Livestock grazing essential to wildlife

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, adult, male in breeding habitat, pasture, Northuberland, May
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, adult, male in breeding habitat, pasture, Northuberland, May

Livestock grazing is essential to maintain a range of threatened wildlife and habitats across the UK’s uplands.

However, a new report commissioned by the RSPB reveals that changes in livestock grazing in the most vulnerable farming areas, of which Scotland has a significant share, could have an impact on threatened wildlife and habitats.

The RSPB is calling for greater support to these ‘vulnerable’ farmers through the Scotland Rural Development Programme and other Common Agricultural Policy mechanisms.

The research assesses how livestock numbers have changed in the so-called ‘Less Favoured Area’ across the whole of the UK, from Dartmoor to the Western Isles of Scotland. These places - which often include common land or grazings - each have a character and special wildlife that are maintained by a delicate balance of livestock grazing. In Scotland, as well as looking at general trends in livestock type and numbers, the report looked in detail at crofting systems on the Uists and estate management in Sutherland.

The report found reductions in grazing pressure on unenclosed land have been positive for the environment, with upland habitats such as heath and blanket bog recovering well because of fewer sheep. However, undergrazing is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species such as golden plover.

Common changes also include fewer cattle and less mixed grazing. As well as the greater use of continental livestock breeds and more intensive use of the so-called in-bye land, which has led to a reduction in habitat for birds, such as the lapwing, as well as nutrient enrichment.

A key finding of the report is the importance of projects fostering partnership working, such as initiatives promoting short supply chains that connect consumers to local, more sustainable farming systems.