SUPPORT for rural Scotland should be for life, not just the length of a campaign trail, but my past experience covering elections would beg to differ.

I say this rather facetiously as there are of course some politicians who do fantastic work representing rural areas, but cue election time and suddenly the hordes appear out of the woodwork to lend an empathetic ear to rural communities – despite having spent the majority of their political career pursuing an urban agenda.

This has not been lost on countryside workers who recently united in their thousands via an online protest to seek a new politics in a future Government – one which values and supports traditional rural sectors.

Gamekeepers, shepherds, fishing ghillies, deer managers, anglers, farmers, foresters, rural vets, falconers, and others, aligned their voices to demand a level playing field when it comes to rural policy decisions and urged for the future Scottish Government to establish a cross-party group to hear their concerns first-hand.

The feeling amongst rural workers is that serious change is needed within Holyrood to greater represent the breadth and diversity of voices across the entire country. The co-ordinator of Scotland’s moorland groups said: “There is a growing disquiet on river and land. People have been pushed far enough. They want a type of politics which reflects the rich role they play in Scottish life.”

In recent years, the Scottish Government has often chosen to listen to the opinions of a vocal minority who are not themselves embedded in the fabric of rural life, over that of the experts who themselves live and breathe the land, day in, day out.

To focus on one such example is the growing obsession with rewilding Scotland. Only last month a number of MSPs pledged their support for a parliamentary motion which would seek to establish Scotland as the world’s first rewilding nation – a sexy headline intended to impress at the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow. But it is important to learn from past experiences before such a notion is considered.

Farmers and crofters in the west of Scotland have been plagued by the reintroduction of White-Tailed Eagles back in the 1970s and their subsequent rapid expansion – 130 pairs were recorded in 2017, but this figure is forecast to rise to 900 pairs by 2040.


A White-Tailed Eagle captured by Rae Mckenzie, on Islay

These magnificent but deadly birds have a wingspan of up to 2.5 metres and sit at the top of the food chain, raining havoc as they predate on sheep flocks along the west coast – threatening the viability of many hill farms.

Despite years of thorough evidence from farmers and crofters demonstrating the destruction of these birds – and an acknowledgement by NatureScot that they are killing healthy live lambs – the carnage continues, the birds go unmanaged, and many feel their concerns fall on deaf ears.

I have been covering this issue for the past three years, and in that time, there has been little change to the heart-breaking stories I hear from the farmers and crofters who are left to deal with the aftermath of these horrific attacks, knowing fine well that they are fighting a losing battle.

One where the Government’s desire to increase tourism numbers on the off-chance of a bird sighting takes precedence over safeguarding the livelihoods of farming businesses which are choosing to close-up shop under the mounting stress.

What next? Will we toy yet again with the idea of reintroducing lynx and maybe down the line throw wolves into the mix?

We should listen to our friends in Norway who in 2017 paid out compensation on 20,000 sheep lost to predators: wolverine accounted for around 34 per cent of losses with lynx, bears and wolves accounting for 21%, 15% and 9% respectively.

I was told by a farmer that 1,000 hill farmers in Norway had given up due to predation pressures in the last 10 years and to reintroduce predators over here would be an “absolute catastrophe.”

Farmers and crofters are often the lifeline of economically fragile rural communities, but with added pressures to farming life, such as White-Tailed Eagle predation, our hills are being cleared of livestock and replaced by Scottish Government-backed forestry initiatives.

It is not only Scotland’s hills which are at risk of depleting rural activity but if the Scottish Greens have their way, they will seek an end to Scotland’s grouse moors.

It is no secret that many members of the public aren’t supportive of grouse shooting, but what is lesser known are the benefits that grouse moors bring to rural areas through local employment and investment in fragile communities but also a host of biodiversity benefits.

The grouse shooting season runs from August 12 to December 10, but throughout the entire year, grouse moor keepers play an active role in the conservation of local wildlife and supporting carbon capture and storage by careful management of muirburn and peat reserves. Many are taking active steps to reverse the decline of wading birds.

According to a recent Scottish Greens election flyer, 3000 people would lose their jobs in the process of phasing out grouse moors, but they have offered vague assurances that this would be justified as new rural jobs would be created in their place. I’m sure that will soften the blow to the individuals and their families who would be facing redundancy.

The recent rural workers protest is an accumulation of years of frustration. A future Scottish Government must ensure rural Scotland is at the heart of policy decisions and stamp out the vilifying of individuals who have dedicated their lives to managing our land, local wildlife, and rural cultural heritage.

Claire Taylor is The Scottish Farmer’s political affairs editor