Farming is an important source of income for many people on Islay and the same can be said, although indirectly, about the nature and wildlife if you consider that they are one of the main reasons for people to visit Islay. Wildlife and farming often go hand in hand on the island but it's always a delicate balance between nature conservation and making a living off the land, it's as simple as that. A while back I found very interesting information about farming on Islay and nature conservation on the website of the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism (EFNCP). The EFNCP is a Europe-wide network which raises awareness of the importance of low-intensity farming for nature conservation and aims to improve the way public policies respond to the needs of these farming systems.
The website has a few interesting sections from various parts in Europe but you've probably guessed it, the most interesting section for us is the one about Islay titled "Islay â€“ more than whisky". The regular visitors of Islay know that the island has so much more to offer than the eight whisky distilleries which attract so many visitors annually. Those who look a bit further than their favourite dram, and luckily most do, find out that there is a unique island with a stunning nature and many wildlife habitats to be discovered. "Due to its complex geology and topography and a long history of pastoral-based farming, a wide variety of important habitat types are to be found: e.g. coastal grasslands, blanket bog, wet and dry heaths, sand dunes and machair. These habitats, both individually and in combination, provide unique conditions for a very wide range of plants, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and birds." Continue reading.....
The Islay section on the EFNCP website has highly interesting sections with a lot of information split up in four sections: Land types, Mixed farming, Extensive grazing systems and Facts & Figures about Islay. Especially the latter section has some valuable information on the history of farming on Islay: "A review of the agricultural data for Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Gigha for the period 1866-1989 (Clarke 1991) show a reduction in the number of holdings from 606 to 183. There has been a reduction in â€œfarmedâ€ area of 33 % and only one Parish (Kilchoman on Islay) has shown an increase over the 119 year period and of only 1 %. There has been a loss of 84 % of cornfields, 90 % of root fields and 13 % of grass fields. Despite these changes to the mosaic of cropped and cultivated ground and natural pasture, and the fluctuations in the numbers and breeds of livestock, there has been a continuity of natural pastures grazed by cattle and sheep and it is this aspect of farming that is of primary importance for the wildlife that we value today."
The other sections show images of certain parts of Islay with magnifying glasses which have pop up information for instance about the Geese, Golden Eagles, Corncrakes but also about the sheep and cattle. Another interesting item is a lengthy PDF which also contains many of the information from the other sections. Unfortunately this report is from 2008 and shows a somewhat depressing image of sheep and cattle prices and farming as a whole. Fortunately prices for sheep and cattle have gone up in recent years but that doesn't mean the future of farming on Islay is secure. By reading the various sections on this website you get a better understanding of the problems farmers face to make a living off the land while working to conserve the landscape, nature and wildlife on Islay.