General manager at Atholl Estates, Andrew Bruce-Wootton, is very confident that the business model the estate operates is a sustainable one. The estate makes a profit with most of it being reinvested to provide growth.
“That continuous investment puts us on a sound footing with the only undermining factor being the current ideological attack on land ownership,” he said.
The investment of which he speaks – most recently manifested in a series of new hydro electric projects – is undoubtedly important for Highland Perthshire. With annual revenues of £6million, Atholl Estates is one of the biggest and most diverse businesses in the region and a considerable employer.
Now owned by a charitable and family trust this once traditional fiefdom of the Dukes of Atholl runs to 144,000 acres with a block between Dunkeld and Tulliemet and another round Blair Atholl. This larger block runs right to the Inverness-shire border and includes 60,000 acres of deer forest.
The land use is diverse with 20 let farms, two in-hand farms, 300 let domestic properties, industrial units, forestry and sporting enterprises. In all the estate provides full-time employment for around 90 people, most of whom live locally, and another 35 seasonal staff. There are probably around 15 contractors at work throughout the year, mostly employed in forestry and property maintenance
The chief income generator, supplying 50% of turnover and a higher proportion of the profit, is tourism in its various forms. The centrepiece is of course the magnificently iconic Blair Castle. Visitor numbers remain strong but the policy has been to encourage longer stays.
There is a 300-stance caravan park, five historic shooting lodges available for larger self-catering groups throughout the year and lately the addition of woodland lodges.
The annual Blair Horse Trials have been a fixture since 1989 and the event now has international status. Mr Bruce-Wootton estimates that over the four days around £5million of turnover is generated at the event and in the wider Highland Perthshire area.
“The whole business is run in an integrated way and if we are diversified enough we can change to suit the circumstances. For example forestry, at around 15% of turnover, is an important land management tool for us but not a key source of profit. We no longer have a sawmill but enjoy a very successful partnership with James Jones and Sons.
“Field sports are again not a huge contributor to profit but they are very important in maintaining upland habitat and landscape. We can have up to 15 staff involved in field sports including predator control and moorland management. Our hills are heather rich but keeping it that way involves hard work which includes burning.”
Grouse are no longer intensively managed with stalking the major activity. Mr Bruce-Wootton estimates that there could be as many as 7,000 deer on the Forest of Atholl open range. The estate’s own stalkers are culling about 1,000 deer annually with paying guests shooting another 500.
“Setting culling targets is always a compromise. We certainly don’t want over-grazing and of course there are no natural predators. As a long-term rule of thumb culling about one seventh of the population keeps numbers in balance but this can vary depending on winters and recruitment to the herds through the number of calves born.”
The income from these traditional upland activities is soon to be bolstered and stabilised by income from the new hydro schemes. The terrain of course is ideal and there are already two schemes up and running with a total capacity of 900kW. Another of 1800kW is due for completion shortly and one of 300kW to start construction in the autumn. Once all four are in full operation they should add significantly to the estate’s turnover.
“This will be a very useful and steady income source for us. If a wet summer dents the tourist trade it will at least keep the turbines spinning. Hydro is a good form of renewable energy here because we are in the Cairngorm National Park and it is not visually intrusive in the same way as wind turbines. We are estimating a 100-year life span for the civil engineering aspects although the electrical equipment may have to be replaced over the period,” added Mr Bruce-Wootton.
There is also work underway to reinstate a 90kW scheme originally installed over 100 years ago to supply electricity to Blair Castle.
Much of the economic activity is however on the lower ground and with 280 domestic properties let out Atholl Estates is a significant supplier of rented housing in Highland Perthshire for locally employed people.
“A lot of council housing has been lost over the years. Previously to the 2008 recession, we were building new houses in partnership with our local housing association but sadly that has stopped since they have had their funding cut. We routinely delivered 20 new houses each year during that period of collaboration.
“Most of our own let properties are traditional vernacular houses and these need quite high inputs to provide modern services. We also have 25 small industrial units let out and these are now home to an amazing range of businesses,” said Mr Bruce-Wootton.
It is all part of the sort of tightly managed estate business which would be quite alien to the first Earls of Atholl living in their fortified tower and using force of arms to keep intruders at bay. A diversified income stream would indeed be a thing of wonder for them.