Minister to hear forest fears of sheep farmers

Ian Hepburn. Northhouse Farm nr Hawick
Ian Hepburn. Northhouse Farm nr Hawick
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FEARS that sheep farming in the Borders is being increasingly marginalised by the drive towards forestry will be highlighted next month when Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for rural affairs, visits the region, writes Andrew Keddie.

The minister is expected to accept an invitation from the National Sheep Association (NSA) Scotland to discuss a range of issues, including electronic tagging.

But according to Ian Hepburn, the NSA vice-chairman, who farms at Northhouse near Hawick, his organisation’s main area of concern is the sacrifice of traditional hill farms on the altar of forestry.

Ministers have endorsed the Scottish Forestry Strategy Target to increase woodland coverage to 25 per cent of Scottish land area by the second half the century.

But Mr Hepburn claims that, without safeguards and careful focus, that policy, designed to replace carbon-emitting farming activities associated with livestock with carbon-absorbing trees, is deeply flawed.

He believes the Borders, without the safeguards of protected status and with less unplantable land than in the north, will take a disporportionate hit.

Mr Hepburn reckons that in the past year alone, land capable of grazing 7,000 sheep has been lost in the Borders, as landowners have sold farms to forestry interests, public and private.

Mr Hepburn said the Holyrood government’s land-use targets represented a 50 per cent increase in the status quo, but that pockets of the Borders were already suffering.

He cited the large hill farm at Annelshope, 16 miles from Selkirk up the Ettrick Valley, which is being ploughed in preparation for tree planting. The farm lies next to West Buccleuch, which has been planted and now forms part of the vast Craik Forest.

“It is not the only farm which has been cleared of sheep to make way for forestry and there are other examples I am aware of in Peeblesshire and near Roberton,” said Mr Hepburn.

Although the date and details of Mr Lochhead’s meeting with the sheep men have yet to be finalised, Vicky Davidson, who represents Selkirkshire on Scottish Borders Council, confirmed he would be visiting Ettrick which is, she claims, “an acute example of what is happening”.

Ms Davidson said: “Research carried out at Aberdeen University for the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) on the loss of hill farms to forestry put the tipping point where you endanger remaining farms at 30 per cent forestry.

“In the Ettrick parish, we are now over the 30 per cent and the forestry companies are looking for more farms to plant, threatening a whole way of life.

“Lord Steel of Aikwood, when an MP 40 years ago, campaigned against any more of Ettrick going under trees and he recently supported me in a letter to the Scottish environment minister Roseanna Cunningham urging her to protect the remaining farms.”

The fate of hill farms, along with other serious concerns in the Ettrick community about the impact of afforestation on the landscape, tourism and already inadequate local roads, will be discussed at a public meeting in the Boston Hall, Ettrick, this Monday at 7pm.

Mr Hepburn will be there, with Ian Laidlaw representing the Forestry Commission Scotland, which has dedicated new page on its website to woodland farmlands. We want to explain to farmers that the right trees in the right place can be good for business at many levels,” said the commission’s director Bob McIntosh.

Mr Hepburn responded: “That makes perfect sense in theory but it is patently not happening in practice. There is supposed to be planned integration between forestry and sheep farming, but we do not see this working.”