The subject of Deer Forests has naturally engaged our attention. Statements have been of late years frequently made, both in the newspapers and by public speakers, to the effect that deer forests are the cause of depopulation in the Highlands, and are productive of injury to the inhabitants that remain. In several of the papers read by witnesses during our inquiry similar expressions have occurred. It is proposed, therefore, to enumerate the principal grounds of complaint, and to comment on each in detail.
It must here be remarked, that while we should have wished to confine this branch of our report to the effect of deer forests upon crofters and cottars, so as to keep within the limits of our reference, this has been found impossible. The social and economical aspects of the question have presented themselves at every turn, and have formed the basis of almost every answer given under examination, even when the original statement of the witness had reference to the effect of forests on the general subject of our inquiry, viz., crofters and cottars.
The principal objections advanced against deer forests, as presented to us. are the following:—
1. That they have been created to a great extent by the eviction or removal of the inhabitants, and have been the cause of depopulation.
2. That land now cleared for deer might be made available for profitable occupation by crofters.
3. That it might at all events be occupied by sheep farmers, and that a great loss of mutton and wool to the nation night thus be avoided.
4. That in some places, where deer forests are contiguous to arable land in the occupation of crofters, damage is done to the crops of the latter by the deer.
5. That deer deteriorate the pasture.
6. That the temporary employment of gillies and others in connection with deer forests has a demoralizing effect.
In regard to the first of these objections, we have to state that we have only found, during the course of our inquiry, one clearly established case in evidence of the removal of crofters for the purpose of adding to an already existing forest, though other cases might be cited of the diminution of crofting area for the same purpose, and on further examination examples of the transfer of families might probably be discovered. In the particular case referred to, eighteen small crofters were removed, the greater part to places in the vicinity of their former holdings, while some few of them went to America. This incident took place about thirty years ago. The existing deer forests, which have been created for the most part within the last thirty years, have been, as far as made known to us, formed out of large farms by simply removing the sheep and allowing deer, of which there was generally a greater or less number already there, to fill up the ground so vacated.
Depopulation, therefore, cannot be directly attributed to deer forests, unless it can be shown that they employ fewer people than sheep farms. As to this not much evidence has been brought before us, but it may be assumed that the following statement accurately represents the true facts of the case. The number of persons permanently employed in connection with deer forests as compared with sheep farms is about the same, the persons employed all the year round being foresters in the one case and shepherds in the other; and in regard to temporary or occasional employment the advantage is in favour of deer forests. The extra labour required on a sheep farm consists of a few assistants at lambing time, a certain number of smearers for six weeks in October and November, and a few additional hands when required for the young sheep while at their winter quarters. Of late years, owing to the low price of wool, dipping has to a great extent taken the place of smearing, and the former operation is carried out by the regular shepherds on the farm. In deer forests, on the other hand, besides the regular foresters or keepers, there are a considerable number of gillies employed for two months every year, and many of these let their ponies for hire, and earn from 6s. to 7s. 6d. per day. They are mostly crofters or crofters' sons residing in the neighbourhood. In some cases not a few of these men are kept during the whole year round working in the forest in various ways—making roads or paths, cutting wood or planting, constructing dykes or fences. These cannot strictly be called permanent servants, yet their labour would not be required if a sheep farmer were to take the place of a sporting tenant.
2. It is said that much of the land now cleared for deer might be made available for profitable occupation by crofters. The evidence on this head is, as might be supposed, very conflicting. Those who pressed the theory most closely brought forward in its support cases where undoubtedly land now under forest had been formerly occupied by crofters, and where crofters might again be located. It may, however, be fairly stated that by far the larger portion of land devoted to deer is to be found at such altitudes, and consists so much of rock, heather, and moor as to be unsuitable for crofters, except as sheilings or summer grazings for cattle and sheep. It is of course true that there are few deer forests where an occasional spot of hard green land might not be found which would be available for a crofter's residence and cultivation; but, looking to the small proportion of arable to pasture land in such places, it may fairly be assumed that almost insuperable difficulties would be offered to the settlement of crofters in these deer forests, as they would find it impossible to defray the expense of purchasing the large sheep stock which the ground is competent to carry, even though they would not in this case be obliged to take over the stock on the ground at a valuation.
