Taxing deer and grouse estates for failing to ensure their land properly locks up carbon dioxide could play a crucial role in fighting the climate crisis, a leading conservation group has said.
The John Muir Trust, a charity set up to protect wild places in Britain, says such a plan could help to absorb millions of tonnes of carbon every year, and help the UK – in particular Scotland – achieve its goal of reaching net zero emissions as soon as possible.
The trust argues that many grouse and deer estates are run in ways that minimises the carbon dioxide the land could absorb. In the case of deer estates, stags and hinds eat shoots that would otherwise grow into carbon-absorbing plants and trees. Other landowners have farmed intensively, damaging peatlands and cutting back woods that would otherwise lock up carbon dioxide.
A solution would be to impose a carbon emissions land tax – with estates banded according to the land type and size. The poorer an estate’s ability to lock up carbon, the greater would be its tax bill. This would force landowners to make major improvements in the way they run their estates and could have a major impact on the battle against climate change, argued the trust’s policy adviser, Alan McCombes.
“In the long term, we could save up to 13m tonnes of carbon being emitted every year by repairing our damaged peatlands and restoring woodlands, and that could be achieved by taxing estates for the carbon they produce. Such a reduction would equate to taking every vehicle in Scotland off the road.”
The impact of a carbon emissions land tax would have a particularly marked impact in Scotland, added McCombes: “Proportionate to its population, Scotland has an exceptionally large land mass. It has six and a half times as much land per head of population as England.
“Crucially, much of that land is not agriculturally productive. As a result, a lot of Scottish land has ended up being used for grouse-shooting and deer-stalking. The tax we are proposing would make them improve the way that they absorb carbon dioxide.”
The trust argues that only estates and farms bigger than 1,000 hectares would be liable for the tax. This means that, with the average farm size in Scotland standing at around 270 hectares, most would escape the tax. The trust says a pilot scheme that would target estates larger than 10,000 hectares should be started, and it is pressing the Scottish parliament to discuss the proposal next year.
However, Stephen Young, head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates, which represents estate owners in Scotland, dismissed the proposal. “Such a tax would be hugely costly to administer and would almost certainly be unworkable due to the need for extensive soil sampling, woodland and peatland surveys, and would almost certainly cost far more to measure than the tax income it would potentially generate.
“By measuring the ecological value of land purely on the basis of the carbon it sequesters, there is a danger that biodiversity habitats suffer by simply measuring success through a single metric,” said Young, who argued that owners of rural land were already playing a huge role in helping Scotland to meet climate change targets.
“Encouraging further progress on good environmental outcomes from hugely valuable sectors such as agriculture would seem more sensible than introducing punitive tax measures,” he added.