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AGM 2023 questions and answers

Thank you to everyone who submitted a quesiton in advance of and during the 2023 AGM - held online on Saturday 4 November. We have answered all the questions submitted to us below. If you have any concerns, please email

Will Clear on Deer be available to stream?

Yes, the Clear on Deer film will be available at the end of the year. Our last film tour date is Kendal Mountain Festival on 17 November 2023. After this, we will release the film online in early December.

Will the removal of close seasons for male deer culls have any affect on public access to land?

No it should not. All deer managers need to be aware of safety to the public when stalking. Many deer are culled in current close seasons so there should be no impact.

How can you ensure that corporate fundraising will not enable some companies to indulge in 'greenwashing'?

The Trust's Ethical Donations Policy, available on the website, ensures that our fundraising is open and transparent and sets out the criteria under which we would or would not choose to engage with potential donors, including corporates. Behind this Policy sits an internal process of due diligence that considers potential corporate supporters' values, history, direction of travel and any potential reputational damage of the Trust working with them - as well as the potential positive impact the Trust could make with their support.

How much income is being generated from the £2 million investment in the lodges at Kylesku?

In 2022, the last year before the Trust took ownership, Kylesku Lodges made a profit of £214k. In the previous two years, both of which were affected by Covid, profits were £68k and £114k.

Regarding the ongoing problem of deer culling, are any statistics and trends available on numbers culled each year?

Deer cull numbers to be presented later. Overall, around 1000 deer were culled on Trust land in 2023. This has increased significantly from previous years.

What do you think of expanding sales from the John Muir online shop to countries outside the UK? Would it be worth the investment and help generate additional income?

This is something we can look at. The challenge is to ensure it's worthwhile for the Trust and not prohibitively expensive for customers. Post-Brexit we'd need to consider any customs and duty fee implications for customers.

Were there any incidents at Dalwhinnie before the crossing was closed? Under what legislation was this crossing closed?

The Trust supported a joint letter as part of campaign on this issue by Ramblers Scotland. They are best placed to update. Find out more.

What are your main criteria for acquiring a piece of land?

Fundametnally this is a Board decision. The Board will take advice from staff who will put a case together based on: a) our strategic objectives; b) what we would hope to achieve through acquisiton; c) liabilities, costs constraints. By necessity this is quite a flexible process and is often driven by opportunity - we are notified of a piece of land becoming available and react in terms of the above. 

On the Heading for the Scottish Hills website, NatureScot is advising walkers to minimise disturbance to deer stalking from 1 July to 15 February and especially during two key periods - from the 1 to 20 October and towards the end of the hind season, which ends on 15 February. Is this advice wrong and if so what should it be saying?

We have contacted NatureScot who manage the site and they have responded to say this will be updated shortly to reflect the end of close seasons.

Can you elaborate on the reason for not continuing the Thirlmere management, please?

The Trust is continuing to work in the Lake District in partnership with United Utilities and Cumbria Wildlife Trust at the Thirlmere reservoir site.

However during the year we declined a 99-year lease with the Lake District National Park Authority for the area covering Glenridding Common - which includes Helvellyn. This was on the basis that the Trust would not be able to bring the land into exemplary management under the new terms, which reduced the site to remove an area of potential restoration. Much of the site remain common grazing land and, as lease holder, the Trust would be unable to control grazing pressure to allow for ecological restoration.

We are still open to opportunities with the National Park and welcome future conversations. The mechanism used to make this decision was through a Challenge Group making a recommendation to the Board, this is similar to the decision process described above for land acquisition.

How do you plan to engage with the membership in deciding whether and how to take on the running of the John Muir Way?

Trustees, as the elected Members of the Trust, will make any decisions as a collective and in line with our governance procedures. We anticipate a paper will be put to a Board Meeting for Trustee consideration in September 2024.

What was the reasoning behind the decision not to increase membership fees?

Due to the current economic climate, it was felt that now was not the time to increase membership subscriptions. Our current rates are in line with several other charities, and so the current price seems fair. The Trust has hired a new Membership Manager this year and they will be reviewing our pricing structures and levels as we move into 2024. Any changes will be brought to the 2024 AGM.

The website records the minutes of seven Board meetings in 2021, five in 2022 but only one in 2023 (in March) so far. I understand that Trustees should meet at least four times per year. Can you please explain why there are no records of further Board meetings in 2023?

The Board has met six times so far this year. Two sets of non-confidential minutes have been published on the Trust's website (for March and June) following sign-off at subsequent meetings, as per Article 12.6.3.

