Reflecting on Resilience

Project update from Ann Bruce – May 2019

Now that lambing and calving are all but over, it feels like the right time to reflect on what we have been finding in the project so far. This is just my personal view, and we are still collecting data, so it is still early days.

lambI am hugely impressed by the people we have met, who continue to demonstrate resilience under a plethora of challenges from policy changes to climate events. I have seen a real determination to make things work and a lot of creativity expressed in doing so. That said, it feels like a lot of people believe they have reached the limit of what change they can absorb. It feels like crunch time has come. Brexit is seen as an existential threat by many, but perhaps it is seen as an opportunity by some upland farmers – if so, I would love to hear from you.

It seems remarkable too, that upland farming has become the focus of many public anxieties. It seems to have formed the location for many of our values-based disagreements. Should the areas be re-wilded? Should predator species be re-introduced? Should we stop eating meat? All of these provide challenges to existing patterns of working and living in uplands. The social science academic literature is replete with emphasis on valuing local knowledge – but I wonder how seriously that knowledge is taken if it challenges fundamental values. And yet, people flock to these areas as they are now, as tourists, as second home owners and as retirees, looking for a less frenetic and more nature-friendly environment. Perhaps looking for the rural idyll that features so strongly in British culture. And yet, for a society to thrive, it seems that there needs to be a core of active people, of an age and willing to participate in the social activities that make life in rural fringes possible. Those key people who work in the volunteer fire brigade, work with young people or help the elderly and those with mental or physical infirmities. There is also a need for incomes that are sufficient to avoid real hardship.

lambsWe hear a lot about the need to re-think food systems; that the existing system is broken and dysfunctional, neither providing appropriate nutrition nor providing adequate incomes for producers. It does seem remarkable that a food producing area gets most of its food from a supermarket, having first sent its own products away. One of the often heard answers is to increase local production. One of the eye openers has been how difficult this can be in practice. Take lamb for example. Say, I am a tourist in Skye wanting to taste the local produce – but the lambs are still small and there is none to be had. Seasonality of production is really significant as an issue. Many of us are so used to finding what we want, when we want it, at the supermarket – but biology doesn’t work like that. Food hygiene and traceability regulations are proving another challenge. If your supply consists of multiple small producers, all with idiosyncratic products, it is much harder to manage than if you have one large producer. The factory metaphor of food production has many drivers. Equally, is it appropriate to demand equivalent inspection and regulatory standards for small abattoirs that only provide meat to local markets, as to large abattoirs supplying export markets. These measures cost, and make it difficult for local slaughter to take place as the abattoir provision becomes prohibitively expensive. Of course safe meat is important, but so is animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock transport. Where does the appropriate balance lie?

The last point I wanted to add here, is how different our four case study areas have proved to be. Orkney, Scottish Borders, Skye/North Uist and Yorkshire Dales all have some things in common, but they are different in so many ways. It is these similarities and differences that we will continue to explore.

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