Peat, Povlsen and the Monarch

This is a brief look – call it reportage – at what is happening to Scotland’s backyard. It is owned by rich men. The SNP has done very little to progress the pressing need of radical change to land ownership, but change is happening and few know about it. That said, no one should expect Labour or Tory to anything about returning Scotland to the Scots. It is up to Scots to take back what is theirs. This article can be categorised as Climate Change 13. The facts related are told avoiding personal imposition or opinion. Readers are, of course, encouraged to add their opinion.

Peat, Povlsen and the Monarch of the Glen

On a gusty February morning in the Highlands, Thomas MacDonell padded across a terrain that looked like nature’s version of a Persian rug. “See all those black areas?” he asked, pointing to the craters running through the ground. “That’s an example of damaged peatland. The mossy-type cover is no longer there – and without that seal over it, the peat dries and rots, and gives off carbon dioxide.”

Pensive, with spiky gray hair, MacDonell, 57, is a self-described “landscape detective,” reading the earth the way actual detectives read crime scenes. To him, damaged peat presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that the carbon emitted when peat dries out contributes to climate change; the opportunity comes from repairing the damage, which may just be a multimillion-dollar business. That, at least, is MacDonell’s hope, and the hope of the man who owns this estate, a Danish multi-billionaire named Anders Holch Povlsen. Mr. Povlsen acquired this property – called Glenfeshie – in 2005, at the start of a buying spree that has since made him the largest private landowner in Scotland, with some 210,000 acres on 12 different estates.

Since they met 17 years ago, the two men have been collaborating on what amounts to a novel experiment in capitalism in the age of environmental crisis. Through a company called Wildland Ltd., they are trying to prove that vast tracts of land can be revived in ways that are both green and profitable.

To that end, they operate a collection of high-end lodges, catering to guests with an interest in “the restorative power of nature,” as it says on Wildland’s website – and around $520 to spend per night at a renovated farmhouse with a “Scandi-Scot” décor. If all goes as planned, hospitality income will eventually be matched by revenue earned from growing trees and restoring peatland. That effort will produce carbon credits, sold through a still-nascent market that corporations looking to offset environmentally damaging emissions will purchase.

The peat part of this operation is relatively new. Until recently, peat bogs were derided as useless swampland — ideal, perhaps, for burying bodies in a murder mystery, but not much else. Landlords in Scotland often drained peatland to plant trees, or stocked it with sheep and let them hoover up the top grass. In the last few years, however, peatland’s cachet has soared as the world grasped that nothing on earth is more efficient at locking up carbon, potentially for thousands of years if properly maintained.

“They’re not as charismatic as rainforests, but peatlands are more important,” said Roxane Andersen, professor of peatland science at the University of the Highlands and Islands. “It’s like they have superpowers.”

Although rare in most of the world, peatlands cover about 20 percent of Scotland, giving this country of just 5.5 million people an outsize role in the campaign to slow the planet’s rising temperature. The Scottish government is alert to this responsibility, and is now underwriting the pricey and arduous process of peatland rescue. Private landholders who restore peatlands will see 80 percent of their outlays reimbursed by the government, and then keep the profits from carbon-credit sales.

In effect, Scotland has said: “Bill us for the digging, and keep all the gold you can mine.” This has spurred a land rush among investors. Those snapping up property in Scotland include life insurance companies, private equity funds and a brewery and pub chain called BrewDog. The amount of money invested in Scottish land doubled last year, climbing to $330 million; one real estate agency, Savills, said it had applicants ready to invest $2.5 billion throughout the United Kingdom in what is known as ‘natural capital’. In other words, Scotland is up for sale.

For the vast majority of Scots, though, the frenzy is like a party in their backyard that they can’t attend. The influx of money has tripled the price of choice rural plots in recent years, putting them beyond the financial reach of locals. This is reviving bitter memories of a time, centuries ago, when estate holders repurposed their land in a way still remembered as a historic calamity – the Highland Clearances.

As the landowner with the most expansive ambitions, Povlsen has become a target of choice for the discontented. He made his fortune – estimated by Forbes at $13 billion – as the owner of a fast-fashion empire of more than 20 youth-oriented brands popular in Europe, making him a leader in an industry deeply reviled by environmentalists. Fashion is responsible for more annual global carbon emissions than maritime shipping and air travel combined, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Though a giant in the fashion realm, Povlsen keeps a low public profile. During a rare, hourlong video interview from his home in Denmark, he said. “You don’t own something like this,” he said of his property. “You’re a caretaker for a period of time.”

