What future for farming in Scotland's mountains?

Thursday, 3rd September 2015

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre at SRUC: Scotland's Rural College

More than 70 per cent of Scotland’s land area consists of hills and mountains or has vegetation with upland characteristics. Our mountains, moors, hills and heaths extend from near sea level in the north and west to the highest mountain tops across Scotland.

Farming in the uplands varies markedly from place to place. But whether tenanted farms on large estates or small crofts in the Scottish islands, all our upland farming systems have one thing in common – they are livestock based systems with each farm or croft being heavily dependent on the grazing of sheep and cattle on large areas of less productive moorland grazings.

Upland farmers today face many pressures, including difficulties in maintaining livestock productivity on such poor grazings, conflicts with native and reintroduced bird and mammal predators, and an increase in diseases associated with the increasingly wet climate.

Such pressures are important and need to be tackled effectively. But I also see three key wider issues which will be essential to address if our upland farming systems are to be sustainable into the future.

Fragile economic viability: The natural and semi-natural nature of the forage on which these upland farming systems depend puts constraints on the number of animals that can graze throughout the year. This need to graze extensively constrains the number of lambs and calves that can be produced for the market.

Hence upland farmers have historically relied on agricultural support policies for a major component of their income. But both market prices and agricultural support policies can, and do, change for the worse, leaving upland farmers very vulnerable to such changes.

There is increasing recognition that upland farming has a role to play in providing high quality, sustainable food while delivering wider benefits to society such as carbon sequestration, flood regulation and maintaining biodiversity.

But while payments for ecosystem services is increasingly seen as the way forward, such payment schemes are not being developed and put in place fast enough to help maintain the economic viability of the majority of upland farmers currently providing those services across Scotland.

Competition with other upland uses: Farming is certainly not the only land use in Scotland’s mountains. However, most of our current upland land management systems have three things in common:

They tend to concentrate on a single large-scale form of “production”, such as farming, forestry, game or nature conservation management.

 As a result, each enterprise is very vulnerable to external pressures and shocks, e.g. extreme weather events can kill livestock or damage trees; the large-scale production of sheep or sitka spruce leaves each system very vulnerable to any disease epidemic.

 Those practising any one of these systems generally view the others as a “threat” to their way of life, with the result that the systems all tend to pull in opposite directions.

 At the time of writing, forestry is being highlighted as more economically viable than upland livestock farming. But simply replacing one large-scale form of production with another will not be any more sustainable in the long term. Nor will it provide the scale and range of ecosystem services that society is asking for from our uplands.

Rewilding good, farming bad: In my view, a large part of the current surge of interest in rewilding the Scottish and UK uplands stems from the magnitude of habitat and species loss associated with agricultural intensification in the lowlands. While I am also very concerned about biodiversity loss in the lowlands, it does seem rather perverse for all farming systems to be therefore tarred with the same ‘bad for the environment’ brush.

In particular, the ongoing rewilding debate contains little or no recognition that our High Nature Value upland farming systems not only already maintain many habitats and species considered to be of high nature conservation value, but also already deliver many of the wider ecological processes that are, incorrectly, seen as only being deliverable through rewilding.

This should not, however, be taken to suggest that current Scottish upland farming systems are perfect from both an agricultural and environmental point of view. Far from it.

Nevertheless, I am confident that farming will continue to play an important role in Scotland’s mountains. But I am also confident that the farming systems being practiced will need to change and that our future upland farming systems will involve greater integration with other land uses. This will not only help diversify the income sources on those farms but will also serve to increase their resilience to climatic and economic shocks.

Further reading

Heald A. 2015 We can now see the wood from the trees. The Scotsman, 17th June 2015 Read Online

Bignal, E.M. & McCracken, D.I. 2009 Herbivores in space: extensive grazing systems in Europe. British Wildlife Special Supplement: Naturalistic grazing and rewilding in Britain: perspectives from the past and future directions, 44-49 -Read Online

McCracken, D.I. 2015 Integration key for Scotland’s hill farms. The Scotsman, 14th May 2015 Read Online

McCracken, D.I. 2014 Uses and challenges abound outside cities. The Scotsman, 20th May 2014 Read Online

Skerratt, S., Atterton, J., Brodie, E., Carson, D., Heggie, R., McCracken, D., Thomson, S. & Woolvin, M. 2014 Rural Scotland in Focus 2014. Rural Policy Centre, Scotland's Rural College, Edinburgh. Read Online

Text based on article under consideration for publication in the Autumn 2015 issue of The Geographer within a special issue being prepared in advance of an international mountain conference being held in Perth in October 2015.