Airyolland Farm

Sheep on Scotland's Hills


Neale McQuistin

For Farmers Weekly June 2014


There will be plenty of farmers who wish that 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 that is far from being a dream come true.  In fact it’s nothing short of being 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.  

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’.


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 twenty miles or more from home.  

The implications for the sheep keeper in these circumstances are not good.  If the sheep have to be gathered, in many instances, even if the sheep can be found, they are not capable of walking all the way back to the farm in one day.   That’s if you can find anyone who has the skill and the inclination to help gather sheep 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 all hope of 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 that our generation oversaw the demise of something that perhaps wasn’t productive but it should have been protected.


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