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Scotland: An opportunity to radically reshape farming’s future

Written by: Michael Clarke, NFFN Scotland Chair 

As a farmer, I know we need to be looking at ways that tree planting can be an effective nature and climate-friendly on-farm solution. In my recent experience, increasing broadleaf trees on our 300-acre lowland farm in Dumfriesshire has given our biodiversity a much-needed boost. In due course, once the trees are bigger and livestock-ready, they will provide shade from the sun sought out by our cattle and sheep in the summer’s soaring temperatures. Temperatures that are, undoubtedly, linked to climate change and the increasing extremities of our weather patterns.

But farmland tree cover can reward even greater return.

In the past, investor-led afforestation has often been at the expense of farming. We’ve seen commercial forestry planted in areas – including peatlands – that contradict our nature and climate ambitions. A blanket approach, similar to what was adopted in the 1980s, only results in huge swathes of conifers that dominate the landscape at the expense of biodiversity.

Integrating more native woodland onto the farm, whether through agroforestry or the creation of small broadleaf woods has been proven to prevent soil erosion, improve water management, boost wildlife and provide habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects – all to the benefit of the farming business.

The recent release of the final ‘Farming for 1.5’ report is calling on nature-friendly farming as a means of tackling nature and climate together. Agriculture, the report argues, is a driving force behind tackling the climate and nature emergencies, meeting Scotland’s net-zero targets and maintaining food production.

But looking at the recent ‘Agriculture in the United Kingdom’ report, it becomes apparent that the sector has a blind spot in its approach to change. Since 1990, nitrous oxide emissions have fallen by 9.6%, methane emissions by 9.9% and ammonia by 5.6%, yet despite this headway, biodiversity remains in steep decline. Looking at bird populations as a general indicator of the state of wildlife, bird species have declined to less than half since 1970.

If we’re to truly progress the vision of Scotland’s Environment Strategy, Farming for 1.5 suggests 30% of land should be managed for nature:

“Land use change should as far as possible be planned to optimise economic, environmental and social outcomes rather than be purely market-driven,” the report reads.

The report argues that reducing emissions, increasing biodiversity and maintaining food production is possible – but only if we do it right. As nature-friendly farmers on the ground, we know that transforming the farming landscape into one which reverses the loss of nature and mitigates climate change is a system that many Scottish farmers have already begun to implement. For this to be a nationwide system, we need land-use policies to do more in avoiding the perverse outcomes of afforestation so we can create a genuinely multifunctional landscape.

What I, like many nature-friendly farmers, have found is that a holistic approach can reduce costs, boost nature and increase sustainability. A recent report found that reducing stocking levels on upland farms in line with the natural carrying capacity of the land can reduce input costs. A healthy ecosystem means a healthy bottom line and greater farm resilience. In other words: a farming system that “optimises” rather than “maximises” and stores natural capital in the process. Shared evidence-based learning is key to making this happen. What farming needs is more farmers having the courage to work together and find nature-based solutions at their fingertips.

While COP26 has set the stage for Scotland to remind the world of its global-leader-status, it’s time for the Government to put this into action. Without increased opportunities for new entrants or certainty around future environmental support, Scotland risks missing its opportunity to radically reshape farming’s future and Scotland’s land use pattern for the better.