Barclye Farm RSPB reserve, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland.

Farming in Scotland

Scotland’s rich mosaic of landscapes, habitats and species is one of its greatest assets. Its soil, air, water and biodiversity act as our ‘life-support system’ for our survival, health and well-being, driving much of our economic activity.

Farming and nature

At the same time as providing food for our tables, agriculture has helped to create much of what we value today – the wildlife and landscapes we enjoy – and it plays a major role keeping them in a healthy state.

The variety of our landscapes is reflected in a wide variety of farming practices. The majority of Scotland’s farmed area (85 per cent) is designated as ‘Less Favoured Area’ – an EU classification indicating that farming conditions are more challenging. Livestock farming is the main type of production found there. 

In many of the more remote areas in the north and west, crofting is an important form of land management. Arable and vegetable production are concentrated in the east and south of the country. 

Scotland has a high proportion of High Nature Value (HNV) farming and crofting – mainly livestock systems in the north and west of Scotland which support important biodiversity including rare birds, invertebrates and wild flowers.

Cattle grazing at RSPB Birsay Moors reserve
Cattle grazing at RSPB Birsay Moors

Conservation challenges

In spite of their value for species and habitats, these varied  agricultural practices – and especially those that are beneficial to nature – are under threat.

Over the last 50 years or so, farming has become more intensive and specialised. At the same time, the environmental impacts have grown – increasing greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to water pollution and driving declines in wildlife. 

Conversely, HNV farming systems are economically vulnerable and under threat from intensification on the one hand, or land abandonment on the other. Both have consequences for nature and for some of our more remote and fragile rural communities.

Balnakeil farm, Durness, Sutherland, Highland region, Scotland,
Farmer checking cattle
Corncrake, Crex crex, at Oronsay RSPB reserve, Argyll, Scotland

Special species

Scotland’s farmland is important for many species of birds and other wildlife: almost all of the UK’s breeding corncrakes and half of its lapwings, oystercatchers and curlews are in Scotland, as are a third of skylarks and 15-20 per cent of grey partridges, choughs, starlings, linnets and yellowhammers. 

In winter, important populations of upland birds and birds from further north come to Scottish farmland, including merlins and hen harriers, golden plovers, curlews and snipe, whooper swans and several goose species.

Working together

RSPB Scotland works actively with hundreds of Scottish farmers and landowners, advising them how best to manage their land to integrate wildlife and nature as a core part of their farming businesses – whether they be small-scale crofts or large estates.  

We also own and manage nature reserves and much of this land is actively farmed, often in partnership with local farmers and livestock graziers. 

We campaign for agriculture policy that supports those who farm in environmentally responsible ways and benefit wildlife. 

Most farmers and crofters in Scotland, as well as earning income from producing food, are dependent on payments they receive through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

High Nature Value farms and crofts currently get a low share of the c.£650 million CAP budget spent each year in Scotland. This has to change if such farms and crofts are to survive and the many benefits they provide are secured for future generations. 

At the same time, budgets for schemes that encourage farmers everywhere to adopt wildlife-friendly methods need to increase.  Enhanced funding for organic and other environmentally-beneficial systems of farming is also required. 

We also want to see better integration of agriculture policy with water, climate change and forestry policies through the Scottish Government's Land Use Strategy.