3. This brings us to the third objection to deer forests, which is that most commonly employed, and one which affects not only the inhabitants of the Highlands, but the whole community. It is alleged that deer forests might be occupied by sheep farmers, and that a great loss of mutton and wool to the nation might thus be avoided.
We have already recorded our regret that we have been compelled to depart from the strict limits of our reference, and to enter into the economic aspect of this question. We would, however, think it wrong, even when considering it from the point of view of the public interest, to lose sight altogether of the crofter, inasmuch as the welfare of the whole community must, to a great extent, depend on the prosperity of each of the various classes which compose it. This aspect of the question formed the subject of an inquiry by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, consisting of twenty-one members, in 1872-73, who received, subsequently to their appointment, a special instruction to inquire into the laws for the protection of deer in Scotland, with reference to their general bearing upon the interests of the community.' The report on this branch of their inquiry was unanimous, and to the effect that the evidence submitted to them did not bear out either of the allegations, that deer forests tended to the depopulation of the country, or that by the displacement of sheep for deer the food supply of the nation has been diminished. The Committee also reported that at that date, 1873, the number of sheep actually displaced by deer, taking the highest estimate, could not exceed 400,000. As the question whether the substitution of deer for sheep involves a substantial loss of food to the community or not, turns mainly on the numbers of sheep which are displaced, we thought it desirable to take all possible means of comparing estimates on this subject derived from various sources. It has been found difficult to obtain evidence in favour of sheep farms as against deer forests, in a form of which we could profitably avail ourselves. Most of the statements have been verbal, and these have been of so general a character as to be of little use to us for accurate analysis; and the same may be said of the very few written statements with which we have been favoured. Among the witnesses adverse to deer forests who came before us, only one submitted an estimate of the number of sheep which he thought could be carried by the tracts now occupied by deer; this number he stated at 2,000,000, but in his examination it came out that he was calculating at the rate of 1½ sheep to the acre. This calculation would imply that 1,600,000 acres are under deer. Now it is beyond dispute that no hill land in the Highlands will graze sheep at the rate of 1½ to the acre. We believe that on the best forest land it takes about 4 acres to graze a sheep, and on the worst perhaps 8 acres; but these are both extremes, and over the greater portion of the land devoted to deer forests we believe the average number of acres required to graze a sheep cannot be less than 5. Therefore, correcting this witness's calculation by what is easily ascertained, and will be generally admitted to be fact, it comes out that there are, accepting the area suggested by this witness, 320,000 sheep displaced by deer. Another witness who has entered into the whole question of deer forests with great care and detail, makes out that the number of sheep displaced by deer is 335,900. The Secretary to the Commission has prepared, with much zeal and ability, a map showing the position and area of all the deer forests of Scotland, which is likely to prove both useful and interesting. According to his computation the number of acres under forest in Scotland is 1,975,210, which, allowing 5 acres for each sheep, would fix the number of sheep which might be grazed on forest land at 395,000. We have thus figures derived from four different sources,—those of the Game Law and Deer Forest Committee; those deduced from the statement of an adverse witness; those of a favourable witness; and those prepared under our own instructions. The Committee gives 400,000, one witness 320,000, another 335,000, while our own estimate is 395,000. It may thus be assumed, in the absence of any contradictory evidence, that the figure 395,000 fairly represents the number of sheep which might be grazed on land now occupied by deer forests. Before calculating the quantity of mutton which would thus annually be lost to the country, further deductions might be made, which would no doubt be legitimate, but which need not be here taken into consideration. Suffice it to say, that as sheep in the Highlands do not come into the market until they are three years old, and making no allowance for losses, there would be an additional annual supply of about 132,000 if all these forests were fully stocked with sheep. It is thus abundantly evident that in view of the sheep in the United Kingdom amounting to 27 ½ millions, besides all the beef grown at home, and all the beef and mutton imported, both dead and alive, from abroad, the loss to the community is not only insignificant but almost inappreciable, while owing to the large importation of wool from abroad, the additional supply of home-grown wool would be altogether unimportant, if the area now occupied by deer were devoted to sheep.
