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A Draft Framework for Biodiversity in Highland



11.1   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 harvesting biodiversity to put food on our plates. When ecologists talk of semi-natural habitats it is in part a misnomer, these are natural habitats but created through the intervention of Man since early times.   Yet modern agriculture also has placed pressures on the land which have the potential to exclude almost all wildlife, while the economic necessity of maximising production is very real. The desperate level of farm incomes at present, and the wholesale restructuring that European farming is undergoing 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. The challenges are:

         to secure a satisfactory level of geographically targeted support, such as in agri-environment measures, to permit these changes and to secure a future for upland farming and crofting; and to engineer a paradigm change so that those involved in both agriculture and conservation can re-think their approach to what is a vital part of rural life in the Highlands.

The biodiversity resource: key habitats and species in Highland


11.2   As a major land use, farming has a key role in the maintenance of biodiversity. Managed and cultivated farmland creates a diverse landscape, which includes grazing for stock, cereal production, oil-seed rape, potatoes, neaps, set- aside, boundary features and woodland. Together this diversity of conditions can support a wide range of species. Some of these species are closely linked with the farming cycle and what happens within the fields through the year, whilst others are linked with boundary features.


11.3   The split between “Farmlands and lowland grasslands” and “Mountains, heaths and bogs” is obviously an arbitrary one, and is particularly fuzzy in the context of Highland. In many of the crofting areas for example, upland habitats are found at sea level and can be the dominant habitats.


11.4   Lowland hay meadows are flower-rich hay meadows which occur typically on well drained unimproved unproductive soils. They have gradually declined with agricultural intensification and the crofting areas of Lochaber and Skye now have the largest extent of these grasslands in Scotland. There are only isolated examples elsewhere. They are important for a range of plants and insects and in some areas for corncrakes.


11.5   Lowland dry acid grasslands occur typically on nutrient-poor, free-draining soils over acid rocks, sand or gravel, below the enclosure line. They support more “heathy “plants such as heath bedstraw and tormentil, with dwarf shrubs such as heather and blaeberry being present in small quantities. They occur mainly on the upland fringe and in the coastal regions of the north and west, where they are used for rough grazing. They are important breeding areas for wading birds, and feeding and hunting grounds for birds of prey. Typically these grasslands are poor in plant species, but if the management is favourable they can be richer. Where there is natural flushing with nutrients from springs, more species-rich variations of the grasslands occur, and these are particularly important. Where the grass is more open on sandy soils, there can be a considerable number of ground-dwelling and burrowing insects.


11.6   Purple moor grass and rush pasture also occurs below the line of enclosure, predominantly on shallow peats. It is a rare habitat which is more extensive in South West Scotland and Argyll than further north, but it does occur in Highland. Here it tends to be more extensive and more species-rich on the west. The diverse structure of these flower-rich wet grasslands supports a wide range of insect life, including the marsh fritillary butterfly and the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth. It is also important for a number of birds, such as snipe and curlew. Where the grasslands are species poor, this can often be the result of inappropriate management. Cattle grazing is often beneficial.


11.7   Upland calcareous grasslands are generally restricted to shallow soils over lime-rich rocks. Despite their name, they can occur right down to sea level in exposed conditions, and arctic-alpine plants can be present at both high and low altitudes. The most important type in nature conservation terms is the Dryas heath (Mountain avens) variant, which is internationally important. It is restricted to just several hundred hectares and most if not all of this is in Highland, largely along the north coast and down the north-west coast to Skye. The best examples are in designated sites, where there are also associated limestone habitats. The other types of upland calcareous grasslands occur more widely both in Highland and elsewhere in Scotland, on basalt as well as limestone.


11.8   Floodplain grazing marsh is pasture with water filled ditches which is regularly flooded and which is grazed and occasionally cut. This type of habitat is found mainly in England. Its exact distribution in Highland is not known, but it is thought that the Insh Marshes are the only significant example in Highland. Grazing marshes are important for breeding waders such as snipe, lapwing and curlew, and for wintering wildfowl. Coastal grazing marsh is land that was previously saltmarsh, which is separated from the sea by an embankment and which is periodically flooded with freshwater. There are not thought to be any examples of this in Highland.


11.9   Cereal field margins and headlands are important in the more intensively farmed arable areas around the Moray Firth as feeding and hunting areas for birds such as the grey partridge and barn owl. They also support two rare arable “weeds”.  Winter stubbles and fodder crops are also important and provide shelter and food over winter for a number of farmland birds. 


11.10 There is no survey information available on ancient and or species rich hedgerows in Highland, but they are not thought to be extensive.


