John Holland blog

Improving the economic and environmental sustainability of a Scottish Hill Farm

This talk by Dr John Holland was well outside the normal familiarity of most of our urban members.  He was telling us about the Scotland’s Rural College’s hill farm at Kirkton and Auchtertyre, near Crianlarich at the top end of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. For people like this author, farming comprises lowland arable and livestock farming, and, for the Highlands, rough pastures only suitable for sheep.  John’s talk made this over simplified perspective irrelevant.  We learned that the hill farm in Crianlarich is very scientifically managed and is part of a sophisticated ecosystem not to mention a mixed economy which includes tourism, forestry and power generation.  Just as important, the effective running of the hill farm contributes to maintaining the diversity of flora and fauna, flood prevention and mitigating Climate Change. Matters which are very pertinent to the subsidies that hill farms receive.

John, anticipating gaps in his audiences knowledge, set the scene by explaining what the SRUC does.  In basic terms it does three things; ie provides education, undertakes research and supports farms, rural businesses and associated industries through its consulting arm.  The College’s hill farm at Kirkton and Auchtertyre, where John is based, is researching the farm’s economic and environmental sustainability and seeking ways to improve outcomes.  This is essential for its survival as a working farm and research centre.

John introduced us to Precision Livestock Farming (PLF) and the use of electronic livestock identity (EID) technology which allows the researchers to compareand contrast conventional farming with innovative PLF.  The precision is not limited to EID; ie the ability to identify the livestock with tags but with a range of technologies to analyse the hill farm’s soil, greenhouse gas emissions, forage and fodder and many other thingsincluding DNA analysis of the sheep.  In order to do this SRUC use a very sophisticated range of sensors to monitor air temperature, river levels, rainfall, soil temperature, moisture level and soil Ph.  All this data helps inform farm management in terms when to seed, lime and fertilise soil and avoid flooding.  Drones are used to identify and map the variety of vegetation within the farm boundaries.  GPS collars on the sheep allows their movements to be monitored and indicate the herd’svegetation feeding preferences.  Interestingly, this monitoring can reveal when sheep are not foraging in expected locations unearthing health problems.  The GPS collar technology also permits the establishment of virtual fences, where sheep can be warned by sound and then electrical pulses not to travel beyond the unfenced hill farm boundary.  A demonstration of a livestock version of ‘Big Brother is watching you’.

An important reality is that hill farms’ economics are dependent on subsidies.  The research that John and his colleagues are doing is seeking to reduce hillfarmers’ reliance on subsidies.  Not an unimportant consideration because subsidy regimes are subject tochange.  Discussion revealed that historic livestock subsidies had led to overstocking and caused the quality of forage to drop.  Changes in the subsidy rules, back in 2005, led to a reduction in livestock numbers. The remaining sheep also benefitted from improvedgrassland management in terms of re-seeding, liming and fertilising.  All these measures improved profitability and the quality of the environment.  Despite these gains,the price of lamb does not reflect the full cost of rearing.  This explains why we find the College’s hill farm has tourist Wigwams, Lodges and a farm shop to broaden the sources of income.  Until the pandemic, the accommodation was attracting some 22,000 guests per annum.  In addition, there is a micro-hydro plant generating enough electricity to supply 500 houses.  A demonstration that an integrated approach is needed to make the economics of hill farming sustainable.

Much of the work at Kirkton and Auchtertyre, is focused on environmental management.  This includes the expansion of woodland, shelter belt planting, wetland and water margin management, peatland restoration and improvement of grasslands.  These activities also have agricultural advantages as they contribute to improving livestock rearing and the quality of the food produced.  Care is taken to use native species which enhances the habitats within the farm to attract bees, moths, butterflies, birds, voles and even, recently,beavers!  The flying insects are valuable pollinators. These make significant ‘public good’ contributions in terms of carbon storage, reducing flood risk, maintaining habitats and improving diversity of flora and fauna.  The public good is not only beneficially locally but also helpsto tackle global climate change.  These are key factors in justifying hill farm subsidies at the taxpayers expense.  In short, the abandonment of hill farms would have a cost!

It is not possible here to cover all that John talked about including the archaeology and history of the farm, Scottish Blackface Sheep vs Lleyn Sheep (Welsh), the advantages of ‘intelligent’ sheep sorting equipment using EID, the targeted use of chemicals to manage livestock threats, DNA profiling to improve herd quality, the range of soil Ph, the choice of trees and shrubs to repopulate the hills and glens, not to mention the dissemination of the lessons learned on the farm.  This knowledge is sought worldwide.  In normal times the farm attracts visitors all year round – farmers, scientists and students.  It was also satisfying to learn that the College’s agricultural scientists could still learn things from visiting hill farmers and that John and his colleagues were happy to be challenged and informedby them.  

So Kirkton and Auchtertyre Hill Farm is an innovative test bed at the cutting edge of agricultural and environmental science.  Even though this work shows that the economics of hill farming are marginal, John was able to demonstrate that sustainable hill farms have an important ‘public good’ role to play in terms of supporting rural communities, sequestrating carbon dioxide, reducing flood risk and improving the biodiversity of our flora and fauna.  There would be costs to the taxpayer if the government decided to make a short sighted decision not to support hill farms.  Moreover, the lessons learned show that the cost of subsidies can be controlled through innovation and better management.  Thanks are due to John for shining a light on a subject which is beyond the usual orbit of this author.  

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