THE leadership election for the Scottish National Party, the party of government, could literally change the face of Scotland.

Scotland will soon have a new first minister at a time when land reform and grouse moor reform is high up on the political agenda. Parliamentary bills on both are due in the not-too-distant future and real reform remains popular with both the public and particularly within the membership of the SNP.

After more than two decades since we established the Scottish Parliament, our nation still has the most inequitable land ownership in  the developed world.  Members of the SNP may be familiar with the figure that around 432 families own more than half of Scotland’s private land. 

There has been important, albeit very limited, progress in diversifying land ownership in recent years but new leadership at the top level is Scotland’s opportunity to really go for it.

Grouse moors are a metaphor for land reform issues in Scotland – a lot of land used for the benefit of very few people at the expense of our wildlife and the environment – with a steep cost to rural people who deserve so much better than the limited opportunities these large estates afford them.

An area around half the size of Wales is managed for grouse shooting in Scotland which provides fewer jobs and opportunities than alternative land uses.

Nature-based tourism, excluding “field sports”, is worth more than £1.2 billion overall – more than 50 times to our economy than grouse shooting, while forestry has an economic impact over 15 times greater per hectare.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of animals like foxes, stoats, weasels, crows and even “non-target species” like hedgehogs are killed every year, just so more grouse can be shot by very few people for the controversial “sport”.

In a time of climate crisis, an area of more than 200,000 football pitches is regularly burned on grouse moors (muirburn) to make the land more suitable for grouse, scarring the landscape and damaging our vital peat reserves – an internationally significant carbon sink.

If we seek to advance opportunities for rural people, jobs in shooting grouse for sport is not in our future. With the destruction to our wildlife and the environment, grouse shooting offers nothing for a modern Scotland under new leadership. We need real reform.

Whoever is elected, the new party leader should take confidence that tackling this issue properly and speeding up land reform efforts would be popular with the SNP membership that elected them.

In 2020, despite it getting lost as part of a conference “super-motion”, an SNP membership motion to essentially end driven grouse shooting was backed by more branches than any other resolution that year. 

Moreover, if the enthusiastic support for radical land reform – including progressive land taxation – from the hundreds of people at Revive’s SNP conference meetings is anything to go by, the SNP leadership really can be brave.

The Scottish Government has started some good work on the grouse reform front but needs to go much further. It most certainly should not be brow-beaten by those representing large, landed interests into watering-down what it already has proposed or from going further.

The new SNP leader may also recognise that despite what is claimed, these powerful vested interests do not represent rural Scotland or most of its people (who are actually against grouse shooting).

The lobbyists for sport shooting do, however, wish to halt the change the SNP have aspired to for decades.

All the unsustainable things that take place on these moors, so more grouse can be shot for sport, must end to allow us to transition to a more diverse mosaic of land uses in upland Scotland.

This will help diversify land ownership as well.  It’s estimated that for every brace of grouse killed for sport, £5000 can be added on to the estate’s value for the owner. If you end the speculative land value created from this unsustainable land use, coupled with land reform, it can help more communities take back our land. 

The successful Langholm buyout of a former grouse moor in southern Scotland, which is revitalising the local area, is a great but rare example that depended on immense dedication and voluntary efforts from local people to achieve it as well as huge sums of money to  be raised.

The Government should use a push and pull philosophy. As well as incentives, they should use the law to disincentivise individuals or overseas corporations from owning large estates like grouse moors – to bring down the price of land for communities to purchase.

Land taxes should not be one of the tools that are left off the table. Having the land ownership diversity of a normal European country like one of our Nordic neighbours is not radical, it’s inherently sensible.

Whatever happens in this leadership election, we hope all the candidates will openly commit to pursuing the inherently sensible cause of land reform, land taxes and real grouse moor reform in Scotland. If so they will change the face of Scotland for the better.

The new leader should have no problem saying to the people of Scotland that this land is our land. This country is yours, and it’s time to take it back again.

Max Wiszniewski is Campaign Manager for Revive, the coalition for grouse moor reform