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Declines in farming in the Scottish hills and the impact on biodiversity

A report published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) could help inform thinking on the development of HNV farming system support policies, frameworks and strategies (An analysis of the impact on the natural heritage of the decline in hill farming in Scotland).

Agricultural census data from the Scottish Government has shown that the national sheep flock declined by almost 2.9 million between 1998 and 2009. Similarly, the beef cattle herd declined by 110,783 over the same period. The greatest declines in livestock have been in the hills and uplands of the north and west of Scotland. These declines have been fuelled by a combination of factors, including a general down-turn in the economic viability of hill farms, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, livestock reductions related to agri-environment schemes, and changes in the way that livestock farmers are subsidised.

The aim of this project was to gather information on what is happening on the ground in terms of livestock declines, the changes in management associated with these declines, and the impacts of these changes on the natural heritage and rural communities. The central part of the project was the analysis of information from three case study areas; South Skye, West Borders and North Highlands. A participative workshop approach was used as the main method of obtaining information about changes and impacts within the case study areas.

The decline in hill farming and crofting was recognised as a significant issue in all three areas, with numerous impacts highlighted. Many of the same issues were raised across the three study areas. Social, economic and community related impacts were generally seen as more important or serious than natural heritage impacts. There were very few positive or beneficial impacts of the decline identified. More negative impacts on the natural heritage were highlighted in South Skye and North Highlands, than in the West Borders. It tended to be the inbye ground where most of the changes in the natural heritage and landscape had been observed.

Many of the patterns of change and impacts on the natural heritage and communities that were brought out in the case studies were relevant to the rest of upland Scotland and the crofting areas. Most of the data regarding natural heritage impacts was qualitative and anecdotal. There was very little quantitative data available either from the workshops or elsewhere that was directly linked to recent changes in livestock.

The decline in livestock numbers is unlikely to stop without economic support for hill farmers and crofters through some form of policy change. If the decline continues then the impacts highlighted in the report are likely to become greater and even more widespread, with wider social issues implicated.

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European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism
Date: 2022/08/12
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