High Nature Value Farming in Durness

I wrote this piece on High Nature Value farming in August 2013. It was originally written to go in The Northern Times but never went to print. I did it for the RSPB hence the emphasis on them. You can find further information on the High Nature Value Farming website. Personally, I feel that the HNV principle is sound, regardless of who endorses it, so I’ll post my article here.

Note: The HNV site contains a case study of Balnakeil farm. Both the site and this article share quotes from Andrew Elliot, the farm owner. The websites’ author is aware of this.


In this day and age, with environmental concerns around every corner, it is becoming more and more important for everybody – organisations, crofters and farmers, the public, and communities, to work together, to look after the world and wildlife around us.

Having spent the last 19 years living and working on a croft in the farming community of the Orkney Islands, I was intrigued by the concept of High Nature Value (HNV) farming, which the RSPB promote and support. I have since been investigating High Nature Value farming and how it is working in the county of Sutherland.

Great Yellow Bumblebee (Photo Credit: Western Isles Wildlife, Steve Duffield)

The basic premise of HNV is to operate a lower-intensity method of farming which is beneficial to wildlife, but without causing undue hassle or costs for the farmer or crofter and allowing them to maintain productive land. Something more akin to traditional farming methods of years gone past, and moving away from the intensive high input farming strategies of the 1970’s and 80’s. On a recent trip to Durness, I was able to see the difference that High Nature Value farming systems make to nationally scarce species such as the Corncrake and Great Yellow Bumblebee, whilst perhaps more importantly, retaining economically viable farming units.

Balnakeil Farm owned by Andrew Elliot, is one in an important network of farms and crofts following the High Nature Value principle in Durness. They are so successful that it is the last place on the UK mainland to which Corncrakes have returned consistently to breed every year – at the same time Balnakeil has maintained its excellent reputation for producing quality North Country Cheviots and pedigree Aberdeen Angus livestock.

North Country Cheviot Shearling Ewe (Photo Credit: Farmers Weekly, Jonathan Long, 2010)

However, despite this, it and many smaller crofts and farms are under threat from a lack of infrastructure and support packages. It would be a crying shame for communities, and for wildlife, if the vital work that HNV farmers and crofters do is under valued. When quizzed recently Andrew voiced his concerns on the matter -. “Investing in and supporting Less Favoured Areas would be the single most important thing the Scottish Government could do to support rural communities. At Balnakeil, there is a good balance between agricultural production and the environment. It’s a High Nature Value farm that definitely has a future, but it is essential to have that recognised in a more tangible form.”

The RSPB agrees that investing in and supporting less favoured areas – through the range of mechanisms now available to farmers and crofters in the reformed CAP package would help to make a difference, and acknowledge the importance of HNV systems. It has set out to make it easier for farmers and crofters to farm in a more conscientious manner. In Durness they have been able to help individual crofters prepare Rural Priorities applications – with a 100% success rate so far, and would like to see as many crofters and farmers take up similar options when the scheme re-opens. They have also invested in machinery to assist with habitat management – which includes a silage trailer, a muck spreader, and set of grass harrows – and they employ a highly skilled operator in James Mather, on a part time basis, to oversee the work there.

Corncrake (Image Credit: Chris Gomer)

From what I have seen, it is evident that High Nature Value farming has a place in today’s world, and that of tomorrow. Farmers working with wildlife, as is being done at Balnakeil, is clearly a way forward for conservation, and it has been shown that it can work successfully without jeopardising a farms economic output. However, if this manner of farming is to continue and spread in active crofting communities across the Less Favoured Areas, then it is clear that better support must be available from the Scottish Government for farmers and crofters alike to use.

M Rowland, Aug 2013

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