EDINBURGH, U.K. — Farming in Scotland’s rugged terrain has been going on for thousands of years and the challenges never diminish.
Eighty percent of the land in Scotland has an agricultural use, but only eight percent of it is arable.
“The vast majority of Scotland’s agriculture land has some sort of disadvantage from an agriculture production point of view,” said agriculture ecologist Davy McCracken, who manages the Kirkton and Auchtertyre Hill and Mountain Research Centre.
The 2,200 acre property north of Edinburgh is owned by Scotland’s Rural College, a private agriculture institution that handles applied research, education and consulting.
Seventy percent of the agriculture land is referred to as uplands. This has nothing to do with altitude. Instead, it’s because the land is hilly and rocky with a thin soil cover and poor vegetation.
Due to the latitude, the Scottish growing season is similar to that of Canada. Twilight comes early in the winter months while the summers have long days and short nights. There is abundant rainfall 280 days a year with some regions receiving as much as 2.5 to 3.5 metres of rain.
McCracken is trying to encourage upland farmers to take a holistic approach and use their livestock to rebuild the soil and grasslands with grazing.
“The vast majority of farmers across all the farming sectors in the U.K. have not been paying as much attention to their soil health and the management of the grassland,” he said.
Much of the land is considered rough grazing with poor nutritional quality capable of supporting one sheep on two sq. kilometres. There are permanent grasslands in the southwestern region of Dumfries so dairy farming is located there to take advantage of the better forage.
In the upland areas, communal grazing among the crofters is common. Each croft has a small plot of land around the home place but also has the right to graze in common grazing areas on rough land.
Sheep are commonly grazed in these areas, but the Scottish flock has declined in the last 30 years because of poor production and the loss of subsidies that paid farmers on a per head basis.
“Over time in the Highlands and the islands we have seen a marked reduction in the production of sheep,” he said.
Those who dispersed their sheep moved into something else such as agri-tourism or guided hunting excursions.
As an ecologist, he is concerned about the land.
“We are concerned with such huge decreases in sheep numbers. Many of the habitats and many of the species that we now place a high nature conservation value on in Scotland and across Europe are reliant on some form of grazing pressure to maintain them,” he said.
“If you take the sheep off, then you get scruff coming in and woodland coming in. You still get biodiversity, but a different kind of species.”
There are also conflicts about land use with the general public having no connection to farming or how the land is used.
Those interested in the environment condemn farming and grazing. Some activist groups are talking about “rewilding” the Highlands, in which livestock are removed and the lands allowed to regenerate naturally.
“We have been managing our land is Scotland for 5,000 to 6,000 years, and agriculture and grazing animals have been a big part of that,” he said.
McCracken researches alpine grazing systems throughout Europe where similar conflicts exists. Part of his work strives to convince the public and the government that the uplands are worth retaining from an historic, cultural and environmental point of view.
In addition, climate change is affecting these regions with more extreme weather events. Nature is getting out of balance as the hillsides are taken over by heather, forbes and bracken, a large fern that is unpalatable to livestock.
More pests such as ticks and liver flukes and new diseases driven by climate change are being reported.
“We are getting wetter, milder winters and summers so pests like liver fluke is becoming a big issue,” he said.
Besides changing climate and forage loss, farmers are facing other challenges with low productivity among ewes and black loss, an unexplained disappearance of animals when they are turned out to graze.
Along with these challenges are predators such as badgers, foxes, eagles and buzzards going after young animals.
Large predators were wiped out hundreds of years ago, but in the last 20 years large bird predators such as sea eagles have been re-introduced in parts of the Highlands and islands where they prey on lambs. The raptors are protected species but they are becoming problem predators.
Besides the loss of good grazing, woodlands have shrunk back. Much of the forested land was logged out during the Second World War, and tree planting programs are ongoing. Fast growing trees can provide shelter and flood control, improve water quality and provide a second income from logging.
Such initiatives would bring them in line with new government plans to base agriculture subsidies on ecosystem services such as controlling greenhouse gas emissions and promoting biodiversity, carbon sequestration and better water quality.
“That process has been much talked about but hasn’t got to a stage with a transparent scheme you can actually show,” he said.
He sees environmental production versus agriculture production as symbiotic.
Part of the job of consultants at SRUC is to convince tradition-bound farmers that lesson.
“They do not see managing their farm better from an environmental production perspective could actually have, in many cases, a benefit for the farm itself. They say, ‘that is just managing for society so they better pay me for it,’ ” he said.
“There is a whole host of things farmers could be doing that would benefit the environment and society further down the hill and it would benefit the long-term sustainability of their own farming system, ” he said.