The case for crofters, cattle and the environment

By Patrick Krause

CEO – Scottish Crofting Federation

Scotland’s National Islands Plan, published in 2019, was developed following the introduction of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and sets out a series of objectives for improving outcomes for island communities across Scotland.

The Plan commits the Scottish Government to address population decline so completely withdrawing funding the control on greylag geese, which are threatening the existence of crofting communities on the islands, is alarming, to say the least.

At a recent cross party group on crofting there was passionate discussion on the destruction caused by greylag geese on the islands and NatureScot’s bewildering decision to cease funding the very successful greylag ‘adaptive management’ schemes.

It was asked whether NatureScot had undertaken an Island Communities Impact Assessment under the Island Act 2018 to this change in greylag goose policy and, if not, why it had not done so.

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At the meeting, NatureScot were able to confirm that they had not undertaken an ICIA on current goose policy, and followed up with a written statement saying: “We are of the view that neither the introduction nor the closure of the demonstration projects had an effect on an island community which is significantly different from its effect on other communities.”

A comment at the same meeting was: “Crofting agriculture on the Uist machair is unique and extremely environmentally friendly and enhances biodiversity – many species benefit from the work of the crofters. But the battle with geese is being lost – geese increase as funding diminishes.

“The funding for the adaptive management scheme was essential – if there is no funding the geese will take over. What does NatureScot want? Crofters and cattle and the environmental benefits or do they want geese?”

November was dominated by COP26 at which much deliberation was given to the predicament we find ourselves in regarding the damage we have done, and are doing, to the biosphere that supports us.

There were apparently some agreements reached on actions that may help, but I was left with the feeling that it amounts to not nearly enough.

Around the edges there were lots of things being talked about – livestock being something that caught my attention. The finger is pointed at livestock as a contributor of greenhouse gas in the form of methane. There are suggestions that we should no longer keep ruminants as they belch and fart too much, and we don’t need to eat meat anyway.

I am not completely dismissing this, but would modify it to: “Eat less meat, and make it the best, ecologically-sound meat. Eat meat that has lived grazing extensively on grass.”

In my capacity as an ecological layman, I have some thoughts: Replacing some meat in our diets with vegetables is a good idea; but replacing meat with grain substitutes, increasing arable production, does not come risk-free.

Ploughing the ground lets out carbon and though zero-tillage has been used for decades, it still is not a common practice. Intensive agriculture uses fertilisers, pesticides and heavy machinery, all of which are not good for the biosphere. Methane does damage the atmosphere, but my understanding is that it degrades relatively quickly whereas carbon dioxide doesn’t. It is therefore a bit of a strangeness to measure methane emissions in carbon dioxide equivalents – they aren’t equivalent.

Are livestock solely responsible for methane?

Apparently the oil and gas industry loses significant amounts of methane to the atmosphere through leakage. Leaks cost money in wastage, but cost more to find and fix; so companies tend to look on it as collateral damage. This isn’t good enough. Why are they not told to clean up their act?

Then there is methane emitted by wild deer, mostly in Scotland kept as a plaything for the rich, benefitting no one but the few land-owners who charge exorbitant prices for the privilege of shooting stags.

Huge estates with deer (or grouse moors) do nothing for the environment or for people – in fact they damage the ecosystem as they are managed to exclude people and other wildlife that may not contribute to sporting wildlife numbers.

Deer are not governed by the same food standards rules as livestock to enter the food chain. Why can’t native livestock that are grazed year-round outside have the same privileges?

And different breeds have different methane producing characteristics, so we can modify emissions through using the right animals.

Grazing has beneficial outcomes too. Grazed grassland not only keeps in soil carbon (and protects a huge ecosystem below ground level) it also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

Grazing is also selective, encouraging a range of species to flourish, increasing biodiversity. And grazing livestock has a huge social benefit, especially on common grazings.

It is complicated, much more than I have touched on, but extensive grazing of native livestock has a very strong case.