A NEW report has identified the Borders as the most important sheep breeding region in Scotland.
The Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) study – an update on its 2008 Retreat from the Hills report which identified a dramatic decline in upland sheep and cattle numbers – shows the hill sector has stabilised but is unlikely return to any halcyon bygone days.
The 2011 “Response from the Hills’ author, SAC economist Steven Thomson, said: “At national and regional level it appears the industry is turning a corner.”
However, he warns: “That does not mean a return to former times.
“Farmers are now more commercially aware and adapting their businesses rather than focusing on maximising CAP headage payments.”
In the Borders, over the three years the report covers – from 2007 to 2010 – the holdings of breeding ewes dropped by five per cent on the 832 recorded in 2007.
“This is partially due to the increase in the total number of holdings as farm sales lead to the splitting of holdings,” said Mr Thomson.
There has also been a large decrease – of over 40,000 or 8.6 percent – in the number of breeding ewes on the 2007 total of nearly 476,300.
“The decline being larger than that in holdings infers there has been general downsizing with some withdrawal from ewes on a few larger holdings,” explained Mr Thomson.
“Despite this the rate of decline in the Borders flock is not as fast as the national trend, meaning the Borders importance for the national flock has grown and it is now the most important region for breeding sheep in Scotland.”
Taking figures from his research he notes there are large regional differences over the 2007-2010 period, with a 32 per cent decline in ewes in Ettrick, 23 per cent in Hawick, 17 per cent in Selkirk, a 13 per cent decline in Yarrow, but only two percent in West Linton and just one per cent in Melrose in the last three years.
And Mr Thomson said: “The Borders has got significantly larger flocks than other parts of Scotland (by nearly 150 ewes per holding than the next region – Perth and Kinross and Stirling).
“After some (average) intensification as smaller holdings withdrew from ewes from 1997-2007 there has been a decline in the average flock size – probably as a result of larger restructuring and a withdrawal of ewes from some holdings.”
The sheep per grazing hectare in the Borders is higher than anywhere else in Scotland and the number of lambs per ewe is only exceeded by the flocks in Aberdeenshire.
In the cattle sector the number of holdings with suckler cows dropped by 6.6 per cent between 2007-2010 from the 592 recorded in 2007.
And another 40 holdings have given up carrying sucklers since 2010 said Mr Thomson
“The changes between 2007-10 are slightly mixed – while suckler cow holdings and number of suckler cows fell by the same amount, the average herd size remained stable meaning that there was likely to be a range of holdings whilst extensification occurred elsewhere.
“Despite these changes the Borders has remained relatively stable at very near 10 per cent of Scotland’s suckler cow herd over the period.
And again, he says: “There are large variances between parishes – for example between 2007-10 there were larger declines in Hownam (-20 per cent) and Coldingham (-15 per cent) with much smaller declines in Castleton (-2.6 per cent), Morebattle (-0.6 per cent) with increases being seen in Stow (4.5 per cent) and Teviothead (20.5 per cent) - albeit after a large decline in the previous period).”
The Borders is the third most important area for suckler cows behind Dumfries and Galloway and the North East and the region has the largest average herd sizes in Scotland alongside neighbouring farmers in Dumfries and Galloway he said.
There has been a continued decline of full-time farmers and spouses in the last three years, down on the 32.6 per cent recorded in 2007 which was down on the 40.5 per cent in 1997.
Mr Thomson added: “The Borders used to have the highest average number of full-time workers per holding (0.78 in 1997) with Angus and Dundee City close behind (0.71). That has fallen to only 0.53 in 2010 (compared to Angus and Dundee (0.63)) and is now much more similar to Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire (0.48).”
His report also identifies nationally how reduced stock numbers and the abandonment of steeper, less productive land is impacting on the environment and biodiversity and says there is evidence of declines in farmland birds and higher numbers of deer and predators with an increase in rank vegetation.
For more information visit www.sac.ac.uk/responsefromthehills