Phil Knott is a crofter on the Sleat Peninsula on the Isle of Skye. Phil lives with his partner and daughter on a 3ha wooded croft. He has come to crofting from a different angle to most, that of being a wildlife and land management expert but with no direct farming experience. His knowledge in flora, fauna, geology and soil has given him a good grounding and makes him look at the land in different ways to others. Being a wildlife tour leader has taken him all over the world, as well as to every corner of Scotland, especially the Highlands and Islands where he has studied all of the different farming practices. He moved to Scotland in 2004 and has always wanted to manage his own piece of land, it took over 10 years to find the right spot, but it was worth waiting for. Pockets of land are hard to get hold of in the Highlands of Scotland, but crofting does give present an opportunity to get your foot on the ladder, albeit with more difficult ground than many parts of Scotland.
Phil’s Tells Us More…
We took on our croft in the autumn of 2015. The land on Skye is often tricky, with thin, heavily leached and compacted soils, heavy rain and frequent salt-laden gales. Our croft is no exception! 3ha of slope, sitting on top of impermeable Torridonian Sandstone. What attracted us to this croft though was that the previous owner had given most of the land over to native tree planting, so we had a project to take forward and some shelter to work with. There are very few trees in our township and our directions to visitors are simple; you can’t miss us; we are the croft with the trees!
When we took it on in it was uncut, ungrazed and totally unmanaged since trees were planted 10 years before. It was very rank in places! However, what it did show was the amazing power of nature to look after itself. The upper meadows were full of Meadowsweet, Knapweed, Devils Bit Scabious and in the spring Pignut, all with no management at all. The deep-rooted trees have also drained large sections, and underneath the Alder and Birch trees is lush green grass. Move just 5 yards away from the tree and the ground is covered with dense clumps of Purple Moor Grass and Rushes. The leaf litter, drainage and nitrogen fixing of the Alder, are clearly having a positive impact. It also means more insects, more wildlife and with that increased nutrients and nutrient cycling.
With so much planting, we didn’t want stock, but we started with ducks. The ducks hate the sunny and dry days, they are at their happiest when it is pouring with rain and they love to roam the croft finding the wet pockets. We added hens earlier this year, and they love the cover of the trees and the richer soil. Keeping them safe when we share our croft with foxes, pine martens, otters, mink and both species of eagle is not easy, and stories of predation in the local area are widespread, though we have yet to lose an animal. The cover of the trees and the distance between the crofts here seems to help.
Our aims are to produce food for ourselves, improve our soil, increase shelter and increase biodiversity, making the croft a rich and productive piece of land for us and those that come after. Within a few years we will be producing a surplus to supply local shops, cafes and restaurants with all manner of fruit, herbs, vegetables and teas. We also have large areas of willow coppice for basketry. The most important factor for us here is shelter; due to the topography we are away from the very worst of the gales but still we need our trees to keep the worst of the winds away, increase soil temperature and of course feed the ever-improving soil.
In a few short years of management, we have a couple of thriving orchards and our areas of grassland are becoming ever richer in plant and insect diversity. We have recorded over 244 species of moth on the croft and birdlife includes cuckoo, whinchat, stonechat, redpoll, snipe and a good number of migrant warblers. Year on year we notice an increase, this year we had our first breeding attempts of spotted flycatcher, whitethroat and blackcap as our habitats steadily improve.
Our difficulty is that our multi-functional small holding approach isn’t eligible for much if any subsidy, as all of the pockets of habitats are small and poorly defined, and we don’t have any livestock, which most subsidies seem to be geared towards. We have had some help though, and are grateful to the Woodland Trust for helping us with an additional 1,700 trees, mostly hedging but also increasing our range of species by underplanting our existing woods and filling in some wet and rocky corners. Many of the species we have recently planted would have struggled in a bare-land planting scheme, and need the first level of woodland and cover to be established. Shrubs are often forgotten, and we have grown on from local native seed honeysuckle, ivy, dog rose, guelder rose as well as gorse and broom. We love collecting local tree seed each year and grow on over 1000 trees each winter in our small tree nursery.
Why NFFN so important
This is an important time for crofting. Uncertainty over Brexit and the future of subsidies in these marginal areas is always being raised. Meanwhile, the average age of crofters continues to grow, and the number of those actively crofting continues to drop. As more crofters look to diversification, we need organisations like the NFFN to showcase and help support the good work already being done and to raise awareness of the huge potential that the Highlands and Islands offer in terms of local sustainable food and abundant wildlife. These two can go hand in hand.
Why I joined the NFFN
For a new entrant like myself, I found it difficult to find similar projects. Most events and gatherings are geared heavily towards livestock. There is fantastic expertise in this sector here, but for me it is not economically viable to start out with cattle or sheep, as we don’t have any of the right infrastructure and while establishing our hedges and orchards it simply wasn’t compatible.
I would like to help make the NFFN a recognisable presence on the Isle of Skye and throughout the region, and under its banner unite all of the hard-working crofters who already do so much for wildlife, and for those wanting to do more and to learn. Importantly, I want to bring back some of the social and collective sharing side of crofting that seems to have dipped away in the past generation or so.