I am spending time on the Hebridean island of Tiree, a four-hour sail from the mainland of Scotland. It is a small place: a mere 29 sq miles (75 sq km). The land is split into 31 crofting townships, each controlled by a grazing committee. The term “grazing committee” emphasises the vital role livestock have and still play in the community.

Tiree exists because it is made of a tough bit of ancient rock (Lewisian gneiss) some three billion years old that not only sticks out of the sea but through the soil above it. That “soil” comes, in fact from Tiree’s famous white beaches that are made of crushed shells. This blows inland to form the basis of the fertile flower-rich grassland that is called locally machair.

Crofting is an ancient form of small farming in Scotland, where the farming family combines a part-time job with the farm since the land has limited fertility and cannot provide a full time living.

Tiree has an outer ring of this famous, and exceptional, grassland called machair, a middle section of dark, rich, cultivatable earth, and a centre of wet, peaty ground. Most crofting townships are divided so as to have a portion of each type of ground. The hill grazing and damp centre which keep their moisture are for summer grazing, the field land is cropped and the machair provides grazing at the wetter times of the year. Most of this land is grazing land; not suited for anything else. The steady wind and thin soil mean trees do not grow and “wilding” with shrubs would damage the biodiversity. So controlled grazing by sheep and cattle is important to stop “wooding” and keep the wild flowers and herbs growing.

Indeed, because of the continuation of traditional crofting, bird life is abundant. Tiree is a haven for healthy densities of many birds that are in decline elsewhere. The success of the noisy corncrake is especially important. Once under threat of extinction in Britain, Tiree’s corncrake population is now the largest in the UK as a consequence of the sympathetic management of the island’s rich grass meadows.

The production of quality sheep and cattle is the island’s economic lifeblood, with about 6,500 breeding sheep and 1,500 breeding cattle. Apart from small amounts of barley for whisky, the land they use is not suitable for turning over to crops and, like many other parts of the world, be it in the wonderful highlands of Georgia, the nomadic regions of Sudan the prairies of the U.S., or the Levels of Somerset, England, resilient long-term grassland appropriately grazed by livestock is the correct farming procedure to be using. In most cases, it has been so for quite a few thousand years. Long term grassland sequesters carbon dioxide and recovers quickly from either floods or drought while we all benefit from a balanced diet that includes some meat.

Quitting meat and replacing it with cereals and vegetables defies agricultural logic, just as quitting leather and replacing it with plastic alternatives defies environmental logic.

Dr Mike Redwood

May 15, 2018


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