Anger at secret sale of 'jewel in Scottish crown'

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The Independent Online

Anger and resentment surround the secret sale of a privately owned estate in the heart of a proposed national park, long considered a jewel in Scotland's environmental crown.

Glenfeshie estate, covering 42,000 acres of wilderness in the Cairngorms, is home to an abundance of wildlife and some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Europe.

But now the estate has been sold by a Danish businessman, Klaus Helmersen, to a fellow countryman, Flemming Skou-boe. Mr Skouboe, 52, who recently disposed of a successful windmill blade business, bought Glenfeshie for an undisclosed sum, believed to be about £8m, without it being put on the open market.

The deal was struck less than three years after Mr Helmersen beat off competition from a coalition of public and environmental bodies, including Scottish National Heritage, the Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the John Muir Trust and the National Trust for Scotland. The alliance had hoped to buy the estate and hold it in trust for the nation but was unable to match Mr Helmersen's offer of £6m.

Although he invested a lot of money in attempting to improve the estate by bringing deer and the rest of the natural heritage into balance, pressure from his other business interests is understood to have forced the sale.

Mr Skouboe, has said he will continue the work needed to manage the estate responsibly but environmental groups are angry that, once again, such a nationally important estate could be traded in secret on the world property market.

"This is a horrendous tale as Glenfeshie has a particularly vexed history," said Bill Wright of the Cairngorms Campaign, which has long been fighting for the preservation of the area. The estate comprises 42,000 acres and half of it is within the Cairngorms special area of conservation and national nature reserve. It's a very important estate in terms of natural landscape but over the past 30 years it has been subjected to a really quite devastating management scheme.

"The overgrazing by deer that has been taking place during those decades has been quite devastating to an area which should be managed for the benefit of enhancement and maintenance of the natural environment rather than for shooting."

The estate, which was once a favourite of Queen Victoria, and provided the setting for Sir Edwin Henry Landseer's 19th- century painting Monarch of the Glen, has changed hands several times since the late Sixties. Mr Wright said: "The future of Glenfeshie is yet again left to chance in terms of the voluntary co-operation of a new owner. It is the absolute jewel in the crown of Scottish mountain estates.

"We have no reason to believe Mr Skouboe won't be a good and responsible owner but this estate is too valuable to the country as a whole to be at the whim of a individual. We want the Scottish Parliament to take a whole new look at this as this estate is right in the centre of the proposed Cairngorms national park. We are in the process of writing to the new owner to arrange a meeting with him as soon as possible.

"Other similar estates of equal importance are all now in some form or another in state ownership or under the control of non-government organisations committed to the protection of the environment, so we can't see why this one can't be."

For his part Mr Skouboe, who already owns the Danish island of Ffnx in Lillebaelt – the narrow strait between Jutland and the island of Fyn – plans to use the estate for hunting but has said he will continue the work started by Mr Helmersen. This includes a series of land management agreements including a woodland grant agreement with the Forestry Commission worth £150,000 in the first five years.

When the Scottish Parliament reconvenes this month, Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish National Party's land reform spokeswoman, will press the Executive on how much public money in grants from the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage has been paid to the succession of Glenfeshie owners since 1967.

The answer to her question could prove a catalyst to force the Executive into amending the land reform Bill to recognise the public interest in the disposal and ownership of land and to ensure that secret sales of estates such as Glenfeshie can never happen again.