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Highland estate uses its natural capital to secure future income

Thorough research and a code-based regime can maximise commercial returns in a species-rich environment. Louise Alexander reports. 

We were approached to consider options for under-utilised hill ground on the west coast of Scotland, including land used by seasonal grazing tenants for a nominal rent.

The client was looking to maximise the potential of the landholding for her family and to generate long-term income for the future generations of the estate.

Traditionally the way to do this through forestry would be to plant Sitka spruce for a commercial return after 40 years through harvesting. It was immediately clear we couldn't do this because the land in question formed the backdrop of Eilean Donan castle, one of the most photographed buildings in Scotland. The site was also home to nationally important habitats, including ancient oak and ash woodlands – a new commercial plantation could compromise these.

We undertook a desk-based assessment using OS maps, climatic suitability assessments and soil and vegetation data, and discovered the site would be suitable for a wide range of woodland types. The search also identified a significant number of archaeological sites. The owner also flagged up historical golden eagle habitats.

Using this information, we carried out a site survey and proposed developing a mixed native and productive woodland. With the native forest focused on the higher, less accessible ground and the productive woodland on the lower slopes with greater access to public roads.

We approached RSPB, which initially opposed any woodland development, and Scottish Forestry, which was keen to protect the oak and ash habitats. The important thing is to approach RSPB early on to establish a dialogue and work towards a solution to any difficulties. Through these discussions we  agreed that a full breeding bird survey would be carried out across the site to identify the species present and how they could be affected by our proposals. 

The report  identified the areas used by the various species present. This enabled us to come up with a design incorporating a mix of native and productive woodland that would produce a habitat suitable for all the identified species.

The surveyor and RSPB agreed that native woodland expansion, given appropriate design, layout and limits, would not adversely affect golden eagle populations and may be beneficial over time, by improving the live prey base for the eagles.

In this case the ‘appropriate design’ included maintaining access to key summits, slopes and ridges for reconnaissance and hunting, preserving open foraging habitat in the core range and reducing the risk of fence strikes. This was achieved by increasing the amount of open ground in the new woodland canopy and planting the upper slopes and margins at a lower density to prevent a closed canopy. Fence marking was installed at agreed sections. 

In the end the site was approximately one-third commercially productive and the rest a mixed native broadleaved and Scots pine woodland. The productive woodland element was now made up of a more diverse mix of species, reflecting the local ground conditions, with the inclusion of productive broadleaves. This will be managed on a longer rotation than a traditional Sitka spruce plantation but will hopefully produce a more varied, higher-quality crop over the rotation, through continuous cover management. 

Although this was a substantial change from our clients’ initial vision in terms of long-term investment, the site now meets key Government objectives, protects nationally important habitats and species whilst also providing a long-term income. While the productive woodland area was reduced significantly, the use of a more diverse species will increase the value of the end result.

Plus, the scheme is now registered with the Woodland Carbon Code and it is anticipated the new woodland will capture approximately 100,000 tonnes of carbon over its lifetime. The estate can now trade these carbon units to organisations looking to offset its CO2 emissions. 

This is a good example of how a code-based regime can protect and enhance natural capital – the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources – by incentivising property owners to invest in confronting climate change while promoting skills and employment in the countryside. It’s not perfect, or not yet anyway, but it’s a big advance on the old system. 

If you’d like to know more, please get in touch. 

Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.