We have not considered it necessary to introduce here, as a matter for serious consideration, the amount of venison raised on the areas vacated by sheep, though, in the opinion of a competent authority, the weight of meat thus provided amounts to one-fifth of the mutton displaced. The venison is not brought into the general market; but what is not consumed in the family of the sporting tenant, or bestowed elsewhere in the form of presents, is given away among the poorer classes in the country, to whom this gratuitous supply of animal food is of some appreciable benefit.
4. The complaint that arable ground possessed by crofters when in the vicinity of a forest is liable to be ravaged by deer,is one which has been brought several times under our notice. In some cases the proprietor has, when appealed to by the crofters, shown readiness to erect a fence to protect their crops from depredation, or to afford aid in warding off the deer; but in others the small tenant has been left without protection and without assistance, in which case the cultivator is exposed to a double prejudice,—substantial injury and the hardship of night watching. Where the forest from which the deer proceed is adjacent to the crofter, and belongs to the proprietor of the crofter's holding, the remedy, in our opinion, is clear and simple. The proprietor should be bound to erect a sufficient deer fence round the arable land of the township, or the individual crofter's holding, in so far as is requisite for the complete protection of the party or parties injured. This fence should be maintained by the proprietor in regard to skilled labour, transport, and purchased materials, the crofters being held to afford unskilled labour on the ground. The case becomes much more complex and difficult to determine when the deer issue not from a forest belonging to the proprietor of the holding injured, or not only from such a forest, but from forests more or less remote,—in fact from the whole neighbouring country. In such a case the question maybe asked, on whom is it incumbent to erect the crofter's fence ? It may be replied that the claim of the crofter should lie in the first instance against his own proprietor, as the only source from which he can obtain prompt and cheap reparation, leaving it to the proprietor to recover in whole or in part from the other proprietors of lands haunted by deer in the neighbourhood,—a process which might be carried out by a summary assessment of the share of responsibility incumbent on each by the Sheriff acting as arbitrator. This might, however, be deemed difficult to carry into execution, and perhaps hard on the proprietor of the injured holding, who might not only be guiltless of all participation in the injury inflicted, but might himself be exposed to the same injury, and be generally averse to deer and forests and all connected with them. To oblige a proprietor not only to afford defence and satisfaction to a tenant whom he never wronged, but to undertake litigation on behalf of that tenant, would indeed appear the reverse of equitable. If the proprietor, on the other hand, be exonerated, it is equally apparent that a poor crofting tenant would find it onerous to pursue his own case and extort compensation or the performance and maintenance of work from proprietors perhaps remote, and reluctant to adjust their respective liabilities. Under such circumstances the only practical solution might be to grant an inalienable right to the crofter to kill the deer on his arable land when found injuring his crop; and this alternative would be most consistent with the principles embodied in the Ground Game Act of 1881.