Now that alarms about carbon emissions are ringing in the C-suites – even ExxonMobil has a net-zero plan – Povlsen stands out as a kind of pioneer, one whose career seems, at first glance, a paradox. He is simultaneously part of the problem and, with MacDonell’s help, a small part of the solution. Depending on your perspective, he’s either the planet’s ultimate frenemy or the kind of executive that the environmental cause will never succeed without. At a minimum, he demonstrates how difficult it is to mix profits with even the greenest of intentions.


Wildland‘ is based out of a former Victorian shooting lodge near Aviemore, about 130 miles north of Edinburgh. It overlooks the River Spey and sits on the Glenfeshie estate, a collection of greenswards, mountains and rivers. Its picturesque scenery served as a setting for the Netflix series “The Crown.” MacDonell offered a tour of the white stucco lodge. “Places like this were usually owned by wealthy industrialists, often with slave-trade money,” he said. “They were run as hunting estates, a place to entertain your friends. We’re trying to break that mold.”

During two days of traversing Wildland estates, MacDonell came across as patient, intense and impervious to weather. For two seven-hour stretches of driving and walking in bracing cold on what looked like sub-Arctic tundra, he was hatless, gloveless and protected by only a thin down parka. He didn’t break for lunch and rarely stopped talking. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he would stop walking – if driving, he parked his VW pickup. A former car mechanic who grew up in a nearby village, MacDonell felt a bond with the local landscape, which deepened when he became a fence builder. He has no formal training in forestry. “I’m not necessarily the person who could ID every moss by its Latin name,” he said. “I have found that helpful. I’m not bound by any preconceived notions.”

That unorthodox background may have made him receptive to an idea from Richard Balharry, an iconoclastic Scottish conservationist. Balharry, who died in 2015, had long argued that deer suppressed biodiversity in Scotland. For centuries the population was allowed to soar, eating everything on the ground and turning huge swaths of Scotland into what looked like a neglected golf course.

Balharry endorsed killing deer en masse. But much of the local economy in the Highlands was built around hunting, and drastically reducing the number of deer would hurt professional guides who helped visitors bag a nice set of antlers on a roaming buck. It wouldn’t help MacDonell’s fencing business, either, because many estate owners hired him to build enclosures around trees they wanted to preserve from ravenous ungulates. And yet, MacDonell couldn’t deny what he saw with his own eyes. Those graceful, highly huntable deer had snacked rural Scotland into a monoculture. When he broke a vertebra, he switched jobs, and by 2002 he was running Glenfeshie. That year, he convinced the then-owner – a different rich Dane, as it happens – that the estate should focus on saving the landscape. That meant killing deer. A lot of deer.

It came to be known as the Glenfeshie cull. MacDonell and his team killed about 1,000 deer a year for many years, using helicopters to transport stalkers and haul away carcasses. An uproar ensued. With its profession jeopardized, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association made national news, denouncing the killing as unsporting and disgraceful. For a while, MacDonell fought his way out of bars.

“That’s probably my personality,” he said. “I could have walked out as people started calling me names, but my temperament is not that way inclined.”

Thomas MacDonell

Within weeks of that Land Rover plea back in 2005, MacDonell found that he had more than just a thumbs-up from the new owner. He had an eager partner. Povlsen bought other estates near Glenfeshie and acquired property in the west, including the Aldourie estate, featuring the only habitable castle on Loch Ness. In the north he owns a handful of estates and is currently transforming a house, designed in 1878 for the Duke of Sutherland, into a five-star spa and lodge.

The cull proved hugely beneficial for trees and vegetation. The landscape at Glenfeshie is now covered with juniper, heather and a wide variety of moss. There are also abundant seedlings of pine and birch, some poking just a few inches out of the ground. During a ride on the property, MacDonell stopped the car to point out more than a few of them, like a proud father. The cull was good for peatlands, too, but that was just a happy byproduct. Wildland had been repairing peat for years for the same reason a homeowner might replace an old carpet if money was no object: It just looked better.

In 2012, the Scottish government started the Peatland Action Program, providing funds for land managers who wanted to restore peat. It was the first sign to MacDonell that peatland was about to hit the jackpot.


