PRIVATE rural estates contribute hundreds of millions of pounds every year to the Scottish economy, according to a new study published by the leading landowners' organisation.

The study team said there was no definitive database of estates or landowners in Scotland. However, the 277 estates surveyed account for more than three million acres of Scotland, own 7645 houses and provide 1563 farm tenancies. Some 69 have been in the same ownership for between 100 and 500 years, and 11 for more than 500 years.

The research conducted for Scottish Land and Estates found the revenue of the organisation's private estate membership, which represents approximately 65% of Scotland's private estates, contributes £471 million or £207 per hectare to Scotland's output.

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The study also reveals that an estimated 8114 full-time jobs are linked to Scottish Land & Estates members' estates alone, more than 2000 of which are tourism-related.

Critics say its findings demonstrate the need for land reform."

However, Luke Borwick, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, said: "This study clearly demonstrates the very substantial contribution made by estates. They are part of the fabric of rural Scotland and estate owners want to play their part in ensuring that rural Scotland is a thriving and vibrant place to live and work.

"We hope this study will show that landowners are part of the solution rather than the problem. The study brings much needed hard evidence to a debate about land ownership that is frequently not evidence-based."

The dominant form of land use was managed moorland, with almost a million acres, followed by rough grazing at almost half a million acres, unmanaged moorland (240,000 acres), commercial forestry (210,000 acres) and native woodland (100,000 acres).

The report found many of the estates that had been in the same ownership for several generations were vested in trusts.

"These trusts have often been set up to enable inter-generational succession and as part of tax planning exercises responding to the various taxation regimes that have been in place over time," it said.

The study comes at a time when the debate over land ownership is intensifying. The Scottish Government's land reform review group's report is expected next month.

Westminster's Scottish Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry, and ministerial statements have already indicated a desire for change in land ownership patterns.

Meanwhile Peter Peacock, director of Community Land Scotland, said: "It is particularly striking to see ownership in so few hands and those same hands for sometimes centuries. It demonstrates just what a monopoly a few people have over land in Scotland."

He said it was disappointing the brief for the study did not also ask about the range of tax benefits trust status brought to landowners, contributing to growing wealth from rising land values.

"Much land is now marketed principally on its potential for huge financial returns to the owners," he said.

Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter said all the report showed was that owning land offered economic opportunities.

"Everyone knows that," he said. "And that's why so many of us believe that it's little short of criminally wrong that just 432 big land owners own half of Scotland. Far, far more of our farmers and far, far more of our communities should have the opportunity to engage in activities now monopolised by a tiny, wholly unrepresentative and often absentee minority."