5. The question of the comparative deterioration of pasture under deer or sheep is one which has been brought to our notice, and on which the evidence is conflicting. It is contended by some that from the vagrant and desultory habits of deer, as well as from their relatively smaller number, much of the grass remains uncropped, that a wild and rank vegetation springs up, that the surface lapses into a state of nature, and that the neglect of burning and surface draining accelerates this result. It is replied that there is abundant evidence to show that hill ground which has for a long period been pastured by sheep alone also shows unmistakable signs of deterioration—that the surface is in many places overgrown with moss and inferior grasses, and that such land at the present day carries a smaller number of sheep than it did thirty or forty years ago. It is argued by persons who hold the above views that the reason for the present inferiority of the pasture is easily discovered, and that it lies in the continuous exhaustion of the lime and phosphates which are required to build up the frame of the animal, while there is no restoration to the soil of any of its more valuable constituents in the shape of top dressing; and further, that if any manurial value may be attached to the droppings of either animal on the rough mountain pasture of the Highlands, the advantage ought rather to be credited to the deer than to the sheep. Without expressing a definite opinion on so technical a point, we may remark that if land grazed by deer be deteriorated in consequence of want of burning, that deterioration is obviously of a remediable nature, and it is perhaps the case that the burning of grass of a ranker character than is usually left where sheep form the stock might afford the only practicable mode of conveying to the tops and steep sides of mountains that artificial manure in the shape of ash of which by almost universal consent they stand so much in need. Whatever be the relative merits in this respect of sheep and deer, there is a general concurrence in favour of reverting to an admixture of black cattle as a means of restoring the fertility of the soil.
6. The last complaint in connection with deer forests which we have to notice is the alleged demoralizing effect of sporting employment on the character of the people brought into contact with it.Those engaged in deer forests usually begin as gillies and gradually work their way up to the position of underkeepers, some of them eventually becoming head keepers and foresters. When not the sons of old keepers, they are drawn from the crofter class. Gillies are almost entirely small crofters, or the sons of such, and when the work of the shooting season is over they return to their ordinary occupations at home. The men referred to have often the charge of valuable ponies and dogs, they have to rise early in the morning, they are frequently brought into personal intercourse with their employers, and in all respects irregular or intemperate habits are incompatible with the punctual and efficient performance of their special duties. It is possible, on the other hand, that the nature of their avocation and associations may offer them temptations and opportunities of casual indulgence to which they would not be exposed in their domestic life. Much in this matter must depend on the character and position of the employer. When the employer is at the same time proprietor, or when he belongs to the high class of permanent occupiers frequently found on sporting estates in the Highlands, safeguards are secured which may, and no doubt generally do, effectually control the conduct of the subordinate. When, on the other hand, the connection between the sporting tenant and the locality is transitory, or when his personal disposition renders him careless of the morals of his servants, or a bad example to them, the result might be very different. It must be remembered, however, that temptations to dissipation are not tendered to the youth of the Highlands by sporting employments only. They may be found with equal facility and less qualified by wholesome influences in connection with the existence of a sea-faring man, a fisherman, or a casual labourer in the Lowlands,—in fact, in all the other walks of labour and of gain to which the Highlanders betake themselves, and betake themselves with confidence and success. That there is a certain number of persons living loosely on the custom of tourists, anglers, and occasional sportsmen in the Highlands, and thus engaged in pursuits unfavourable to habits of settled industry, is undoubtedly true; but these people are not attached to forests, and their existence is inseparable from the general attractions of the country. Having thus dealt with certain objections which have been made to the system of deer foresting, as practised up to the present time, we proceed to review the general question as it affects the conditions of life in the Highlands, and to make such remarks as we think are called for on the evidence which has been submitted to us.
It appears to us that the subject may be summarised in the two following comprehensive questions:—
1. Does the occupation of land as deer forest inflict any hardship or injury upon any class of the community, and if so, upon what class ?
2. Does the occupation of land as deer forest produce any profit or benefit to any class of the community, and if so, to what class ?
The foregoing portion of this report goes far to cover the first of these two questions. It has been shown that crofters have rarely, at least in recent times, been removed to make or add to deer forests; that comparatively little of the land so occupied could now be profitably cultivated or pastured by small tenants; that no appreciable loss is occasioned to the nation, either in mutton or wool, and that the charge of inducing idle and intemperate habits among the population is not consistent with experience. There remains the class of sheep farmers, of whom it may be said that if they are affected at all it is only in connection with the cost of wintering their hill sheep, and that in this respect deer forests have undoubtedly benefited those who remain by diminishing competition.
