Arguably one of the most scenic areas in the country, the hamlet of Balnakeil sits less than a mile from Durness, Sutherland a popular tourist destination on the north coast of Scotland. Centuries old and surrounded by medieval ruins, Balnakeil Farm is recognised internationally for the variety and quality of habitats and geological features it supports.
The owner, Andrew Elliot is highly regarded for his North Country Cheviots and easy calving Aberdeen Angus, but what most people don’t realise is that it’s Andrew’s low-intensity farming practices that have fostered an impressive amount biodiversity, and that his farm actually provides a home to some of rarest species of plants, animals and insects in the country.
Balnakeil Farm supports priority habitats like dune grasslands and limestone pavements, with coastal grasslands which grade into heathland communities on the Balnakeil headland. Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) occur amongst the limestone outcrops. This rare upland community at Durness provides one of the best examples of Dryas heath in Britain.
The farm is also rich in birdlife throughout the year, in particular many scarce or declining species such as corncrake, twite and barnacle geese, that come to roost and feed on its natural and improved grasslands. In fact, Durness is the only place on the UK mainland where corncrakes have an unbroken record of returning to breed annually. Thanks to traditional management practices that encourage wildflower growth, the farm has also helped to conserve the remnant population of the great yellow bumblebee. Even puffins and otters come to forage and breed at Balnakeil Bay.
Balnakeil Farm suffers from poor local infrastructure leaving it isolated from markets. The farm’s size and coastal location also means that Andrew Elliot faces a challenging climate and hard, labour intensive work that is not attractive to the next generation farmers or tenants. The lack of profit to re-invest in capital projects makes it that much more difficult for Andrew to continue with traditional farming practices and maintain the infrastructure that is vital to support the important habitats and biodiversity that exist at Balnakeil.
The agricultural area around Durness is witnessing change—a loss of traditional rotations, reversion to natural scrub succession on some areas of ungrazed hill ground and threats of afforestation as an alternative land use. These changes can impact on the biodiversity in the area. Therefore the long term viability for farming and rural communities in this area must depend on receiving adequate support to ensure these low intensity farming systems can continue.
High Nature Value Farmer – Andrew Elliot, Balnakeil Farm, Durness, Sutherland
The Elliot family has farmed at Balnakeil Farm since 1908. The current owner, Andrew Elliot, is a full time, hands on farmer who also manages two other farms on the borders. He has managed the farm at Balnakeil as a traditional livestock unit for the past 21 years, employing 1.5 full-time employees to work the 1500ha. Andrew keeps a herd of 45 Aberdeen Angus cows and 600 North Country Cheviots ewes. The sheep are sold at market, whilst the cattle taken to the home farm on the borders to finish.
Maintaing a quality environment rich in wildlife is important to Andrew as it underpins his farm business diversification, sharing the farm experience with others though his holiday cottages lets (www.elliothouses.co.uk).
Farming practices at Balnakeil have changed very little over the last 21 years, maintaining a fodder break crop of turnips on the ‘in bye’ land, and the hill ground and machair providing important summer grazing and out wintering land, and Andrew doesn’t intend to change them. Typically 60% of the farm’s annual income comes from Single Farm Payment, LFASS, Rural Priorities and Land Managers Options (agrienvironment schemes) – ” On a good year the farm may break even however any reduction in support packages would greatly impact Balnakeil for the worse.”
Andrew is motivated by the pleasure of knowing he can produce high quality livestock and has the utmost respect for the traditional skills and values that are required to do so: “I am concerned there is a skills shortage in the industry in this country. Stockmen’s sons stopped following in the father’s footsteps in the 80s, and now there are too many folk who are divorced from the land.”
Moving towards greater self-sufficiency in terms of food production is what Andrew thinks each country should aim towards to maintain their core primary industry. He also feels there should be tougher consequences for non-compliance, more encouragement to invest in infrastructure (particularly for tenants) and an improvement in funding schemes.
As Andrew concludes: “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 that this is recognised in a more tangible form.”
Photo credits: Puffin (Kaleel Zibe—RSPB Images), Great yellow bumblebee (Mike Edwards—RSPB Images), Twite (Andy Hay—RSPB Images), Tine Gathering at Balnakeil (E Fletcher), Collecting seaweed at Balnakeil Beach (J Mather), Aberdeen Angus bull (E Fletcher), Red clover (Andy Hay—RSPB Images),
Stone collecting (G Fletcher), Corncrake (Andy Hay—RSPB Images).