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Highland Bio-diversity

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Caithness Draft Plan
The Caithness Biodiversity Group  -  October 2002

3. Farm & Croft Land


Farmers and crofters have long been stewards of the countryside. They and their forebears are part of a tradition of human activity that has shaped the landscape, creating new and different habitats for wildlife while carrying out their everyday activities. Yet modern agriculture also puts pressure on the land and has the potential to exclude almost all wildlife, particularly in an economic climate that necessitates maximum production.

Since the end of the Second World War, agricultural policies and support mechanisms have encouraged food production and self-sufficiency. In recent years however, the over-supply of European markets (partly the result of more imports), the increased strength of the pound, high fuel costs and a number of other factors have combined to create a climate in which the nature and function of farming is increasingly questioned.

The desperately low levels of farm incomes at present, in conjunction with the restructuring of agricultural policy throughout Europe makes the future highly uncertain. Food production will surely remain one primary aim of farming, although agricultural support will encourage a multi-benefit approach as we have seen in forestry in the last decade.

Biodiversity Objectives

Objective 3.1 Secure a future for upland farming and crofting that allows land managers to use their skills and affinity with the land to the best advantage of the environment.

Objective 3.2 Increase public understanding of the very real link between agricultural activity and environmental protection.

Objective 3.3 Implement whole farm plans that combine business and environmental objectives.

Objective 3.4 Maintain and enhance existing areas of wildlife habitat and encourage the creation and maintenance of wildlife corridors such as hedges.

Objective 3.5 Reward good environmental management (best practice) through the market place by securing a premium for goods under an agreed agri-environmental label.

3.1 Rough grassland

Habitats & species

In the farm and croft land up straths such as at Dunbeath and Berriedale, low intensity farming techniques supports a variety of unimproved, herb-rich grasslands and hay meadows, important habitats in biodiversity terms.

The sward can include a wide variety of plants such as orchids, devil's bit-scabious, birds-foot trefoil, and meadowsweet. Caithness' rough grasslands support good populations of brown hares and water voles, which, along with rabbits, form an important part of the diet of hunting raptors and wildcats. This habitat also supports high populations of insects, which provide a food supply for birds like grey partridge and skylarks.

Recent amateur survey work has shown that Scotland is the last area of Europe where grassland fungi are reasonably widespread, and Caithness contains its share of these. Grassland fungi are generally found on well-drained, well-leached, unfertilised and unimproved sites that are moderately grazed.

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan splits rough grazing into several categories:

Lowland dry acid grassland occurs on nutrient poor, free-draining soils over acid rocks, sand or gravel, supporting plants such as heath bedstraw and tormentil, and dwarf shrubs such as heather and blaeberry are also present in small quantities.

Purple moor grass and rush pasture occurs on shallow peaty soils. This habitat can be species rich, wet grassland, and supports a range of invertebrate life including marsh fritillary butterflies, narrow-bordered bee hawk moths and several species of snails and flies, as well as wading birds such as snipe and curlew.

Upland calcareous grassland is generally restricted to shallow soils over lime-rich rocks. Despite its name, it can occur down to sea level in exposed conditions, and arctic-alpine plants can be present.

Floodplain grazing marsh is pasture with water filled ditches, which is regularly flooded, grazed and occasionally cut. Wick River Marshes is an example of this habitat type, and it is important for breeding waders such as snipe, lapwing and curlew, and for wintering wildfowl.

Improved grasslands and reseeds may be low in plant diversity, but in Caithness they are important feeding areas for many wading birds such as golden plover, lapwing, curlew and redshank. Where these grasslands have wet patches and areas of longer vegetation, they provide greater opportunities for wildlife. Migrant and over-wintering geese feed on many of the improved grassland fields, and some raptors utilise these fields for hunting.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Rough grassland (L) Yes
Lowland (neutral) hay meadows (N) Yes
Upland hay meadows (N) No
Machair (N) (see Section 3.2) Yes
Lowland dry acid grassland (N) Yes
Purple moor grass & rush pasture (N) Yes
Upland calcareous grassland (N) Yes
Coastal & floodplain grazing marsh (N) Yes

Key species dependant on rough grassland:
Twite Curlew    
Lapwing Skylark    
Redshank Meadow pipit    

Main issues

With increasingly wet summers, the area of hay has declined while silage production has increased nearly five-fold in the last 15 years, creating increased effluent and pollution risks. The widespread use of more aggressive grass species in reseeds to create denser swards, along with earlier cutting of silage prevents the successful rearing of ground-nesting birds such as lapwing, curlew and redshank. Where birds do attempt to breed, cutting the crop from the centre out in one direction allows the fledglings to escape through cover.

Due to the current economic problems facing the agricultural industry, the rural population is declining and with it we are experiencing a closure of rural services, reduction in the work force and loss of traditional land management skills. Farmers and crofters are stewards of the environment and without them, the loss of habitats and associated species would be great.

Inbye croft land is increasingly left unworked. The apportionment of common grazings leads to reseeding and fertilising of semi-natural grassland and moorland, with an associated loss in the biodiversity value.

Where grasslands are species poor, it can be a result of inappropriate management. The decline in hill cattle since the 1970s is contributing to the decline in the biodiversity of some grasslands. Cattle grazing is often beneficial because of the non-selective manner in which they graze and trample the ground.

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.

