Access To Land


Scotland is the second largest country in the United Kingdom and represents 7.9 million hectares including the islands. Its farmland area and usage is shaped by terrain, climate and history. Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world.
It is also known for its culture of large estates and the forced eviction of rural populations in the 18th and 19th century to make way for sporting activities and intensive sheep grazing. At the opposition end of the scale, Scotland is home to crofting, a unique form of small tenanted farms.
Recent land reform and an increase in community ownership has drawn attention not just from England, south of the boarder but from the rest of Europe and the world.

Agricultural Land use

Credit: Matthias Kremer

Farmland comprises about 5.6 million hectares of Scotland, equating to 71% of the total land area. This includes land used for grazing, arable, horticulture and sports such as hunting. The farmland area is dominated by rough grazing, much of it common land and a huge proportion (85%) is designated as Less Favoured Areas under European Regulations.
 Just over half of this is rough grazing, with about a 25% taken up by grass, 10% per cent used for crops or left fallow.
 There are 52,303 farms in Scotland with the smallest proportion of farms as horticulture (621) and specialist pigs (285 farms).
 Scotland has a fascinating relationship with common land with almost 0.6 million hectares of land is used for the common grazing of livestock.
 Cereals make up 75% of the cropped area in Scotland, with nearly three-quarters of that being barley (310,000 hectares) followed by wheat (110,000 hectares), oilseed rape (36,000 hectares) and potatoes (26,000 hectares).

Employment in agriculture

Around 63,400 people are directly employed in agriculture in Scotland – this represents 8% of the rural workforce and means that agriculture is the third largest employer in rural Scotland after the service industry and public sectors.
However, employment in agriculture makes up less than 3% of the overall national workforce despite farmland covering 71% of Scotland.
There has been a gentle decline in the number of agricultural workers over the last ten years with the biggest reduction in occupier-workers (13%).
Contrary to the general trend, there has been an increase in seasonal worker, mainly in the soft fruit sector.
40% of farmers in Scotland are aged over 65 and only 12% are under 45 resulting in a potential crisis for farming in the next generation.

Economics and subsidies

Scottish agriculture contributes 1% of Scotland’s national Gross Value Added figure, although downstream sectors have a GVA over four times that of agriculture exports, worth more than £5bn per year.

A sector dependent on subsidies

 Support payments play a significant role in the agricultural economy and many farms would be loss-making without support.
 Subsidies account for over 70% of the overall net profit from Scottish agriculture. - - These payments are not distributed evenly across the sector.
 In 2013, 10% of farming recipients received £198m, while the remaining 90% got a total of £242m.
 Average farm income in Scotland in 2014-15 was £23,000, the lowest figure in six years and the most severe decline since the BSE outbreak in the 1990’s.
 In four of the last ten years, it is estimated that costs exceeded output in the sector, with 20% of farms making a loss in 2014.
 A further 27% of farms were unable to pay the farmer the agricultural minimum wage.

Land ownership

Credit: Matthias Kremer

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world.

Less than 500 people own 50% of privately owned Scotland, the majority of the country being dominated by large estates and farms. Hundreds of years of concentrated land ownership and policies of agricultural ‘improvement’ which in effect equated to the forced displacement of much of the population to make space for sheep grazing, mean that many rural areas in Scotland now have very low rural populations, particularly in the Highlands and Islands.

Estates are large landholdings which can cover over 4000 hectares and have often been owned by the same families for centuries. The primary land use for estates is field ’sports’ (hunting, shooting, fishing), followed by extensive sheep farming.

The introduction of these activities resulted in forced rural exodus throughout Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, known as the Clearances during which thousands of people were persecuted and forced off the land. It is in these regions that the unique system of crofting exists and where community ownership has taken off in recent years.

Farm size and recent changes

 The average size of a farm in Scotland is 100 hectares compared to 20 hectares for the whole of Europe.
 Just 9% of holdings accounted for 76% of the land.
 Changes in the size of farms have occurred mostly across the smallest and the largest holdings.
 The proportion of farmland covered by 200+ ha farms grew by 187,000 ha between 2000 and 2015.
 Small size holdings (<10ha) increased by 16.7% in the same period, although this was primarily due to an increase in horse paddocks in central and south Scotland.
 A significant change has also occurred for very large farms: the number covering over 300 hectares grew 11.6% from 613 in 1993, to 683 in 2007.
 This change has been supported by agricultural subsidies, which encourage the increasing domination of large farm units; in 2013 over two-thirds of the total direct payments went to 21% of the recipients.
 Farm size and land use are often related, with the majority of specialist poultry (86%), pigs (76%) and horticulture (73%) operations below ten hectares in size.

Tenant farming

Scotland traditionally has supported a large number of agricultural tenants, necessitated by the concentrated pattern of land ownership preventing most people from owning their own land. However, the number of tenants has declined in recent years, with a 42% decrease between 1982 and 2013. This has been as a result of increasing industrialisation, farm amalgamation, resistance to improved tenants’ rights and a move towards temporary and seasonal staff.

The rise of community ownership

Recently Scotland has seen a backlash against its inequitable land system with the rise of community ownership of land.

