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Chainsaws vie with frolicking of lambs

Eskdalemuir, a beautiful area of moor and woodland north-east of Lockerbie, has an unenviable claim to fame, holding the UK record for the highest rainfall in a 30-minute period.

Those seeking to escape the rat-race or rumbling traffic, however, will agree that there are few more peaceful places than this remote corner, where the skies at night are so black each star looks hand-painted and by day there is little noise except bleating sheep and the cry of curlews.

Soon, however, one might hear fewer sheep, and chainsaws will compete with the curlews. A report, based on a study of Eskdalemuir by the Scottish Agricultural College, has recommended that upland sheep farmers in southern Scotland should consider switching sheep for conifers.

The chief executive for Confer, a body which promotes woodlands and commissioned the report, explained: "Forestry provides an alternative that is more productive, more sustainable and far less reliant on public subsidy than sheep farming." Another Confer member stressed that the report is not "a cry to cover all of our hills with new forests". Such change, they say, would be an opportunity for farmers, offering commercial as well as social benefits.

The sums seem to bear out the report's recommendations. Conifers would produce three times the profit, yet require only a sixth of the public subsidy granted to sheep farming. There are other pluses too, in creating jobs and improving the environment.

That last point is, however, open to debate, the environmental advantages of afforestation over sheep grazing being more a question of opinion or faith, it seems, than of overpowering scientific fact. Ask a sheep farmer about the benefits of sheep cropping for wildlife preservation and proliferation, and he will be able to talk until the cows come home. It all depends on what one wants preserved or enhanced.

Regardless of its content, the report could not have come at a worse time, arriving as it does in lambing season, when sheep farmers and their families are working 18-hour shifts. My only shepherd friend is uncontactable from February to April, this being when she lives on soup and two hours' sleep, and makes enough money to sustain herself for the rest of the year. While farmers might dream of an easier start to the year, trees rarely requiring help in the middle of the night or the expensive ministrations of a vet, cultivating conifers is to livestock farming what salmon ponds are to deep-sea fishing: mechanical and soulless. And much as I love trees, hills blanketed in pines have a deadening look, a far cry from mixed woodland, with its ever-changing colours and shapes.

Of course, sheep, which have been bred in Scotland since before the Iron Age, were already endangered, long before this report. The collapse in the price of wool, late last century, is partly to blame, although that is gradually improving. Even so, there are few flocks left in the Highlands where once, after the Clearances, they grazed in their millions. Now their cousins in the south are shivering in a hostile climate.

One can see the cold common sense in combining sheep husbandry with timber, or obliterating pasture entirely, but reducing or removing flocks will have a profound emotional and aesthetic effect. Remember the eery quietness of the countryside during the last outbreak of foot and mouth? Dumfries and Galloway was one of the worst-hit regions, and I recall the miserable emptiness of the springtime fields, where lambs should have been frolicking.

Like cattle, sheep are a vital part of our heritage, and there is something reassuring about the sight and sound of them in our fields. Like the first snowdrops or daffodils, they are a sign of renewal, even though we know most of them will soon be turned into chops. They have spiritual significance too, as Easter approaches and the lamb's biblical symbolism takes on added meaning.

One cannot deny sheep farming is an uphill job, and public money must be wisely used. Nor is there anything new in the landscape changing. After the ice age, agriculture has been the greatest shaping force in the Scottish countryside, the balance between trees, livestock and arable renegotiated over the generations according to income and profitability. Farming has always had it seasons, but one would be saddened if sheep have had their day.

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