The future of agriculture in Scotland is at a pivotal point. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges faced by farmers and crofters who have worked tirelessly to ensure food production and land management continues at a time when other industries have been brought to a standstill.

Their efforts have also come against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, in particular the implications for farm income of future changes to agricultural support payments and the potential impact of new trade deals. In addition, there is the accompanying pressure of addressing climate change, with Scottish farmers feeling unjustly targeted because of sweeping criticism of agricultural practices elsewhere.

The importance of agriculture to Scotland should not be overlooked. Provisional figures from 2020 estimate that 5.67 million hectares – the majority of Scotland’s land mass – are used for agriculture, while it is thought that around one in 10 jobs in Scotland is dependent on agriculture.

Given the significance of this industry to Scotland, what can farmers, crofters and those employed in the agricultural sector do to ensure that the future of the industry is protected?

Green recovery

Given the immediate challenges of COVID-19 and Brexit, climate change may not have been at the forefront of many farmers’ minds in recent months. Nevertheless, embracing a green recovery from the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic could provide some certainty to Scottish agriculture. Indeed, Fergus Ewing, the Rural Economy Secretary, has said that Scotland’s rural economy will be at the heart of the green recovery.

Although further changes to farming practice may not seem appealing, it is clear that, historically, the farming industry has been receptive to change. Looking at the enormous changes in farming practices in the past 100 years, we can be confident that farming family businesses will adapt and utilise the natural resources at hand for the benefit of their business and the environment. Our rural experts are currently advising clients on these issues and have first-hand experience of the benefits these can bring to businesses, as well as contributing to the green recovery and establishing a more sustainable future.

1. Renewables

The land mass held by farmers is, as noted above, significant, and Scotland offers many natural opportunities to generate energy from renewable sources. The move from fossil fuels to renewables is one of the most obvious ways to reduce carbon emissions. Looking at farms across Scotland, there is much potential for hill ground to be transformed into wind farms, water sources to power hydro schemes, under-utilised scrubland to host a battery storage site or a biomass plant, and other land to be used for solar panel arrays.

With 90% of Scotland’s electricity consumption now coming from renewable sources, it is clear that Scotland has abundant natural resources to generate clean energy. Landowners’ assistance will be vital for renewable developers to establish new developments across the country. Entering into projects will also assist landowners by providing additional income, and many developments can work around existing farming or forestry operations.

2. Agroforestry

A further option available to Scotland’s landowners is agroforestry – a land management system in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops. In addition to trees sequestering carbon, other natural benefits from the promotion of agroforestry include:

  • the stability and increased crop yield provided by trees on surface land, reducing soil erosion and preventing nutrient run off;
  • a shelterbelt provided by the trees and shrubs, improving livestock welfare by sheltering animals from the wind, limiting cold stress in winter and providing shade in summer; and
  • tree roots naturally cycling nutrients, increasing biodiversity.

Agroforestry has been described as “farming in 3D”, delivering benefits from deep roots to tree tops. Farmers may also benefit financially from planting trees on their land, as the Scottish Government has announced a £150 million investment in forestry over the next five years.

3. Rewilding

Some farmers may consider the option of moving to less intensive agricultural practices through rewilding. The purpose of rewilding is to restore land and water courses to good natural health and to allow wildlife and habitats to flourish naturally. This can be achieved in a number of ways and is very much dependent on the particular parts of land to be rewilded.

Examples of rewilding projects include the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), a community-led project to rewild the seas around Arran and the Clyde. The community established a “No Take Zone” in Larnlash Bay in 2008 to protect the waters from all forms of fishing in an attempt to reverse the impact of inshore bottom trawling and scallop dredging. Studies have shown that some species have increased by nearly 400% since the measures were introduced. The local community has also benefited from the opening of a visitor centre that promotes tourism to the area.

An inland example is Mar Lodge within the Cairngorms National Park. Around 25 years ago, the National Trust for Scotland began a programme to encourage the rebirth of pinewood with an intensive programme of deer culling, which would enable trees to establish themselves naturally. The programme has seen the recovery of montane species including juniper, dwarf birch and willow, together with an increase in overall wildlife abundance, with more than 5,000 species being recorded across the estate (including the otter, wagtail and common sandpiper). The estate now promotes recreation with hill walking and horse riding, alongside an educational programme.

Farmers in Scotland have a proud history of adapting to change and doing well in the face of adversity, and can use these turbulent times to put their faith in the natural resources they have to hand. The promotion of biodiversity and clean energy in Scotland has clear ecological and carbon reduction advantages. For farmers, there are also economic advantages in receiving further income through clean energy projects, funding for tree generation alongside farming activities, or through eco-tourism.

For tailored advice on this or another related matter, please contact Katie McNab, of our rural property and infrastructure team, at katie.mcnab@shepwedd.com, or your usual Shepherd and Wedderburn contact.

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