“It's a struggle reminiscent of the Highland Clearances, a cultural genocide in slow motion." Tom Opre is not afraid of using strong words when describing the subject of his latest documentary, The Last Keeper.

The conflict over land use and sporting estates is one into which he takes a deep dive, interviewing people on both sides of what could be called a very high deer fence.

On one side, the most prominent voices in Scottish rewilding and land reform, on the other the sporting estates and keepers. At its nuanced heart is gritty observation of the fragile communities caught in the crossfire. 

The Last Keeper, the Montanan conservationist explains, is a film that came out of conversations when he was making his last documentary, in Africa, Killing the Shepherd. He recalls: “I met with people in the United Kingdom tied to the hunting industry and sporting estates, and I started to hear some of these stories about the conflict that was going on here in Scotland."

Soon he was on a Zoom call with Rory Kennedy, Scotland director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Kennedy, who is an associate producer on the film, has described, in a blog, how after that call, "within a month I was showing Tom and his photographer, Tony Bynum, around the country, introducing him to people on both sides of this contentious debate."

“What I came to understand," Opre says, "is that the keepers and their families are the collateral damage in this class warfare.”

“What we witnessed was keepers and families that were being ostracised in their own communities. That's not only found here. We’ve seen in the United States this animosity towards people who go hunting, especially women who go hunting. In The Last Keeper, we have people like head gamekeeper Alex Jenkins who talks about all the attacks that keepers get online."

He adds: "One person even stated a keeper’s children had been threatened with having acid thrown in their children’s faces. There’s no place for this in our society.”

The Herald: Grouse beater from The Last KeeperGrouse beater from The Last Keeper (Image: Tony Bynum)

The film gives space to a range of views on this  "class warfare". Amongst them is the voice of David Balharry, CEO of the John Muir Trust, who says, "Large areas of land have been given over to the management of a single species for the benefit of a privileged few. And the benefit they want, simply, is recreational killing."

On the other side of the debate, a landowner speaks of "neo-Marxist ideology attached to the whole land reform issue", and still another says, "The end of landowners - that's what this argument is all about."  

But, of course, class is only one element at work in this conflict, at the heart of which are questions about how land use needs to change to mitigate climate change, and who might be left behind by those changes - what a rural Just Transition might look like. 

Opre explains that what he is trying to do is “give a voice to rural, indigenous communities all over the world, whether it be in Africa, or in Scotland with these rural communities here."

"The fact that there are 8 billion humans on the planet is pushing wildlife habitat to the brink. But wildlife doesn’t live in cities, it lives in rural parts of the world. It’s those rural indigenous people who must be good stewards of these lands and the wildlife. They must also see a benefit from the hard work of conservation. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking remote Africa, North America or Scotland or any other place in the world."

The Herald: Alex Jenkins, former headkeeper at Edinglassie estateAlex Jenkins, former headkeeper at Edinglassie estate (Image: Tony Bynum @shepherds of Wildlife Society)

Opre, who is a sportsman himself, and with a long tradition of "utilising  wild game meat and fish" to feed his family",  describes keeping as “an indigenous culture” in Scotland. “These keepers,” he says, “have been doing this for a lot longer than the Victorian ages. Your government recognises culture. The importance of the Gaelic culture, for instance.”

His first documentary, Killing the Shepherd followed a woman chief in rural Africa who wanted, he says, “to break the bonds of poverty by waging a war against illegal wildlife poaching”.

Following The Last Keeper, his next film will look into ranching culture in Montana, which dates back 150 years .

“Indigenous just means they’ve been there for a long time,” he says. “People ask, ‘How long does it take to develop a culture and is that culture important?’ Well, it’s important to them. But they don’t have a voice. So that’s our goal, to give them that voice. So the rest of people, living in cities can understand. You take care of the land; the land will take care of you."

While Opre clearly does have a strong sympathy for both hunters and gamekeepers, he gives good space to voices from the other side: land reform campaigner Andy Wightman, CEO of rewilding charity, Scotland The Big Picture, Pete Cairns,  Nigel Fraser from Trees for Life, and David Balharry.

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Though Opre's entry point to the culture was through contacts in the sporting world, this is no piece of propaganda. It  provides a fascinating exploration of the issues and their complexities, as well as insight into the human imapcts. “My goal," says Opre, "as an investigative journalist is absolutely to be as balanced and fair as possible. I gave everybody their fair share. I didn’t cut anybody off.”

