COP26 case studies - Sybil McPherson, Argyllshire

8th October 2021

As the global politicians and state leaders prepare to travel to Glasgow for this November’s COP26 conference discussing the worldwide climate emergency, NSA is working hard to raise awareness of the positive role UK sheep farming can have on the issue.

As a finger of blame may once again be pointed to livestock production as a key contributor to climate change NSA is explaining that the UK’s methods of sheep production are in complete contrast to some methods of intensive farming found in other parts of the world. The Association is therefore aiming to improve understanding amongst the wider public of the importance of the UK sheep sector and demonstrating that a more holistic approach to sustainability is required if we are to meet environment, economic and social goals.

NSA is encouraging policymakers not to think of climate change or nature recovery in isolation, but to consider these things in tandem with the protection of natural resources, heritage, rural economies, the health and wellbeing of people, and sustainable and local food production and consumption.  

We spoke to five NSA members from across the UK who explain how their farming systems work with the environment and communities around them.

Sybil McPherson, Dalmally, Argyllshire

“The land our family has farmed for 180 years is permanent pasture, almost entirely designated as rough grazing, without opportunity to improve. It has remained ‘traditional’ for these reasons and works in harmony with the environment – the climate and the topography around us. 

“We farm almost 9900 acres (4000) very extensively, running 1759 ewes and 75 hill cows. We have trialled different livestock breeds over the years and have concluded that native breeds forage and utilise the poor quality grazing on our land far better than others thus enhancing all environmental aspects without damage of over grazing some areas and under grazing others. A balance is crucial for the benefit of all, farmed animals and the wide variety of biodiversity which depend on the land use. 

“Over a number of years several changes have been made here, some out of our control, that have demonstrated the importance of sheep farming to the environment in this area. 50 years ago most of the farms in the area were cleared of livestock and the people who tended them. The lower ground planted with predominantly Sitka spruce and the higher hill land abandoned. This impacted greatly on the farms that were left, in terms of management and environmentally. 

“I believe that it is clearly demonstrable by comparing the previously farmed land that surrounds us with the land still used by agriculture that the grazing of sheep improve biodiversity.  This farm supports a wide range of species from invertebrates through to large predators, which are now absent from ground no longer grazed by sheep. The farm provides habitat for many red listed species of birds, including Golden Plovers, Black Grouse, Ptarmigan, and many others. We are home to Mountain Ringlets, Peacock butterflies many species of dragon fly, Mountain hares, deer, fox, badger, Pine marten and Red squirrel. 

“As well as wildlife, the area attracts large numbers of tourists, and for these, the farm provides a wide range of public goods. By managing the hills and mountains for agricultural production, we allow access to walkers, and provide them with ease of access compared with fighting through forestry plantations or rough impenetrable scrub on abandoned land etc, grazing livestock has maintained the visual benefit which so many visitors cherish. However everything requires a balance to the benefit of man and beast, and great care must be taken to preserve and enhance our wonderful resources and opportunities. Therefore alterations to land use, species reintroduction, population distribution etc all require the greatest of care and deliberation. This I believe must be done with the considered opinions of those who currently have responsibility and experience of the land which they tend and understand. I have been involved with visiting schools, colleges and the like over a number of years as I believe we must take the opportunity to promote what we do in our varied role of land managers and custodians, food producers, wildlife carers, environmentalists, etc

“This type of farming story I believe should be made more available to the general public, helping create a more accurate picture of food production and it's impact than is currently available. The consumption of meat raised sustainably in this country, utilising vegetation from land unsustainable for cultivation, meets many desirable outcomes.

“I feel that nothing could be further from the truth, that farming is to blame for many of the myths being banded around regarding our negative impact on the climate. I hope and believe that in the near future information will become available to illustrate just the opposite. I'm convinced that we are actually part of the solution rather than as is currently portrayed. We have so many positive aspects across such a wide range aspects of sustainable life.

“Agricultural production in this country is tiny in a world wide context, but I believe is hugely important and must be maintained and recognised for the wide range of benefits which it undoubtedly delivers. Not only to critical sustainable food production, but environmentally, culturally, maintaining rural communities, tourism, and to society in its entirety.”