A UK company that has bought up 23,000 acres in Scotland has received the backing of a £20 million loan from the pioneering sustainable bank, Triodos UK – in what is believed to be the largest conservation-focused commercial debt package in the UK to date.

But Oxygen Conservation isn’t just about chasing the green rush of the carbon credits market. Instead, its CEO, Rich Stockdale, describes its mission as “scaling conservation” and talks about “delivering positive environment and social impact, and generating profit as a result, not as a purpose.”

Oxygen Conservation, which already owned a site in the Firth of Tay, recently acquired two other properties in Scotland, the Invergeldie estate, near Comrie in Perthshire, and 11,390 acres of Langholm Moor, known as Blackburn & Hartsgarth, where they hope to complement the work of “the neighbouring 10,500 acres of the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve”.

The Exeter-based company is the latest to buy up land in Scotland in what, over the past few years, has been a green rush, which has pushed up rural land prices and triggered scepticism about concepts like “carbon offset”, “carbon credits” and “natural capital”.

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Recently, the injection of private finance has accelerated. Last month NatureScot announced a £2bn private finance pilot designed to secure landscape scale restoration of native woodlands, in partnership with Hampden and Co, Palladium, and Lombard Odier Asset Management Europe.

This week the UK National Infrastructure Bank announced its first foray into funding British biodiversity projects, a £12 million bridging loan for the acquisition of Tayvallich Estate by Highland Rewilding, a company with a mass-ownership model, founded by the former ­Greenpeace ­director Jeremy Leggett, which has said it wants community involvement to be a key part of its mission

Is Oxygen Conservation doing anything new?

While the company’s financial underpinning will still be carbon credits, the agreement made with Triodos UK is, according to Simon Crichton who heads nature-based investment at the bank, designed to allow the flexibility to enable Oxygen Conservation to deliver a more “holistic approach” to the land, rather than simply maximising for carbon credits.

“This,” he said, “is about optimising, not maximising.”

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Oxygen Conservation won't be, like some, simply planting woodland. It will be delivering a diverse range of projects, "including species reintroduction, landscape connectivity, regenerative agriculture, woodland creation, renewable energy generation, sustainable housing, and eco-tourism and carbon sequestration through woodland and peatland restoration."

The current rush for carbon-credit-based woodland restoration has its critics.

Among them is land rights and environmental campaigner Andy Wightman, who recently wrote in an article in Holyrood magazine, “The current mania for carbon offsetting and the gold rush being promoted and facilitated by Scottish ministers and their nature agency is ill-thought through, potentially very damaging, and being promoted and developed with no scrutiny as to the potential negative impacts nor of the impact on Scotland’s net-zero targets.”

Even the managing director of Oxygen Conservation is sceptical of the carbon credit market, whilst keen to create credible credits.

In an article in the winter 2022 edition of Scottish Land & Estates Land Business magazine, Rich Stockdale wrote, “Market demand for carbon credits is growing rapidly, increasing the price of rural land in the process, and in many ways, posing a new threat to the natural environment, local communities and wildlife.”

Carbon credits should, he said, be chiefly used where emissions are extremely hard to reduce. He even advised businesses: “Don’t buy carbon credits. Instead, focus on lessening your impact on the planet and in the process reduce your carbon footprint, whilst trying to have a net positive impact.”

Stockdale, who describes himself as an environmentalist, wrote of offering “genuinely positive natural capital products”. “We understand,” he said, “and share people’s concerns about greenwashing, unsustainable land use, and environmental profiteering, and will do everything that we can to ensure that our work only delivers positive environmental and social impact.”

However, some are still concerned. Environmental expert, Miles King, expressed concern at another company buying up land in Scotland. “It feels,” he said, “like there's a bit of a gold rush now with Scottish estates and other land (especially bare land for forestry) being bought up by the very wealthy, or by businesses such as Gresham House, promising "green" investments with a high rate of return.

"How green these schemes are is difficult to say. I am interested to see that Oxygen Conservation is set up as a profit-making business. But what is the business model? Where is the profit going to be made? I am worried that nature or carbon are just seen as the latest asset class to attract investors looking for a decent (and often tax-free) return. This doesn't help nature.”

Oxygen Conservation has said it wants to be "the first conservation focussed unicorn company", using the venture-capitalist term for rapid growth privately-owned, start-ups valued at over US$1 billion.

Human ecologist and activist, Alastair McIntosh, said: "When they use the term 'unicorn', they're basically talking about beating the market and that is the allure. Despite all the altruistic stuff, bottom line, they are offering to their investors great returns."

Oxygen Conservation also emphasises its engagement with local communities, saying it "prioritises working with local communities and forming strategic partnerships to ensure its plans meet the needs of the environment and the people who depend on it". 

It talks of contributing "to local communities’ social and economic wellbeing".

On this, McIntosh said, there were key questions to be answered: "Will communities have meaningful democratically appointed agency in the process? Is full prior informed consent of the community in place? Are they happy for the land in question to be permanently designated in this way for perpetuity, as the Woodland Carbon Code requires?"  

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On Langholm Moor, Oxygen Conservation's site will be near the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve, which was formed as a result of the Langholm Initiative, a buy-out by local community from Buccleuch Estates.

Angela Williams, development manager of the reserve said: "As a community landowner you have democracy built into your process. Our board all live in the community. If people aren't happy with what we're doing they can come forward and stand on the board and make a difference. Part of our work is to be mindful of the community.  It goes with the territory. Obviously, that's not the same for private landowners."  

Triodos UK said it had identified the Oxygen Conservation project as “very much aligning” with its values and described it as a “groundbreaking finance structure”.

Bevis Watts, Chief Executive, said “We have worked for over five years to find models for investing in nature restoration that deliver the greatest public good. Oxygen Conservation is pioneering a brand-new approach to protecting and restoring nature and its commitment to deliver positive environmental and social impact while generating a sustainable financial return, which aligns with our values as a bank.”