The remaining four sets of Board minutes are confidential and therefore not published on the website. The next publication currently due is the non-confidential September Board minute, following sign-off at the Trust's 14 December 2023 Board meeting.

I note that the Annual Report records 16 Trustees at 31/12/22, but the website only shows ten Trustees. Can you please explain?

Ten Trustees is correct as at the 4 November AGM, on which date two outgoing Trustees were replaced by two incoming Trustees. Since 31 December 2022, six Trustees have resigned for a variety of reasons. It is worth noting the period of reporting on Trustee resignations is longer than usual with the AGM being moved to November. 

Regarding expenditure, as presented the 'staff costs' seem a very high proportion. But I assume some of these are directly in managing the Trust's properties, i.e. the charitable aim. Could it be clarified which staff costs fall in this category?

As per notes 8-9 of the statutory accounts, Staff Costs are broken down into those involved in Fundraising and Membership Support (£266k), Land Activities (£513k), Awareness Activities (£624k), Policy Actvities (£263k).  Note 10 shows the staffing costs to support these direct activities through the support (£464k) and governance (£46k) areas of the organisation

Would you explain the 777k loss on investments?

This loss reflects the impact of a very challenging year on the international stock markets, as the world emerged from COVID and the commencement of the war in Ukraine. The Trust's portfolio is conservative with regards to risk and the funds performed better than the benchmark, recording 11.42% loss against an expectation of 12.05% loss. The overall investment portfolio had benefited from growing markets in the preceding four years and was able to absorb this drop.

Just to clarify my Q re proportion of costs on charitable aims. I understand that any charity has admin staff costs, including those spent on engagement and fundraising. But the way the expenditure figures are presented makes it seem that expenditure on the actual charitable aims is rather a small proportion of the whole. I doubt this is actually so, so perhaps the categories are just unhelpfully named? I would count staff costs on managing properties as being part of fulfilling the charitable aims, for instance.

There are certain requirements on how Charities must present their accounts under the Charities SORP.  We work closely with our Auditors to ensure that accurate figures are presented that are reflective of the way the organisation works and this is something that we review annually as part of the audit and statutory accounts preparation.

Why don't we have any biographies for the new Trustees who have become Trustees without being voted on? If we had been asked to vote we would have seen these?

Candidate statements for the four incoming Trustees are now up-to-date on the Trust's website.

There are various organisations such as Communities B4 Power Companies trying to fight the huge increase of new and upgraded pylon lines being proposed by SSEN. Many of these lines being proposed will cross areas of great landscape value. Does the Trust have any plans to offer support to these organisations? What is the Trust doing about these SSEN proposals?

The Trust is aware of organisations such as Communities B4 Power Companies and the Better Cable Route campaign focusing on the impact of transmission infrastructure in and around Strathpeffer in the Highlands. We met with representatives from the Better Cable Route earlier in the year to discuss our priorities and possibilities for working together. At the meeting we identified an opportunity for the Trust to engage with Ofgem about impacts on wild places and communities and for these considerations to be given greater weight at the initial corridor selection stage. We have been and will continue to engage with SSEN about specific transmission projects. Read our response to the consultation for the Spittal to Beauly line.

What did the Trust pay for the Kylesku site?

The Trust paid £2 million for the Kylesku estate. This is shown in page 39 of the annual accounts 31/12/22 in Note 29 - Events after the reporting date.

Is there any record of how many of those participating in the John Muir Award go on to join the Trust, or indeed any other organisation promoting wild places climate change and biodiversity?

As the significant proportion of John Muir Awards are delivered by external partners, there are limitations to how the Trust can track this information. As the Award is redesigned, and the Trust upgrades its systems and processes in 2024, we will look to track this data more thoroughly.

David said there are no cull targets, simply a desire to improve habitat, but does the Trust not have a view of what sustainable deer densities are for a sustainable, diverse ecology?

There are broad parameters (<10 deer per km2 for peatland; <5 for woodland) that set the general expectation as to what would be required to deliver natural processes. However, local factors are so specific that while we would take deer densities as a guide our best measure is the habitat response. 

How would a carbon emissions tax apply to such things as wind farms where their emissions here may be quite low but their emissions in other countries can be quite horrific?

The Carbon Emissions Land Tax (CELT) would take into account the disturbance caused by the building and maintenance of the infrastructure needed for windfarms. For example, on peatland, the tracks and needed to service the turbines might degrade the peat and therefore lead to emissions that would be taxed. CELT only looks at emissions from land use in Scotland, not imported emissions.

There has been no mention so far of the Trust's work in resisting the grant of planning permission for lines of pylons on wild land. Is this no longer an issue for the Trust?

