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The management of the SNH suckler herd
of Highland cows on Rum
Filed 30 Aug 04
The latest issue of the publication Fresh
Air reports on the management of the herd of Highland cows that
is owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on the island
of Rum (1). While it might be fine for an
organisation, or indeed anyone, to keep cattle to facilitate a conservation
project - or indeed as pets - such cattle nevertheless require to
be looked after properly in terms of animal welfare and health.
If an owner is claiming subsidy for his/her cattle
under the government's suckler cow premium scheme, then the performance
of these cattle is required to meet a number of conditions before
subsidy is payable - such as the number of calves produced from
the herd each year.
If the owner wishes to use the label "Specially
Selected Scotch Assured Farm" then it is necessary to comply
with an additional whole raft of standards and to be subject to
an on-farm inspection every year.
The article in the recent issue of Fresh Air
states that it has written evidence that SNH does claim and is paid
suckler cow premium for cows within its herd on the island of Rum.
It is also alleged that SNH claims beef special premium for at least
some of the male offspring of these cows. In addition it is alleged
that SNH claims payment from SEERAD through the Less Favoured Area
Scheme. SNH owns the island.
The Fresh Air article makes no mention
as to whether SNH has applied for, or has achieved, Specially Selected
Scotch Farm Certification. An organisation of the standing of SNH
would surely be expected to want to achieve this standard of livestock
production when it is claiming government subsidies for its suckler
cow/beef enterprise, and other subsidies that require good farming
If SNH views cattle as some sort of conservation
or tourist aid of secondary importance to beef production, then
surely it should not be claiming government subsidies for its cattle.
Nor should it be pontificating to others about the importance or
otherwise of livestock management in relation to what it chooses
to call "Scotland's national heritage" or " sustainable
Quite apart from the matter of claiming government
subsidies, SNH - like anyone else who keeps livestock for whatever
reason - is obliged to comply with the requirements of basic animal
husbandry in terms of animal welfare and health.
With the kind permission of the editor of Fresh
Air their article is reproduced in full at the end of this item
Analysis of the SNH records regarding their cattle on Rum
The following text draws extensively from
the Fresh Air article with the kind permission of its editor.
The SNH herd on Rum holds 20 units of Suckler
Cow Premium (worth £135 per unit in 2004). It is estimated
that SNH has received farming subsidies since about 1997/8.
In 2003, no calves were born on Rum but the subsidy
was paid out.
Of the 32 females of breeding age in 2003 (i.e.
heifers born up to 2000), only 6 produced calves in Spring 2004
In 2002, only 3 calves were produced by 20 breeding
1 cow, born in 1986, has not had a calf since
4 cows, born between 1990 and 1993, have yet to
give birth to a calf.
The general pattern appears to be based on females
calving every second, or every third, year, if at all
There is virtually nothing sold in the market
place. Sales for 2003/4 , for example, were zero.
On this basis it is difficult to understand why an application
by SNH to SEERAD for suckler cow premium and beef special premium
was legitimately made in terms of the rules of these subsidies.
It is also difficult to understand how SEERAD came to consistently
accept such applications over the years.
Animal Health and Welfare
A disturbingly high percentage of deaths or disappearances
from the records in young cattle and poor breeding success amongst
mature female cattle together give cause to question the standards
of animal husbandry in the herd on the island of Rum.
It is alleged that very little winter keep was
produced on the island and only a small amount purchased and imported.
It is also alleged (pertaining to the year 2000) that a "a
vet came in before the onset of winter and condemned what he felt
would not survive till the Spring, the animals then being dispatched
and buried on the island", according to the report of a conversation
between Malcom Whitmore (SNH employee) and Kirsty Macleod and as
reported in the Fresh Air article. If that was indeed the case,
such a practice would require justification.
Not only do the cows show low productivity, but
the calf mortality rate appears to be high - of the order of 50%
in the calves born between 2000 and 2001.
The standard of animal nutrition is open to question.
It is alleged that with 49 beasts aged 2 years plus 2 yearlings
on the island during 2003/4, SNH's total expenditure on "cattle
management" and presumably feedstuffs and veterinary costs
was £2,821, which included the purchase of a bull.
The combination of apparently low fertility (certainly low productivity),
high calf mortality and little evidence of adequate winter feeding
arrangements (even for a Scottish native breed such as Highland)
would suggest that there may well be a serious animal health and
welfare problem with this herd.
Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme
Not only does the SNH herd on Rum allegedly claim
beef subsidies inappropriately, but questions need to be asked if
it complies with the conditions of receiving payments under SEERAD's
Less Favoured Areas Scheme. To qualify it is necessary to comply
with "Standards of Good Farming Practice". The aim of
these requirements is to "maintain the countryside, in particular
by sustainable farming".
From what has already been described above it is clear that no
one in their right mind could describe what is allegedly practised
by SNH on Rum amounts to "sustainable farming" in any
logical sense of the term. It can perhaps only be explained by
taking the extremely myopic view that the only thing that matters
is a floral spectacle in time for the tourist season.
On the basis of what SNH allegedly practices on
the island of Rum in terms of livestock management, there is cause
for much concern. SNH's defence that their operation on Rum is primarily
geared towards "habitat management purposes" hardly excuses
them from not complying with the requirements of basic animal husbandry
and the conditions for the subsidies they claim from their own government
department, SEERAD. Neither does it excuse them from giving such
dismissive comments when challenged to do so in the public domain
by the Scottish Farmer. The SNH spokesperson is quoted as saying
when challenged on the animal welfare point raised by People Too
that "they were not going to rise" to such allegations"
If it was just a matter of SNH breaking the rules
of its own parent department, that would be one thing. But SNH sets
itself up as one of the main advisory bodies to SEERAD as to how
the countryside in general should be managed. "Farming for
the environment" is their slogan - dangerous stuff if what
SNH allegedly practices on the island of Rum is an example.
It does indeed appear that a strategic review
of the operations of SNH is needed (3).
Let us only hope that it is carried out by those who are properly
informed and independent.
The Fresh Air article is well written and
well argued. It is very pertinent to what is happening to Scottish
farming and how it is being misdirected on dubious advice from a
government agency and from academic institutions that are substantially
supported by government (4).
Land-Care recommends that the original article
in Fresh Air should be read in its entirety. It is reproduced
in full below.
1. Leader (2004). Questions to
be answered on Scottish Natural Heritage's Highland herd on Rum
Fresh Air: issue 3, summer 2004, pp 8-9.
Available from People Too, PO Box 8002, Spean Bridge, Inverness-shire
2. Article, (2004). Rum cattle
cash. Scottish Farmer, 31 July 2004.
3. Editorial (2004). Strategic
review of Scottish Natural Heritage.
See SOCIAL/ENVIRONMENTAL/POLIT|CAL Homepage, filed 28 Aug
04, www.land-care.org.uk Click
Here to View
4. Irvine, James (2003). The arrogance
of academics pontificating about rural affairs. Are they letting
us down? ECRR's conference - Scotland's lan dscape - a fixed asset?
See SOCIAL/ENVIRONMENTAL/POLIT|CAL Homepage, filed 14 May
03, www.land-care.org.uk Click
Here to View
Questions to be answered on Scottish Natural Heritages
Highland herd on Rum
Fresh Air: issue 3, summer 2004
Reproduced in full with permission
People Too has obtained information on
Scottish Natural Heritages herd of Highland cattle on the
isle of Rum. Rum is a National Nature Reserve whose costs, including
those incurred on cattle management, are met entirely by the public
One of the first things to strike anyone
keen to obtain details on this publicly-owned herd, which was established
in 1970, is the lack of readily available information. Having now
seen some of the data, People Too is convinced that SNHs management
of cattle on Rum raises serious questions, not least over SNHs
role as advisor to government on agricultural policy.
The data which has been made available
by SNH is not complete but some preliminary conclusions are suggest
1. The herd is not managed in accordance
with the rules of the EU Suckler Cow and Beef Special Premium schemes.
