So who owns Scotland? RSPB No 8 in our league of top landowners

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THE Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has become the eighth-biggest landowner in Scotland, research by The Scotsman has revealed.

In the third day of our series investigating who owns Scotland, we reveal that Europe's largest conservation charity owns a vast – and rapidly growing – amount of land.

The Scotsman has put together a list of the 20 biggest landowners in Scotland.

The RSPB, which is one of the UK's richest charities, now owns more than 124,000 acres, putting it at number eight in the list.

The top 20 is still dominated by the wealthy families that have historically owned large areas of land. However, there has been a rise in ownership by charities, and by community organisations.

The RSPB has been acquiring land at one of the fastest rates of any landowner. When a similar top 20 list was collated in 2000, it stood at number 15 with 87,000 acres.

In the past eight years, it has acquired nearly 50 per cent more land, and more purchases are expected in the future.

It is now the charity with the second-largest amount of land in the country, after the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

The NTS, which acquires large areas that are bequeathed to it, owns 192,000 acres, but is expected to limit the amount of land taken on in future owing to financial difficulties.

The John Muir Trust, a charity set up to safeguard wild land, owns about 25,000 hectares including Ben Nevis, Scotland's highest mountain.

The majority of the RSPB's acquisitions in the past eight years have been in the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland. Once considered barren and ecologically worthless, large areas were planted with commercial forest.

However, in the past few decades, it has been recognised that the peatland and wetland that makes up the Flow Country are among the most important for conservation in the UK, and they are now an EU priority habitat, and a special area of conservation.

They support important populations of wading birds such as plovers and curlews.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said: "It's a unique habitat in world terms.

"A lot of our acquisitions have been driven by the effort to remove commercial forestry inappropriately positioned in the 1970s and 80s on blanket bog."

Since buying new areas of land in the Flow Country, the charity has been removing the commercial forests, and blocking thousands of drains to stop the rainfall that is crucial for keeping the bog moist from flowing away.

Other areas bought by RSPB in Scotland over the past eight years include Barclye Farm next to Wood of Cree in Dumfries and Galloway, and land in Inversnaid at the northern end of Loch Lomond. In both areas, native woodland is being restored.

The charity, which is one of the wealthiest in the UK, has also bought land in Broubster and Dunnet Head in Caithness.

Mr Orr-Ewing said: "It's like building a big jigsaw, really. A lot of the species we are working hard to conserve require large areas of habitat.

"When you are dealing with things like climate change, the larger the sites, the more robust they are in dealing with these sorts of threats."

He added that the RSPB is keen to have a say in decisions about whether areas of important natural land in Scotland are developed.

"In some places where we think there are development threats facing important natural heritage sites, we will acquire land to make sure we have a stake in the future of these sites," he said.

He highlighted that RSPB Scotland allows public access to all its land, often building viewing sites or providing CCTV facilities to enable visitors to watch birds and other wildlife.

"We think it's very important that, if we are going to conserve wildlife in the future, the public are able to go on and see what we do."

The RSPB was formed in 1889 to counter the trade in grebe "fur". This was the skin and soft under-pelt of a great crested grebe's breast feathers, that were used as a fur substitute in ladies' fashions.

Already this week, The Scotsman has revealed a sharp rise in the number of community ventures owning land in Scotland, the largest of which is South Uist Estate. It owns almost the whole of Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist.

Alcan, at number six, has also played a part in increasing community ownership.

It transferred the village of Kinlochleven into the ownership of a community venture, the Kinlochleven Land Development Trust.

RSPB – 124,172 acres

THE Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is one of the UK's richest charities and has used part of its wealth to become one of the most rapidly acquiring landowners in Scotland.

When the top 20 list of Scottish landowners was put together in 2000, the RSPB was 15th with 87,000 acres. It now sits eighth with almost 50 per cent more land in its Scottish holdings to date and more purchases expected in the future.

The organisation manages 75 nature reserves totalling 165,622 acres in Scotland, owning 124,172 acres. The rest of the land has management agreements in place.

The RSPB has reintroduced species such as the white-tailed eagle and set up visitor attractions.

Its largest site is the 43,754-acre Forsinard Flows nature reserve in Caithness and Sutherland, an important habitat for golden plover, dunlin and merlin.

Other important reserves are Coll, home to corncrakes; Dunnet Head in Orkney, famed for puffins, guillemots, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes; and Loch Garten, home of the osprey. Its biggest concentration of land is in Orkney, where it owns and runs 13 reserves.

The RSPB's massive holdings and thousands of members make it a powerful force in Scotland and across the UK.