We next have to inquire whether deer forests are of substantial benefit to the various classes which compose the community in the Highlands. There can be no doubt that in the case of landowners this is so. If it were otherwise they would clearly not let their land for the purpose. The advantage is especially felt at the present moment, when sheep farms are very difficult to let. The causes which have led to this difficulty may be shortly stated as follows:—
The high price of sheep, and the low price of wool, which means that a farmer has to find a larger capital than formerly, while his profits are less; and the great and increasing cost of wintering his young sheep during the five months of the year when they cannot be kept at home. But perhaps the principal deterrent to the man who might be induced to offer for a sheep farm is the uncertainty as to the price which he may be called on to pay for the stock, owing to the prevailing system of valuations, under which there has been a gradual tendency of late years to augment the price far beyond what the practice formerly was, and greatly in excess of the market value of the animal. This is likely to continue until some system is adopted under which the price of sheep stocks shall be fixed by sworn valuers appointed and partly paid for by the county. On the other hand, when the tenant of a large pastoral farm comes to the end of his lease, and finds exceptionally high prices going for sheep, there is a strong temptation to take advantage of the opportunity and to quit the farm. The proprietor thus finds himself with a large sheep farm thrown on his hands which he does not want, and to enter upon which he has to provide many thousands of pounds, without much prospect of making such profit as will pay him both his rent and a fair interest on his capital. It can hardly be a matter of surprise that in these circumstances he tries to lot his land as a deer forest, and secure a good rent, besides relieving himself of what must involve great expense and a heavy responsibility. We believe that if it were not for deer forests, and if the present condition of sheep farms is prolonged, much of the land in the Highlands might be temporarily unoccupied, or occupied on terms ruinous to the proprietor.
It has been shown in evidence that not only does the proprietor derive pecuniary benefit from the system, but that, either through himself or his shooting tenant, substantial advantages have accrued to other classes of persons resident in the district. In the first place, the high rents given for deer forests must have the result of reducing local taxation, and this affects the smallest crofter as well as the largest farmer. If the rental of a parish is £20,000 a year, and £5000 of that is derived from deer forests, of which again £3000 is the excess of value over the same land let as a sheep farm, then it is clear that the net increase of rental owing to deer forests is over 17 per cent., and the expenditure on poor, schools, and roads being stationary, the assessment required to raise these rates would, in the absence of the deer forest rent, be in the same proportion higher upon the remaining ratepayers. The same advantage would of course be secured where the deer forest rent is equalled by a grouse rent added to that paid by the sheep farmer. The material advantage to the inhabitants of such districts does not, however, stop here. We have evidence that a very large expenditure has been effected, both by owners and lessees of deer forests, which would not certainly have been the case in their absence. Especially as regards those who have recently purchased Highland properties, it seems that, while a deer forest formed the chief original attraction, this may subsequently become only an incident in the charm of a Highland residence, and that a great portion of the improvements made by new proprietors has little direct reference to sport. As instances of the latter may be mentioned the erection of houses of a class far superior to mere shooting-lodges, roads, farm buildings, and, above all, plantations, which in some cases are on a very large scale, and which, so far from being immediately dependent on, or connected with, deer, require to be carefully protected from them by 6 foot wire fences. The expenditure directly connected with deer forests occupied by tenants includes bridle paths, shooting-lodges, and keepers' houses, besides a good deal of wire-fencing, sometimes between sheep and deer, and sometimes between one deer forest and another! Taken together, the expenditure is very large. As this fact is so generally known, we did not think it desirable to make a special inquiry into the amount of money spent by owners or lessees of deer forests throughout the country, and we took evidence only from those gentlemen who were otherwise under examination. These were Mr Fowler of Braemore, who stated his expenditure in the district during eighteen years