And yet it is receiving these subsidies;
2. The management of the herd - specifically
the high incidence of deaths of calves and low breeding success
of females - raises concerns over animal welfare and farming standards;
3. The herd is in receipt of the Less Favoured
Area Support Scheme subsidy but it is not clear who polices SNH
itself in terms of compliance;
4. The Rum farming operation is a foretaste
of future environmental farming policy, which is being introduced
through political pressure on subsidies and advice from bodies like
Scottish Natural Heritage. To fully understand the impact of these
proposals, the public and politicians must thoroughly investigate
what is happening on Rum as part of the debate on future farming
The story really began 4 years ago when
People Too director, Kirsty Macleod, was invited to give a talk
to SNH field staff on the running of a Highland estate. At the time
in September 2000, she took the opportunity to contact the SNH farm
manager on Rum to ask him for some background information on SNHs
herd of Highland cattle as an aid to discussing cattle farming in
the hills. What Kirsty was told on the telephone by Malcolm Whitmore
of SNH has been partly confirmed by the extract from the Rum cattle
records just released to her by SNHs North Areas Board. The
main findings are:
1. The herd receives EU Suckler Cow and
Beef Special Premiums. SNH has received farming subsidies since
about 1997/8 and holds 20 units of Suckler Cow Premium (worth £135
per unit in 2004) for the Rum herd. But calving percentages look
well below those required by SEERAD in order to qualify for payment.
SEERADs Notes for Guidance for the 2004 EU Suckler Cow Premium
Scheme state: Calving Rate (7.4) We will pay subsidy only
on herds kept mainly for the production of calves. The scheme
exists, as stated in the Notes, to help support the incomes
of specialist beef producers. We (i.e., SEERAD) pay premium on heifers
and suckler cows which form part of a regular breeding herd used
for rearing calves for beef. Does the Rum herd qualify?
* In 2003, no calves were born on Rum but
the subsidy was paid out
* Of the 32 females of breeding age in
2004 (i.e. inc heifers born up to 2000), only 6 produced calves
in Spring 2004
* In 200 , only 3 calves were produced
by 20 breeding females
* 1 cow, born in 1996, has not had a calf
* 4 cows, born between 1990 and 1993, have
yet to give birth to a calf
* The general pattern appears to be based
on females calving every second or even third year, if at all
* There is virtually nothing sold in the
Rules for the Beef Special Premium Scheme in SEERADs relevant
Notes for Guidance 20004, OUTLINE OF THE SCHEME state: The
Beef Special Premium Scheme, funded by the EU, gives direct support
to beef producers
Beef is cattle meat which has been processed
for human consumption. However, the cattle on Rum, including males
who are subsidised by this scheme, may never grace anyones
Sunday dinner table because almost nothing is sold off the island.
This was first admitted by SNH Rum in 2000 and is now confirmed
by SNH in writing: sales for 2003/4 , for example, were zero.
This is because the herd is maintained for habitat management purposes,
with very few cattle sold as stores (Amanda Bryan,
SNH to K Macleod, 4/6/04).
Habitat management may be a valid reason
for keeping cattle on Rum but this does not qualify male cattle
for receipt of Beef Special Premium, nor does it qualify the herd
for Suckler Cow Premium as the herd is clearly not kept for the
purpose of regular beef production. Why is SEERAD paying out these
subsidies in this case?
2. A disturbingly high percentage of deaths
or disappearances from the records in young cattle and poor breeding
success amongst mature female cattle together give cause to question
the standards of animal husbandry in this case.
During her telephone conversation with
Rum SNHs Malcolm Whitmore in 2000, Kirsty macleod was told
that farming subsidies were being received but that calving percentages
were low. Nothing had been sold for the past 3 or 4 years. Very
little winter keep was produced on the island and only a small amount
purchased and imported. A vet came in before the onset of winter
and condemned what he felt would not survive till the Spring, the
animals then being dispatched and buried on the island. Some cattle
spent the winter at the far end of the island where SNH wanted vegetation
grazed down and these were fed/checked only 3 times a week.
A farmer - if he or she can afford to -
can take the unusual management decision to limit herd productivity
although this could jeopardise eligibility for subsidies as we know
them at present. Indeed, SEERAD warn that subsidy recipients may
be inspected if their calving percentages are unusually low. Consistently
low productivity, on the other hand, may be attributable to poor
condition in the animals brought on by a number of factors
- insufficient feeding over the winter, inattention to medical problems,
a lack of vital minerals or stress, to name but a few.
The low productivity of the breeding females
has been noted above. Turning now to calf mortality rates, the data
is not complete but it is disturbing to see that
* of the 14 calves born in 2001 only 6
are still on the island in Spring 2004.
* 2000 was also unusually productive with
10 calves being born but only 6 of these are still on the island
by Spring 2004
* if calves are not sold off the island,
what is happening to these young animals?
