Exploring interactions between farming and biodiversity.

Professor Davy McCracken is an agricultural ecologist who has spent over 30 years studying farming and biodiversity interactions and advising on agriculture and agri-environment policies and land management practice.

He first worked a post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University between 1990 and 1992 and then for the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee between 1992 and 1995. Davy joined SRUC in 1995 and has been Head of SRUC’s Hill & Mountain Research Centre, at Kirkton and Auchtertyre farms near Crianlarich in the Scottish Highlands, since 2013, and Head of SRUC’s Integrated Land Management Department since 2019.

Seeking to make a difference

Davy has been vocal about the need for more integrated land management in the uplands, and the need to break down existing barriers between land uses such as farming and forestry. SRUC’s Kirkton and Auchtertyre upland research farms are now recognised nationally and internationally as leading platforms for agriculture and environment research and demonstration.

Indeed, the wealth of systems-level agricultural and environmental data that is now being collected means that the Kirkton and Auchtertyre are uniquely positioned to support research needs and wider Scottish Government priorities, including achieving net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045 and addressing Scotland’s biodiversity crisis.

Davy has always felt strongly that the results of scientific research can only ever be translated into effective biodiversity management on the ground if those findings are made available in a variety of forms that ensure that the relevance of the findings are understandable by the relevant target audiences. As a result, he is heavily involved not only in knowledge-exchange events held at Kirkton and Auchtertyre and elsewhere in Scotland, but also through participation in a wide variety of other activities including newspaper columns, podcasts, videos and webinars, all aimed at raising awareness of the relevance of biodiversity and climate change actions to a wider audience.

A smiling white man wearing glasses and a shirt and tie, stands in front of a field of black cows, with hills and clouds beyond
Professor Davy McCracken

Focussing on applied research

Throughout his career, Davy has been keen to make a difference by conducting good quality, applied research. As a result, research he has led or contributed to has had significant impact, especially his input into long-term collaborative studies of population dynamics of the red-billed chough, and his involvement in the development and continued promotion of the High Nature Value (HNV) farming system concept.

The Scottish red-billed chough project – which involves a range of collaborators – is now recognised as one of the world’s few ongoing detailed long-term population dynamic studies. Davy and a colleague conduct annual assessments of chough breeding success on Islay, in the Inner Hebrides, and associated colour-ringing of chicks on the island, allowing the fate and performance of individual birds to be tracked over time. This provides a crucial underpinning for detailed analyses that have significantly increased scientific knowledge of chough population dynamics. Davy’s ecological and farming expertise has also been fundamental to helping identify the challenges and constraints the choughs are facing, and solutions that could be put in place.

Since 1995, Davy has worked in close collaboration with UK and European partners to investigate a range of HNV farming systems, identifying factors common to these systems that are important for maintaining sites’ associated nature conservation value. These collaborations resulted in increased recognition of the importance of HNV farming systems and the need for supporting policy changes at national and European levels. He continues to advocate for HNV farming and to work closely with collaborators to highlight where these systems still occur – and hence need attention – across Scotland, the UK and Europe.

Informing research and policy development

Davy has been heavily involved in providing advice on research needs and scientific direction through serving on a variety of Government (e.g. Defra, NatureScot, Scottish Government) and NGO (e.g. British Ecological Society, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust) advisory committees since the early 2000s. He is currently serving on ten such groups, including:

  • A Trees on Farms group established to help Scottish Forestry consider how it might encourage greater integration of new woodlands onto active farms and crofts;
  • A Scottish Biodiversity Programme Advisory Group established by the Scottish Government to advise on all aspects of science and evidence to help develop and achieve Scottish Biodiversity Strategy 2030 objectives;
  • An Academic Advisory Panel established by the Scottish Government to help inform development of integrated land-management policies post-Brexit;
  • A National Sea Eagle Stakeholder Group facilitated by NatureScot to seek resolutions to conflicts between sea-eagles and farming and crofting interests;
  • Co-chairing with a NatureScot colleague an Independent Working Group facilitating the development of a Working for Waders Programme of Action within Scotland.

Davy also has extensive experience of organising national and international conferences and workshops aimed at raising awareness and encouraging discussion across researchers, NGOs and policy makers about farmland biodiversity and policy issues.

Professor Davy McCracken is Head of Integrated Land Management and the Hill & Mountain Research Centre at SRUC: Scotland’s Rural College. His research and that of his team is supported by the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme, UK Research & Innovation and the European Union. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further Reading

Lomba, A., et al. 2020. Back to the future: rethinking the social-ecological systems underlying High Nature Value farmlands. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 18, 36—42. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2116

Moxey, A., McCracken, D. & Thomson, S. 2020 Environmental conditionality on direct payments to land managers. Pareto Consulting and Scotland’s Rural College. https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/factsheet/2021/01/suckler-beef-climate-scheme-research-papers/documents/sruc-report-environmental-conditionality/sruc-report-environmental-conditionality/govscot%3Adocument/SRUC%2BReport%2B-%2BEnvironmental%2BConditionality%2BFINAL.pdf

Atkins, R., McCracken, D. & Houghten, R. 2021. A New Vision for Land Use in Scotland: Six Conversations. Scottish Ecological Design Association. https://www.seda.uk.net/s/A-New-Vision-for-Land-Use-in-Scotland-6-Conversationst.pdf

Brown, C., et al. 2021. Simplistic understandings of farmer motivations undermine the environmental potential of the Common Agricultural Policy. Land Use Policy, 101: 105126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.105136

Reid, J.M., et al. 2022. Integrating advances in population and evolutionary ecology with conservation strategy through long-term studies of red-billed choughs. Journal of Animal Ecology 91: 20—34. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13615

Trask, A.E., et al. 2020. Conservation strategy for red-billed choughs in Scotland: Assessment of the impact of supplementary feeding and evaluation of future management strategies. Scottish Natural Heritage Research Report No. 1152. https://www.nature.scot/sites/default/files/2020-07/Publication%202020%20-%20SNH%20Research%20Report%201152%20-%20Conservation%20strategy%20for%20red-billed%20choughs%20in%20Scotland.pdf

Many more of Davy’s articles from recent years can be accessed here.