Page last updated at 06:50 GMT, Wednesday, 1 October 2008 07:50 UK

Silence of Scotland's hill lambs

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Ewe and lambs
Experts warn of hard times for the Scottish sheep industry

Forces of nature and the market place threaten the future of Scotland's sheep industry, experts have warned.

This week alone, crofters have told of lambs being killed by white-tailed sea eagles and the cost and labour involved in electronically tagging animals.

Three recently-released official documents highlight the decline and problems in the industry.

Here the BBC Scotland news website looks at the pressures and the warnings from experts and the industry.

SCOTTISH AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE

The SAC Rural Policy Centre have published research called Farming's Retreat from the Hills.

Its authors Tony Waterhouse, Steven Thomson and Andrew Midgley investigated growing concerns about fewer livestock in upland areas and the effect that has in social and environmental terms.

They found sheep numbers had "declined dramatically" since 1999, most significantly in the north west.

Some areas had seen a reduction of between 35 and 60%.

Reasons included down-sizing of farms and the numbers of farmers withdrawing from sheep production.

THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH

The educational charity looked at the importance of livestock grazing in its Committee of Inquiry into the future of Scotland's hills and islands.

It found sheep and cattle to be key for biodiversity and landscape management.

But it warned this was difficult to achieve if the decline in the numbers of both continued.

The society recommended the best way to reverse this situation was through support for grazing management and for experts in the field to give guidance on the appropriate levels of grazing for habitats.

NFU SCOTLAND

In early September, the union launched its Manifesto for the Hills containing proposals to halt what it called an "exodus" of sheep and cattle.

It followed reports from its members across the country who were either selling up their stock or planning to in the face of rising feed, fuel and fertiliser costs.

NFU Scotland also said the market price for livestock had "consistently failed" to reflect costs of production.

The manifesto said the industry had to help itself, but also required new policies from the Scottish Government.

In a press release issued at the launch, the union said there was no single policy solution to the current problems.

NFUS President Jim McLaren said at the time: "We are currently witnessing an exodus of livestock and people from our hills and uplands, unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime."

FARMERS AND CROFTERS

Ravens have previously been blamed for preying on newborn lambs in Inverness-shire and this week there have been growing calls for action in the wake of claims sea eagles are killing livestock.

Meanwhile, a delegation of farmers are to call for concessions on plans by the European Union to impose the fitting of electronic tags to all sheep.

Speyside farmer Robert MacDonald said it would lead to an accelerated decline in the industry.

With each tag costing up to 1.50, the aim of the scheme is to improve the tracking of animals from farms to where they end up in food production.

Mr MacDonald told BBC Scotland: "It is happening already and it would just accelerate the drift away from sheep because of the time and the money involved.

"You would see huge tracts of our hills returned to scrub which is to no advantage to anybody, or the farming industry."


SEE ALSO
Growing call for action on eagles
30 Sep 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Farmers warn against sheep tags
30 Sep 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Bid to halt decline in shearers
16 Jun 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Ravens blamed for killing lambs
01 Apr 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Future fears of hill sheep farmer
26 Oct 07 |  Scotland

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