This is still an issue for the Trust. We currently monitor proposals for transmission infrastructure on wild land and will continue to do so. Electricity transmission proposals (overhead lines and cables) are considered on a case-by-case basis and evaluated against our casework process to identify priorities for the Trust to focus its resources. Unfortunately, because transmission infrastructure is often directed by government policy it tends to be harder to resist and so we generally focus on engaging during the consultation process to mitigate the impacts. You can find our response to the consultation for the Spittal – Beauly transmission line here. Next year, as part of our UK general election manifesto asks, we are planning to call for all overhead lines in the UK to be undergrounded unless there is a clear environmental justification for why they should not be. 

Could it please be minuted that Trustees who resign aren’t offered exit interviews. Jane mentioned that Trustees resigned for ‘a number of reasons’. I resigned because I felt that the Board was being manipulated and consulted late and partially on many important issues and were unable to do their job properly. I know that other names on the ‘outgoing Trustees’ list resigned for similar reasons

Exit interviews for Trustees could be conducted. The Trust would follow a similar process as it does for staff, namely these would not be compulsory, would be confidential with  permission sought to report results to line management and for wider analysis to relevant committee. 

Please can you outline the Trust's current deer management approach and how successful it has been in improving the habitat of the land under the care of the Trust?

We are currently in year two of reduction culls across all our sites, that is reducing deer numbers and densities down to a level where we anticipate natural regeneration of woodland and other habitats taking place. Depending on the site that is somewhere in the region of 2-4 deer per sq km. We will review progress at the end of the 2023/24 season, and if appropriate thereafter move towards a maintenance cull – ie culling deer to maintain numbers at a low level. As it is still relatively early days in this process there are not huge gains to be evidenced yet, but we are seeing the early signs of habitat recovery which suggest our approach is working, and we are committed to ongoing delivery in this direction.

It would be reassuring if the John Muir Trust would publicly state that, in principle, (while not committing itself to implementing any particular schemes at any particular locations within its ownership) it whole-heartedly supports the role of renewable energy producers in (i) reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels now as a matter of urgency and (ii) contributing towards the goal of a programmed phasing out of reliance on fossil fuels

The Trust fully recognises the role of renewable energy in tackling the climate crisis. The Carbon Emissions Land Tax focuses on emissions from land uses. In this context, the energy produced by wind turbines on the land cannot be counted against emissions from the land, as it is exported beyond the landholding to power houses and businesses. Counting it against emissions from land use would in effect mean we count the carbon reduction twice.

Is any consideration being given to reinstating a programme of multi-day work parties (as opposed to single day events suitable mainly to locals) at Trust properties and in collaboration with like-minded land holders? Such a programme existed until 2019. I believe that the Trust is missing a real opportunity to engage the wide range of people who previously attended these - both in terms of physical contribution and in spreading understanding of different models of progressive land management

The short answer is yes, we recognise we need to look at where we can do more to engage people with wild places and volunteering and work-parties are a key way of doing this. We’ve got some amazing locations where people can help us make a difference on the ground and do currently offer a number of single day opportunities, primarily aimed at local communities, and are seeing good uptake.
Some of the organisations we work in partnership with (eg North Harris Trust) offer multi-day opportunities, which the Trust promotes to its Members and followers through social media/ e-newsletters etc
I can say that we are planning to do even more in the volunteering and engagement space, and we will consider to role of multi-day work parties as part of that. 

How does the Trust envisage that monitoring and assessment of individual estates for CELT will be done in a way that is fully impartial?

The assessment would be carried out using a national framework so that the same criteria are applied to all large landholdings in Scotland. A Government agency such as NatureScot or SEPA would be responsible for carrying out the assessment. Local authorities would opt into the tax and decide on the rate of taxation. Councils would be responsible for collecting the tax.

How would the CELT be applied to forestry estates?

In the same way as it would be applied to any liable landholding. Land would be assessed for current habitat condition and if the habitat is found to be degraded (e.g. a clear-cut monoculture plantation), then it would be taxed according to how much greenhouse gases are emitted by the land use.

On what basis would CELT be assessed on land that is not suitable either for forestry or for peatland restoration?

The framework would be based on recognised types of habitats and associated greenhouse gas emissions as determined by the scientific literature. For example, grassland could benefit from reduced animal grazing.

Why do you propose exempting community land trusts from CELT liability?

You can find a full response to this question via our FAQ document online (see Q8).

As you propose (a) that CELT should be imposed at some level even where land is managed in an exemplary way (where carbon absorption greatly exceeds carbon emission) and (b) that community land trusts should be exempt, is the proposed tax not principally an attack on private landowners rather than a genuine attempt to reduce Scotland's carbon footprint?