* with 49 beasts aged over 2 years plus
2 yearlings on the island during 2003/4, SNHs total expenditure
on cattle management and presumably feedstuffs and veterinary
costs was £2,821, which included the purchase of a bull.
* according to the SSSI notification for
Rum, changes to stock feeding practices or cultivation are operations
likely to damage the features of special interest.And this is not
the whole picture by any means, since the extract we have does not
give causes of deaths or details on animals that have previously
dropped out of the records.
Most farmers would be shocked at these
statistics - shocked at what appears to be a serious problem with
the herds productivity and shocked that this abysmal performance
is acceptable to SEERAD.
3. The herd receives Less Favoured Area
Support Scheme payments which require compliance with Standards
of Good Farming Practice. These aim to maintain the
countryside, in particular by sustainable farming
This scheme requires recipients to comply
with environmental conditions on overgrazing, undergrazing and trampling
or poaching of the ground. SNH has been active in recent years spreading
awareness and, for instance, encouraging corrective action on overgrazed
areas. They appear to be the lead agency in this respect but it
is not clear who sets the standards on these environmental issues.
It would, however, surely be improper for SNH to be in a position
to police their own farming operations on Rum in this matter?
As for complying with the condition of
the scheme in terms of maintaining sustainable farming
, it is ludicrous to suggest that the farming operation on Rum is
in any way sustainable. As SNH themselves state, the operation is
primarily geared towards habitat management purposes.
The consequences of this narrow management policy can now be seen.
There is no financial viability. It is doubtful whether it would
lead to biological sustainability of the herd in the
long term. It doesnt sustain the community on Rum with all
its beef and milk requirements. It may be sustaining certain habitats
but at what cost? Is this the definition of sustainable farming?
4. It may be that SNHs habitat management
policies on Rum represent the extreme end of the spectrum in terms
of agri-environment farming. Nevertheless, future agricultural support
is moving in this direction, most notably in the adoption of the
description of grazing animals as environmental tools.
Rum as a model has potentially severe consequences
for farming incomes and animal welfare. Should SNH be in the prominent
position it enjoys advising the government on agricultural support?
SNH, in common with other environmental
organisations believes it has a central role to play in advising
government on future policy. We are already seeing its thinking
embodied in agri-environment schemes and a greater emphasis on environmental
goals will be imposed on Scottish crofters and farmers when the
Single Farm payment is introduced on 1st January, 2005.
It has long been argued by conservation
groups that the general public want to see a change away from food
production towards managing the environment for pretty flowers,
butterflies and choughs. But is the public aware of what this implies
for farming incomes and the well being of domestic farm animals?
If it is SNH policy to out-winter cattle, for instance, against
their natural instincts on exposed terrain so that vegetation is
eaten down and then left ungrazed the following summer so that wild
flowers can be seen by an appreciative public , will the public
also be told that the animals suffer stress from lack of shelter
or poor grazing or that, due to the poor condition of the road to
this far-flung corner of a wild and mountainous island, the animals
are not check on a regular basis - all in order to provide a floral
spectacle in time for the tourist season?
Increasingly, politicians adopt policies which
they believe are popular. Farming for the environment
is the latest in a long line of vote-winning strategies which have
been introduced into Scotlands rural areas without much attention
paid to the long-term impacts. If we choose to give greater weight
to wildlife and habitats, as seen on Rum, there is now evidence
that this can be at the expense of animal welfare and farming incomes.
Such a possibility must be fully investigated and debated.
1. The herd is not managed in accordance with
the rules of the EU Suckler Cow and Beef Special Premium schemes.
And yet it s receiving these subsidies.
2. The management of the herd - specifically the
high percentage of deaths of calves and low breeding success of
females - raises concerns over animal welfare and farming standards
3. The herd is in receipt of the Less Favoured
Area Support Scheme subsidy but it is not clear who polices SNH
itself in terms of compliance
4. The Rum farming operation is a foretaste of
future environmental farming policy, which is being introduced through
political pressure on subsides and advice from bodies like Scottish
Natural Heritage. To fully understand the impact of these proposals,
the public and politicians must thoroughly investigate what is happening
on Rum as part of the debate on future farming support.
Land-Care is grateful
to Fresh Air for permission to reproduce
the above article in
A pdf version of the
article can be obtained on request by emailing: