WHAT is really going on in the Borders glens? Almost a year after the latest Land Reform Act took its final steps to become law at Holyrood, there’s uncertainty about the fate of tenant farmers on the Duke of Buccleuch’s enormous Borders estate.

Agents, locals and the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association claim farmers are being encouraged to buy their farms or let the estate break up their farm, plant it with trees or sell it on the open market. Yet figures released yesterday by Buccleuch Estates suggest that whilst 23 farming leases have been terminated, almost all those involved are really better off.

According to a Buccleuch Estates spokesperson: 11 farms have been sold or are in the process of being sold to the tenant;10 farms have had new leases granted/offered/agreed (for terms ranging from five to 15 years); two farms are continuing as before; two tenants voluntarily terminated their leases (retirement); one tenancy has been terminated with Buccleuch Estates likely to sell; one tenant has been given the opportunity to purchase their farm but discussions are still ongoing.

This has locals in the remote glens around Langholm absolutely foxed. At a community council meeting in Langholm last year, Buccleuch Estates were accused of terminating leases so forests could be planted instead. Now the estate claims almost no-one has had a change of circumstance they didn’t want and say blanket afforestation is not in their plans but “it is likely Buccleuch will retain circa 1500 acres for forestry and this will be on three farms or part of farms”.

Who to believe?

The problem is still limited partnerships (LP). These are legal agreements between tenants and landowners which can be renewed annually or just terminated by either side, even if the farmer has been there for decades and wants to stay. Andrew Stoddart, from near Haddington, was on an LP, which was terminated in 2015 after he had been working the land for 22 years. A year later the Paterson family, of Glenree Farm on Arran, were effectively evicted after farming on an LP for almost 30 years.

After the political upset that surrounded these evictions, the Scottish Government made it clear that limited partnerships – whilst legal – were not fair to tenants. And that’s why Buccleuch Estates says it’s phasing them out and letting tenant farmers buy or move on to new, better leases. But are they better?

Now farmers who are mid-career, with children at school or university, say privately that they face buying their farms at great expense (LP tenant farmers will get virtually no discount on buying their farms while secure tenants may get a whopping 50 per cent) – or quitting, at the worst possible time for a change of career.

No farming tenants were willing to speak to me. But the case of one couple in the Langholm area was raised by their friend, Aeneas Nicolson, who wrote letters to the Scottish Farmer, local MSPs and Rural Affairs Secretary Fergus Ewing.

This couple have worked on land around Langholm most of their lives. The husband was a shepherd for 20 years, then worked as a farm manager for a tenant farmer on Buccleuch Estates and was given the opportunity by the late 9th duke to take over the farm lease 10 years ago. Just as important, in their opinion, they took over the previous tenant’s hefted sheep – a flock that has been on the same ground for generations and knows the places to shelter and graze on the hill. This flock somehow managed to survive the foot-and-mouth epidemic and represent an important bit of biodiversity and local heritage. Now the couple will have to sell the flock and quit the farm after they were advised, in October, that their lease would not be renewed on its expiry.

According to Nicolson, the one factor in all of this could be the Land Reform Bill 2016, with landowners seeing the potential threat to their land ownership and presumably considering that other possibly more radical land reform may follow.

Nicolson got no direct reply when he raised his friends’ plight with the minister. But surprisingly, local Tory MSP Oliver Mundell did raise questions at Holyrood.

HE said: “There is huge anxiety in and around Langholm over the prospect of yet more industrial scale forestry planting. Over the years we have seen viable agriculture disappear and if action isn’t taken then our upland hill farming traditions will disappear too. While there is a need for more timber it cannot come at the expense of our communities and the Scottish Government and the Forestry Commission urgently need to look at the growing imbalance and the true consequences of their current policies and financial incentives.”

