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Auchnerran Newsletter

Auchnerran: a farm for Game & Wildlife

The Game & Wildlife Scottish Demonstration Farm, Auchnerran is the GWCT’s principal base in northern Scotland, located in Aberdeenshire. Here we hope to emulate the great success the Allerton Project at Loddington has had in influencing farming policy and practice over many years, through demonstrating best practice and novel ideas directly to politicians, farmers, conservationists and the public in Scotland.
The overarching aims at Auchnerran are:

  • To manage Auchnerran as a demonstration farm, incorporating game management principles, educating others in how hill-edge, marginal farmland in Scotland can be managed to benefit game, wildlife and other ‘Natural Capital’, and thereby influence land-use policy.
  • To do this, we have improved the farm to ensure Auchnerran is a fundamentally sound economic enterprise. This main commodity is the sheep flock. The flock graze the adjacent grouse moor in the summer, where it has important additional functions –
    - Helping manage the moorland habitat, and
    - Acting as tick mops to control tick burdens on red grouse chicks and so improve survival rates.
  • To improve the farm operation without losing the wildlife that is present and enhancing the game and wildlife ‘asset’ wherever possible.

When the Trust took over the ‘short limited duration tenancy’ at Auchnerran in 2014, the farm had received relatively little investment for a number of years previously and farming activities were minimal. However, our early surveys revealed an abundance of wildlife, probably resulting from the low-intensity farming coupled with the predator control taking place on the farm and some of the surrounding ground.

This was carried out by the team of gamekeepers managing the neighbouring grouse moor. Current lapwing densities indicate Auchnerran is a ‘key site’ for this species in Scotland (O’Brien & Bainbridge 2002).

Auchnerran is a grass-dominated hill-edge farm of 417 ha adjoining the Cairngorm mountains, with an additional 5,000 ha of hill grazing for the sheep flock from spring to late autumn. The soils are dominated by sandy glacial deposits which means water drains quickly, even after heavy rain. This can mean the ground dries out in the summer if there is infrequent rain.

Land cover is approximately: rough grazing (unimproved, permanent grassland, grazed at a low intensity) 40%, pasture (permanent grassland capable of being grazed at a higher intensity – may have been improved) 30%, ploughable (reseeded grassland, cover and fodder crops) 20% and woodland and everything else around 10%, with an additional 60 ha or so of winter grazing available by agreement on neighbouring land, which is also covered by the site monitoring programme. This land cover is typical of around 36% of farms in Scotland.

The main agricultural commodity on the farm is the 1,000-strong sheep flock. This we inherited with the farm and have been slowly improving ever since. On entry it comprised a number of old, unproductive ewes and most of the animals were not as healthy as they might have been. This was reflected in the lambing percentage (percent of lambs reaching weaning age) in 2015, our first year, which was just 60% whereas it has now stabilised at around 120%.

One of the fundamental challenges on the farm has been to ensure sufficient grazing for the sheep through the year: a lack of previous investment in pasture management (reseeding old pastures, inputs such as lime, etc.) had resulted in generally poor grass growth and nutritional quality, occasionally exacerbated by events such as a dry summer. Although most of the sheep graze the open hill adjacent to the farm during the summer, we rely on good grass-growth on the farm at this time to provide supplementary food for the flock through the winter in the form of silage.

In 2015 we cropped a total of 730 bales of silage (17 bales per hectare) whereas in 2019 this was 986 (23 per hectare). The challenge to ensure a sufficient food supply for the flock year-round will remain, not least because we have to increase flock size to around 1,500 ewes. This is to ensure sufficient sheep go up onto the moor in the spring where they have an important role in maintaining the habitat through their grazing and reducing tick burdens to improve grouse chick survival rate. The latter is achieved by regularly dosing the sheep with a pour-on acaricide which kills any ticks that attempt to attach.

As well as the farm operation, Auchnerran also supports a small, wild-game shoot, with the bag typically dominated by rabbits, pigeons and pheasants (the latter are the offspring of naturalized birds from the previous release that took place here), along with some snipe and woodcock.

As part of the shoot there are two blocks of game cover, typically planted with an annual cereal-dominated mix (‘Highland’), though the brassica ‘Alba’ mix has recently been tried, both with support and advice from Kings Crops. From 2019, three additional blocks of game cover have been added as part of the new agri-environment scheme agreement. These are supplemented with grain fed through a network of hoppers through the winter.