Scotland’s land currently emits greenhouse gases, but it should be a huge carbon sink. This is because the vast majority of landholdings are not managed for climate, nature and communities. We are advocating for the tax to apply to all landholdings, except when community-owned. This includes land owned by the state, by eNGOs and by businesses. It is designed to incentivise estates to take action, which will result in countless benefits alongside carbon sequestration.

The suspension of David Balharry for such a long period (three months and counting, as far as one can tell from press reports – I’ve seen no official comment from the Trust), and the number of Trustee resignations recently, suggests all is not well with the Trust’s governance. I would like the Chair to address these issues so that Members can be enlightened, and hopefully reassured

The Chair gave a statement on this in the meeting. Members will appreciate the need to handle an internal and confidential matter such as this with sensitivity. The Trust instigated a robust process, with an independent investigation that respected the privacy of those invovled. We took the matter very seriously and with external Legal and HR advice the board was given clear recommendations. The decision to fully exonorate the Chief Executive has been clearly communicated

I can see nowhere in either the Annual Review or Accounts a number for current membership – apologies if I have missed it somewhere. The 6% year on year decline in membership income suggests that membership numbers are falling. Could the Chair please confirm membership numbers at the end of 2022 (with 2021 as a comparison) and confirm that this information will be included in the Accounts in the future

2022 was a year in which membership income did fall, following 10 years of growth. We have taken action in several ways. We’ve commissioned audience research to inform future engagement strategies including plans for a significant membership recruitment campaign in 2024, we hired a new membership manager who started with us in early 2023, and has since supported a return to growth this year – membership year to date (2023) is + 326 (currently sitting at just under 11,000 Members), we are considering if we need to make changes to membership categories and ways of connecting to the Trust, for example, to support an increase in support from younger people. We will be making recommendations to the Board in the future, which in turn would need to come to a future AGM. 

Kylesku - This is rightly mentioned as a significant post reporting date matter. This is a puzzling purchase as the Trust’s own press release justified it by saying :- “The acquisition signals the Trust’s ambition to work with local communities and crofters to boost the fragile economy of the area, increase the resident population and strengthen the bond between people, landscape and nature in this beautiful part of the Highlands.” Frankly that doesn’t fit well within the Trust’s charitable purposes. The wording of Note 29 to the Accounts, mentioning development or resale as the two options, seems to suggest this purchase was rather speculative. Could the Chair please explain the Trustees’ thinking in agreeing to this purchase, and how the appraisal process is going?

As discussed at the AGM, the Trust has taken on the management of Kylesku - a small area of land adjoining our larger estate at Quinag. It is one of the iconic viewpoints of Quinag and offers great potential in the Trust's strategic aim of inspiring engagement with wild places. In addition, while we do not support the fast-tourism model currently displayed by many on the NC500, we recognise there is an opportunity to slow that tourism down and thus invest in the local economy.

The current holiday lodges at the site provide a source of income while we scope the opportunity and developed costed project plans for the future. We are in the very early stages of launching a community consultation - similar to that at Strathaird - to assess the most valuable use of the site going forward, whether that be a visitor centre, community hub, or something else. Trustees receive regular updates on progress and Members will be updated via our publications and website.

Kyklesku - I was rather bemused by the suggestion on page 5 of the Accounts that the purchase would not create an asset on the Trust’s balance sheet!

The Accounts referred to are for the 2022 Financial Year. The purchase of Kylesku will create an asset in the 2023 accounts. We would expect the asset to appear either as one of the constituent items within Heritage Properties, or as a current asset.

It does seem that we are now over-reliant on legacies as a source of income – over 65% of the Trust’s unrestricted income in 2022, and over 53% of the Trust’s total income from all sources

The legacy landscape has changed over the years, with gifts in Wills becoming increasingly important for many charities. Total legacy income for all UK charities was the highest it has ever been last year, at £3.85billion. For many charities, a third or more of their total income comes from legacies, although this varies according to sector and size of charity – and can be easily impacted by a small number of large bequests. We tend to budget fairly conservatively for legacy income, paying as much attention to the pipeline of known estates as we do to previous years results.

Provide additional figures – how many staff roles are currently unfilled?

We have three vacancies currently being recruited for. In our normal planning and budgeting process, we consider any additional roles that would then become subject to Board approval via the budget approval process and/or are confirmed, subject to finding funding in 2024.

Describe any common reasons about why staff are leaving in such high numbers. Is the Trust a good place to work?

Recognising that exit interviews are partial data, from those who have chosen to leave for a variety of reasons, the latest data indicates that the majoity of leavers indicate that the Trust is a good place to work.

