Herdwick flock decline is a stark reminder of the dangers of chasing grants - by Malcolm Taylor, Head of Land Management

The announcement of new Government grant schemes can be both a blessing and a curse for land managers.

Land management requires owners and advisors to take a strategic view on management decisions, and poorly thought through “knee jerk” decisions to embrace new grant schemes seldom benefit the long-term viability of a property.

With the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, coupled with the fall-out from the Brexit deal or no deal, it is inevitable that owners and managers will seek to maintain income without considering the costs to the business and environment over the longer term.

Recently the plight of the Herdwick Sheep has featured in the national press. This rare mountain breed, much loved and championed by Beatrix Potter, has declined to critical levels as a result of changing farm ownership, the growth of Airbnb farmhouse accommodation, and the practice of once proud flock owners following an easier life by taking Government grant funding to reduce flock numbers.

The Lake District National Park Authority, who manage this World Heritage Site, recently confirmed that hill and mountain pastures are in poor and declining condition as a result of a lack of sheep grazing. The fashion for selling small hill farms has led to a dramatic decline in Herdwick numbers on the Lakeland Fells as these new owners claim grants from Natural England to remove stock. This in turn has led to the loss of positive grazing and threatened the very existence of this iconic native breed.

North of the border we face similar challenges. The value of forestry land has increased beyond any normal levels with the high level of Government support for new planting, be it for timber or carbon credits and carbon offsetting.

In the 1980s there was a scramble in the South West of Scotland to plant every hill farm that could grow Sitka Spruce.  The result was the rapid expansion of the forested estate but at the expense of loss of habitat for waders and moorland birds.  Some years later acid rain, lochs devoid of brown trout and increased sedimentation of the Galloway salmon spate rivers grew to such an extent that the salmon and sea trout runs all but disappeared.

On the brink of Brexit with no deal, there will inevitably be pressure on farmers and land management land owners to try and protect fragile incomes as best they can. This is quite understandable but “knee jerk” business for short term gain can not be the correct management decision. Care must be taken to ensure that decisions taken now will not adversely impact on either income streams, nor the environment, in the next few years.

The proposed new organic scheme payments might look attractive in the short-term but how will they impact on other management activities eg. treated grit for grouse or treating sheep for ticks?  We need to look beyond short term aims. Similarly removing ewes from a hill might be profitable in the short-term, but with reduced grazing hill pasture and heather will rapidly revert to scrub. This might suit some management aims but longer term owners and managers must be clear what their business objectives are. Short term gains are seldom the answer to long term management aims. Do we want rewilding or managed uplands for sheep and wildlife in general? We need to take a long term balanced view of land management.

Before embarking on a new scheme to attract a grant, it is essential to decide what the long-term management aims of the property are. Chasing grants for the sake of short-term cash is never a good longer term objective.

Bell Ingram’s land managers are all well versed in taking the long-term view of management of properties for future generations and also to enhance the biodiversity and ecological integrity of properties. The future of the Herdwick Sheep might be in the balance, but it is incumbent on owners and managers to ensure that our native Scottish sheep and cattle breeds, and their associated environment are not put in jeopardy for the sake of unsustainable grants.

Malcolm Taylor

Rural Land Management
Tel: 07715 609325 (mob) 01307 462 516

Article posted on 16/11/2020

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