Alcan – 135,000 acres

ALCAN, the global smelting and metals company best known for producing aluminium, was for a long time the largest landowner in the Highlands.

Based in Canada but with offices and a factory in Fort William, it has fallen from third place in the 2000 "Who Owns Scotland" list to sixth.

The former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, whose MP's constituency covers part of Alcan's land holdings, has a family connection with the company – his grandfather, Donald, used to work for it.

Much of its land is in the western Highlands and is connected with the company's mining interests and foundries. Although Alcan's speciality lies in metal, it manages its estates like many other landowners. The estates are extensively worked to provide employment in agriculture, forestry and field sports in remote areas.

The company also plays a part in promoting the tourism industry, incorporating the Ben Nevis range and other popular hillwalking areas.

It has started handing land over to community groups encouraged to take up ownership through the 2003 Land Reform Act.

One example was the transfer of land to the 1,000 villagers of Kinlochleven, where it used to have a factory. The property is now owned and run by the Kinlochleven Development Trust which initially received about 3.7 acres but has leased a much larger area.

Crown Estates – 106,000 acres

THE Crown Estates are the lands that historically belong to the monarch although, unlike Balmoral, they are not privately owned by the Queen but are attached to the title.

The modern Crown Estates Commission is a combination of the lands historically owned by the monarchs of England and Scotland as well as lands acquired since the two crowns were combined.

In Scotland the property is mainly made up of the Fochabers and Glenlivet estates in the North-east and the Whitehill estate in the Borders.

The commission also owns commercial properties in Edinburgh and Stirling which are let out. These include shops in Princes Street, Edinburgh.

Scottish monarchs bequeathed land to local corporations to manage and, in effect, own in charitable trusts. This was mostly done by Robert the Bruce, with two modern beneficiaries being the city councils in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, who can use the resulting revenue for common good but not to finance normal local government activities.

One of the factors of land ownership for the Crown Estates Commission in Scotland means that, in effect, it could be top of the list. The commission owns most of Scotland's foreshore, and all the seabed stretching for 12 nautical miles out to sea.

This has led to it being a target for environmental groups, particularly concerning military manoeuvres out at sea and the effects of bombs on dolphins and whales.

Duke of Westminster – 120,000 acres

THE current duke, the sixth, is Major-General Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, one of the biggest landowners in the UK.

Currently worth 7 billion, putting him third on the UK rich list, he owns thousands of acres in Scotland as well as Belgravia and Mayfair in London and vast tracts of land in Canada and Spain.

In Scotland the bulk of his land is in the Grosvenor Reay Forest Estate in Sutherland. The landscape of the estate is among the most diverse in Scotland. It ranges from the flat sandstone of Caithness to the mountainous west coast.

Commercially and privately the property is still popular for hunting and fishing, although it also contains wildlife areas and is particularly famous for its mammal populations including pine martens, otters, seals and, of course, red deer.

In the past the Duke has been praised by conservationists for helping to protect wildlife on his property. One charity suggested that the survival of the hen harrier, which is under threat largely because of poison put down by gamekeepers, is thanks to the policies of the Duke and the Queen.

The Duke hit the headlines in October 2008 as one of many campaigners across the country trying to stop British Telecom from removing pay phones. BT had thought the pay phone in Achfary on his estate was surplus to requirements as it was used less than 30 times in 2007. The Duke strongly disagreed, warning that removing it could cause problems for walkers.

Alwyn Farquharson – 125,000 acres

THE land-holding fortune of Captain Alwyn Farquharson of Invercauld originated with a gift to the family from Robert the Bruce in the 14th century.

The 125,000-acre Invercauld Estate on Royal Deeside is situated next to the Queen's 50,000-acre Balmoral Estate.

Captain Farquharson's estate was used in the film The Queen. In one scene, a great stag – which had caught the Queen's eye and with which she somehow empathised following the death of Princess Diana – was killed by a businessman in a shooting party.

The estate, though, is probably best known among walkers, especially those who enjoy climbing Munros, as it is at the heart of the Cairngorm National Park.

Like many of Scotland's estates, it is managed to protect the environment while making money from grouse shoots, deer stalking and salmon fishing. It also generates income as a film location and employs 25 staff specifically to help out film crews.

Invercauld is also one of the locations for supposed sightings of a big, panther-like cat. Inconclusive footage was shot in fields by Carse Wood on the estate in 2003.

The current family seat and one of the estate's most famous features is Braemar Castle. It was built in 1628 by the Earl of Mar on the site of an older castle, and was used by Hanoverian troops to control parts of the Highlands after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745.