Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve

A nature reserve occupying an area of 1667 ha (4120 acres) at the head of Loch Gruinart in the NW of the island of Islay, Argyll & Bute. It extends from Creag Mhor in the north towards Loch Indaal in the south, and includes a substantial part of Loch Gruinart itself. There is a visitor centre at Aoradh Farm, on the south side of the B8017 road, 5 miles (8 km) northwest of Bridgend. Substantially supported by government grants, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) purchased Gruinart and Aoradh Farms from the Islay Estate in 1983, with the aim of providing a refuge for geese around a popular roosting site and thus reducing the impact of goose grazing on farms in other parts of the island. The RSPB acquired significant tracts of productive farmland, along with areas of moorland, woodland, wetland and saltmarsh.

Loch Gruinart is an important habitat, providing the opportunity to see a range of key Hebridean birds and other wildlife, including corncrake, nesting lapwings, hen harrier and otter, together with pintail and shoveler ducks and waders such as golden plover and black-tailed godwit.

In the autumn, tens of thousands of geese arrive to over-winter on Islay, including 45% of the entire global population of Greenland barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis), along with 4% of the world population of Greenland white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons flavirostris) and smaller numbers of greylag (Anser anser) and brent geese (Branta bernicla). The presence of these birds attracts tourists to the island in winter, although the reserve has year-round interest and visitors can enjoy an easy walk to a viewing platform overlooking the loch and visit a pair of bird hides.

A management plan was put in place in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and local farmers, whereby geese were discouraged from foraging on productive farmland on the basis that they had the Loch Gruinart reserve as a sanctuary. However, the policy failed; even when shooting followed scaring as a deterrent, the geese increased in number and spread to most farms on the island. When, in 1992, Scottish Natural Heritage replaced NCC as the government body managing the natural environment, they abandoned the sanctuary system, instead choosing to directly compensate individual farmers across the island for their lost crops.

Because the Loch Gruinart reserve was no longer at the centre of the geese management plan, the RSPB decided to change the way they used the land on the reserve, to focus on low-intensity agriculture and naturalisation of the environment, intended to promote biodiversity. Whereas the RSPB had previously farmed intensively, aiming to produce lush grass to tempt the geese, low-lying fields were now flooded and patches of rough vegetation were allowed to develop. This contrasted with the green and well-drained fields of neighbouring farms, where the farmers grew good crops of barley for the whisky industry and grass for silage to feed their cattle during the winter.

Thus conflict developed, with the local farming community viewing the RSPB-run farm as being 'a disgrace to a farmer' and 'actively run down', resulting in smaller areas of poorer grassland, supporting less geese, which were therefore eating more grass and valuable crops elsewhere on the island.

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