What work has been delayed, cancelled or is behind schedule due to staffing levels and retention of expertise? How do you plan to tackle this?

The retention of staff is to supported through a number of iniatives linked to - Training and Development, Benefit Review, Emplyee Engagement Survey, Development of Line Managers in the area of people management. At any time in running an organisation plans are subject to prioritisation and or can be delayed due to a number of factors including people management and retention. Trustees are responsible for oversight of the performance of operations, delegated to the Leadership team. 

In 2022 the Trust advertised for a Head of Human Resources. The advert stated “Are you an HR professional who believes that people are at the heart of every successful organisation? Do you have the skills to support a growing organisation to develop its people and processes through a period of change? …This new role will…become an integral advisor to the leadership team. This is a unique opportunity to implement an HR function and create an HR strategy to support delivery of the Trust’s vision across the UK.” Did you recruit someone for this role? If not, why are you not actively recruiting for it now? Do you think a lack of internal HR function and strategy have contributed to the recent serious issues involving the CEO?

Peter McDonald, a highly experienced HR professional, 30 years in the industry, joined us as a member of staff in early July. Peter’s role is to support all our staff on HR matters, but also to look systematically at where we can improve processes, procedures and policies. He’s made a good start, but there is work to be done.

On the matter of staff turnover: We conduct exit interviews, and the confidential, anonymized information is analysed by our HR staff to identify issues and trends and reported to our leadership team and the relevant Trustee Board. This was most recently done in the past six months and highlights a variety of reasons for departures. We know industry averages for staff turnover in the UK is 16.8% per year. Excluding fixed term contracts, staff turnover in the Trust in 2023 has been around 18%.  

These figures are somewhat higher than we’ve seen previously as an organisaton, but it is also well established that changes in working practices, lifestyles and career goals have shifted in the post-Covid world and we’re looking at ways we can further support our team with hybrid and flexible working.

Finally, we run an annual staff engagement survey, and have commissioned external professionals to undertake a ‘staff engagement survey’ to allow employees the opportunity to reflect on their situation and the organisation in complete confidence.  

That will begin this month and will be reported to Trustees in December, and will allow us to understand the views of all our staff at the moment and will support next steps in identifying any actions we need to take and or plans we need to put in place to continue to make the Trust an excellent place to work.

In today’s statement (31 Oct 2023) you say that the CEO, David Balharry, has been ‘fully exonerated’ and that ‘Following this investigation we will now seriously address what we can do, to better protect staff from false allegations in future.’ Is there an appeal process for staff members who made the allegations of wrongdoing? What support will they receive?

Yes there is an appeal process and, yes, they will be supported should they elect to appeal.

Are there other lessons the Board and management hope to learn from these events?

Yes and these will be communicated to the appropriate people, staff and Board while respecting the confidentiality of the matter and having taken legal and HR advice. 

The tone of language, words like ‘exoneration’ and ‘false allegations’ does not indicate a focus on rebuilding trust and collaboration with staff and partners. Please explain how you intend to ensure that staff members and partners feel safe coming forward with legitimate concerns in the future.

Staff members must ensure they follow the correct internal processes. The Trust is committed to clearly communicating these processes and has a duty of care to support and handle all HR matters professionally, and in so doing build trust and collaboration within the Trust.

How can a Member realistically secure 5% support for a special resolution if the Trust doesn’t create events or opportunities to do that?

We recognise we need to support Members to bring forward appropriate motion either through the Board or through the membership. We are going to look at and discuss options to do this – for example, we could utilise our Member publications and website to allow Members to propose motions in advance and secure the level of support for those motions.

Will the Trust return to in-person AGMs?

The Trust is reviewing the future opportunities for AGMs, with a paper going to the Board in December 2023 outlining the potential scenarios for future AGMs and Members’ Gatherings, taking into account online vs hybrid vs in-person options. We will also be looking at the timings of AGMs.

Are there any plans to expand the reach of the Trust within England?

Yes. The South Region covers everywhere in England and Wales south of the Lake District, and is home to 57 million people. At present, without a land-holding of our own, most of the activity happening on the ground is linked to the John Muir Award, our primary engagement programme, which we will continue to promote and grow. It is important for the Trust to have relevance for people in all parts of the UK, so expanding our reach into this area will include a range of new approaches, partnerships and programmes. Projects in development at the moment include the potential regeneration of an urban wild place in the Midlands, a national partnership with Natural England to engage people from deprived communities in their local wild places and the development of replicable health and well-being in nature and training programmes. We look forward to sharing more details with Members in 2024.