N E W S F E E D S >>>
Action Plan Contents

Action Plan Front Page

Caithness Biodiversity Index

Nature & Environment Index

The Sutherland Biodiversity Action Plan - October 2003


There are over 2,000 crofts in Sutherland, occurring
mostly in the west and north and covering 1,048km2, over one sixth of the total land area. The greater part of this is hill ground used as common grazings, but there is a narrow fringe of more fertile ground along the coast, which was more widely cultivated in the past. Farmland is virtually confined to the south-east and some of the more fertile straths throughout the county. Actively managed agricultural land, where a mosaic of crops are grown and mixture of sheep and cattle are grazed, is generally considered to be good for biodiversity by providing a variety of habitats.

Croft at Culkein, Assynt

Biodiversity objectives
To encourage actively managed, small-scale agriculture such as traditionally managed crofts and small farms for their environmental and landscape benefits, and make the public aware of those benefits.

To enable up to 50% of Sutherland’s farm and croft land to be managed for biodiversity under agri-environment schemes such as the Rural Stewardship Scheme or Whole-Farm Agreements.

To create genuine, accessible economic benefits from biodiversity for those involved in agriculture.

To restrict or reduce the year-round grazing of woodlands to assist natural regeneration.

Specific habitats discussed in Appendix 1
Rough grassland
Arable crops & field margins

Crofts at Clashmore, Assynt

Future actions:
Create and demonstrate genuine socio-economic benefits from biodiversity by enhancing links with tourism and local marketing of produce (the Highland Council, Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board, Highlands & Islands Enterprise).

Raise public awareness of the biodiversity benefits of well-managed croft and farm land, the importance of traditional land management skills and the potential impacts if this sort of agriculture continues to decline (Scottish Natural Heritage, the Highland Council).

Sheep grazing, Strathnaver

B. Lack of agri-environment funding
Issues: Agri-environment schemes such as the Rural Stewardship Scheme provide some income for
biodiversity-friendly management, although such schemes have been under-funded to date. Agricultural funding does not reflect the institutional and social complexities of crofting areas, where crofters may depend on a large area of common grazing and yet payments are area based.

Neither does it take into account the annual letting of land or the habitat diversity of common grazings.  Opportunities: Crofters and farmers could do a lot more positive environmental works if the level of funding available through the Rural Stewardship Scheme and whole farm agreements was enhanced, and the scoring criteria amended to take account of small and rented units as well as common land.

Current projects: The Scottish Crofting Foundation and Scottish Natural Heritage run an award scheme incorporating environmental criteria entitled ‘The Crofting Township of the Year Award’.

Future actions:
Enhance the Rural Stewardship Scheme so that it is more accessible and delivers both for individuals and common grazings across the full potential range of habitats (Scottish Executive Environment & Rural Affairs Department).

Raise awareness of the options available under the Rural Stewardship Scheme, and make it more accessible for anyone going into crofting through the Croft Entrant Scheme and for those keeping cattle in the North West (Scottish Executive Environment & Rural Affairs Department, Crofters Commission, Scottish Crofting Foundation, Scottish Agricultural College, Highland Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).

Develop more Peatland Management Scheme type operations for areas not currently eligible on other habitats (Scottish Natural Heritage).

C. Decline in cattle numbers
Issues: The decline in numbers of hill cattle since the 1970s is contributing to a reduction in the biodiversity of some grasslands, moorlands and woodlands. Cattle grazing is often beneficial because of the non-selective manner in which they graze and trample the ground. Sheep have largely replaced cattle in crofting areas, and in-bye croft land is often neglected or overgrazed. A continued decline in cattle, and the associated loss in cropping, will have particularly adverse effects on the area’s biodiversity.

Opportunities: Crofters and farmers should be encouraged to rear more cattle on an extensive basis, altering the stocking densities according to the habitat type.

Current projects: The North West Cattle Producers Association is trying to raise awareness of the importance of cattle for biodiversity, and to encourage crofters and farmers in North West Sutherland to keep more cattle.

Cattle grazing below Suilven

Future actions:
Encourage farmers and crofters to rear more cattle in some areas, where this will result in biodiversity benefits (North West Cattle Producers Association & others).

Raise awareness of the link between cattle grazing and biodiversity through demonstration sites (North West Cattle Producers Association & others).

Extend the use of woodchip corrals and sheds, to reduce winter poaching of in-bye land from overwintering cattle (North West Cattle Producers Association, North Highland Forest Trust).

Support the erection or repair of fences and dykes to aid management of cattle on hill land (Scottish Executive Environment & Rural Affairs Department, Scottish Natural Heritage).

D. Loss of boundary features

Issues: Farms are getting bigger, and it is no longer
viable to employ a large workforce to maintain hedgerows, dykes and other features used by wildlife. This is leading to the loss and neglect of hedges and drystone boundary walls in East Sutherland.

Opportunities: Training could be provided in land
management skills such as drystone dyking, hedge
creation and management, and crofters and farmers
should be encouraged to undertake such works
where practical for biodiversity, shelter and stock
management benefits.

Current projects: Clashmore & Raffin Township have produced a Development Plan that identifies a desire to rebuild the existing historically important dykes for their biodiversity benefits.

Future action:
Provide training courses on the management of boundary features such as conservation headlands, hedges and ditches (Lantra, Highland Agricultural Labour Supplies, Scottish Agricultural College and Highland Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).

E. Intensification
Issues: Mechanisation and intensification of crop production is leaving less waste on the fields. A reduction in crop rotation and decline in the undersowing of cereal crops to produce a grass ley is leading to a reduction in the diversity of management both across the farm and through the year, leading to a corresponding reduction in biodiversity.

Nutrient enrichment from fertilisers can cause problems far beyond the farm boundary, and widespread use of pesticides is associated with the severe decline in populations of farmland birds, largely due to the effects on their food supply, although this is less of a problem in Sutherland than
elsewhere. Increased and insensitive use of sheepdips and cattle drenches leads to a loss in  invertebrates, and there are disposal issues with sheep dip. The use of some broad spectrum antiparasitic drugs has reduced the number and variety of insects associated with dung, which are important as food for birds like starlings. Overgrazing of inbye croft land by sheep is also reducing the biodiversity value of the grassland.

Opportunities: Facilitate nutrient budgeting plans to help farmers utilise manure and reduce dependence on fertilisers. Increase coverage of the Rural Stewardship Scheme to enable more farms and crofts to gain entry to the scheme.

Future actions:
Encourage organic & low intensity farming (Scottish Agricultural College, Highland Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).

Encourage crofters and farmers to create or manage existing wild flower meadows for their biodiversity benefits, including invertebrates such as bumble bees, butterflies & moths, (Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Agricultural College, Highland Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).

Encourage small local contractors to spread farmyard manure and spent sheep dip on designated areas (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Scottish Agricultural College, Highland Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group).