Hill farming is an industry which has long been the backbone of livestock production in Scotland. Now, an industry which helped to keep rural shops, garages, post offices and schools open and thriving is under threat from a change in societal values.

Food production today is relegated to the second division, with environmental concern elevated to the premier league – a fallacy that only empty shelves will sort out.

Hill farming has always been a Cinderella sector, heavily dependent on support from government because of the nature of the ground being farmed, distance from markets, and constraint of weather. The lambs and calves produced in the hills have over the years underpinned the profits on many low-ground finishing farms, although they struggled to enhance the profitability of the farm they were bred on.

I’ve farmed in the hills all my life, from the north west of Skye where I was born and started my career, to farming today in the middle of the Cairngorms. It’s a job in which, to me, there is great satisfaction in turning out quality pens of calves and store lambs. You are completely at the mercy of the buyer and the current trade, and 12 months of hard work comes down to that 60 seconds in the ring.

This last six months has seen a sea change in the values of calves and lambs – these empty straths and glens are having an effect, with the prices starting to reflect our costs of production. This is due mainly to the laws of supply and demand beginning to bite. An ever-increasing population with ever-decreasing production can only have one outcome.

Will this lead to these hills and glens being restocked and the houses filled with shepherds and stockmen? Time and economics will dictate. My hope would be that these jobs would return – because this industry is about people.

The days when there would be a dozen folk at a clipping might never return, but to have a clipping in many a glen would be an achievement.

Here in the Cairngorms we have been under more pressure than some other areas of Scotland as we have had to labour under an added layer of bureaucracy in the guise of the national park.

Additional planning laws and the increased cost of housing have led to many of our young folk being forced to leave their home area in search of cheaper housing and more job opportunities.

Our park board has been instrumental in leading the drive for environmental measures, resulting in the recent release of beavers into the Spey Valley.

The lack of consultation and having beavers imposed on us was the last straw for many crofters and farmers. This led to the formation of the Cairngorm Crofters and Farmers Community.

This group has grown from a WhatsApp group of three members to currently over 90. One of our main aims is to connect with the park authority and take agriculture and food production back onto the agenda.

One of our biggest challenges in doing this is the park board, and the fact that it is loaded with government appointees picked for their environmental bias rather than any agricultural expertise.

Quite the reverse, in fact – some of them are intent on making livestock production a memory of the past in the strath, and fulfilling their own agenda of rewilding Scotland and introducing lynx and wolves in a madcap attempt to recreate their vision of what Scotland looked like 1000 years ago.

These environmentalists are keen to tell us of the decline of various species of birds and mammals, and hark back to the glory days of the earlier part of the 20th century.

The truth is that back then the hills were full of people – shepherds, cattlemen and gamekeepers – all looking after their own.

Predators were kept under control which gave every other species a chance at life and allowed them to flourish.

The early 1990s saw the birth of the environmental scheme – the money from these schemes has helped many a hill farm and croft, but in truth it has very little for the environment in real terms.

A lot of these schemes included stock reduction – the animals which were at the centre of the biodiversity and fragile eco-systems of the hills being removed at a civil servant’s whim.

But enough of the past. How do I see the future for hill farming in Scotland?

If and when we reach the tipping point where food is no longer taken as a given, but is appreciated for the necessity that it is, I see a bright future for the hills.

Here in Scotland we have plenty of that precious resource – water – and a temperate climate in which to grow grass. Our rainfall is complained about so often, but the fact is that huge areas of the world would give almost anything to have such a plentiful and regular supply.

This gives us an advantage which will only become apparent when the increasing shortage of water in other parts of the world impacts their ability to produce.

Our hills which have been cleared will once again be appreciated for the healthy, red meat they can produce.

Young people are the lifeblood of any industry, and none more so than farming.

Technology is playing an increasing part in our industry and our ability to embrace this has to be encouraged.

Of course, there are some skills, such as that of the stock person, that are not so easily transferred by computer. The skillset of the hill shepherd has to be preserved to enable our hills to be stocked again.

Gaelic is my mother tongue and there is a saying in Gaelic which roughly translates to ‘the man who lives a long time will see many things’. In my lifetime I’ve seen the hills full of stock, and I’m now seeing many hills cleared of stock.

Hopefully, I’ll live to see them restocked. I’ve seen hill lambs sell for £1 – I’m now seeing them make £170. I’ve seen weaned calves sell for £25 with the best now making £1500.

Hopefully this price increase will stabilise the economy of the hills and lead to a new dawn for our industry.

Wishing you all a good calving and lambing, with the weather on our side.

Robert MacDonald farms at Castle Grant home farm near Grantown-on-Spey. He runs suckler cows and breeds pedigree Cheviot sheep. He was a previous chair of the NFUS LFASS committee and is current chair of the Cairngorms Crofters and Farmers Community group which represents rural interests within the Cairngorms National Park.