Allegations of bullying and intimidation were made at a public meeting in Langholm last week, held to discuss Buccleuch’s forestry proposals on the Eskdale and Liddesdale Estate.
Buccleuch was also accused of potentially failing to follow industry guidance on landlord-tenant negotiations.
At the meeting, the Duke of Buccleuch invited all tenants on the estate to face-to-face meetings on March 19 to discuss any concerns.
One farming couple who leased land on a five-year fixed-term short limited duration tenancy claimed they had been bullied as their tenancy came to an end.
There were other accusations tenants had been unhappy with the way Buccleuch had dealt with ending Limited Partnership Agreements, a form of tenancy which is being phased out with the encouragement of the Scottish Government and farming bodies.
Buccleuch chief executive John Glen said: “We deeply regret that any tenant feels they have been treated unfairly or have been bullied in any way.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and always try to reach amicable agreements with tenants. However, sometimes this does not happen. Even if there is disagreement it should not give rise to accusations of bad professional practice.
“I have contacted Bob McIntosh, the Tenant Farming Commissioner, to ask him to look into these accusations as a matter of urgency.
“We hope tenants will make contact with and speak to him on a confidential basis so these matters can be addressed properly.”
Background to the Buccleuch saga
Buccleuch announced last year it was holding discussions with tenant farmers on limited partnership agreements.
Tenants were offered the chance to buy their farms and sale discussions are proceeding with 11 tenants.
Another 10 tenants have been offered new medium or long-term tenancy agreements to replace their limited partnerships.
In one case, a limited partnership agreement ended against the tenant’s wishes.
Part of the farm is being sold to the tenant who had previously bought a neighbouring farm from Buccleuch. One short limited duration tenancy, a five-year agreement, ended and was not renewed.
The tenants, who have complained of being bullied, have been offered an additional year to stay on the farm according to Buccleuch which says it is in discussions with them on other potential solutions.
Bob McIntosh said: “I would encourage those tenants who are unhappy with the way their situation was handled to contact me so I can arrange to meet them to fully understand their concerns. All discussions will be in confidence."
A Scottish Tenant Farming Association spokesman said: “The general attitude of profit before people is all too often the hallmark of estate management and has no place in rural Scotland.
“Consequently, we would urge the commissioner not to restrict his investigations to Eskdale and Liddesdale Estate, but to conduct a wider survey of how Buccleuch’s estates are managed and its relationships with its tenants."
Why did the controversy over Buccleuch come to a head?
An exhibition of Buccleuch’s forestry plans on its Eskdale and Liddesdale Estate preceded a reportedly boisterous public meeting in Langholm where the Duke of Buccleuch and his chief executive John Glen had to field some robust criticism over their strategy and tactics.
Earlier in the day Mr Glen, feeling increasingly frustrated at what he saw as unwarranted accusations of bullying and intimidation of agricultural tenants, had taken the highly unusual step of referring the estate to the recently appointed Tenant Farming Commissioner.
The Commissioner, Dr Bob McIntosh has been asked to see if Buccleuch has conducted itself in line with published guidelines. Mr Glen is sure it has done so, a number of campaigners think it has not.
That is the background but the situation is complex with several issues conflated.
Some of the opposition comes from those opposed to large scale afforestation in the Borders.
Buccleuch says its plans would only see 1,400 acres of previously tenanted land given over to trees. This amounts to 4 per cent of the estate.
Currently 12 per cent of the estate is under commercial forestry, compared to the Scottish average of 18 per cent.
The Scottish Government, strongly backed by forest industry representative body Confor , has a target of 25 per cent coverage.
Local campaigner Aeneas Nicolson, a retired banker, says the figures are selective and being used as smokescreen for wider plans across the Buccleuch holdings.
But the forestry is only part of the wider scenario. Mr Glen and the Duke have made no secret of the estate’s intention to reduce its overall footprint.
“Three years ago we announced that we thought 230,000 acres was too large an area to manage effectively. We wanted to encourage diversity of ownership," said Mr Glen.
"At the same time we want to invest away from agricultural land into renewable energy and leisure."
Part of this strategy involves offering secure 1991 tenants the opportunity to buy their farms if they wish. Otherwise they can remain as secure tenants.
The controversy is over farms which are let on less secure terms. The estate has a number of farms let on Short Limited Duration Tenancies (SLDTs) and a clutch of others coming near the send of Limited Partnership Tenancies (LPTs).
Under Land Reform Legislation these LPTs cannot be renewed and if they are to continue will need to migrate to SLDT’s or the newer Modern Limited Duration Tenancies (MLDTs).
This is complex and pitches the whole situation into the midst of the ongoing Land Reform debate.
But it is even more labyrinthine because Buccleuch have offered most of these LPT and SLDT tenants the chance to buy their farms as their tenancies come to an end.
Unlike their neighbours buying out 1991 Act tenancies however they will have to do so without a tenant’s discount.
And that brings the situation nearly full circle because the vacant possession land is hard to price. Should it be at agricultural value or at forestry value which is believed to be three times higher in some cases?
It is little wonder the Eskdale and Liddesdale negotiations are attracting so much national attention.
It combines the clearly stated efforts of a large landowner to reduce his footprint, the economic and political incentives to increase forest cover, and the rights and treatment of tenants some of whom will do well while others lose tenure of their holdings and possibly their homes.
It is a heady brew.