Much of the UK natural environment (particularly in Scotland and Wales, though less so England) consists of upland areas. Currently, this is dominated by extensive sheep and beef cattle production systems that are economically fragile. These systems, if once lost, will be extremely difficult to re-create, unlike some more intensive systems where the environment is better controlled and there are more opportunities to switch agricultural production focus.
Upland systems are less reliant on large and expensive infrastructure per se, but the environment in which they operate is such that once lost the underlying management skills and understanding of animal-environment interactions are extremely difficult to replace. Therefore, understanding the resilience of these upland systems to policy, economic, climatic or other shock is not only valuable but needs to take into account the opportunities and constraints facing individual businesses (which are often driven by the spatial location of those businesses in the wider landscape). Our research demonstrates that the four areas we have examined (North Yorkshire, Scottish Borders, Skye and North Uist, and Orkney, are very different, even if superficially they appear similar upland systems. While they face some common challenges, they also each have different challenges and present a range of different responses to become more resilient to these challenges.
We seek to understand resilience from a number of different perspectives; the economic, food supply, environment, social and cultural angles.
Upland farming has become the focus of many public anxieties. It has become the location for many of our values-based disagreements. Should the areas be re-wilded? Should we plant more commercial forests? Should we stop eating meat? All of these provide challenges to existing patterns of working and living in uplands.
We found some shared features among the case study areas, with multiple and interacting stressors e.g. remoteness, limited infrastructure such as broadband, and weather challenges. But each case study area also has unique features in the combination of land ownership (e.g. large estates, tenanted farms, crofting), local tradition, culture and history, and the suitability for alternative land uses (e.g. forestry, energy generation, shooting or protected land).
The meaning of resilience for each case study could be very different: what is being maintained and whose resilience is the focus? There is no shared vision for what people want from the uplands (landscapes, tourism, agriculture, forestry, rewilding, carbon sinks, energy production). Yet all of these interact with each other.
But the people living in these area are important, and depopulation, and an ageing population, is a serious challenge. The centralisation of many services to call centres increases efficiency but the resulting fewer local jobs reduces resilience. New entrants to farming/crofting struggle to access affordable land and capital. Incomers need to demonstrate commitment to the area.
Uplands are well-positioned to offer solutions to emerging societal demands and delivering public goods, but are severely constrained compared to lowlands, heavily dependent on subsidies and the ‘efficient’ global production model does not fit these areas very well.
A survey of a sample of farms using the Public Goods Tool, developed by the Organic Research Centre, provided evidence of upland farms contributing positively to soil management, fertiliser management, food security, agri-environmental management, and particularly animal welfare and health. However, these data represent only a small number of farms, and the specific measures within the Tool, and may not fully reflect the upland situation.
Farm Business survey data suggest there is considerable diversity in economic viability and vulnerability among the Scottish upland farms. However, those that are vulnerable, tend to remain vulnerable, and those that are robust, tend to remain robust, with little change in resilience over time.
Economic modelling suggests that future climate change may substantially increase the economic consequences of liver fluke.
Upland farms have limited capacity to raise beef cattle and sheep to slaughter weight and so most are sold in the autumn as young animals (‘stores’). The result is lack of information flow between consumers and producers. Consistency of supply (size, shape, fat cover, eating quality) is critical to retailers, butchers and hotels, but is difficult to maintain from the uplands where numbers are small, seasonality affects availability of grass-fed animals, and a wide-range of different breeds are maintained.
Agriculture in in remote areas relies on social networks to remain resilient. Strong ties with the community of farmers together with bridging ties to external networks enables openness to new ideas as well as the ability to work together. A study of Orkney found that there is considerable shared activity, with important social networks developed at school maintained in later life, and with the livestock mart forming a key centre for networking. Ensuring resilience of agricultural and food systems in remote areas requires paying attention to where and how social networks are formed, maintained and function, including the impact of policy areas other than agriculture, such as decisions around school catchment areas and maintenance of transport infrastructure.
Producing food in upland areas does not easily secure resilience in food supply for locals. Citizens in these remote, rural areas, mainly purchase food from supermarket chains, allied to global supply chains. Because they are at the extreme end of supply chains, they are vulnerable to perturbations in the system. Where local food is available, it tends to be an expensive, premium product, often aimed at tourists.
Coming soon, ‘The Good Land’ by Pippa Goldschmidt, a booklet of eight stories reflecting on the traditional importance of upland farming and a fictitious near future. Farming physically shapes the land and ties us into an intimate relationship with the animals. These stories seek to remind us of that. They also remind us that upland farming is resilient, ithas never stood still and has always had to respond to change, whether that has been environmental or social. The stories are set in Orkney, the Isle of Skye, Scottish Borders and Yorkshire Dales.’