It was with real astonishment that I read in the addendum to the Viking Energy windfarm application of what they call the “do nothing scenario” regarding the state of our hills. In this, the ornithology section, Viking claims that some two thirds of the blanket bog on the site is in poor condition because of over-grazing.
A major source in this section appears to be a quote which was published some 11 years ago and from which Viking has made some quite extraordinary extrapolations. No account appears to have been taken of the actual and considerable changes which have happened on most of the hills in Shetland over the past decade.
There have been three main causes of the changes:
(i) Involvement in environmental schemes such as ESA which could bring payments for stock reduction in specific areas;
(ii) The scrapie cull scheme which resulted in large numbers of probably healthy sheep being removed;
(iii) And particularly the change in agricultural support from 2002 which departed from payments being made on a headage basis.
As a result of the above, breeding sheep numbers in Shetland as a whole have declined by at least 20 per cent and probably more. But the reduction is much more marked on the hills where prior to the past two years returns for lambs tended to be low. Significant numbers of crofters have calculated that they could obtain most of their support payments with no hill sheep and, consequently, many have removed most or all of their sheep from the hills.
It is my view that under-stocking may also bring long-term problems but for the meantime, certainly on the West Side hills with which I am familiar, but I suspect also on most of the hills of Shetland, there is now virtually no problem with repressed heather. One does not need to walk over the hills for most people driving out to the country must have seen the spectacular displays of heather in bloom, particularly these last two years in late August.
I would, however, be delighted if any of the Viking Energy directors would wish to accompany me on a walk through the Aithsting hills. It would perhaps open their eyes, but it would also be good for their health.