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Back to the land

David LinternDavid Lintern visits a 21st century croft in the Cairngorms, and comes away with free range eggs and hope for the future.

Just off the road to Tomintoul over the Cromdale Hills, there’s a small wooden bungalow and a couple of outbuildings that have seen better days. When my own family were looking to move to the Highlands, we looked at this property. It came with a lot of land; more than we had the capacity or know-how to manage properly… but since then I’m very glad to say it’s been bought by two women who really do know what they are doing. Back in 2015 it felt barren, treeless and exposed, but in November 2017, when I called in on Lynbreck Croft again, it was already transformed. Yet the changes the pair have put in place are just the beginning. Meet Lynn and Sandra…

“We were working in the Borders, and we had this dream that we talked about for years – our bit of land we called it – we were hoping to buy a couple of acres and live the good life. What we ended up with is quite different!” says Lynn.

What they ended up with was 150 acres north of the Cairngorm plateau, in a beautiful but otherwise neglected spot that had not been farmed for the previous generation. They spent their life savings and purchased in March 2016, with a view to putting the land to work again, but this time with an eye to the environment. Explaining their philosophy, both talk in terms of “the land as a whole” and it’s clear that they have an expanded view of what constitutes farming, crops and value.

“It sounds a bit esoteric, but we just started to ask, ‘what does the land want us to do with it’? The hill above the house already had lots of pine regeneration on it, so we knew it wanted to become a woodland again. But from the start, the thought was that ‘we’re a croft, so we’re an agricultural unit’ – so if we’re going to put that to woodland, how would that benefit the croft as well?”

Given how exposed the site is, one of their chief concerns for the future was shelter. The trees would give back by providing shelter for livestock, replenishing the nutrient base and rebuilding the soil. They researched how farms used to run prior to post war mechanisation, and found a ‘diversified structure’ as compared with our modern monocultures. The small holdings that dotted the land included native pigs and bees, chickens and highland cattle – low impact and low cost. These farms weren’t completely ‘closed loop’, but without large fields of single crops there was little need for fossil fuel based pesticides and fertilisers. Small was also sustainable.

Lynn and Sandra wrote their first business plan based on this model of ‘high nature value’ farming, and received help from the Scottish Government’s Young Farmer’s grant. Lynn explains “Every decision we make has to be at least environmentally neutral, or ideally, have a benefit. All the animals, when they are on the croft, they are part of the team. They aren’t just here to give us a produce, they are here to add value to the land, and live as naturally as they can in a farmed environment.”

How might this work in practice? The pigs (already on site) are moved around in paddocks to break up tufts of vegetation, allowing more plants and saplings to break through. Highland cattle (due shortly) are excellent natural rewilders and are to be grazed on a rotational basis, disturbing the ground and providing natural fertiliser as they go. The pasture chickens will be sent in afterward as miniature muck spreaders, but are also great at keeping the weeds down. The bees (arriving any day) will help pollinate the various grasses, wildflowers and trees. Lynn and Sandra have one or two crafty tricks planned, too – they describe the use of seed laced cattle mineral licks, which turns the resultant cow pats into ‘seed bombs’, perfect for regenerating the pasture on site with wild flowers and grasses.

The benefits ‘cascade’ right up the food chain. Better grassland and readily available fertiliser creates new homes for both invertebrates and small mammals, which in turn will serve the local bird populations. Sandra explains “We’re just trying to assist and enhance what nature does on her own. And of course, we benefit from that too. By creating a healthy soil and a strong root system, we also reduce the risk of erosion and slow down water runoff. If we get the rotational grazing right, we won’t have to plough it up, spray or lime.”

That government grant funds the purchase of animals, plus expensive kit like electric pens (that can be moved to allow rotation) and a cattle crush (not as nasty as it sounds – it’s a cow container!), but what about their big plans for a native woodland? Although this fed into their overall business plan, it was a distinct project. They asked for advice from the Woodland Trust and got financial help from the Forestry Commission. This gave them money for a deer fence (erected by local contractors and pretty much the only thing they haven’t done themselves), over seventeen thousand native saplings and five years of maintenance payments to replace damaged trees as and when.

