Sarah-Jane Laing

GIVEN the climate and nature emergencies, the newly-coined term ‘green laird’ should be a complimentary shorthand for a responsible landowner doing good things for the environment – someone to be supported, encouraged and applauded in their actions to address the climate and nature emergencies. Sadly in Scotland, green laird has very quickly become a glib jibe – despite the fact that these are people making substantial investments to deliver Scottish Government policies lauded during COP26.

For a long time now, rural landowners of all types and sizes have been seriously plugged in to all things green – tree planting, peatland restoration, renewable energy, hydro schemes, wildlife conservation, regenerative agriculture and the rest.

In any other walk of life, a well-run business that was actually doing their bit to tackle climate change would be cheered to the rafters. Instead, because they are defined as ‘lairds’ – a hopelessly anachronistic term today – there’s very little, if any, public support from those politicians calling for more to be done to save the planet and protect nature.

Ardent land reform voices recently warned that so-called ‘green lairds’ will perpetuate Scotland’s pattern of private landownership, which they do not favour, despite this being an influx of a new and diverse mix of owners.

There is no argument that landowners in Scotland have responsibilities.

So, are ‘green lairds’ a force for good or not? They certainly can be, whether they are new owners or have owned the land for decades. They are making serious investment in land. They’ll spend money locally on trees, contractors and other services in pursuit of their carbon capture objectives.

People are not getting money for simply owning land. Carbon credits are secured because of long-term investment and management. Trees have to be planted, peatland has to be restored, action has to be taken – and that comes with a cost.

Climate change remains a high priority for all of us and in many ways land businesses hold the solution to many of its challenges.

Private owners, whether they are families who have been around for generations or are a fashionable brewer – across Scotland are helping government to increase forestry cover, provide clean energy and restore peatlands to lock up carbon, as well as continuing to supply affordable rural housing, local jobs and produce world-class food and drink and tourism experiences. Too often the realities of the breadth and scale of this work is lost in the headlines of green lairds and rewilding.

Private, community and public landownership has a role to play in helping rural communities and the wider nation to recover from the pandemic, meet climate change targets, and deliver benefits from investment in natural capital. Opportunity beckons and we can start to make the most of it by recognising that it’s what you do and what you deliver rather than what you own that is of paramount importance – whatever label someone wants to give you.

Sarah-Jane Laing is chief executive, Scottish Land & Estates