Opinion: Hefted sheep will soon be gone from Scotland

There will be plenty of farmers who wish their neighbour would just buzz-off and leave their land to be used in their absence. Just imagine being able to let your livestock wander beyond the boundaries of your own farm and chew contentedly on your neighbour’s grass. Lovely.

However, for a few hardy souls, mainly in the north-west of Scotland, this scenario is a reality. It’s far from being a dream come true; it’s nothing short of a nightmare. What’s more, it seems unlikely it will ever be fixed.

The hefted system of keeping sheep on hills relies on neighbours all keeping their animals on their part of the hill. Generations of sheep that are programmed with an awareness of where they belong create an invisible force field that keeps everything in its place.

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There are vast tracts of land in Scotland where there are no man-made boundaries to mark the extent of one farmer’s property from the next. Lines on a map and the passing thoughts of a hill ewe are the only things that keep order.

However, the last reform of the CAP started to dismantle the hefted flock system and the next reform looks set to finish the job. When payments to sheep farmers were de-coupled in 2005, things started to literally “go downhill”.

“Short of scrambling a mountain rescue helicopter, finding these sheep will be nigh-on impossible.”
Neale McQuistin

Once a farmer makes the decision to take his ewes off his land, there is a devastating impact on all the others that share the hill. To start with, the invisible barrier that has stopped your sheep from straying for generations is removed. Next, the pasture that is no longer grazed by your sheepless neighbour encourages your animals to stray into the void. Then just when you begin to think “this is a bit of all right”, the foxes that are no longer controlled by your neighbour start to eat your young lambs.

In many places, there is now only one man left standing in areas that are measured in square miles rather than hectares. Sheep are free to wander until they come up against a natural barrier like a forest, a lake, the sea or a major road. In some cases, this can lead to sheep being 20 miles or more from home.

The implications for the sheepkeeper in these circumstances are not good. If the sheep have to be gathered, in many instances, even if they can be found, they are not capable of walking back to the farm in one day. That’s if you can find anyone who has the skill and inclination to help gather them in such a vast expanse of ground.

At the moment there is an ageing population of retired and redundant shepherds available to be hired to do gather sheep. However, with every year that passes that supply gets tighter.

And, it seems these last stalwarts of the hefted sheep system don’t have much succour to look forward in the next round of CAP reform either.

If de-coupling started the chain of events that destroyed the hefted sheep system, then re-coupling in 2015 will finish the job. Short of scrambling a mountain rescue helicopter, then finding these sheep for a cross-compliance count will be nigh-on impossible.

We’re fast approaching the day when there will be no hefted sheep left on Scotland’s hills. But while there are still a few left, they will serve as a reminder our generation oversaw the demise of something that perhaps wasn’t productive but should have been protected.

Neale McQuistin is an upland sheep and beef farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365ha, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife, in partnership with his wife

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