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Hill farming

55% of Scotland's agricultural land is dedicated to sheep farming and mixed sheep and beef cattle in the uplands. These farms are characteristic of land that is disadvantaged in terms of agricultural production or Less Favoured Areas because of its poor soils and short growing season.

The two main types of farms are found in the LFAs are:

  • Hill sheep farms
  • Mixed sheep and beef cattle farms

Hill farming uses specific hardy breeds of sheep and cattle that are adapted to a harsh climate, long winters and poor pastures. These animals are typically less productive and will be sold as store stock to be fattened and finished in lowland farms.

The extensive farming methods of the core hill areas rely largely on natural or semi-natural vegetation and natural processes such as nutrient cycling. Moderate grazing by both sheep and cattle and Muirburn (where properly regulated) maintains diverse swards and a mosaic of tall herbs and short vegetation that benefits many kinds of insects, plants and ground nesting birds. Patches of short vegetation form good breeding sites for waders like Lapwing, Redshank and Golden Plover while taller areas will be favoured by other species like Curlew. Cattle dung sustains abundant populations of insects, and carrion benefits scavenging birds. Moorland and bogs are then valuable habitats for wildlife but also important reserves of carbon stored as peat.

Agricultural management, burning and grazing by sheep and deer, maintain upland grassland, moorland and bogs that would otherwise be colonised by trees and scrub. Nonetheless, declining numbers of livestock, inappropriate stocking rates, fewer cattle and lack of shepherding give rise to problems both of overgrazing (soil erosion, loss of diversity in the sward) and under grazing (growth of the most competitive plants and loss of diversity).

In the winter, livestock is usually kept outdoors and its diet supplemented with hay or silage. This may bring supplementary food for seed-eating birds (particularly with hay where seeds tend to be riper at harvest) but may also cause problems of poaching and trampling around the feeding areas.

Many birds such as Skylark, Partridge or Corncrakes nest on the ground and favour tall vegetation. Areas cultivated for hay or silage that are not mown or grazed during the breeding season can provide suitable cover. On farms where no crop is cultivated, reintroducing small arable areas for whole crop silage for instance may increase availability of food and habitats for wildlife.

Most livestock production in the Scottish hills would not be economically viable without the financial support provided by the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS) and the Single Farm Payment (SFP) external site . A severe decline in livestock farming will inevitably affect the economic and social fabric of rural areas and have knock-on effects on the hill and upland environment.

Last updated on Monday 10th April 2017 at 13:39 PM. Click here to comment on this page