Subsequent purchases of neighbouring land saw the project area grow to a total of 126
hectares, with something over half owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the rest in
private ownership but managed with the same objectives.
The Nature Conservancy Council and its successor bodies, the Nature Conservancy Council
for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), were generally supportive and assisted
financially with monitoring work. In 1996 an informal partnership arrangement came into
being between ourselves, SWT and SNH to develop a demonstration programme to make the work
more widely known and in particular to disseminate information about the practical
management techniques that had been developed.
Good conservation management of vegetation should allow plants to flower and set seed.
This is vital not only to maintain genetic diversity but also to increase the relative
abundance of flowering plants, to provide rich food resources of pollen and nectar for
insects and other invertebrates and to create a diverse three-dimensional vegetation
structure. There is also a need for the impact of grazing animals to create short, open
areas suitable for seedling establishment within a competitive turf.
Understanding the way in which plants are affected by grazing and planning the way in
which domestic grazing animals use vegetation makes it possible to determine what kind of
vegetation grows where, even down to the individual species of plants and their relative
abundance in a particular area.
Some plants are intolerant of grazing and cannot survive in grazed grasslands or
heaths; others have successfully adapted to grazing and survive in a prostrate form in a
short grazed turf, perhaps unable to flower but reproducing themselves vegetatively.
Between these extremes, other plants are unable to survive being grazed when they are
actively growing in spring and summer, but are able to thrive if grazing is delayed until
the late summer or autumn.
Some plants are more palatable than others and so are actively sought out while others
are ignored. This relative palatability of species can vary through the year. There is no
such thing as light grazing for especially palatable species under a continuous stocking
regime: they are likely to be sought out and eaten as often as they re-grow and for them
even light stocking densities generate high grazing pressures.
Low stocking of extensive areas over long periods generates a pattern of vegetation and
species composition dictated by the behaviour and preferences of the grazing animal. In
contrast, targeted nature conservation grazing management controls the timing and
intensity of grazing pressure, overriding grazers preferences, in order to produce
the desired vegetation communities and relative abundance of species.
These basic facts about how grazing moulds vegetation communities were the essential
tools we had to work with. The other part of the tool-kit was our flock of sheep, giving
us control over how the land was to be managed.
Our methodology for converting theory into practice was essentially pragmatic and
evolutionary: in essence, we tried what we thought were sound management practices derived
from experience managing National Nature Reserves, assessed their effectiveness, learned
from experience, made adjustments to timing, duration and impact of grazing and learned
how to match conservation management requirements with the husbandry needs of the sheep
flock. The vagaries and extremes of Orkney weather, especially the erratic and sometimes
brutal dominance of the wind, were other factors that had to be learned and accommodated.
A vital part of the programme was the establishment of a system of monitoring, to
enable vegetation responses to be identified and used to test the effectiveness of the
management being applied. Resources were too limited to monitor as comprehensively as we
would have wished. Accordingly, a three-tiered structure of monitoring was designed that
uses different intensities of data gathering for documenting different processes in
different areas. Each of the ten monitoring projects can be considered as belonging to one
of three categories, which make a progression from the general to the specific: extensive
monitoring, vegetation community monitoring and species monitoring. Each of the categories
of monitoring activity are evaluated in conjunction with the others to produce an overall
picture. The results are used both to develop an effective management strategy and as the
foundation of the demonstration programme.
Leaving the richest grasslands and heaths ungrazed in spring and summer has allowed
flower-filled, species-rich grasslands, heaths and wetlands to develop. These are also
good habitat for ground-nesting birds and many invertebrates. But this period without
grazing must be followed by a heavy grazing pressure in autumn and winter to remove the
years crop of grasses and herbs. This heavy grazing after flowering and seed set is
essential to maintain the vegetation structures necessary to ensure species richness and
abundance of flowers in subsequent years.
Achieving sufficient autumn and winter grazing impacts, but without too much grazing on
dwarf shrubs like heather, while maintaining a healthy sheep flock, are the most difficult
factors to reconcile. The key is careful timing: leaving areas ungrazed long enough for
seed to set, but grazing them heavily before they are flattened and damaged by salt-laden
autumn and winter storms. It is a critical balancing act, made all the more difficult here
by the violence and unpredictability of Orkney weather.
This grazing strategy has proved very successful for the Scottish primrose. It has
produced grassland and heaths within which the primrose has been able to thrive, even
taking into account periodic setbacks due to extreme weather conditions. The known
Scottish primrose plants have increased from 659 in 1987 to 4821 in 1999.
