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HPMAs, Ghost Gear and Must the Sheep All Go?

Scottish Highlands and Islands

Do the Sheep Have To Go Too?

            Following recent calls for livestock numbers to be drastically cut, Ben Goldsmith, former adviser for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants all the sheep removed, claiming they have a brutal effect on the hydrology of landscapes, compact the soil and expunge vegetation leading to soil erosion, flooding and drought.  Goldsmith, though, is a ‘wilding’ enthusiast who wants to turn his 300-acre Somerset farm into a wild habitat with animals roaming free.

            The National Sheep Association (NSA) representing hundreds of Scottish sheep farmers, say his view is ‘naïve and uneducated’, claiming water management, carbon sequestration and nature can work in harmony with sheep farming. 

            The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK government on emissions targets, claims beef, lamb and dairy consumption should be significantly reduced and livestock be replaced with trees, saying a 20% reduction of red meat and dairy consumption and a 20% reduction in food waste would save seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide.  Not clear how we would feed everyone, though.

Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs)

            The fishing industry has joined others in opposing the proposed Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), conservation areas at sea, which would close at least 10% of the sea around Scotland, banning all commercial and recreational fishing, including ‘catch and release’.

            Existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) already cover 37% of Scotland’s seas.  The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) say it will have a catastrophic impact, with the proposals result from ‘vague conservation aims’ which are not clearly met. 

            The SFF wanted two pilot projects to assess the impact on the fishing industry, and the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, Shetland Fishermen and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) all oppose the HPMA plans. 

            Humza Yousaf now says he will not impose HPMAs against the will of local communities.  Island and rural areas matter for Scotland’s tourism industry and for agriculture worth £3bn a year, with Scottish seafood exports valued at £1.04 billion in 2022, and Scottish whole-salmon exports worth £578m. Yet Yousaf’s cabinet contains only two representatives of rural constituencies, Mairi Gougeon (Angus North and Mearns) and Mairi McAllan (Clydesdale).

Peatland being destroyed by tree-planting

            A report in the journal Land Use Policy has revealed we may have been planting the wrong type of forests in the wrong place, using the wrong techniques.  Conifer forests, promoted as carbon positive, often emit carbon due to being planted on organic, peaty soils, particularly in south-west Scotland.  Disturbed peatland releases CO2 rather than storing it, making local rivers acidic.

            The 1980s policy pursued in the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland incentivised plantations for tax incentives, but were in fact environmentally destructive.  The John Muir Trust believes our present policy of carbon-offsetting may be just as destructive. 

            Scotland now has 19% woodland with a target of 21% by 2032, with Scottish government subsidies still encouraging new planting.

            Land drained prior to planting saplings, and digging up peat can make surrounding waterways acidic and lifeless, with badly-sited plantations causing 5.46 tons of emissions per hectare per year.  New plantations legally cannot be built on deep peat, but can be on shallow peat. Damaging conifer plantations belch out carbon, with those grown in 30cm of peat unlikely to redress the emissions they create and those grown in 20cm taking up to 15 years to redress it.

            Aberdeen University found last year that building wind turbines on peatland in fact released 4.9 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Ghost fishing equipment

            Fishing gear abandoned in Scottish waters is hazardous to marine life and increasing plastic pollution.  Lobster pots, lost nets, long lines and fish traps form part of the half million tonnes discarded every year in the world’s oceans.  The Global Plastics Treaty being discussed at the United Nations has not even tackled the problem, but the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, launched in 2015 by non-governmental organisation Ocean Conservancy, includes 150 stakeholders representing international agencies and governments, including Scotland. 

            The Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme (SMASS) recorded 12 entanglement cases in 2019, and since then, a number of incidents have resulted in animal deaths.

            Ghost Fishing UK Initiative has done underwater clear-ups in Orkney, and other bodies including Scottish Nature (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage), and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation are working to find solutions. 

Bioregioning Tayside

            Ruth Watson of Keep Scotland the Brand highlights a number of threats to Scotland’s farmers and produce, citing less predictable growing conditions, skilled labour shortages, and higher fuel, feed and fertiliser costs, as well as the supermarket stranglehold keeping prices low to the point where farmers are giving up, causing more shortages.  She is now working with Bioregioning Tayside to explore sustainability and promote local produce to local people, promoting social, economic and ecological sustainability.

            Interested parties met at Dundee’s Discovery Point at the end of March to discuss ‘Feeding Tayside Through the Climate Crisis’, including Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon, RSABI, the mental wellbeing charity for agricultural workers, procurement specialists and others.  The lack of local infrastructure and processing, few markets selling fresh local produce and little local produce in schools and hospitals is problematic, but it is hoped that local councils will sign up to the Food For Life Served Here scheme, run by the Soil Association through its Sustainable Catering Certification.

Saskatchewan’s Pink Gold

            The invasion of Ukraine has created a new ‘gold’ rush in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the home to vast amounts of potash, a crystalline mix of salts of potassium, a crucial ingredient of fertiliser, which has a rosy sheen before it is refined into white powder.  Saskatchewan produces 30% of the world’s potash and exports almost all of it since the invasion of Ukraine. The other big producers had been Russia and Belarus who accounted for 40% of the world’s exported potash, but whose exports have been frozen by the West since the Ukraine invasion. 

            Because of this increased demand, Saskatchewan cannot find enough potash miners, with only 1500 coming from Ukraine since the war began, despite 10% of the province’s population having Ukrainian roots set down at the turn of the 19th century.  It is backbreaking work but may yet prove to be the land of opportunity for those willing to go.


            are becoming more and more prevalent in Scotland. Their bites bring Lyme Disease and now the first cases of tick-borne encephalitis virus have been seen in the UK.  The encephalitis virus can cause meningitis or brain inflammation, polio-like syndromes, migraines and even sight loss.  It is not just forestry workers and countryside wardens who are affected, but also farmers, dog walkers, gardeners and anyone walking near or in long grass.  Precautions to take include covering arms and legs; checking clothes and skin; walking in the middle of paths; and avoiding going off the track.

            South Uist has seen a spike in the number of ticks, with a much higher incidence of Lyme Disease than other places in the Outer Hebrides, 165 in four years.  Lewis and Harris have only one case and Barra three.  Blood tests can be unreliable indicators of whether someone has Lyme Disease, and symptoms can last decades, including joint and bone pain, chronic fatigue, headaches and memory loss, with some victims becoming bedbound. 

            Ticks tend to be found in areas where deer roam, but they attach to any small animals, including domestic pets, and even humans.  Nymph ticks (younger ones) are much harder to see but are most active in spring and summer. 

            Aberdeen University research scientists have teamed up with a US biotech firm to repurpose covid tests to develop a test for tick borne disease and diabetes.

            Despite there being a vaccine for tick-borne encephalitis it will not be rolled out as it would not be cost-effective.  An early-warning system for areas badly affected will be included in Scotland’s midge forecasting service through APS Biocontrol of Dundee from next month.

Julia Pannell


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