By George Ross

The summer on any Highland hill farm or croft used to be characterised by the bubbling call of the curlew, the incessant pee-witting of lapwings and the drumming of snipe. Unfortunately, these sounds are being heard less and less each year.

Throughout the UK, the number of breeding waders is in steep decline. Curlew have gone from common to virtually extinct in parts of Ireland, Wales and southern England in less than a generation of farmers.

We still have good numbers in Scotland, but things are changing fast. Lapwings have declined by 57% in Scotland since 1995 and curlews by 61%.

At the moment, the bulk of the birds that remain are to be found in the less favoured land in our uplands. These areas are now under great threat.

With reduced subsidies, increased production costs and uncertain markets, many livestock farmers and crofters are considering a switch to forestry. Driven by government’s high target of 10,000ha of new woodland per year, farmers and crofters are bombarded with promotional articles in the farming press highlighting the ever increasing financial incentives and ‘environmental benefit’.

It feels very one sided – sounds like trees will solve all problems!

Is forestry worthy of the land which we and previous generations worked so hard to reclaim and improve? Does forestry support local rural communities? A block of forest does not require the daily labour force that the same unit under livestock require, reducing the likely hood of a family staying on the land.

Once a unit is covered in trees, that’s it. The grazing has gone and the breeding grounds of the waders have gone – forever. Even a small block, which may not officially require a breeding bird survey, can be damaging as it may harbour the likes of crows and foxes which results in increased predation pressure on livestock and surviving waders.

Are there any alternatives to this loss of marginal land to forestry? Perhaps we require government and wildlife organisations to come up with a plan that allows people to continue working the land in the most remote, fragile areas, so that the next generation of crofters and farmers will remain on the land and enjoy the wildlife around them.

Much research is currently being carried out to learn about the causes of wader declines. One such study in the Welsh uplands found, amongst other things, that under-grazing poses more threat to curlew than over-grazing.

I believe new schemes should be developed combining the findings of various studies with livestock rearing methods that still provide an income for the crofter/farmer but also benefit the wildlife, in particular the waders.

Some early findings from an Icelandic study show encouraging results that may be applicable to UK hill farming. They found that areas of open, damp semi-natural and/or reclaimed hill in upland areas with vegetation, similar to purple moor-mat grass, rushes and heather, located close to traditional fertile hay meadows yield the most waders.

Tagging of golden plovers revealed that off duty incubating females travelled up to 7km just to find fertile land to feed. So it seems that supporting crofters and farmers to optimise the pH with lime on reseeded land near wader breeding sites for grass production will have positive affects on wildlife too.

In my opinion, current agri-environment schemes are too complex, too rigid and too competitive, deterring the smaller units which are usually the ones who need the most support, yet due to natural constraints have the very best biodiversity, and therefore the most to lose under forestry.

It is, however, encouraging to read that lessons have been learnt since the SGRDP scheme where critical qualification points were gained if at least 2 ha of new forest were to be planted.

Wader sites need an open aspect (ie no trees) and prefer level land, mainly for spotting predators and for chicks probing associated invertebrate-rich standing water edges. Although lapwing need mostly a short sward, curlews need some rushy, tussocky vegetation.

This has to be respected in designing future agri-policy. Current knowledge tells us that the mind set of topping everything to end up with a golf course, is not the way forward for our uplands.

We need to embrace the character of our unique upland units, but it’s hard without the support of the government and the public. I think the meat buying (and vegan) public needs to learn that it is mainly because of hill farmers and crofters that the uplands are biodiversity rich.

It’s because of our land management decisions over the years that we have an abundance of internationally ‘near threatened’ status species.

New schemes need to be inclusive/non competitive and not just for those good at paperwork. They could be a simple tick box exercise on the subsidy form against fields identified as suitable for ground nesting birds and so agreeing to say one LU/ha from mid-March to mid-June and not planting trees nearby.

They need to supply support at a similar level to forestry so that management decisions can be made for the right reasons, not just for (in some cases) an easy tax-free cash crop. It is also vital for the continuation of CCAGS to encourage lime application and reseeds on hay meadows and patches of reclaimed hill particularly on the edge of moorland.

With two closely related European curlew species being suspected to have become extinct recently, my fear is that the accumulation of these new wee forestry strips all over upland Scotland will be the final nail in the curlew’s coffin.

I believe that some of the general public currently think more trees means more environmental benefits. They may not realise the impact afforestation in the wrong place can have on our native wildlife and our hill farmers and crofters, while some sheep farmers worry that afforestation just opens the door to ‘re-wilding’ extremism.

Curlew and crofter survival is in our hands. Support the farmers and they’ll selflessly aid biodiversity. Are we going to fight for our future or are we going to bury our heads in the peat along with the trees?

I understand that some involved in the forestry industry may not enjoy reading this article, but this is my own opinion based on being brought up on and running a croft in Sutherland.

George Ross is a 38-year-old fifth generation crofter in Sutherland. His croft, Heatherlea, is based on hill reclaimed from mainly cross-leaved heath over 40 years by himself and his late father, Robin. The croft is a valuable wildlife area monitored by the British Trust for Ornithology and carries 600 NCC ewes, selling stock in Lairg and Dingwall, as well as hiring out tups locally.

Like many crofters, he does not have just one ‘job’ – he is a former East Sutherland Biodiversity Officer, has been a contract shearer for 17 years, works in a local salmon hatchery and has been a director of the local community woodland group for about 17 years.

He is married to Sabrina who works alongside him on the croft and is a vet. Both are passionate about their animals and their wildlife.