In addition, over 40 other species have shown impressive increases in flowering and
abundance under the same management regime. The coastal grasslands and heaths produce an
abundance of flowers from spring until late summer, from the earliest primroses until the
last of the devils bit scabious. Abundant marsh-marigold, northern marsh-orchid and
meadowsweet occur in wetter ground; carpets of spring squill, birds-foot-trefoil and
heath spotted-orchid cover cliff tops; the wetter heaths turn golden with bog asphodel;
and grazing-sensitive kidney vetch and wild angelica have re-colonised some seasonally
Although grazed in spring and summer, or cut for hay, the agriculturally improved
fields have also become more diverse and each field now supports some 70 species of
plants. No fertiliser or pesticide has been used for at least 13 years and this has
allowed herbs to compete more effectively with grasses, as well as reducing the aggressive
vigour of weed species like docks. Wildflowers have re-colonised from the nearby coastal
areas. The hayfield in particular has been transformed into a flowery meadow by colonising
northern marsh-orchid, heath spotted-orchid, meadow vetchling, tufted and bush vetches,
yellow rattle, cuckoo flower and forget-me-nots.
The abundance of flowers has allowed a dramatic increase in the number of insects:
summer grasslands now hum with the sound of bees, many species of fly and hoverflies.
Butterflies, too, are more numerous and much more widespread.
This successful conservation management is based on the natural productivity of
unfertilised grasslands and heaths. Accordingly, agricultural productivity is not as high
as on an equivalent purely commercially managed farm: nevertheless, between 200 and 240
lambs are produced annually from the 80 hectares that we graze directly with approximately
150 ewes, usually achieving over 150% lambing. The reduced livestock production is
balanced by Agri-Environment payments made on 58 hectares of land managed under the
A detailed financial analysis is required in order to make definitive statements about
how well the economics of this grazing management system compare with those of
conventional commercial farming. Comparisons are made difficult by the fluctuations in
sheep prices. In the early days of the project the sole farm income was from livestock and
the associated support payments - Sheep Annual Premium (SAP) and Hill Livestock
Compensatory Allowance(HLCA): the low stocking rate was therefore financially
disadvantageous. After 1995, agri-environmental payments, under the Habitat Scheme, were
approximately £7,250 per annum, which compensated substantially for low stock numbers.
However, the current collapse in the hill sheep market has rendered even commercial sheep
farming operations largely uneconomic. At present the low capital and running costs,
together with the agri-environment payment, make this conservation farming approach more
viable financially than commercial production systems.
The principles of grazing and their application to nature conservation management are
valid for all areas, not just for Orkney. The grazing practices applied and more fully
evolved here were originally developed while managing National Nature Reserves in the East
Midlands of England. They were very successful for meeting the needs of rare limestone
grassland plants like Pasque flower and man orchid, and generated tenfold population
increases over a period of 10 years. A management technique that works equally well in the
inland English lowlands and on the maritime cliffs of the far north of Scotland is
obviously widely applicable.
Although the particular value of this work has been to combine conservation grazing
management with low intensity farming, the conservation results that have been achieved
are impressive in their own right.
The low-intensity, environmentally-friendly land use pattern has generated striking
conservation benefits within a framework of extensive agriculture. This is directly
relevant to the development of ideas about the future of agriculture and wildlife
conservation, especially in remote areas, and is particularly timely in view of the
continued development and reform of the EU Common Agricultural policy. Recent dramatic
declines in livestock prices and farm incomes currently threaten the future viability of
conventional agriculture in disadvantaged and remote areas. This trend is likely to get
even worse if World Trade Organisation negotiations lead to UK agriculture having to
compete with world food prices, without production subsidies. It is not only agriculture
that is at risk: remote rural communities are underpinned by farming activities and the
related economic activity that they generate. The loss of agriculture in peripheral areas
could lead to the terminal decline of whole communities in remote areas.
The land-use patterns developed here demonstrate that wildlife interests and
low-intensity livestock production can fruitfully co-exist. It seems likely that future
Common Agriculture Policy reforms will see production-linked support payments re-directed
towards additional agri-environment schemes, increasing the available resources to support
environmental management on farms. It would be possible, and desirable, to use this
opportunity to evaluate more fundamentally the future role of farming and wildlife
management in the remote, disadvantaged areas of Britain. The type of management pattern
developed on a small scale here could be seen as a model for a much wider application of a
conservation farming system. Even if the full production potential of British farms is no
longer required within a global economic system, this need not be a reason for abandoning
agriculture in difficult areas. If agri-environment funding was available at a sufficient
scale, it would be possible to support a broadly agricultural rural community structure
through regarding conservation benefits as an additional agricultural crop, alongside
reduced food production. A land-use system designed to favour wildlife interests needs to
be more labour-intensive than most forms of modern, intensive farming, simply because of
the need to manage with care, using additional skills based on careful and critical
judgement of environmental impacts. Conservation farming could provide more skilled rural
employment than conventional agriculture.
