In the face of testing times, many landowners in rural Scotland continue to invest significantly in their sporting estates. And Glenprosen Estate is a glowing example of what can be achieved when an holistic approach is taken.
Photographer / LEOPOLD AMORY
Sporting estates in Scotland have it tough. For a while now they’ve been a target for the Nationalists and their illogical, idealistic – and damaging – stipulations. Land values trashed, taxation threats, sporting rates proposed... Rural Scotland sits in a shadow of uncertainty. And yet, many estates are now doing more than ever for the holistic health of the land, the wildlife and the people. The word ‘holistic’ is key here; only by addressing the many elements of its management can a sporting estate fare so well in the sustainability stakes.
We’re talking about education and public relations; enhancing the local economy; nurturing natural assets and the environment; and developing infrastructure to facilitate management. All, of course, existing in harmony with – and often as a direct result of – sustainable farming and sporting operations. So diversity is crucial. And the Glenprosen Estate – a 16,500-acre (8,500 owned; the remainder rented) traditional mixed sporting estate straddling the south-eastern boundary of the Cairngorms National Park – is proof of that.
Their holistic approach puts them at the core of a bigger picture of rural life. “The estate is a community within itself,” explains Glenprosen estate manager and headkeeper Bruce Cooper. “Not only do the families who live in the upper glen work together, the team also socialise together, and their children go to school together.
“Five of the 42 pupils at the local school have parents who work on the estate, but going back 20 years, at least 50 per cent of the children on the school register would have come from families connected to the local estates in some way.”
In the face of a diminishing connection between land-use and the wider community, education is crucial. But rather than simply acknowledge this, Bruce and his team are addressing it head-on. Last year, for example, they hosted a series of school visits to help teach local children about the landscape around them and how it is managed. “We discussed the need to control vermin to give other wildlife a chance, and watched and counted the young of lapwings, oystercatchers and curlews. A herd of red deer even stood on cue,” explains Bruce. “And then in the shooting season, on their final visit, we focused on the field to fork concept. We set up a mock grouse drive with beaters, real guns and pre-shot grouse which were picked by the team of labradors. Once the harvest had been discussed, we went to the estate larder where local caterers had prepared venison burgers, grouse kebabs, fresh salmon and lamb, all from the estate.
“The reality of all of this was easily taken in by the thirteen 10- to 13-year-olds. And yet many adults seem unable to grasp that the chicken on their plates once had feathers.”
Bruce is adamant that without education, people visit the countryside for recreation or holidays, listen to professional campaigners and then very quickly make a decision that can affect many. “It might suit what the public in the towns and cities want to hear, but it’s not what sustains rural communities, and this is a challenge for us,” he says.
But of course it’s not just the local schoolchildren who benefit from being in the locality of a progressive enterprise. Along with the local caterers, Glenprosen Estate supports a large number of businesses; the local garage, laundry, blacksmith, plant contractor and building contractors are only a handful of examples. “The full list of suppliers within the estate’s filing cabinet is really quite staggering,” remarks Bruce. And that’s coming from the man who has been instrumental in bringing about many changes on the estate in the last 10 years, especially since the new owner took his place at the helm in 2010.
Estate buildings and staff accommodation have been built and revamped, power lines have been buried, old deer fences have been removed, access tracks are constantly being repaired, old watercourses have been restored and non-native conifer plantations have been felled and are gradually being replaced with native species such as alder and birch. Even a small-scale run-of-river hydro scheme has been built which feeds into the national grid. Importantly, it has all been done in a manner which is sensitive to the environment and the beauty of the area, with conservation and balance at the fore.
Sporting guests can immerse themselves in the activities on offer – which are the incentive for such investment – and know that their money is being ploughed back into the local economy and environment for the better.
Glenprosen lets around 20 days of grouse shooting per season – 10 driven, 10 walked-up over English setters – and around 25 red stags are harvested whenever stock allows. Safe to say it’s come a long way since Bruce joined the payroll in 2004, when only a few roebucks and a handful of pheasant days were let and three keepers looked after 25,000 acres.
Since 2011, however, it is the grouse shooting that has been the primary focus. “Grouse and especially driven grouse, is the jewel in the crown, the sport of kings,” says Bruce. “Nothing touches the sheer buzz on the estate after a successful driven day. Grouse populations can make or break a sporting estate; very few would survive in their current form if populations were to crash in the long term.”
And yet, despite game shooting being a huge economic generator for rural Scotland, there is no dedicated minister or ministers dealing specifically with the industry, unlike sea fishing and farming. “The income generated by sporting tourism seems to pass many by, which is a challenge for us,” admits Bruce. “Some politicians dealing with rural policy have visited our rural communities; others need to follow their lead to see how things really work.”
For those with a penchant for Salmo salar, the fishing is not to be sniffed at, either; the estate has over two miles of double-bank fishing on the Kercock beat of the River Tay – one of the prolific Lower Middle Tay beats located in the heart of the Perthshire countryside between Murthly and Islamouth. It is the closest part of the Tay to the estate and has a five-year average of 228 salmon and grilse, with good vehicular access and space for up to eight Rods.
Guests can even try for a Macnab. Much of the sporting landscape at Glenprosen is managed hand-in-hand with the farming; the estate manages Cormuir and Runtaleave farms and a dedicated shepherd looks after the commercial flock of 1,000 Scottish blackface sheep. Plans are also in hand to introduce a fold of Highland cattle, whilst Bruce and his team remain committed to working with neighbouring estates and Scottish Natural Heritage in managing the red deer population through continued voluntary co-operation with the Caenlochan Section 7 deer management agreement.
“Farming is an important part of our business model,” explains Bruce. “We are a mixed sporting estate – that’s what the owner bought, and that is what we shall focus on maintaining.” Best described as a grouse moor with sheep, restricted winter grazing is just one example of a decision taken to protect moorland habitat. “This means we incur considerable extra expense for winter grazing,” says Bruce, “but again this is a self-imposed restriction made by the estate to protect the environment. Much heather moorland has been lost in Scotland in recent years due to bad habitat management – I believe the government needs to wake up to this.”
There’s no doubt that the passionate owners of private sporting estates are the driving force behind the conservation of the moors and the glens. And much rural employment. As Bruce alludes to, little comes from government. Indeed, learning about the commendable work of estates like Glenprosen takes little away from the frustration of hearing how much easier such management could be, were politics less of a hinderance and more of a help. It’s a good job, really, that Bruce’s work does not stop at the Glenprosen boundary.
Only time will tell if the owners and managers of Scotland’s private sporting estates will receive due recognition for their crucial role in conserving vast tracts of rural landscapes, communities and ways of life. Meantime we can all show our support by booking sport with those, like Glenprosen, who are setting a precedent to be proud of.