A NEW report has revealed that, despite a decline in livestock numbers in the western Borders, most of the hill and in-by ground remains actively managed, writes Andrew Keddie.
But fears for the wider social and economic impacts are also highlighted in the study.
The area, which includes the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys, fares better in the report by Scottish Natural Heritage, than the other case study regions of south Skye and the northern Highlands.
But the document, charting the impact of the decline in Scottish hill farming on the natural habitats, warns that where livestock numbers continue to fall and land is neglected then more grassland habitants are likely to deteriorate.
Councillor Vicky Davidson, Scottish Borders Council’s executive member for economic development and part of a well-known Ettrick farming family, welcomed the report.
She told us: “It shines a much needed spotlight on the impact of declining livestock, not only on the natural environment.
“The researchers, who held a workshop in Yarrow which I attended, were also very struck by the de-population and lack of the confidence in the future that this rapid change is causing.”
The report shows that the number of breeding ewes had declined by 5,629 in upper Ettrick and 6,202 in Yarrow over a ten-year period.
Ms Davidson went on: “Since 2008, there has also been a further number of farms cleared for commercial forestry with more in the pipeline.
“At the workshop, there were farmers from both valleys with concerns about the loss of hill farms and the consequences this removal of livestock was having on the landscape, the flora and fauna and, more particularly, the future for the people of the two valleys.
“The researchers were surprised by the speed and number of hill farms lost over a relatively short period and by the general feeling of pessimism that this decline would not be halted.
“I am particularly pleased the report highlights concerns about the social and economic impacts ... and calls for a much more joined-up approach to rural policy which takes these wider impacts into consideration.
“It is also clear that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines for the whole or rural Scotland as local variations must be taken into consideration.
“This corresponds to the case we have been making in the Borders for more local input into funding and policy decisions.”
Jim Hume MSP, the Lib Dem rural affairs spokesman, told us: “It’s long been known a healthy hill farming sector provides a number of environmental benefits, whether through agri-environment schemes or just through the land being grazed to allow good biodiversity.
He commented: “The decline in sheep and beef numbers was the focus of the NFU’s Manifesto for the Hills and this latest SNH report clearly documents these benefits. Government policy has to be targeted towards maintaining healthy economic farming activity on the ground to allow the continuation of the record of good environmental stewardship in this area of agriculture.”