Anne Rae MacDonald is a board member of the Cairngorms National Park, and a partner in a family farming business in Easter Ross. She is also a member of Scotland’s Women in Agriculture Taskforce set up in 2017 by the Scottish Government.
To keen walkers and mountaineers, there is little need I am sure for me to advocate what a special place the Cairngorms and associated hills and glens are. For those who have a love of the outdoors whether through recreational interest or because they work the land, an appreciation of nature and the countryside usually goes hand in hand.
To put the value of this area into context it is worth reminding ourselves that the Cairngorms National Park is the largest National Park in the UK and contains one third of the UK land mass above 600 metres. The area is critically important for nature being home to 25% of the UK’s rare and threatened species, with nearly half the land itself being classified as of international importance and protected by European Law. Conservation and sustainable land management are therefore pivotal policy objectives for the Cairngorm National Park Authority (CNPA) but with 18,000 people living in the Park and the area straddling 5 Local Authorities, supporting a good mixture of economically viable industries and businesses is also key to its long-term future.
Farming and crofting in the Cairngorms have long since been based on the traditional mixed system of rearing cattle and sheep plus grass with some barley/oat crops for feed, and the area is widely known for producing high quality livestock. The topography and climate very much dictate the way in which the land is managed, ranging from the more fertile lowlands of the Rivers Spey, Don and Dee, to the uplands and (in some cases) areas of open hill and native woodlands. The distinctive, integrated way in which the land has been farmed over the centuries has undoubtedly contributed to the iconic landscape and help made the Cairngorms what they are today.
By its very nature, farming is a long term ‘game’. Production cycles are lengthy and often farmers/crofters have to wait up to a year to receive their primary income. Protecting and enhancing the natural assets on which these businesses and families’ livelihoods are based therefore makes sense not just for the health of that business long term but also the wider community. Working the land in the Cairngorms has routinely demanded a “maintainable, viable and ecological approach” and will increasingly continue to do so as we look to balance the needs of food production, climate and environment and tourism/recreational access.
Farmers in the Cairngorms can and do much to enrich our environment with grasslands/ wetlands home to many wader and other birds along with “food banks” of oat/barley crop stubbles; to hosting a wide variety of plants species especially along field, water and woodland margins. Whilst declining cattle numbers over recent decades has seen a reduction to the benefits carefully managed grazing can bring to some of our upland habitats there are a number of support mechanisms encouraging farmers to actively get involved in environmental schemes. These include a number of initiatives run by the CNPA itself. The industry itself is also working hard advocating the importance of ensuring good soil structure, adhering to high quality standards (for example via Quality Assurance Schemes and “Meat With Integrity” campaign) and highlighting gains to be made by proactively farming with the environment.
As with many industries, farming and crofting have their challenges and never more so than now with serious financial implications of Brexit looming and changes to agricultural policy; Climate Change and the ever-rising cost of medicines/feed for animal welfare to the seed and fertilizer required to establish viable crops. But agriculture has had to face significant challenges before and I am confident that farmers and crofters in the Cairngorms will survive the challenges of the next 10-15years albeit significant change and adaptation will be an inevitable part of this.
Indeed, as a vital component, it is surely imperative that we continue to have a sustainable farming industry both environmentally and financially, for the well-being of the Cairngorms National Park and the many valuable habitats and species it is home to.