Conservation farming systems could see a sensitive blending of low-intensity farming
with conservation management techniques. This approach would not be to everybodys
taste but it could maintain land-based rural communities, would preserve the skills of
producing food in difficult environments even if at a lower volume, and would also have
the additional benefit of maintaining and enhancing a countryside with thriving and
diverse wildlife interests.
It is obviously difficult for us to make a completely impartial assessment of how
successful this Grazing Initiative has been so far. However, all three of the initial
objectives have been achieved: we have developed a conservation grazing strategy which has
permitted the Scottish primrose population to thrive; the heaths, grasslands and wetlands
have developed into impressively species-rich and flowery vegetation communities; and the
conservation management has been successfully integrated with low intensity sheep
production. Recognition has been achieved in the form of a Henry Ford European
Conservation Award in 1996 and an MBE in 1998. It is as yet unclear how successful we have
been in disseminating information and experience about the project to other land managers
and land-use planners.
However, a critical evaluation should also consider whether this initiative could have
been more successful if it had been established and organised in a different way.
The advantage of working as self-employed individuals, on land without statutory
conservation designations, has been the freedom to develop innovative ideas and the
opportunity to put them into practice. This had not been fully possible while employed by
the Nature Conservancy Council with the specialist role of managing three National Nature
Reserves. Although the ideas that underpinned this grazing initiative have now been
thoroughly vindicated, it has to be recognised that they must have seemed naively
idealistic and unrealistically optimistic, given the state of practical knowledge about
conservation grazing management in 1987 and the then position of conventional farming.
Although we set up this grazing initiative accepting that we would have to fund the
first few years of work, we did not intend that this position would become permanent.
Looking back now, we feel unbelievably naive in expecting that once we had shown that our
ideas could work we would be able to develop a fully collaborative approach with our
partners that would generate sufficient funding to pay a reasonable salary for our skills
and labours and would provide the necessary additional supporting manpower. This never
materialised. It is not that we were ever misled, but simply that we believed that the
necessary level of funding would automatically follow once impressive results could be
demonstrated. We applied the better mousetrap strategy: i.e., "make a
better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door". However, it seems that
either our door was too well hidden or most of our potential customers had not
realised that they had a rodent problem and hence were not especially eager to look for a
solution. In fact, within the systems as they are, we have been fortunate to receive the
amount of supporting funding that we have, even though we have had to find the bulk of the
necessary finance through our own personal resources and consultancy work.
We believe the results have been valuable and thoroughly worthwhile, but they are the
product of naive enthusiasm and not sound business sense or responsible financial
planning. Now in retrospect, we cannot know whether it would ever have been possible to do
it the sensible way, by presenting costed proposals, securing the necessary
supporting funding from the government conservation agency, employing the necessary
support staff and then setting out to buy suitable land and set the grazing programme in
motion. Our strong suspicions, however, are that it would not have been possible to
overcome the ingrained scepticism about new ideas, let alone the reluctance or inability
to provide adequate supporting finance.
A major disadvantage of working alone, rather than as part of a large organisation, is
that the opportunity is lost to discuss and develop ideas in collaboration with colleagues
working on the same problems or in similar fields. This is a fundamental constraint that
is exacerbated by inadequate finance and working in a remote location. Lacking support
staff and basic administrative back-up are also major weaknesses of working outside the
structure of a large organisation. Constantly working excessively long hours, with no
assistance to cope with sickness, generates serious practical difficulties and can
prejudice the quality of work being achieved, as well as threatening personal well-being.
Thinking time is a vital component of developing and implementing innovative
ideas: we have spent too much time struggling to keep our heads above water and have had
too little time to consider, reflect and evaluate; and to generate and develop a flow of
new ideas. Having no adequate income to support all the costs of the project has been very
It is not clear what conclusions can be drawn from our experiences. Without doubt, if
we had been able to carry out our work with adequate resources of money and manpower
within a large, supportive organisation we could have achieved much more, especially in
terms of more comprehensive monitoring and documentation and wider and more effective
dissemination of ideas and experience. However, the simple truth is that this ideal
working situation was not available to us for this project. The choice has been to pursue
our ideas on a financial shoestring or not to do the work. The judgement about whether the
practical conservation achievements and the demonstration of innovative concepts are
sufficient justification for the efforts and costs has to be a personal one.
Creative and innovative ideas are more often generated by individuals than
organisations. A self-motivated individual can make things happen more rapidly and
effectively than a reluctant and conservative organisation. But resources are mostly
controlled by organisations or by Government. The challenge is to link resources to
creative thinking and imaginative and effective action.
A 28 page full-colour A4 booklet, "The Nature of Grazing", has been produced
as an introduction to this grazing project, together with a series of ten related
management advisory notes. These are available free of charge from the Reserves Manager,
Scottish Wildlife Trust, Cramond House, Kirk Cramond, Cramond Glebe Road, Edinburgh EH4