The UK of GB&NI is not so much a wounded country as a lacerated one. In 2016 I rode my bike across the wild, northern heart of our family of nations in the wake of the vote that added yet another sword-slash to the face of Britannia. The trip that forms the basis of my book Overlander was from Taynuilt on the west coast of Scotland to Findhorn on the Moray Firth, digging an inspection trench across the Grampians, the mountain range between the central belt and the Great Glen. Taking a mix of estate roads, coffin paths, logging tracks, military roads and disused railways brought me into wild, open places where few people now venture but where I could go and camp freely under Scottish access laws, something that England and Wales might well want to consider copying.
Amongst the stark beauty I detected a few scents that were less than healthy.
When you ride a bicycle through wilderness your eyes, ears and nostrils are opened up. Unlike in a car there’s no roof so if you look up you see the sky. There’s no floor so the ground, or indeed the water, over which you are travelling is available for immediate inspection. You feel the wind on your face, arms and legs and you can smell things long before and long after they’re in view. Amongst the stark beauty I detected a few scents that were less than healthy.
It’s been well-known, since MSP Andy Wightman’s pioneering work, that around 500 legal entities own the bulk of Scotland, subdividing it into shooting estates. I crossed about 20 of these and the overall impression is grim. There are odd corners where wildlife and trees are hanging on, but the reality of crossing north Britain is mile-upon-mile of sterilised heather monoculture and scrubby grassland under empty skies. It doesn’t have to be this way – it’s a deliberate choice that is the result of power structures in our society.
The legal structures that allowed communities’ common holdings to be swept up into private hands are maintained by an army of lawyers. The estates are often held in obscure legal vehicles: either offshore shell companies like Astel Ltd of Jersey and Compania Financiera Waterville SA of Panama, that own the Craiganour and Dalnaspidal estates respectively, or onshore trusts. Both mask the identities of the people that actually control and draw wealth from huge parts of our country.
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Originally funded by the proceeds of the Industrial Revolution, small-scale farmers were thrown off land that was bought and turned over to field sports. Bedecked in moss-covered traditions that were actually invented on the spot, access to shooting was and is a mark of social standing. To maximise the number of red deer stags and grouse the land is utterly ravaged. Competing wildlife from mountain hares to stoats, foxes, badgers and birds of prey are dispensed with in ways that are legal or illegal. Gamekeepers constituted 75 per cent of those convicted of harming birds of prey between 1996 and 2008 according to the excellent investigative work of Ruth Tingay. Moorland is burnt regularly to keep the vegetation from regenerating.
The result is often a wet desert inhabited only by half-tame deer and grouse so heavily medicated they have to be dumped in landfill once they’ve been gunned out of the sky by paying customers. They simply aren’t fit for consumption.
Incredibly all this is frequently subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy. If land is kept clear of trees then it counts as potentially cultivable and therefore qualifies for public money. The exact amounts can be hard to come by precisely because it’s so hard to know who actually owns the estates, but the holding company of Craiganour got at least £90,000 of our money in 2016, partly for ‘practices beneficial for climate and environment’, a joke almost as bleak as the upland portion of that estate. Anyone can look that number up on the DEFRA website for any estate but you have to know what the legal entity is called and finding that out takes a bit of skill, knowledge and money. It might be instructive to look up the Duke of Westminster’s land in the near-treeless ‘forest of Bowland’ near Preston.
We’re almost all completely cut off from nature and estranged from the land we live on. As I churned and ploughed my way across the nation I became intensely convinced that we need to change the way our uplands are managed, and not just for aesthetic or esoteric reasons. Whole swathes of northern England – sometimes notionally designated as ‘national parks’ – is given over to the farming of grouse to be shot by a privileged few. This is land that should be a wildlife reserve for Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. We can do so much better for ourselves and for the natural world that is a vital component of the economy and our own humanity.
Alan Brown is a director of Bike Station, a cycling charity that promotes good mental and physical health through encouraging people to cycle. His first book, Overlander: Bikepacking Coast to Coast Across the Heart of the Highlands is out now (Saraband, £9.99)
Image: Joseph Joyce