11.11  Improved grasslands in the straths may be low in plant diversity, but are important feeding areas for many moorland and peatland birds such as golden plover, curlew, redshank and lapwing. Where these grasslands have wet patches and areas of longer vegetation, they provide more opportunities for wildlife.


11.12 Reverted improved grassland can also be of nature conservation value and are an overlooked biodiversity resource. There are a whole range of types of this grassland, reflecting the conditions prior to improvement, but there is no information on their extent or location.


11.13 In some areas long established road verges and also golf courses are an important refuge for plants and associated species of unimproved grassland. Their value can often be improved by sympathetic management. Little is known about this resource in Highland.


11.14  Upland hay meadows and lowland calcareous grasslands are two UK BAP priority habitats of farmland not recorded in Highland.



11.15  Habitats classified as UK BAP priority habitats which occur in Highland

 *indicates habitat dealt with in another section

·         Lowland  (neutral) hay meadows.

·         Machair*

·         Lowland dry acid grassland

·         Purple moor grass and rush pasture

·         Upland calcareous grassland

·         Coastal and floodplain grazing marsh

·         Ancient and/or species rich hedgerows

·         Cereal field margins


11.16  UK BAP Priority species recorded in Highland associated with farmlands and lowland grasslands

Brown hare, water vole, great crested newt, pipistrelle bat, skylark, corn bunting, bullfinch, grey partridge, reed bunting, song thrush, tree sparrow, linnet, corncrake, great yellow bumble bee, northern colletes bee, marsh fritillary butterfly, northern brown argus butterfly, a picture- winged fly, 2 arable weeds, orange-fruited elm lichen.


11.17  Some other species of conservation interest

Barn owl, twite, lapwing, snipe, curlew, yellowhammer, redshank, swallow, badger, stoat, weasel, frog, toad, daubenton bat, small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, small blue butterfly.


11.18  Key biodiversity objectives for farmlands and lowland grasslands 

·         Promotion of farming methods compatible with optimising biodiversity.

·         Maintenance and restoration of existing habitats and creation of new areas of habitats.

11.19  Trends and Issues 

·    Move towards specialisation, concentrating on growing crops on the east and grass on the west. Increased reliance on bought-in feedstuffs rather than home grown.

·    Loss of flower- rich grassland through agricultural improvement by drainage, reseeding, increased fertiliser application, shift from hay making to silage, use of herbicides. Shift to silage has increased risks of effluent and pollution, reduced breeding bird success (thicker crop, earlier cut).

·    Move to autumn-sown crops (although not to same extent as in southern Britain), reducing area of stubbles and bringing forward harvesting dates . Stubbles provide food and shelter for overwintering birds, by spring the autumn sown crops too dense for nesting birds.

·    Use of dips lead to loss of invertebrates. Also disposal of sheep dip an issues.

·    General trend of mechanisation and intensification of arable and cereal crop production (less waste), reduction in crop rotation, switch to year-round grazing of inbye, and decline in undersowing of cereal crops to produce grass ley.

·    All the above factors lead to reduction in diversity of management both within fields and through the year, leading to reduced biodiversity. Also reduction in diversity of habitats, isolation and loss of habitats. In-cropped areas becoming less hospitable for wildlife.

·    Countryside Stewardship Scheme and Cairngorms Straths ESA have increased land area being farmed with environmental benefits. Now replaced by Rural Stewardship Scheme. More land in set-aside scheme. Demand for entry to environmental schemes far exceeds available budgets, so many farmers disappointed.

·    Work by FWAG, SAC, SNH and others has increased awareness of environment amongst farming community.

·    Sheep have largely replaced cattle in crofting areas.

·    Rise in bracken cover through reduction in cattle, through liming, cessation of cutting for bedding and loss of native woods. Particularly a problem in Lochaber.

·    Increased transportation costs of feedstuffs and of livestock to markets has exacerbated reduction in cattle in the west.

·    Inbye croft land often neglected (but can also be over grazed) or sublet, increasing division of common grazings and machair. Common grazings a key issue- 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. Also one crofter may use many crofts, but have to prove continuos use for 5 years for payments.

·    Grazing Committees not functioning well.

·     Dramatic loss and neglect of hedgerows and boundary walls, also damage to hedgerows and field margins from herbicides and pesticides.

·    Loss of traditional land management skills

·    Increased use of broad spectrum anti-parasitic drugs has reduced no. and variety of insects assoc with dung, which provide food for some birds.

·    Damage to soil structure and fertility through intensification, with run-off of sediments and fertilisers impacting on adjacent water features.

·    Rural population decline, closure of rural services, labour less available.

