LAST year was a pivotal one in the debate around Scotland’s land ownership and management.

In November, a two-year long process was completed when community group the Langholm Initiative acquired 10,500 acres of moorland in Dumfries and Galloway. The £6 million raised to acquire this land was sourced through crowdfunding and private donations.

The Langholm Initiative aims to create one of Scotland’s largest nature reserves to help tackle climate change, environment preservation, and boost community regeneration.

I’m privileged to have advised the Langholm Initiative on the process required to take ownership of the land. It is one of 30 community groups we have supported in their acquisition of 25,000 acres of land. Coming from a Skye crofting community, not only is it hugely significant to me personally, but it’s important to appreciate what the land can give us when it comes to our livelihoods, when properly managed and respected.

This comes against the backdrop of communities feeling pushed out of the increasingly fast-moving market for rural land, which investors are moving on in search of “natural capital” opportunities.

The Scottish Government has carried out a wide-ranging consultation ahead of a proposed Land Reform Bill. Underpinning this consultation was the role of community involvement when it comes to land ownership and management.

In particular, the proposals would inject a public interest test for the transfer of any large-scale landholdings. It also requires any landowner to notify community bodies of their intention to sell.

The legislation is intended to address concerns about the highly concentrated pattern of land ownership in rural areas of Scotland and ensure greater benefits to communities and the environment.

There is a growing movement towards increased transparency around land and asset ownership in Scotland. Land values have increased significantly in recent years, partly due to the increase in activity for forestry land associated with carbon offsetting.

Scotland’s natural capital presents opportunities and it is easy to dismiss these as being solely at the discretion and benefit of larger estates or land owners.

The Scottish Government’s approach is to ensure all communities can benefit. Our natural capital can benefit us all through community ownership, whether that is the huge contribution it plays in our efforts to achieve net zero or to help reverse depopulation by creating jobs and affordable housing.

Those benefits are long-term but we have a responsibility to both protect and harness one of our most valuable natural assets, for future generations.

The latest Scottish Government statistics indicate that the number of assets owned by community groups is increasing. In 2021 the number of assets owned by community groups – primarily land and buildings – increased by 48 to 711. Those 711 assets were owned by 484 groups and covered 212,000 hectares. When you consider that Scotland covers 7.8 million hectares – community ownership represents a mere 2.7%. According to the Scottish Government's national indicators, this is considered a success.

2022 continued to show that land reform is a journey rather than an event and I would suggest we still have a long way to go.

Calum MacLeod is a partner in the rural land team at law firm Harper Macleod