to have been £105,000; Lord Tweedmouth, £50,000; Sir John Ramsden, £180,000. Mr Malcolm gives four instances which have come under his own observation, and which we have reason to believe occurred in his own parish, where the ordinary expenditure during a period ranging from three to seventeen years amounted in the aggregate to £21,209, and for thesame periods there was a special expenditure on improvements of £65,876. These figures speak for themselves, and when contrasted with the amount of money spent in the same districts formerly by the sheep farmer, often a non-resident, or what would be now spent there by the local manager of the same farm, occupied by the proprietor against his will, there is hardly occasion for comment or comparison. One inference, and an important one, is to be drawn from these figures, viz., that a crofting population in the vicinity of these deer forests is chiefly instrumental in the execution of such improvements. Labour such as is required for the purpose could not entirely be imported from a distance, and the system by which most of these works arc executed by the working people of the district, at such periods of the year when they are not required for agricultural operations, must prove beneficial both to the employer and the employed. The class of persons who find work in connection with deer forests embraces masons, joiners, plasterers, plumbers, and slaters, with the labourers for each trade; wire-fencers, road-makers, blacksmiths, carriers, besides local shop-keepers and these actually employed during the shooting season as gillies with or without their ponies. It will be thus seen that, contrary to what is probably the popular belief, deer forests in a far greater degree than sheep farms afford employment to the various classes above mentioned, and this consideration forms, in our judgment, the most interesting of all those which have been submitted to us.
It is to be remarked, however, that the formation of deer forests is also calculated to perpetuate in an altered form an evil which has often been submitted to our attention,—the absence of a graduated local representation of the various orders of society. Under the system of pastoral farming on a large scale tins defect is deeply felt. The labouring class is represented by the crofter, the cottar, and the shepherd ; the large farmer is the absent tenant of an absent landlord. The minister, the doctor, the schoolmaster, and the factor, thinly scattered at great intervals over the forsaken country, are the oily representatives of culture, of counsel, and of power. This forlorn feature in the social aspect of some remoter parts of the Highlands is changed, but not much mitigated, by the transfer of the farm to forest. For a brief space in the year the sporting tenant appears at the lodge with company, expenditure, and benefaction in his train ; but the area consolidated in a single hand is greater still, the gulf between the labouring people and the leaders of social life is as wide as ever, the leaders are less concerned in local interests, and intermediate social positions are blotted out.
Having said thus much on the origin of existing deer forests, and their effect on the various interests connected with them, and by which they are surrounded, we cannot close this branch of our Report without some reference to the results which might attend an unjustifiable extension of the area thus employed. It has been stated to us in evidence, that most of the land specially adapted by its natural features, and by the habits of the deer, for this purpose, and which can without substantial injustice to other interests be thus applied, is now appropriated, and that the formation of other forests to any great extent is not likely to take place. This may be the case, if we regard the practice of the sport over large areas, with the maximum amount of skill and exertion, such as the best class of stalkers desire to use, but we are not satisfied that, under the temptation of pecuniary inducements, especially at the present time, the afforestment of the country might not be expanded with sufficient opportunities for sport at lower altitudes, on better land, in a better climate, nearer to or within the zone of profitable cultivation and pasture, especially within those limits which might afford a suitable situation for the establishment of small holdings and the extension of crofting cultivation. These considerations render it obligatory on us to guard ourselves distinctly against certain inferences which might be deduced from statements and admissions embodied in our preceding remarks. We have considered it our duty to record unequivocally the opinion that the dedication of large areas exclusively to the purposes of sport, as at present practised in the Highlands, does not involve a substantial diminution of food supply to the nation, and we have amply recognised the various benefits which are in many