Investigating hill sheep farmers and crofters’ experiences of blackloss in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

Fiona McAuliffe*, Ann McLaren, Neil Sargison, Franz Brülisauer, Andrew Kent, Davy McCracken

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Abstract

Hill sheep farming is an important component of Scottish agriculture and comprises a significant land use in much of the Highlands and Islands. However it faces significant challenges due to the natural constraints of the landscape. Hill sheep farming uses hardy traditional breeds, such as the Scottish blackface and North Country Cheviot to graze extensive areas, where the sheep are not housed and tend to lamb on the open hill. Flocks are gathered several times a year for stock checks, husbandry, and health treatments. Between these handling events, stock will disappear and be unaccounted for. These unexplained losses are known as blackloss in the Highlands and Islands. Previously reported figures for annual lamb blackloss give an average of 18.6%. These losses are in addition to the known losses of lambs and represent a significant welfare and sustainability issue. High parasite burdens, predation, a photosensitisation disease known as plochteach or yellowses, and poor nutrition are often given as presumed reasons for blackloss. A questionnaire was developed to assess the experiences, impacts and understanding flock managers have of blackloss. Typology analysis using partitioning around medoids was used to cluster respondents into three distinct groups: 1- very large extensive farms and Sheep Stock Clubs, 2- medium sized farms, and 3- small-scale crofts. The responses of these groups were subsequently analysed to see if their experiences and perceptions of blackloss differed with relation to lamb health challenges and predation impacts. The groups reported similar health challenges, apart from Group 1 which had a significantly higher plochteach challenge. In terms of predators, Group 1 also perceived white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) as a much higher threat to their lambs than the other groups. It was observed that many of the respondents believed blackloss is inevitable and that predators pose a large threat to lambs. However, most agreed that reducing these losses is important and that understanding the causes would enable them to do so.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0298255
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume19
Issue number3
Early online date27 Mar 2024
DOIs
Publication statusFirst published - 27 Mar 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 McAuliffe et al.

Keywords

  • Sheep
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Farmers
  • Scotland
  • Agriculture
  • Farms
  • Sheep Diseases/epidemiology

Rural Policy Centre Themes

  • Land use and land reform
  • Environment and climate

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