·    Problems with transfer of information from R and D to practical use. Not enough encouragement for innovation.

     Need more community involvement- greater awareness of specialness.

·    Key habitats for action are traditional hay meadows, and rough grasslands as a buffer between improved grassland and moorland to provide nesting and feeding opportunities for birds.


11.20      Current mechanisms/ initiatives for promoting biodiversity

·    Corncrake grassland scheme covering Skye and Ardnamurchan

·    Countryside Premium Scheme/ forthcoming Rural Stewardship Scheme with prescriptions to promote biodiversity, but funding very limited.

·    Cairngorms straths ESA (now closed to new applicants). 

·    Skye and Lochalsh Horticultural Association ?

·    Lochaber lamb promotion ?

·    Conservation designations, nature reserve management, SSSI management agreements, SNH grants.

·    SNH North West Agricultural Demonstration Project (completed 2000).

·    FWAG

·    Highland and Islands Organic Producers Association.

·    Management agreements with RSPB.

·    Agricultural Waste Disposal Project in Cairngorms, free service, demonstration days, leaflet.

·    Pilot rabbit clearance scheme in Cairngorms.

·    Cairngorms upland grain initiative, pays farmers to grow sacrificial grain crops to benefit farm land birds.


11.21       Policy/Agri-environment measures required

·    Increase budget for Rural Stewardship Scheme.

·    Measures to increase spring sown cereals and winter stubbles, and the maintenance and enhancement of field boundary habitats, margins and hedgerows.

·    Promotion of rotational cropping to help farmland finches and buntings, corncrakes, arable weeds and grasslands.

·    Extend hedgerow protection to Scotland.

·    Provision of grant aid for management, restoration and establishment of hedges.

·    Further research on the practicalities of more environment friendly farming (SNH TIBRE Programme).

·    Encourage low-input/organic food production, and local processing, marketing and distribution, also co-operative schemes to stabilise prices.

·    Encourage wider support for and recognition of importance of small scale agricultural units, and small scale management (eg small bales), also encourage use of vacant and under-utilised crofts and discourage amalgamation. Recognise value of rotational management.

·    Encourage appropriate grazing levels for individual units based on their carrying capacity and their ability to produce home-grown feeds and proportion of species rich grasslands.

·    Encourage use of cattle where appropriate and native breeds.


11.22  Potential practical opportunities for enhancing biodiversity and its sustainable use

·    Extension of the corncrake grassland scheme

·    Schools project looking at bumble bees

·    Provision of business advice on marketing using environmental credentials. This would need the introduction of a recognised environmental standard for farming.

·    Training (SAC are developing conservation training and technical notes for farmers & crofters).

·    Farm waste management scheme. Farm waste management plans addressing silage, slurry, fuel, other chemicals, with on-farm demonstration days. Partial scheme exists in Cairngorms for the disposal of plastic waste and spent sheep dip.

·    Nutrient budgeting project.

·    Promotion of small-scale farm forestry.

·    Interpretation of traditional farming/crofting practices/benefits for biodiversity.

·    Barn owl nest box schemes.

·    Promotion of biodiversity on golf courses.

·    Promotion of new allotments  with wildlife in mind – on-farm diversification

·    Highland Lamb Scheme, with linked whole-farm environmental plan.

·    Sacrificial cropping schemes to increase habitat/ winter feeding for farmland birds.


11.23      Opportunities for multi-benefit projects

·    Better interpretation of Farming and Croft and its role in shaping the countryside

·    Marketing of products using environmental quality: much talked of, but very little has actually been done

·    Crofting and cattle initiative, in priority areas where there is highest chance of retaining cattle. Raise awareness of effect on invertebrates of wormectins, awareness of biodiversity benefits of cattle and cropping. Winter keep and housinf, woodchip corrals. Marketing. 


11.24      Survey/Research information and requirements

·    Skye and Lochaber are only areas of Highland where survey of lowland grassland has taken place (now out of date). Distribution of ancient and or species rich hedgerows unknown

·    Work needed on ecology of Marsh Fritillary/ Narrow bordered bee hawk moth and appropriate grazing management (species of wet grasslands with Devil’s bit scabious).

Identification of economic and environmental factors that allow the retention of cattle in crofting areas. - an SAC project is proposed to look at the economic, cultural and environmental factors that sustain 'traditional' crofting and to identify a support mechanism to reinstate these practices in target (pilot) areas.


11.25       Further information

Management advisory notes on grazing management, Scottish Wildlife Trust various dates

Highland and Western Isles Regional Action Plan, Butterfly Conservation,1999, Draft.