Climates Orkney an oceanic exception

Living in proximity to the ocean clearly has both advantages and disadvantages for farming. For early settlers in north-western Europe the advantages of mild winters and warmer conditions for plant growth in summer in early Neolithic times were clearly advantageous both for pastoral farming and cropping. However, the development of heathlands and the growth of peat deposits subsequent to human settlement show that oceanic conditions can create problems for sustaining soil fertility, especially when the human population grows and makes further demands for arable land that can only be made available by reducing the proportion of land kept for grazing. Although this has been a frequent occurrence in many oceanic areas with hard acid rocks there still remain regions where a favourable geology coupled with some shelter from some of the excesses of oceanic rainfall can permit a sustainable and productive agriculture. Such a situation is seen in the Orkney Islands off the north of Scotland.

The Orkneys never fail to astonish summer visitors for the verdure of the landscape and the density of cattle grazing on highly productive pastures (Fig. 11.19). This scene of vigorous pastoral activity is particularly striking for those who cross the Pentland Firth having travelled across the bleak moorlands of Sutherland or having visited the desolate expanse of the Flow Country of north-east Scotland. Here in Orkney is a country capable of supporting an active agricultural economy and a high level of human settlement. The Orkney Islands probably owe much of their good fortune to a combination of historical and physical factors. The archipelago lies in a rain-shadow area to the north of Scotland and this location, coupled with the excellent drainage provided by Old Red Sandstone geology, protects the islands from the worst dangers of excessive precipitation. The Devonian sandstones and shales weather to provide fertile soils often with access to ground-water springs with high pH values. Acidification and paludification are therefore less common than in areas with acidic rocks, although they always remain a risk in abandoned land in an oceanic environment. Being mostly low-lying arable land Orkney did not have significant extents of overpopulated uplands in the hands of large estate owners, and thus avoided the 'Clearances' of the Scottish Highlands where small tenant farmers maintaining a subsistence existence were removed and replaced by large sheep-runs.

Orkney continues to prosper agriculturally. The extension of the growing season for grass due to warmer autumn weather and milder winters is an enormous benefit. In summer it has now become easier to achieve two cuts of silage together with easier haymaking. The shortening of the time that cattle have to be tended

Fig. 11.19 Black cattle grazing by the 5000-year-old burial mound of Maes Howe in Orkney: the finest Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave in north-west Europe. Despite Orkney's northern location (59° N) and a hyperoceanic environment there is a thriving cattle economy. The archipelago lies in a rain-shadow area to the north ofScotland and this location coupled with the excellent drainage provided by Old Red Sandstone geology, protects the islands from the worst dangers of excessive precipitation.

Fig. 11.19 Black cattle grazing by the 5000-year-old burial mound of Maes Howe in Orkney: the finest Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave in north-west Europe. Despite Orkney's northern location (59° N) and a hyperoceanic environment there is a thriving cattle economy. The archipelago lies in a rain-shadow area to the north ofScotland and this location coupled with the excellent drainage provided by Old Red Sandstone geology, protects the islands from the worst dangers of excessive precipitation.

under cover is also a welcome development following the improved autumn temperatures in recent years.

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