This has been promoted by legislation which created the ’community right to buy’ in 2003 and the establishment of the Scottish Land Fund which supports community buy-outs financially. Over 205,000 hectares of Scotland are now under community ownership and the Scottish Government has a target to double this by 2020, although this is seen as an ambitious target. The majority of community buy-outs have occurred in the west of Scotland, particularly the Islands (two thirds of which are community-owned) where rural communities are easily defined and a connection to the land is strong. Recent expansion of the legislation to the whole of Scotland has the potential to redistribute land towards communities throughout the country, including in urban areas.

Whilst the legislation is heralded as momentous, land has moved into community ownership only through the sheer determination of communities who have persevered despite inadequate funding and torturous bureaucracy. The legislation has recently been simplified, and the Scottish Land Fund increased to £10 million between 2016 and 2020. Although the land mass covered is still relatively small, many communities have reported increasing populations, affordable housing and jobs following buy-outs. A recent independent study of 12 community owned estates has shown that since community buy-out some 300 housing units have been provided, more than 100 new jobs have been created and business turnover has risen steadily.

The recent Land Reform Act and Community Empowerment Bill have introduced an absolute right-to-buy to further sustainable development and the potential for asset transfer to community ownership for public owned buildings and land. This could force the sale of land to communities where they need a provision such as housing.

Regional differences

Scotland boasts a considerable range of climates, from milder parts of the west coast and islands, which experience little frost, to near Arctic conditions in the Cairngorm mountains inland. The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream have a strong effect on the climate, making it much milder than the corresponding latitude in Canada. Roughly speaking, towards the east it is milder but windier, while the west is colder, with later frosts.

Farm type and produce are dependent on regional variations

 Soil in the west is often more acidic and less fertile, due to a combination of climatic conditions and historic overgrazing.
 The Highlands and Islands contain more areas of altitude than the lowlands of the south and east.
 Sheep and beef farming predominate in the Highlands and Islands
 Most of the cereal crops are produced on the east coast
 Horticulture and permanent fruit crops are mostly situated in east-central and north-east
 Dairy is concentrated in the south-west

Despite such regional generalities, there are considerable differences even within the regions of Scotland, with altitude and distance from the sea amongst the most important factors.

Farm size varies regionally; farms over 200 hectares make up 29% of the farms in the Scottish Borders but only 8% in the Highland region where crofting predominates and 9% for Scotland as a whole. Farm sizes relate to the historical land ownership context in the region and to which crops predominate. For example, cereal crops are largely confined to the east and south of the country where industrialised farming predominates in increasingly large units.

Land markets and prices

The price of farmland has been rising rapidly over the last decade, as investment in land has been seen as a stable investment amid financial uncertainty and the concentration of land has reduced farmland on the market.

 The price of prime agricultural land in Scotland rose from £5000/acre (0.4 hectares) in 2008 to £9000 in 2015.
 There has been some levelling out of prices due political uncertainties caused by land reform, the independence referendum and Brexit.
 However land is still considered a safe bet and speculative asset.
 The price of land varies widely, falling to £700/acre for hill land.
 The price of land, particularly quality farm land, greatly outweighs return for small-scale agriculture making buying land impossible for most people, particularly young people and new entrants to farming.

Crofting provides a potential increase in access to land, however it is often difficult for non-crofters to gain access to a croft and new crofts are rarely created. Around 150 owner-occupied crofts are for sale on the open market each year. The Crofting Commission doesn’t set the prices of crofts, which vary widely.

Anyone in the world can own land in Scotland and as a result foreign and absentee landowners are common, as are complex trusts which avoid inheritance tax and render ownership opaque. There is no restriction on the area of land which is owned: the largest landowner, the Buccleuch family, owns 90, 970 hectares and the second largest, the Dutch businessman Anders Polson, owns 88,370 hectares.

Crofting – a unique social system of small-scale food production

Crofting is a social system of small-scale food production unique to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Crofting stems from the Highland clearances, a period of intense enclosures and forced rural exile. Highland landowners adopted the system in order to manage and move their tenants more easily as part of their so-called ‘improvement’ programmes in the 18th and 19th Centuries. First introduced to the Isle of Lewis in about 1814, the word croft was not in common usage until about the beginning of the 19th century. Until the passing of the first Crofters Act in 1886 there was no separate legislation governing crofting. The Act resulted from widespread resistance to rent hikes and land shortages and resulted in security of tenure, affordable rents and the Crofting Commission.

Crofting is traditionally a tenant system. An ‘average’ croft is around 5 hectares in addition to common grazing shared with other crofters. Most crofts cannot support a family or give full-time employment and most crofters have other occupations to provide the main part of their income. However, it provides a small income in rural areas where the cost of living is low, thereby sustaining rural communities. Cultural traditions associated with crofting have been well sustained by the system, resulting in a strong connection to land and place for many crofting communities.

The land is usually owned by very large estates which dominate the region. Rent is set by the Crofting Commission. Crofting is restricted to the counties which are subject to the Crofting Acts in the north and west of Scotland.

Crofting households account for around 30,000 people in the Highland and Islands – around 30% of households on the mainland highlands and 65% of those on the islands. Crofters have the right to buy their croft and their croft house from their landlord. This has resulted in 2000 of 17,700 crofts becoming owner-occupied. Around 20% of crofts are now under community ownership.

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