They then spent two months preparing the ground, avoiding the more usual ‘mounding’ method which can damage the hydrology of the soil, and then another six weeks of planting in the spring of 2017. That’s fifteen thousand trees in all weathers, seven days a week, by hand. It’s a native broadleaf mix – Downy Birch, Hazel, Hawthorn, Willow, Aspen, Wych elm, Alder and Rowan, and all from local seed source. Another two and half thousand Sessile Oak have been planted since.

That was often done by Sandra, as Lynn was otherwise occupied with grant paperwork and a part time job. It’s the biggest single change since I was at Lynbreck eighteen months earlier, and it’s genuinely impressive. It’s hard to comprehend how just two people have achieved so much. But while Lynbreck maybe a labour of love, it’s not a vanity project. “It was difficult, but it’s worth saying that we were being paid to do this work. If we are serious about showing a way forward for farming in the future, then we have to demonstrate that it is economically viable.”

With a background in conservation prior to owning Lynbreck, working for the National Trust and the Borders Forest Trust, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were experts, but the pair are modest and honest about what they’ve had to pick up on the way. “We are learning all the time” say Lynn. They may have brought know-how in terms of tree planting and ecology, but both had limited experience in agriculture, livestock and grant applications, and none in deer control.

There has been a huge learning curve, but both are effusive about the help they received; “There’s these big organisations, but if you reach out to them, and if you are positive and honest and passionate, and you ask for their help, they will help you. The grants are there to get people back into the rural community, and to get people back into living on the land and producing from the land, and that’s a great thing for areas like this. We want to make our own contribution to the community – social, economic and ecological.”

As well as everything else, Lynn gained her stalking license last year, and has taken three Roe deer for the freezer so far. The pair are as pragmatic about that as everything else; “Deer populations in Scotland are the way they are for all sorts of reasons beyond our control, and they are a native animal that has every right to be here, but it’s about looking at our bit of land and giving it a chance to recover. That’s the bit we are responsible for. It’s up to us to do it in the best way we can – humanely, quickly, and with complete respect.”

They are not short of ideas for the future either. Their byword is to “work with what we’ve got.” There are plans to regenerate another, older woodland at the east end of the croft, create a new tree belt and a long hedgerow which should provide food and shelter for the animals. In terms of produce, eggs and meat are already on sale, and in time honey will be too. Work has started on the refurbishment of the byre for a more permanent work building, and in time they hope to rebuild the original croft house for use as a holiday let.

There’s also talk of some very small scale ‘glamping’ – a yurt, or a pod or two – as part of the ongoing mix of income. Their location on the Cairngorm Snow Roads and Highland Tourist Route means they are positioned well for visitors wanting to sample a little of ‘the good life’. In addition, they are developing education and outreach work by opening the croft up to other farmers and crofters, and organising workshops about the successes and challenges so far.

It’s as much about promoting a more harmonious vison of farming to the wider public as it is about making a living from the land, but the last thing they want to do is preach. “What we really want to do is to help find a really honest way for farming to become sustainable in the future. All those buzzwords – things like ‘integrated land management’ – we want to make them really happen, and just by doing that it might help others to see that they can do it too. We’re only small, but each of us doing our bit can be an empowering thing, not a chore or a box to tick.”

There’s a wider political context here; the likely end of subsidised farming as we know it under Brexit, a move in Scotland towards more community ownership after centuries of feudalism, and a growing public awareness of how and where our food is produced. It’s easy to get swept up in the negativity and fear around these issues. As a consequence, it feels timely to consider good news stories, of which Lynbreck Croft is most certainly one.

People are moving back into rural areas – people with energy, vision and knowledge – and it’s those people who will help knit together again communities that were destroyed and dispersed in past generations. This time around, there’s a renewed understanding that the wider ecology is a part of that same community – that people can’t thrive without a healthy soil, that plants and animals need space too. Meeting Lynn and Sandra, it’s impossible not to feel hugely positive about Scotland’s rural future. Lynbreck feels like the beginning of something big in a small, green and local way – a perfect antidote to the old school rule of the Lairds.

If you are considering crofting, perhaps for the first time or with environmental goals in mind, it might be worth a look at the following:

• Young farmers and New Entrants Startup grant, Scottish Government rural payments.
• The Forestry Commission Scotland Woodland Creation grant.
• Woodland Trust, both for advice and the More Hedges grant.
• Agri-environment grant scheme.

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