According to Angus McCall, of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association: “These ‘improvements’ – like those in the Highlands centuries back – have been excused as moving people off unviable hill farms to make way for progressive management under trees. But none of these farmers, as far as I am aware, was in financial difficulties. Like other farmers, they have developed other sources of income to make up any shortfall and the local community now faces further depopulation if they quit. The right to plant trees is only of interest to tenants with long-term security, but even that has its drawbacks if the tenancy comes to an unexpected end, because the tenants can be faced with a demand to remove the trees and reinstate the land if the woodland created is not a success.

“Forestry is just one benign Scottish Government policy that’s indirectly encouraging a decline in the numbers of farmers and an amalgamation of farms leading to a concentration of land management. Renewable energy projects on top of agricultural subsidies have led to a proliferation of anaerobic digesters on farms which has diverted vast areas of land out of agricultural production into growing crops for energy, which in turn puts up the price of land to buy or rent and makes animal feedstuffs scarce.”

Of course, the aim of having more forest cover in Scotland is a laudable one. But since Scotland’s feudal and concentrated land ownership pattern has still not changed, progressive policies like renewable energy and now forestry allow landowners to trouser millions, thus financing and reinforcing Scotland’s concentrated patterns of wealth, land and forest ownership.

In fact, Scotland currently has the smallest number of forestry owners in northern Europe. Once again, it’s research by veteran land reform campaigner and Greens MSP Andy Wightman that’s exposed the scale of the problem. In 2012, almost a third of land in Norway was forested, with 171,000 owners. By contrast, only 18 per cent of land in Scotland was forested and research suggests one-third is owned by Scottish Ministers and managed by the Forestry Commission and 91 per cent of the rest is owned either by landed estates or by investment owners of which half are absentee owners and a third live outside Scotland.

The big contrast with other European countries is the insignificant proportion owned in Scotland by individual resident owners, farmers, co-operatives and municipalities.

Wightman concludes that Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private forest ownership and the lowest proportion of the population involved in owning forests in Europe.

Do we want to carry on like this, or grasp the thistle and make sure new forestry ownership widens and diversifies?

Amazingly, until 2003, trees planted on tenanted or crofting land technically belonged to the landowner and although such feudal control is now a thing of the past, there’s little incentive for tenant farmers to plant when they are on short-term or insecure contracts.

What can the Scottish Government do?

WELL, it could amend the current Planning Bill to require any wholesale switch from agriculture to forestry to get change-of-use planning permission. A Scottish Government spokesperson said careful consideration would be needed before any such changes were proposed – which isn’t a no.

Alternatively, the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) could amend grant conditions so none is available for wholesale conversion of agricultural land to forestry. An FCS spokesman said forest grants were subject to consultation including community engagement.

So that will be a no.

Alternatively, the Scottish Government could don its thinking cap and come up with its own speedy solution to ensure tenant farmers and local co-operatives across Scotland become the foresters of the future – planting woodlands with more biodiversity than cellulose factories of Sitka spruce and allowing folk from nearby towns to rent bits of land and build weekend huts, just as forest owners in every other country at our latitude do.

The Buccleuch Estates spokesperson says there will be a public meeting in Langholm next month. Here are some of the questions that may sadly remain unasked …

Is the Duke of Buccleuch doing what the Scottish Government and land reform campaigners asked of him and breaking up his enormous estate?

Is he being benign as he terminates at least 23 farmers’ leases in remote glens like Eskdale, Liddesdale, Teviothead, Selkirk, Ettrick and Yarrow, or is Scotland’s largest landowner trying to cash in on Scottish Government forestry grants now that the onshore wind bonanza appears to be past? Or is the opportunity to grab forestry cash disguising another motive – getting land sold at premium prices while the going is good and tenants can be shifted on to temporary contracts before feistier land reform comes out of Holyrood?

All tenant farmers want is to stay farming till they retire, then hand on the farm, the land and their livestock to one of the many young locals who are seeking a start.

If the Scottish Government can’t help make that modest, sustainable and traditional aspiration a reality, then something is still far wrong on our land.