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Upland farming: Land abandonment could become a reality if support is cut

Those farming in Scotland’s uplands have always faced their own unique challenges but Brexit has brought them another level of angst, particularly around the level of ‘lifeline’ funding they will receive in the future and the knock-on effects any cuts could have.


In the third week of Farmers Guardian’s upland special, Ewan Pate meets some of the farmers at the centre of the debate. 

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Upland farming: Land abandonment could become a reality if support is cut

Land abandonment is something which is often cited as a threat for the future of hill farming but it is already a reality across much of Scotland.


The fact the only reason communities exist on these stark landscapes is due to the farming enterprises which keep them there is a point Lake District farmer Isaac Benson highlighted in FG’s focus on England’s uplands last week.


Argyll hill farmer and star of the first series of BBC2’s This Farming Life, Sybil McPherson said when she was growing up there were 10 farms in the area around Dalmally with hill sheep. Now she and husband George are the only ones farming these high hills.


Most have given up altogether, with some now only keeping sheep on the lower ground.

There has also been a considerable change in land use.


There is now forestry on both sides of the McPhersons’ Brucklay Farm and, due to the lack of fencing maintenance by the companies involved, keeping sheep from entering the woods is a constant task.

The forest owners have the right to shoot trespassing animals.


Higher up on the unfenced hills, land abandonment poses other problems.


The lack of neighbouring sheep means the natural hefting instinct becomes less effective, with sheep wandering much further than ever before.

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Mrs McPherson said: “We have 4,000 acres owned and 3,000 acres rented and under different grazing agreements but goodness knows how many acres we have to cover now to gather the sheep.”


The land includes an agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage to graze the slopes of Ben Lui, one of only three Munros – mountains taller than 914 metres (3,000 feet) – which have to be gathered.


“We should have about 2,000 Blackface ewes on the hill.


“Although we never get a 100 per cent gather, I expect we will see a frightening reduction when we gather for winter dipping.


“We think the weather this spring has caused our worst losses ever and it was not a good lambing,” added Mrs McPherson.


Farming a vast area of the West Highlands is clearly not without it challenges.


In a normal year on these high hills a 100 per cent lambing would be considered unusually good.


With an annual rainfall of 330mm, she is farming in a challenging environment and has much to contend with but she keeps a positive attitude.


“I regard myself as the luckiest person alive to be able to care for the livestock and all the biodiversity on this farm,” she said.

Sybil McPherson
Sybil McPherson

Along with the Blackface sheep, the couple keep 50 cows.


The Limousin crosses are away wintered in the east of the country but a small herd of more recently introduced Shorthorn cross Highland cows now stays on the land all year.


Mr McPherson said: “They are benefiting the place massively and we are seeing good natural regeneration where they have been grazing.”


All youngstock, sheep and cattle, are sold store.


Selling small Blackface lambs can be difficult and unpredictable as it depends on low-ground finishers being prepared to take them.


Mrs McPherson said: “I think we have to try and help ourselves more and not be seen to be too reliant on handouts. More small abattoirs would help. There is one on Mull but this is quite a distance and involves a ferry journey. We have an Argyll Hill Lamb group and we can develop this. Our lamb is a fabulous natural and sustainable product.”


As the previous chairman of the National Sheep Association in Scotland and a current member of NFU Scotland’s Less Favoured Areas committee, Mrs McPherson is no stranger to the world of agri-politics.


Above all, in spite of all efforts towards self-reliance, she is absolutely convinced of the need for a successor to the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS).


“LFASS is really critical for our business. We use all of it for wintering, haulage, feed and straw. There is no question of using it for holidays or anything such as that. As soon as it arrives in our bank account it goes back out again.”


The relative importance of LFASS compared to Basic Payment Scheme has become more apparent since the last Common Agricultural Policy reform.

Neil McCorkindale
Neil McCorkindale

Scotland was split into three regions: Region One for good arable and pasture land, Region Two for good rough grazing and Region Three with a very low per hectare payment for the vast areas of hill and moor land which make up much of the country.


Mrs McPherson believes this was a mistake, leaving productive but extensive farms such as hers at a disadvantage.