Increased use of sheep dips and cattle drenches leads to a loss in invertebrates, and there are disposal issues with sheep dip (see section 2.1), although regulation and the increased use of mobile dippers has reduced the risk of pollution. The use of some broad spectrum, anti-parasitic drugs has reduced the number and variety of insects associated with dung, which are important as food for birds like starlings.

Current biodiversity projects

Agri-environment schemes such as the Countryside Premium Scheme, Rural Stewardship Scheme, Organic Aid Scheme and management initiatives on protected sites

RSPB corncrake scheme - payments for late cut hay

Opportunities for action

Raise awareness of land management through school links, leaflets about farm biodiversity in Caithness and greater community involvement in agriculture.

Improve training in land management skills through College courses in agri-environmental issues and skills such as drystone dyking, wetland management, hedge creation and management, etc.

Initiate an environmental assurance scheme for local produce, improving links with hotels and local outlets.

Encourage diversification outside of the normal agricultural arena (e.g. wind farming, composting, non-agricultural use of vernacular buildings) to increase the viability of existing farm activities.

Set up recycling trials to encourage farmers to compost green / recyclable materials from towns and villages onto agricultural land to reduce landfill needs and fertiliser dependence.

3.2 Arable crops & field margins

Habitats & species

Caithness is one of the few areas that still support mixed farming and crofting. The production of a range of crops along with the rearing of cattle and sheep is the key to the richness and variety of wildlife that we see on agricultural land in the county. If this system is lost, so too will be the diversity of habitats and there will be a detrimental change in the structure of the countryside.

The relatively uniform crop structure and low species diversity produced by intensive arable cropping provides a limited habitat for wildlife. Cultivated fields can support a flora of annual weeds, including the nationally rare purple ramping fumitory, which provide seeds and attract insects for bird-life. The stubble left after the combine gives cover and a welcome source of food for small passerines such as brambling, chaffinch and greenfinch.

The field margins offer a wider range of habitats to wildlife and plantlife. Hedges and dykes provide a refuge for plants, insects and small mammals, as well as acting as wildlife corridors. Field margins such as conservation headlands - where the outermost strip of the crop is managed to control weeds rather than eradicate them, and grass margins - where an undisturbed grass strip is established around the field edge are both valuable tools that improve biodiversity on arable and mixed farms. Ditches and streams provide valuable habitats for flowering plants that in-turn support invertebrates such as butterflies and beetles.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Arable crops (L) Yes
Cereal field margins (N, L) Yes
Ancient &/or species rich hedgerows (N) Yes

Key species dependant on arable crops & field margins:
Corncrake Greenfinch Purple ramping fumitory  
Brambling Quail    

Main issues

In some areas, sheep have largely replaced cattle, and inbye croft land is becoming under managed. A continued decline in cattle, and the associated loss in cropping, will have particularly adverse effects on the area's biodiversity.

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 and flagstone boundary walls.

The prevalence of spring planted crops lends itself to overwintering birds due to the presence of stubble for much of the winter, acting like a giant bird table.

Mechanisation and intensification of crop production is leaving less waste on the fields. A reduction in crop rotation and decline in 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 run-off from fertilisers can cause problems far beyond the farm boundary. The widespread use of pesticides has been associated with the severe decline in populations of farmland birds, largely due to the effects on their food supply.

Current biodiversity projects

Many farmers and crofters continue to manage their land for wildlife as well as food production.

Agri-environmental schemes such as the Rural Stewardship Scheme provide some income for such management although such schemes are, at present, drastically under-funded and biased towards larger farms with a more diverse range of habitats to the exclusion of farms with only one or two important habitats.

Opportunities for action

Increase coverage of the Rural Stewardship Scheme to enable more farms and crofts to gain entry to the scheme.

Increase funding towards the upkeep of vernacular buildings, drystone walls, hedges and other countryside features that are home to many species and provide shelter and wildlife corridors.

Encourage local trialling of bio-fuel crops to provide alternatives to fossil fuels and diversification options for farmers.

Facilitate nutrient budgeting plans, to help farmers utilise manure and reduce dependence on fertilisers.

Facilitate sparrow counts around local villages & neighbouring farms.

Habitats & species

Semi-natural woodlands are rare in Caithness, limited to small pockets along the straths and stream edges such as at Berriedale, Dunbeath and Dirlot Gorge. They are remnants of once extensive native forests that existed throughout the area, and form a valuable refuge for our woodland flora and fauna.

The main type of semi-natural woodland in Caithness is birch woodland. Dominated by downy birch mixed with rowan, hazel and aspen, the trees are typically small and the canopy open. Aspen is a species of particular biodiversity importance and little is known of its extent in Caithness. Woodland plants include wood anemone, wood spurge, lords and ladies, herb Robert, dog rose and burnet rose. Birch dominated woodland is particularly important for invertebrates, and roe deer, yellowhammer, greenfinch, tawny owl, sparrowhawk, kestrel, buzzard and raven can all be seen here. On summer evenings, pipistrelle bats leave their roosts in the trees to hunt for insects along the waters edge.

Wet woodlands are restricted to small areas of bog woodlands on the edges of blanket bog, and riparian woodlands along the banks of rivers, streams and lochs, although the latter tends to be free draining. As well as supporting a number of specialised insects and other wildlife, wet woods also help stabilise banks and provide key nutrients to adjacent rivers through runoff and leaf litter. The loss of riparian woodland is thought to be a key issue in the decline of game fisheries.

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