Islay: the Sustainable Farming Challenge

  • 5 mins

What does a sustainable future for farming look like on Islay, and how does the
whisky we make impact the land at our feet? Hannah Thaxter interviews
local National Farming Union rep, Garry MacLean.

Everything in the farming ecosystem inter-depends. It’s complicated, full of trade-offs and knock-on effects.

We’re at a point in history, nationally as we leave Europe, and globally as climate change becomes a major consideration, in which all farmers are facing change. Meanwhile, Islay faces its own particular challenges.

As we make whisky from Islay barley, we are part of the agricultural practice, depending on and championing our farmer partners who produce the raw ingredient we use. They help us create single malts with total traceability, showcasing the importance of flavour and terroir. So, we have both an interest and a responsibility to this ecosystem.

But what does a sustainable system look like here?

We interviewed Garry MacLean, Group Secretary for Islay, Jura and Colonsay Branch of the National Farmers Union, crofter, and partner in the local NFU mutual insurance agency.


Many Islay farmers participate in schemes that protect and support biodiversity. You want a wide range of species in an ecosystem to make it resilient - monocultures are anathema in nature.

Subsidy schemes are both influential and essential for this, as they allow farmers to provide habitats ideally suited to some of these rare species, such as: 

  • Geese - Islay is unique in providing food and shelter to rare barnacle geese (Brant leucopsis) but they have a huge impact on the land.  Numbers are controlled through Scottish National Heritage / the Scottish Government’s adaptive management system. 

  • Chough - Islay is an important breeding ground for this rare species, they are of high conservation concern. Cattle grazing helps maintain year round populations of chough on Islay and Colonsay, at the northern limit of their range; chough love to feed on the insect-rich dung piles and short maritime sward found around the coast.

  • Corncrake - These shy and rare creatures are given protective habitats on Islay, ideal for breeding. Like many farmers on the island, we keep generous margins at the field edges on our croft at the distillery, to encourage species like this, and hares.

  • Birds of prey - Islay is home to many birds of prey such as hen harriers, golden eagles and buzzards as well as visiting sea eagles, or white-tailed eagles

“I like what’s happening here in terms of the way things are farmed and land’s managed. We’ve got internationally protected geese and we’ve got birds of prey and all sorts of wee rodent things for them to eat as well!” Garry explained.

But they can cause problems for farmers too, especially the barnacle geese. “Their little feet cause soil compaction, and they pull all the young grass out, which then means it takes a while after they leave for the grass to recover so that we can then turn cattle out onto them…. Many people don’t realise that grass is a crop for us here too.”

It's about interaction between species, and between farmers and these species, within our ecosystem – what Garry calls finding a balance.



“Climate change is affecting all aspects of farming here,” Garry said. The seasons and conditions are changing.

Garry gave an example, liver fluke. These larval flukes affect sheep and deer and will die in a sharp frost. But warmer winters mean they’re having to be dealt with using chemicals, flukicide, and there’s resistance building up.

The main barley crop on Islay is spring barley, and that can’t be sown until after the geese leave the island, around April. But they fly back here in October and as climate change is “shifting” what our summers are like - generally shorter, warmer and wetter Garry says - the window for sowing, ripening and harvesting barley is shrinking year by year. Ensuring results in less time, necessitates the use of inputs - putting fertiliser on the fields for get quicker growth, for example.

What can Bruichladdich do about this? We have been looking at heritage varieties of barley and supporting research into how its genetic makeup might enable us to cope with shifting conditions, in collaboration with the UHI, James Hutton and the Bread Lab. We have partnered with one local farm so far to grow winter rye we can use for distilling, rather than only barley.

And we’ve been supporting regenerative methods of farming through our barley buying since 2003, so that the carbon emissions are reduced. Carbon is even sequestered by the biodynamic grain we use to make our whiskies.


Land types on Islay prescribe how it can be used; predominantly livestock plus limited arable. There are opportunities here that help keep people on the land; second jobs and tourism, such as holiday homes, but also agriculturally associated businesses like Garry’s insurance franchise, and whisky-making.

“You can grow some barley in some places, but were it not for the distilleries here you might grow it as feed barley, but you wouldn’t be trying to grow distilling barley,” Garry said.

Bruichladdich’s farming partnerships have grown from just one farmer in 2004 to 20 today (2023) – providing a route to market, diversification and helping to support this resilient community.

Garry and his wife have a croft, and both have other jobs, plus they have three holiday cottages on the croft land. “That’s pretty common,” He says.  “You’ll find quite a lot of farms have some kind of diversification, because farming doesn’t pay.
You could have husband and wife; wife farms, husband works in a distillery or, you know, there are other opportunities to diversify.”

But distillery wages can often tempt people away from farming altogether, Garry says. “Farming can't compete. On the other hand, the distilleries buy barley. There is some profit to be made there, not a lot, but some. They also provide draff (the waste product of mashing) which is an immensely important feedstuff here because it is a really good source of dry matter and energy for cattle, and it’s relatively cheap. There is the double-edged sword there”  he says.

The answer, he says, is collaboration - such as Bruichladdich has done in the past 5 years with Rye - working hand-in-hand with farmers on planned and funded projects.

“If someone’s going to take the risk, there’s going to have to be some sort of financial investment, “Garry says. “Because the margins are so small at the moment for profitability, you can’t really take the risk.”


A threat to the sustainability of farming on Islay is ‘critical mass’ Garry says. In simple terms, there must be enough operational farms to make certain processes cost-effective on the island, such as contracting the harvesting or shearing, having a viable auction market, and paying for fertiliser deliveries by cargo boat. If there are too few farmers needing these services, then it won’t be viable to offer them here.

Farmers are like a keystone species, custodians of the landscape. Pressures taking people away from farming include crofts or farms not becoming available, as well as competition from better-paid careers.

“There are also people who would really either like to do some farming or crofting but don’t have access to land, or, equally, access to capital to get yourself started is also a problem,” Garry says. Many older farmers have nobody in the family coming along behind them, so they stay on the farm but just keep reducing numbers.

Another issue is not knowing what agricultural support schemes will be available in our post-EU world. Current agricultural support schemes will run until 2025 but farmers don’t know what will replace them, and that makes forward planning very difficult.

“One thing that needs to be addressed in people’s minds is that agricultural subsidy at the moment isn’t subsidising farming, it’s subsidising cheap food… And no politician’s going to want the cost of food to go up.”


Ultimately, we need farmers to be here to ensure our island is sustainable, and so that we can continue to use the quality raw ingredients grown here in our malt whisky.

“From our perspective, both locally and nationally we are happy to be part of the solution to climate change, but we need to be there on the ground to be able to manage that for biodiversity,” Garry said. “We are the custodians of the ground at the moment. And sustainable, profitable farming needs to be at the heart of that.”

As pioneers of the Islay barley project, and as responsible distillers who are looking at the entire supply chain - from land to dram - we have a vested and moral interest in ensuring that arable farming is sustainable on Islay. It has to be done in a way that is as bespoke as is necessary for the individuals and environmental factors that persist here, in this unique landscape.

Discover our latest vintage of Bruichladdich Islay Barley clicking here


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