Farming for wildlife on Islay

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Farming for wildlife on Islay

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Wildlife friendly farming is an integral part of RSPB Scotland’s work. In this blog Jack Fleming, our area manager in the Argyll Islands, and David Maynard, our community information and tourism officer at Loch Gruinart, take us through how RSPB Scotland is farming for wildlife on Islay.

Farming for wildlife on Islay

Loch Gruinart - Dave Maynard

Farming for wildlife. That, in a nutshell, is what RSPB Scotland Loch Gruinart, our 1700ha reserve on Islay, is all about. And if it wasn’t for Aoradh, the RSPB Scotland owned farm, we wouldn’t have a reserve at Loch Gruinart at all. The farm was purchased in 1984 for the conservation of barnacle and white-fronted geese which arrive from Greenland every year in October.

Along with being an important habitat for these geese it’s now also managed for a range of wildlife from corncrakes, cuckoos, and breeding waders such as lapwing, redshanks, snipe, curlews, greenshanks and godwits who visit in the summer, to the resident population of chough and, not forgetting the hen harriers. It’s not just birds though! Rare marsh fritillary butterfly, bats, reptiles and plants also benefit.

On Aoradh, year-round seasonal farming requirements and diverse wildlife habitat management methods synchronise to create a fascinating combination of successful agricultural and conservation practices. Farming and wildlife conservation really do go ‘hand-in-hand’ here.

In order to suitably manage the farm for conservation, Aoradh has a spring calving suckler herd of 200 cross-bred Limousin/Aberdeen Angus/ Shorthorn cows and a flock of 200 North Country Cheviot sheep (primarily to control ragwort and dockens) on the grazing areas. The sale of the calves and lambs generates our income. It’s really important that Aoradh is run as a successful working farm especially for RSPB Scotland’s advocacy work. We must use the same techniques and equipment and face the same challenges as other farms in the area; our farm must function at the highest levels of livestock quality and welfare, matching other farmers on Islay which is renowned for the quality of livestock produced on the island; and we have to use standard techniques means that we can accurately assess the cost of delivering conservation. This allows RSPB Scotland to advise land managers and Government of the funding required to support this vital work. Ultimately the farm needs to make money so it costs as little as possible to deliver what is an immense amount of biodiversity.

Meat is the farm’s produce and revenue earner and is a by-product of our conservation methods. The benefit to RSPB Scotland is that although we are managing for red list wildlife species, we regularly top the local and occasionally national sales and shows, giving us more ways to engage with people about our work and enhancing our credibility as commercial land managers. This would not be achievable by stereotypical conservation methods and has also led to the adoption of what is basically a lowland herd in a highland setting.

Our livestock are our frontline conservationists, assisting us in determining land management requirements for many of the red list species we practice conservation for. They perform important tasks that today’s mechanisation cannot always successfully complete.

Chough benefit from sheep and cattle at our Loch Gruinart reserve

By close cropping, our sheep and cattle ensure a short grass sward, so that the resident population of rare chough can probe into the topsoil for food. The cattle constantly provide ubiquitous ‘cow pats’, micro-habitats for over-wintering dung beetle larvae and ‘leatherjackets’, the larval form of the crane fly, which form the chough’s diet of choice.  Manure produced by our cattle is also used for the creation of corncrake corridors – strips of land set aside for the cultivation of ‘early cover’, good examples of which include flag irises and stinging nettles, hand sown in a substrate of ‘muck’.

Later on in the year, after the waders’ breeding season has come to an end, cattle are put into the wetland areas for targeted grazing and rush topping operations. Cows, after weaning, are also put onto available moorland to keep grazing in order which also promotes the growth and availability of devil’s-bit scabious, the plant upon which the caterpillars of the marsh fritillary butterfly feed.

I’m really proud of the work we do here at Loch Gruinart and Aoradh. It’s a great thing to be able to see year round the positive impact that our successful farming methods have on the wildlife and habitats here, and the role our farm has on influencing farming conservation policies across the country.

 The Oa - Jack Fleming


At The Oa we own and farm 2,000 hectares of this rugged landscape.  The high conservation value of The Oa Reserve, with its range of coastal and heathland habitats and its population of chough, has been recognised by designation as SSSI and SPA. These habitats and the biodiversity they support are characteristic of much of Islay and the Inner Hebrides and depend on active management utilising a low intensity, extensive farming system.

With 140 breeding cows and 600 ewes this is not a small operation.  The cows are a mix of pure Highland, Simmental/Highland or Luing and Limousin cross.  Each group of cattle is placed on selected areas to make best use of the breed characteristics and deliver the habitat management we need.  The pure Highland cows, with their foraging abilities, thrive on the open hill ground; the Simmental crosses do well on the slightly less exposed glens and the Limousin cattle benefit from the better fields.  The sheep are predominantly Scottish Blackface, renowned for their hardiness.  By using the livestock in this way we maximise both the conservation benefit and the financial return for the Society.

The calves from the cows and lambs from the ewes, in common with almost all stock on Islay, are sold as “stores” that is; they are sold on to other farmers on the mainland to complete their growing.  Islay is rightly regarded as an island that produces the highest quality of livestock and buyers come from all over the UK.  Like our colleagues farming at Loch Gruinart, we fully play our part in this, taking local and national prizes for our cattle in particular.  Through our dealing with specialists, our pure Highland bullocks may often grace the dining tables as far from Islay as south east England!

All this agricultural activity absolutely underpins the conservation interests on The Oa.  As Dave has mentioned, of particular importance is the connection between cattle grazing and chough, with the cattle providing the correct sward heights for the chough to forage amongst and the dung pats that are the source of the dung beetles and larvae that form such a crucial part of the chough diet.  Areas of land are managed for breeding waders and wintering geese and our pockets of arable management have seen flocks of 1,200 wintering twites – probably the largest such flock in the UK!  Work is in hand to increase the area we manage for corncrake and we are hopeful that we can increase their population in this part of the island.  Without the farming we could not hope to deliver the diversity which makes The Oa such a special place for wildlife and humans alike.

 Find out more about our food and farming work across the UK here

 Open Farm Sunday is coming up on 11th June. Why not visit your local farms taking part and discover the farmland wildlife that lives near you? More information can be found on the Open Farm Sunday website.

  • Great blogs. Makes me proud to have contributed (small amounts!) to the purchase of both reserves.