cases associated with the sporting system, where it is exercised in a liberal and judicious spirit. In doing this our design has been to qualify and correct erroneous impressions which are prevalent in many quarters on this subject. We would not, however, have it thought that the views which we have here expressed imply an approval of the present appropriation of land in all cases to unproductive uses, far less an undiscriminating application of additional tracts to a similar purpose in future. The productive areas abroad available for the supply of the British market are so vast, the means of transport have been so much developed, and the powers of purchase and consumption in our populous districts are exerted on go great a scale that, as long as the sea is open, additional and more fruitful lands in our country might still be sterilised without any sensible effect on the quantity or price of provisions accessible to the industrial masses. The soil of a whole county, even of a whole region here, might be laid waste, and the deficit would be promptly covered by the dispatch of grain from Manitoba or California, and of meat from Texas or Australia. The extinction of production in Scotland would involve no appreciable scarcity in Lancashire or London, except in reference to the highest quality of live meat; it would only furnish a stimulus to industry in some foreign state or colonial dependency. Yet who would admit that Scotland should be made a wilderness, even if the inhabitants were provided with better lands and more lucrative occupations elsewhere? No one could contemplate the conversion of the whole extent of good pasture land, and of possible arable land, at a moderate elevation in the Highlands into forest, without alarm and reprobation, and it is scarcely necessary to say that any serious movement towards such an issue would be arrested by the force of public opinion, attended with an amount of irritation much to be deprecated. We do not anticipate with any degree of certainty that the contingency to which- we have adverted would arise, but considering the divergency of opinion expressed, the possibility of unfortunate results, and the prevailing excitement in connection with this question, we may well consider whether Your Majesty's Government and Parliament may not contemplate such legislative restrictions as would restrain the progressive and immoderate afforestment of land, and allay the apprehensions which are widely felt upon the subject. Assuming that this suggestion is worthy of being entertained, we trust that we shall not be thought to go beyond the confines of our Commission, in offering, suggestively, some indication of the lines on which legislation might possibly proceed.
It is our opinion that provisions should be framed, under which the crofting class would be protected against any diminution, for the purpose of afforestment, of arable or pasture area now in their possession, and by which the areas which might hereafter form the most appropriate scene for expanding cultivation, and small holdings, should be preserved from curtailment; if this were done the interests of the class for whom we are specially concerned would be effectually secured.
The former object would be secured by a simple stipulation, that no land at present occupied as arable or pasture by tenants in a crofting township, or by separate crofters, should be withdrawn from such occupancy for the purposes of sport, except in exchange for other lands of like value and convenience, and with the free consent of the occupiers. The latter object is more difficult of attainment, but the following alternative suggestions are submitted for discussion.
The appropriation of land to the purposes of deer forest might be prohibited below a prescribed contour line of elevation, so drawn as to mark in a general but effective way the limit of profitable root and cereal cultivation, of artificial pasture, and of pasture adapted for wintering live stock, a line which on the east side of Scotland, in a high latitude, might be approximately fixed at an altitude of 1000 feet above the sea level, and on the western seaboard at a lower level than 1000 feet, making allowance locally for the convenience of the march. The advantage attached to this system would be, that the area of land which could possibly be devoted to sport alone would be circumscribed once for all, and all indefinite apprehensions, whether on the part of the farmer, the crofter, or the public at large, would be set at rest. The disadvantages attached to the hard and fast boundary would on the other hand be that the line might in some cases include for the purposes of sport exceptional spots available for profitable use, and might in others, especially on the west coast, exclude rugged and precipitous tracts, extending to the very verge of the salt water, of little use to the crofter or farmer from situation or quality, but yet well suited for deer.
