Livestock numbers decline slowing

After years of decline in cattle and sheep numbers in Scotland, it now looks as if the position is stabilising albeit with ewe numbers at the lowest level they have been for a century.

Yesterday SAC analyst Steven Thomson, the author of an in-depth analysis of the situation reckoned that the “retreat” of livestock production from the traditional breeding areas in the hills and islands was levelling off.

This plateau in numbers was important not only to the beef and sheep sectors in Scotland but also to the wider economics of the rural scene in large parts of the country.

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Within the EU only Ireland has a greater dependency on cattle than Scotland and only Wales has a more economically important sheep industry.

Part of the reduction in numbers that has taken place has been due to the previous policies of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy which rewarded farmers for the numbers of cattle and sheep kept.

“It could be said we are now at more normal levels of stocking,” he said yesterday, although the situation throughout Scotland varied widely, with some areas now showing a slight uplift in livestock numbers while figures from other areas showed dramatic downturns.

In general terms, there has been a big drop in the numbers of sheep kept in the north and west of Scotland especially in the Western Isles but this has been countered by more farmers in the south and east keeping sheep.

Thomson said it was a different story when the focus was turned on beef cattle with an increase in cow numbers in the Western Isles due to various agri-environment schemes and the targeted support for the beef calf.

Increases in cow numbers have also been picked up on areas previously classified as being predominately dairy units. This Thomson said was due to former dairy farmers moving across to the beef sector.

Part of the stabilisation has been down to greatly improved returns from the markets in the past couple of years, although Thomson underlined the continued importance of subsidies in both the cattle and sheep sectors.

He also observed the fragility of the economics in both sectors with the possibility that rising input costs could jeopardise both sheep and cattle enterprises.

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Commenting on the research NFU Scotland’s livestock policy manager Penny Johnston said that margins in livestock production remained slim and it was clear from the SAC report that growing confidence in beef and sheep production was not shared across all parts of Scotland.

“There are still many areas where loss of livestock is generating a catalogue of concerns. Lower stock numbers or, in the worst case, land abandonment has huge implications for the environment and also has a massive impact on the local economy,” she said.

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