AN extensive survey by Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) conducted in 2014 reported that most members, 67% of the 277 sampled, were “engaged in sporting one way or another”. An analysis for the Scottish Government consultation on the draft Land Reform Bill showed 71% of 983 respondents favoured the return of shooting rates. The question had “provoked strong feelings” with 50 of the 51 estates replying opposed.

Earlier in 2014, the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) had called for the return of shooting rates. They argued that grouse moor managers often called on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to tackle out of control fires due to the practice of muirburn to keep down large patches of deep heather. Who pays for the fire service? The public purse pays, while shooting estate owners have made no contribution to these public services since they were exempted from non-domestic business rates in 1995 by the then-Tory government.

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Grouse and deer stalking covers millions of acres of Scotland. In the last reliable assessment, from 1957, there were 183 deer forests covering 2.8 million acres. Grouse moors add hundreds of thousands acres more.

So, the Land Reform Bill 2015 sought to reinstate non-domestic rates for shooting estates. The rationale being two-fold, to reflect the principles of fairness. Other countryside businesses paid non-domestic rates, with rebates for small businesses. Secondly, the need to fund public services was imperative. Assessors would distinguish between sporting and non-sporting culls of deer in setting rates.

Heavy lobbying by a concerted SLE campaign sought to keep the exemption. At stage two of the Land Reform Bill on February 3, 2016, at the Rural Affairs Committee the Tory and LibDem members voted to maintain the shooting rates exemption. This was defeated by seven SNP and Labour votes to two.

As convener, I said at the time keeping an “unfair” tax exemption for shooting estates smacked of hypocrisy given the then-Tory PM David Cameron’s tax evasion crackdown. Since only large businesses would pay, the Tory amendment was totally unfounded.

A timetable for implementation has slipped somewhat from a 2017/2018 start. However, the poundage announced for sporting rates calculated per hectare basis was £5 for woodland/forestry and mixed types; £4 for arable and unimproved grassland;£3.50 for improved grassland; and £2 for deer forest/hill/moor.

Estates and land agents, such as Strutt & Parker, raised objections citing the cost of handling appeals. Would the income, estimated at £4m per annum outweigh the cost of collection? Would it reduce rural employment? Would it make Scottish shooting estates uncompetitive compared to those in England and Wales?

As the LRRG pointed out in its final report of May 2014, The Land of Scotland and the Common Good, “tax breaks have impacts, not least pushing the burden onto a narrower tax base”. The SNP government seeks a fairer and more equal society. Now shooting estates will have to contribute.

Inevitably the land interests sought to clog the system with huge numbers of appeals. As a solicitor friend put it, the smell of tweed and Labradors from the appellants is due again at appeals tribunals.

Making the lairds pay for their privileges may take a few more years and it should include plans to levy land value tax on them as well. But the howl of rage from some of the richest in society won’t easily be stilled.

Rob Gibson is a former SNP MSP and was convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee