing of the deer were nearing the end of their lives; soon there would be no seed source for the next generation.
Between 1997 and 2006, ownership of Glenfeshie passed between three Danish businessmen – and with it a self-destructive business model. Only by maintaining very high numbers of livestock could the flow of fee-paying deerstalkers armed with rifles be ensured, but because of the rising cost of gamekeepers and estate upkeep, Glenfeshie’s sporting operations were still making a loss. All the while, the pine martens, mountain hares and hen harriers for which the Highlands are a natural habitat were being crowded out by the deer on which the model depended.
In 2006, the billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, the last and richest of the three Danes, whose fashion empire includes the online retail giant Asos, bought Glenfeshie. Urged on by his man on the ground, a former land agent called Thomas MacDonell, he intensified efforts that had started under his predecessor to bring down deer numbers, with a view to allowing the estate’s woodland to recover and biodiversity to return.
Glenfeshie is the biggest of the 12 Scottish estates that Povlsen and his wife Anne began acquiring and rewilding in 1996 – in the process spending a total of £70m and becoming the country’s largest private landowners. Although the term “rewilding” – meaning an approach to conservation that allows nature a free rein – has been in currency since 1990, many traditional landowners and gamekeepers continue to spurn both the term and the idea behind it. In the Highlands, rewilding implies that the concept of the country estate as a setting for people of quality to shoot game has had its time. Never very profitable – the Highlands were where rich people came to spend money they had made elsewhere – in recent decades, the sporting estates have become still less viable. As one veteran gamekeeper told me, very few of them actually make money…
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