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4 Responses to Peat, Povlsen and the Monarch

  1. alfbaird says:

    ‘Ecological Imperialism’ implies that elites and the cultural ‘values’ they impose on subjugated peoples and plundered lands sought “to change the local habitat” (Crosby 1986, 196), replacing people with sheep or deer being just one brutal example.

    Ecological Imperialism has not ended, however, and there are numerous ‘schemes’ and ‘laws’ imposed which may prevent wider economic development potential and restrict the growth and expansion of an indigenous people, instead working in favour of global finance/elites.

    SSSI’s, National Parks, numerous rewilding schemes, HPMAs and no doubt more to come seem a form of modern Ecological Imperialism, ideas imposed by elites and cultures holding to different values that serve to prevent developments the nation needs or could have, whilst at the same time prioritising the interests of elites.

    Much of Scotland is both a global asset play for dubious offshore finance but is also rendered dormant by a ‘mediocre meritocracy’. A nation remaining under-developed, and in large part made into an actual Brigadoon: ‘a place that is idyllic, unaffected by time, or remote from reality’.

    As Albert Memmi said: “nothing of the colonizer is appropriate for the colonized”.

  2. lorncal says:

    How ironic that two rich Danes from a country that introduced laws to prevent its land and properties being snapped up by rich Germans next door should hold more of Scotland’s territory than anyone else.

    Deer do destroy natural woodland and moorland diversity if allowed to increase their numbers too drastically, and it is cruel to have to cull them, but their numbers should be micro-managed so that this does not need to happen. They have no natural predators to cull them apart from humans, who also destroyed the predator-prey balance of nature.

    It is good that peatlands are being repaired, but, hopefully, some day soon, Scotland, as an independent country, will reorganise its land situation and look after its own natural future. The problem with rewilding is that every aspect has to be carefully planned so that some adverse effect will not occur to upset another part of the ecosystem, which often happens inadvertently when man interferes.

    The SNP and Greens should have learned that simple lesson by now. If you take from one part to give to another, you will create friction between two parts instead of containing the initial problem and solving it satisfactorily without diminishing any one part. If they have not learned that from the GRRB fiasco, they will have little chance of solving it in the wild.

  3. Robert Hughes says:

    I worked on one of yr man’s estates – Aldourie , on the shore of Loch Ness – last year . My mate had a contract – just completed last week – clearing the estate of every last trace of rhododendrons . Don’t know what it is about rich landowners but they all seem to be extreme rhodophobes : admittedly , they can be invasive , tending to masses of tangled branches . Beautiful when in bloom en masse though

    My friend’s was actually one of the few local companies to benefit from the – estimated – £30mil castle n grounds * restoration * project . The main contractor was an English company , with on average 30/40 men travelling up from Yorkshire on Sundays n returning back South every Friday ; staying mostly in caravans n their own campervans ..ergo … little economic benefit to local BnBs .

    Yes , it’s good that some of the foreign landowners are doing ecologically beneficial things in the areas they own : but one is continually confronted with the question/s – the reality – why is so much of our country NOT owned by Scots ; what does all this foreign ownership mean for the future of our country and , crucially , will we ever have a Scottish Government that seriously addresses this issue , rather than – as presently – panders to and promotes the sell-off ( out ) of even more of our land and resources ?

    On that subject …..when will the horrific Greens be sent back to the political fringes where they belong ? Not content with inflicting their lunatic * Gender * mindrot on the population , what little * Green * policies they have could be considered THE paradigm of virtue-signalling cluelessness .

    Their plans to create * exclusion zones * around the Western Isles and adjacent parts of NW mainland would not only destroy the local economies based on fishing , shellfish etc – leading to further decline in indigenous population – the areas earmarked would still be open for leisure pursuits like snorkelling , scuba-diving and such ; in other words ….tourism .Prime opportunities for incoming * entrepreneurs * , as is already so apparent elsewhere in Scotland . As mentioned , above ….driving-up house prices and driving-out even more locals .

    So that’s the great , forward * thinking * of our urban political elite . Destroy society with * Gender * insanity and flog what’s left of our country to corporations and wealthy individuals so they can turn Scotland into one great eco-theme park , all the while introducing freedom-restricting laws to quell any dissent .

    The 1st priority of any Scotgov should be getting the idiot Greens as far away from Government as possible . They are a ” clear and present danger ” to all but their fanatic base – which seems to growing more fanatic & vicious by the day

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