Crofting essential for wildlife of islands

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Conservationists in the Western Isles have stressed the importance of livestock farming for the wildlife of the islands following the recent issue of a report by the RSPB.

Robin Reid, RSPB Scotland’s conservation officer for the Western Isles, welcomed the report saying, “Livestock grazing is essential to maintain a range of threatened wildlife and habitats across the UK’s uplands. The report reveals that changes in livestock grazing in the most vulnerable farming areas, of which Scotland has a significant share, could have an impact on threatened wildlife and habitats. This is particularly true of the Western Isles.”

The research assesses how livestock numbers have changed in the so-called ‘Less Favoured Area’ across the whole of the UK, from Dartmoor to the Western Isles. The RSPB is calling for greater support to these ‘vulnerable’ farmers through the Scotland Rural Development Programme and other Common Agricultural Policy mechanisms.

Rebecca Cotton, manager of the Uist-based Conserving Machair LIFE+ Project said, “Cattle are at the heart of the traditional machair system of management. As a result, they help to support a habitat that is very valuable for wildlife. One of the greatest threats the machair faces is the lack of young crofters coming forward to undertake this work. Grant incentives are very important to keeping the economic and ecological system viable for the future.”

Mr Reid added, “There have been a number of recent changes in livestock management and grazing patterns on the Western Isles. There has been a sharp reduction in hill grazing by sheep and cattle over the last decade, and in some areas this has led to an increase grazing by red deer. Some areas suffer from over-grazed and frequent muir-burn whilst in other areas livestock have been completely removed. Getting the grazing balance right is essential for maintaining the richness of the wildlife in the islands.

“Preserving crofting and preserving the biodiversity of the Western Isles goes hand in hand.”

Amy Corrigan, Agricultural Policy Officer for RSPB Scotland said “Extensive livestock systems are hugely important in Scotland – environmentally, economically and culturally - but they are amongst the most vulnerable and their future is uncertain. This work represents the most up to date examination of changes in livestock systems in the Scottish uplands. It sends important warning signals about what we stand to lose if we don’t take the opportunity of CAP reform to get the support mechanisms right.”  

A key finding of the report is the importance of projects fostering partnership working, such as initiatives promoting short supply chains that connect consumers to local, more sustainable farming systems. This uses purchasing power to influence the management of iconic upland landscapes and wildlife.

The report was produced for the RSPB by Cumulus Consultants.

Photo: Cattle crossing to Vallay Island, North Uist by Hazel Smith.