Opre’s mission, through his films and the Shepherds of Wildlife organisation which he set up, is, he says, “to connect modern society with nature”. He describes himself as a “conservationist” and contrasts that with what he calls the “preservationists”, or rewilders.

“Some rewiilders,” he says, “talk of wanting “nature to be free”, with no human interference. That’s the complete opposite of conservation. That’s preservation.

“But also, nature is not free in the rewilding world. Not when you’re planting trees, putting up hundreds of thousands of miles of deer fence – or you are mass-culling deer. Those are human value judgments based on management ideas. That’s not nature being free. If you want nature to be free then let’s let the deer run willy- nilly.”

At the heart of The Last Keeper are conflicts over deer and their management. Its screenings around the country - with  a digital screening date is soon to be announced - come at a particularly fraught period, following the end of a Scottish Government consultation on its Deer Management for Climate and Nature Consultation.  

Feelings run high around this iconic beast. For some they are a species that must be controlled through culling,  in order to allow the return of young trees which they browse on and the return of the wild.  To others, they are symbols of that very wild.

The Herald: Scotland's iconic deer from The Last KeeperScotland's iconic deer from The Last Keeper (Image: Tony Bynum @shepherds of Wildlife Society)

“It’s almost as if,” says Opre, “deer are demonised. I kept thinking, ‘But, isn’t the red stag the iconic symbol of Scottish tourism?”

This is not just about killing; but how the killing is done, in what numbers, and when.  In the film, one gamekeeper describes the horror of seeing a large group of deer killed in Glenfeshie, another calls the leaving of deer on the hill “sickening”.

What is also upsetting for some of the  gamekeepers is the leaving of dead deer on the hill. One deer control advocate, David Balharry, defends the practice in the film. This, says Opre, was something Balharry had been keen to get in the film.

 “The first time." Opre says, "we went to Ben Nevis, with David he quadrupled down on leaving animals up on the hill. He said removing them is too much of a carbon footprint. He told us he wanted that recorded. He wanted to get it out there that you can leave them on the hill... Nothing goes to waste in nature."

Opre is a hunter himself, and describes his own feelings about the according of respect to his kill. “I think it goes back to a very elemental nature. It’s in our DNA. The spirit of harvesting an animal, killing an animal. You have a responsibility to that animal. In the United States all fifty States have laws outlawing the wasting of game meat. It’s against everything ethical sportsmen and women stand for.”

In one scene, Skye gamekeeper Scott Mackenzie, and his daughters, give a solemn thanks in Gaelic to the deer just killed.

The film also looks into the science and theory that might back the preservation of the heather moorlands that are at the heart of grouse shooting estates. "The UN in 1992," says Opre, "said that the heather ecosystem of importance and of potential concern." 

One of Opre’s points is that rather than rewilding or planting trees on grouse moor, the target should be what he called “marginal agricultural land”. "Nobody wants to talk about farming, just like nobody wants to talk about sheep. Maybe it’s because the lobby for the farming and the sheep herding is so strong in this country."

The Herald: Deer carcass being brought off the moor by ponyDeer carcass being brought off the moor by pony (Image: Tony Bynum @shepherds of Wildlife Society)

Tony Bynum, associate producer and director of photography of  the film observes that whilst this conflict is growing over deer control, sheep, also responsible for grazing down young trees, are not getting the same lazer-focus.

“We noticed as we were travelling  that noobody likes talking about sheep,” says Bynum. “Yet there are around seven million sheep wandering around the countryside. It was around four or five trips before someone even brought it up. We were standing around saying, okay we see the deer maybe every once in a while, but every day we see sheep everywhere.”

One of the virtues of The Last Keeper  is that it gives an outsider's perspective on a Scottish issue. It is also seeking to provoke discussion and debate.  The vast majority of the material is also shared, in podcasts and on Youtube, so that it's possible to access what was also left on the cutting room floor. 

“To make a great documentary film,” Opre says, “you have to have conflict.”  He came to Scotland for that conflict, but he was also looking to find and nurture "commonality" too. 

He observes: "All these disparate sides want the same thing. They all want healthy ecosystems, want to see some deer, want to be able to walk out on the hill, want to be able to catch a fish in your rivers. But there are these historical grievances, there’s this baggage... I’d love to throw politics out the door. I’d love to throw out the animosity. I'd love to throw out the urban versus rural.”

“I am a conservationist and I am a human rights advocate and my concern is how are we going to leave the planet? Are we going to leave it better for future generations? And can these people come together and find some commonality?”