The alternative method would be, that in each particular case in which the proprietor desired to withdraw land from agricultural or pastoral occupancy, and deliver it over to deer, the area should be subjected to the inspection of a government officer, and that those portions of it which were adapted for crofting cultivation, for small tenancy, or generally for cultivation or wintering sheep, should be reserved, leaving the residue which was only available for summer pasture to be appropriated at the discretion of the proprietor. It might be also prescribed that in the case of the formation of a new forest, or of the addition of new land to an existing forest at whatever elevation, the proprietor should be bound to expend a certain sum, say not less than three years' agricultural rental of the area so applied, in forming plantations or in the construction of buildings, fences, roads, and other permanent works. By some such provision, additional occupation would be provided for the crofting population; while in the case of plantations the country would be embellished, valuable shelter would be created, and a useful element attached to land otherwise devoted to sport. We think that in the case of lands exclusively devoted to the use of deer, not let or proposed to be let to a sporting tenant, but reserved intentionally for the enjoyment of the proprietor, the latter should be assessed on the basis of the sporting rent, and not on the basis of the agricultural value as is at present the case. This change has already been recommended by the Commissioners of Supply in the counties of Ross and Caithness, at their annual meeting last April.
We have not thought it desirable to introduce among the expedients offered for consideration a proposal frequently submitted to us, viz., that a special rate of assessment should be imposed on the annual value of lands used for the purposes of deer-stalking alone. Our object is to control the abuse of their practice in a discriminating manner—not to punish or impoverish the landlord. We do not think that any additional percentage of assessment which the Legislature would be likely to sanction would go far to prevent afforestment, though it might raise the rent to the lessee, and diminish the return to the proprietor, while it would act indiscriminately in all cases, whether the appropriation of the land was harmless or injurious. The taxation of land, with reference to the purpose for which it is employed, would, moreover, be a novel principle in our fiscal legislation, which, on close examination, would probably not be found to be acceptable to Parliament, in harmony with true economical principles, or equitable, if we regard the conditions under which other kinds of property and sources of private income may be used or abused.
The preceding remarks are not intended to apply to existing forests. We would not think it equitable that these areas should be subjected to exceptional legislation, other than that which may be made applicable to agricultural or pastoral lands, even at the termination of current leases. Existing forests have been cleared of sheep, consolidated, arranged for a specific use, and furnished with appropriate buildings, roads, fences, and other ameliorations, often at considerable expense, under the sanction of existing laws. Valuable interests have thus grown up, which could not be set aside without imposing on the proprietor greater sacrifices than could be justly required to undergo. Not many complaints on the subject of game have reached us during the course of our inquiry, and these were for the most part, though not entirely, confined to the eastern side of the country, where, from the nature of the climate and the greater amount of cover and cultivation, game is more plentiful. Two points in relation to this question require our attention,—the ravages of ground game, and the mischief done to corn in stook by flying game.
Referring to the loss inflicted by hares and rabbits, there appears to be some ignorance prevailing among the small tenants as to the tenor and intention of the late Act, and an impression in certain places that they cannot safely exercise their statutory rights, with regard to the destruction of ground game on their holdings, for fear of incurring the displeasure of the landlord. Nor can we affirm that this impression is entirely without foundation. We have, indeed, met with no instance in which a tenant has been disturbed on account of exerting his lawful powers, but we have met with two factors, who when interrogated on the subject, were not able to state unequivocally that tenants were at perfect liberty to act as they pleased in this respect, without any fear of bad consequences ensuing. It is very desirable that proprietors should make it clearly known to the small tenants at will, who are imperfectly informed, and in a precarious position, that they can freely and safely use their rights in the destruction of ground game. The complaint that grouse and black game, especially in late seasons, and on farms contiguous to the moors, are destructive to the crop by spoiling and devouring the grain in stook, is familiar to proprietors. The damage prevails chiefly in the eastern and inland portion of the Highlands. The prejudice to the small tenant is felt not only in the waste of crop but in the necessity for night watching to scare the birds. From this prejudice, though it be exceptional and partial, we would gladly see the crofter relieved. There seems to be no reason why, in cases of injury or destruction of crop, compensation should not be awarded to the sufferer in a manner more summary then has hitherto been used, by means of valuation made on the spot by two arbiters, with an oversman to be appointed by the Sheriff, whose decision should be final as to the amount in which the adjacent proprietor is liable.