The main land use on Islay is agriculture and crofting still occurs on the southern part of the island. The crofting system is a traditional farming activity in Scotland's Highlands and Islands, which developed during the 19th century. The system evolved during the Highland Clearances of the 19th century whereby landlords forced communities off productive land onto more marginal lands. Small communities developed in coastal areas, consisting of several individual crofts, some arable cropping fields and a common grazing area. Many farms still have this division of land into permanent grassland, arable land (together referred to as inbye and usually situated near the farmhouse) and rough grazing, which is also known as the hill land. During the last hundred years there has been a shift away from arable cropping in the Highlands and Islands towards specialisation in livestock farming, mainly sheep and beef cattle. However, due to the island's remoteness and natural conditions, farming has remained quite extensive and large areas of semi-natural vegetation are still used for grazing.
Farming on Islay
Farms on Islay are mostly livestock farms, with sheep and beef cattle. There are still crofts on the island and even plans to setup new ones to keep young farmers on the land. The Islay creamery closed in 2000 and now there is only one dairy farm left, which sells its products locally. A typical feature of Islay farms is that many feed 'draff', which is a side-product of the whisky distilleries on the island. Draff can make up a significant part of the winter-fodder, making the farm less dependant upon 'home-grown' winter-fodder, which is quite unique for a remote place like Islay. This may partly explain the decrease in the area of arable cropping in the last fifty years. Most external inputs for farms have to come from the mainland and must be transported to the island by ferry, which makes the use of them relatively more expensive than on the mainland. Because of this, the use of external inputs on farms is relatively low, with the exception of 'draff' feed. To get an idea of what farming on Islay is like, a short description of an average farm is given in the following based on information derived from the farm survey (original report). In real life there is a large variation between farms, most farms are still quite extensive but some can be qualified as intensive.
Farm lands near Persabus, Paps of Jura provide a beautiful backdrop
The average Islay farm
An average Islay farm has an area of around 550 ha, divided into 100 hectares of 'permanent grassland' (100 ha), 50 hectares of 'rotational arable cropping', which includes arable land and rotational grassland, and 400 hectares of 'rough grazing land' or 'hill'. Livestock consists of 75 suckler cows and 620 sheep. During lambing and calving period the livestock is mostly concentrated on the permanent grassland, where the farmer can keep a closer eye on the animals. The rest of the year the livestock is grazing on the rough grazing land, but in-wintering of livestock is becoming a more common practice. Nitrogen gifts through artificial fertilizer inputs are on average 60kg N/ha/yr to permanent grassland and 120kg N/ha/yr to rotational arable cropping land. It is not usual for Islay farmers to apply artificial fertilizer to the rough grazing. The rotational arable cropping is mostly used for growing silage, but other fodder crops such as cereals and rape seed are produced as well. The silage is cut between June and August. In case of a first cut in August this is usually related to the existence of a management agreement on late cutting. The rough grazing land is usually fenced into several compartments. Burning of the rough grazing is quite common. Because of the large size of both the rough grazing area and the herd, 'disappearance' of some lambs is hard to avoid. Their carcasses are important food for scavengers. The farm is quite self-sufficient in providing its own silage, but a few tons of hay and straw may be bought in every year. Apart from silage and hay, concentrates are also fed to the livestock. Draff, sugar beet pulp, cow cobs and sheep rolls are commonly fed. There is often a goose-agreement, to compensate for the damage done by wintering geese, and an agri-environment scheme with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) for the conservation of the chough population. This conservation sheme is the most common for farms in the Rhinns of Islay. The average age of the farmer is around 52 years and there is one fulltime and one part-time job on the farm. Farming accounts usually for not more than half of the family income. The other half usually comes from the farmer's partner's job and/or off-farm diversification activities such as letting of holiday cottages, B&B's etc. In most cases half of the farm income consists of subsidies.
Knockdon Farm near Bridgend in the autumn.
Further Relevant Information
Printed with kind permission from Alterra Wageningen from the report "the case of Islay" written by Brak, Hilarides, Elbersen en van Wingerden.