“The rough grazing should never have been split. We are supposed to have coupled support to make up for very low area payments through the Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme, commonly known as the ewe hogg scheme, but it is dreadful and was never going to work.


“The penalties are disproportionate and there are many issues with away wintering,” she said.


Any changes to the delivery of the £65 million LFASS payments could be extremely harmful.


And while the payment for public goods principle is gathering pace in Westminster, those at the coalface are slightly more cautious.


Mrs McPherson added: “Environmental payments are also important but it is hard to put a price on what we do.


“We have always had golden eagles here and they are great to see. This is Special Protection Area (SPA) for them. We also nearly always had a pair of ravens nesting and actually like to see them. A thriving adult pair will keep away the juveniles, which can cause the most damage.


“Nature has to be kept in balance. For instance I would hate to see the last fox but numbers have to be controlled sensibly.


“The sea eagle is, however, a threat to golden eagles and other wildlife. They are putting hill farmers out of business because of the predation on lambs and we have no hares or rabbits left here now.”


For Nick McCorkindale, who farms eight miles south of Oban, the loss of LFASS payments would see farming in the West Highlands ‘cease to exist’.


Like the McPhersons, the money is spent on livestock expenses before it even reaches the bank.

However, he is less certain about the Beef Efficiency Scheme (BES).


“The concept of promoting technical advances is correct but the scheme got off to a bad start. It needs to be redesigned and start again,” he suggested.


Neil farms 485 hectares (1,200 acres) at Scammadale, a farm bought by his grandfather in 1958, renting another 400ha (1,000 acres) at Ardencaple, seven miles away, near the coast.


Stocking is 100 pure Luing cows and 20 Simmental cross Luings, known as Sim-Luings. Most run with Simmental bulls and are spring calving.


All progeny are sold at six or seven months old in October at Oban market. Heifers, which often sell for £700-£800 per head, are invariably bought for breeding with a good demand for the first cross Sim-Luings and the second crosses out of the Sim-Luing cows.


“I have had Luings since 1986 when I bought 50 cows from one of the Cadzow brothers. These were early days for the breed, which originate on the nearby island of Luing, but they have been kind to us over the years,” said Mr McCorkindale.


The sheep stock consists of 350 Blackface ewes and 150 Mules. There are two employees working between the two farms.


Mr McCorkindale is keen to see agriculture remain a big employer in the Highlands but admits this is difficult when production is not encouraged in the way it used to be.


His wife Hazel operates holiday lets in an idyllic situation overlooking Loch Scammadale and had no problem maintaining a high occupancy rate this summer.


“This year we had the sort of summer weather we last saw in the 1970s, with plenty of dry days,” he added.


He is hoping for at least another dry day on May 30 next year when the Scottish Beef Cattle Association (SBCA) holds its open day at the Milne family’s North Bethelnie farm at Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire.


As chairman of the SBCA, Mr McCorkindale believes there is a future for hill cows, but only if farmers are prepared to change their systems to suit the circumstances.


For more than 20 years he has sent a good proportion of his herd of 120 cows east for winter and the increasingly wet weather is helping make the policy seem more sensible than ever.


His farm at Scammadale has about 3050mm of rain a year with completely dry days becoming rare.


“I will put 80 of our 120 cows to a farm at Braco, Perthshire, to winter on silage in straw courts. They will come back just before calving in spring and it is great to have clean ground to put them on. I would recommend away wintering to anyone,” added Mr McCorkindale.


In his role at the SBCA he is trying to encourage others to take up the system and he believes Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy Fergus Ewing approves of the initiative as a way to increase hill cow numbers.


“I would like to see Government become more involved,” he added.


“I will stick with cows as I believe their day will come again.


“We have sheep here too but in some ways they are more difficult as they are always looking for a market. Beef is different because only 6 per cent is exported and 70 per cent goes to within 25 miles of London. It is a very strong home market.”


But the beef sector will only thrive if the correct support measures are in place and he is in no doubt these should be coupled to production.


“I cannot understand why people continually want to take payments away from production,” said Mr McCorkindale.


“Young people in particular must have an incentive to produce. The move away from headage payments has done a lot of damage since it was introduced.


“On the other hand the beef calf scheme, which is coupled to production, has been a godsend delivering about £120 per calf.”


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