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November 28, 2023

Wrong direction

There are many reasons why the land reform cause has remained such a consistent thread running through the legislative programme of the Scottish Parliament. Probably the most compelling of these stems from the exceptionally concentrated patterns of ownership – so much of Scotland’s land being owned by so few people. Exceptional because Scotland is a complete outlier when compared to other European countries. Some recent research into the ownership of forested land published by the Forest Policy Group, concludes that in the past ten years, ownership has actually become more concentrated rather than less. Something’s clearly not working. 

Forest Policy Group

Ownership of Forests is Now More Concentrated Than in 2012

In 2012, we (the Forest Policy Group) commissioned a report on the ownership of Scotland’s forests from the writer and researcher, Andy Wightman. His report showed that Scotland’s forests were owned by comparatively few owners and that this concentrated ownership stood in stark contrast to most of the rest of Europe.

In 2022, we decided to ask Andy to update the statistics and find out what changes, if any, had taken place over the ten years since the publication of the original report. His report, Forest Ownership in Scotland 2022 Ten Year Later, is published today. It is the first of two reports, the second of which, authored by Jon Hollingdale, reviews forest policy in relation to landownership over the year since 2012.

So, what has changed in the ownership of Scotland’s forests? The report contains an analysis of the ownership of woodland in the same four 50km x 50km squares that were examined in 2012 allowing for a direct and accurate comparison. The research identified the ownership of 221,053ha of forested land – 86.6% of all the forest in the sample area.

The extent of forest in the sample area increased by 7.7% compared with 2012 with publicly owned forests decreasing by 2.2% and the privately owned extent increasing by 11.6%. Private forest holdings have become larger with the extent of land held in holdings of over 200ha and over 100ha both increasing.

Over the samples area, 73.5% of all privately owned forest is held in holdings of over 200ha compared with 70.8% in 2012. Holdings over 100ha account for 78.7% of the privately-owned forest, a slight reduction on the 79.2% identified in 2012.

Whilst the extent of forest has increased, the number who own the majority of it has decreased resulting in a greater concentration of ownership compared with ten years earlier. In 2022, 75% of the privately-owned forest (130,979ha) was owned by 164 owners compared with 75% (115,955ha) being owned by 199 owners in 2012.

Ownership remains dominated by financial investment owners and estates with 44.2% of the extent where ownership was identified accounted for by financial and investment owners (41.8% in 2012) and 42.8% owned by traditional estates (46.2% in 2012).

The majority of private forest owners are absentee owners who account for 56.3% of the extent (56.8% in 2012). The majority of the extent is owned by owners who live out-with Scotland in the rest of the UK (68.3% in 2022 compared with 50.2% in 2012) whilst overseas ownership has remained much the same (24.3% of the privately-owned extent in 2022 compared with 23.6% in 2012. As a consequence, the percentage of the area owned by owners domiciled in Scotland has declined from 26.2% in 2012 to 7.4% in 2022.

In summary, therefore, the ownership of privately-owned forest in the sample area have become more concentrated overall and more focused on investment and financial interests based elsewhere in the UK.

Such a pattern continues to be an outlier in European terms where private ownership is far more diverse and small scale and where local government plays a much greater role (for example, 20% of the total forest area of France is owned by municipalities). The reasons for this are historical, legal and cultural but are rooted the land reforms that took place across Europe in past centuries.

These include the abolition of primogeniture and conferring inheritance rights to land on children (something still lacking in Scotland), the abolition of feudal tenure, providing tenants with ownership and strong local government.

The report concludes that ownership matters and that providing greater opportunities to individuals, businesses and communities can only be achieved through reform to land governance. In the immediate term, this requires better information on the pattern of forest ownership, something which is in the power of Scottish Ministers to collect in order to better inform public policy.

Both reports are available to download in links below:

Report 1 – FPG Forest Ownership

Report 2 – FPG Forest Ownership Policy Review