Policy trip to North Uist – Sarah Cowie Blog

At the end of May I had the exciting and unique opportunity to visit the isles of Skye and North Uist with NFU Scotland’s Highland Regional Board to learn about the role of crofting and island life.

A question we asked ourselves over the course of the trip was ‘what actually is crofting?’ and how is it relevant to our current social, economic, and environmental context? A few hours in we knew that there would be no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

While I still don’t have the perfect answer, it is clear that crofting isn’t just a traditional, cultural way of life on the islands - it very much has a role to play in our current world. From a social perspective, modern day crofting has been a way to rejuvenate life on the islands: combatting depopulation by attracting a new generation of crofters, either as new entrants or as ‘returners’ who may have grown up on the island but left to pursue a career elsewhere. From an environmental perspective, with its species rich wet grassland and fertile machair habitats, crofting on the islands also has an important role to play in combatting the twin climate and biodiversity crises we now face.

On a very windy North Uist, we visited crofts which cultivate machair – grassland which is made up of free draining, dry fertile soil. It is an extremely rare habitat, and the western isles of Scotland are one of the few places it can be found. It is also a semi-natural habitat, which means it is the way it is because of the way it has been managed by crofters for generations. This is a great habitat for cattle, as it can provides a fantastic food source, as well as shelter for livestock.

Machair is also the perfect habitat for an abundance of bird, insect, and wildflower species. Surveys undertaken on the island between 2018-2021 recorded species-rich grassland hosting a diverse range of wildflower communities. These were said to be a result of the management system of the local crofting community and could be threatened if this were to change. Due to its good cover, the machair is also a great habitat for ground nesting birds. The RSPB estimate that there are around 9,000 pairs of wader birds on the machair grassland alone, including lapwings, redshanks, and oyster catchers. To compare, it is estimated there are only 180 pairs of lapwings in the whole of Wales.

Adaptive management practices such as not cutting fields until 1 August also protect the corncrakes. It is estimated that around 85% of corncrake habitats on North Uist are in agri-environment schemes, which highlights the importance of these schemes to the islands and for these species.

However, crofting life on the island is not without its difficulties. The numbers of geese on the island, both resident and migratory, are causing serious problems for crofters, and there were calls from our hosts for more support to be given to manage them. Crofters are having to deal with geese going for silage, as well as barley, rye, and oat crops. Barnacle geese are a protected species which makes their numbers difficult to control, and even though greylag geese are not protected, the time, energy, and expense that goes into trying to bring their numbers down is no small task for a crofter with multiple competing demands. Geese are not only having an economic impact on crofting, but also on conservation. Crofters are resorting to getting crops out of the ground in early July rather than later in the year, before geese have the chance to get to them. This in turn has an effect on ground nesting birds such as corncrakes, who nest in the fields and hatch in the second week of July. With so much of the agri-environment budget going towards protecting habitats for species like the corncrake, it is clear that we need a joined-up approach to species management and biodiversity.

There has also been an increase in the number of sea eagles on the island and crofters are reporting instances of lamb predation as a result. However, we heard from the RSPB that it is difficult to gauge the true extent of the problem and encourage those affected to record evidence to build the bigger picture. Species management is a highly emotive and complex topic within NFU Scotland, and it is important policymakers consider the impacts of these species in the context of others, as well as the wider environment.

Overall, North Uist and Skye have a rich and wide-ranging biodiversity with an abundance of ground nesting birds, birds of prey, and species-rich grassland, and it is clear that management practices carried out by the island’s crofters are key to sustaining this. We must ensure that this way of life and managing the land is protected going forward, and that any future species management and agri-environment schemes take the importance and fragility of our islands into account.

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