There has been a major erosion of livestock in the hills and remote areas of the country since subsidies linked to numbers of cattle and sheep were removed a decade ago.
As a result of the 16 per cent drop in livestock numbers in that period in less favoured areas (LFAs), ranker grasses, rush, scrub and bracken have taken over great swathes of former grazing ground.
Yesterday, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published the findings of a survey into wildlife in LFAs and it concluded livestock grazing was essential to maintain the range of threatened wildlife and habitats across the UK’s uplands.
The wildlife conservation charity called for greater support to be given to farmers through the Scotland Rural Development Programme and other Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) mechanisms.
This support would be a combination of Pillar One or direct payments and Pillar Two payments made for environmental objectives but the RSPB was emphatic they did not want to see the return of coupled or linked payments based on numbers of cattle and sheep kept.
The report found reductions in grazing pressure on unenclosed land had been broadly positive for the environment, with upland habitats such as heath and blanket bog recovering well because of there being fewer sheep. However, the report also highlighted the danger of under-grazing which was now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some bird species such as golden plover.
Amy Corrigan, the agricultural policy officer for RSPB Scotland, described extensive livestock systems as being hugely important in Scotland in environmental, economic and culture terms.
But she worried the future of these systems was uncertain, saying the report sent important warning signals about what could be lost if the opportunity of CAP reform did not get the support mechanisms right.
Paul Silcock of Cumulus Consultants, who carried out the research, said more should be done to support positive cattle and sheep grazing by research into more profitable and sustainable upland farming systems.