Sustainable and integrated farming and crofting activity in the hills and uplands of Scotland: blueprint - report

Report from the Hill, Upland and Crofting Climate Change Group, one of the farmer-led groups established to develop advice and proposals for the Scottish Government. It focusses on how to cut emissions and tackle climate change, something that was re-emphasised in the updated Climate Change Plan.

1. Introduction and background

Climate change and a looming biodiversity crisis have come to represent two of the most significant modern challenges we face. Recognising that there is a need to improve society's green credentials, the Scottish Government has committed to meeting ambitious climate targets by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% between 1990 and 2030 and aims to become a net-zero nation by 2045.

This is an ambitious target and will require significant commitment and a restructuration in many industries so that appropriate changes can be implemented through the adoption of best practice and technology to reflect constantly emerging scientific findings.

Agriculture has been put under an increasing amount of pressure in recent years following on from significant emissions reductions that have been achieved in other sectors. The agricultural sector carried 18% of Scotland's total emissions in 2018. As part of Scottish Government's recently updated Climate Change Plan[1], agriculture needs to achieve emissions reductions of 31% by 2032 which will require for reductions to occur at a significantly faster rate than has been achieved to date and as is illustrated below, (figure 1).

Figure 1: Scottish GHG emissions from agriculture (Source: RESAS [2])
Graph showing decline in agricultural GHG emissions 1990 to 2018 and required reductions to 2032

Livestock carries the largest share of Scottish agricultural emissions and make up the single most significant agricultural activity across hill, upland and crofting systems which are typically situated within Scotland's Less Favoured Areas (LFAs). Based on estimations by the RESAS institute that 72% and 88% of the national herd and flock respectively can be found on farms with at least some LFA land, LFA businesses contribute approximately 45% to total Scottish agricultural emissions.

Figure 2: Emissions from sheep and beef 1990 – 2018 (Source: RESAS 2)
Chart showing emissions of key pollutants from sheep and beef production from 1990 to 2018

The previous illustration, (figure 2), summarises how total emissions arising from the beef and sheep sector have changed since 1990, highlighting that the emissions from the national beef herd have been on a steady decline since 1990 which is largely caused by a reduction in total cattle numbers. The largest proportion of livestock emissions is carried by methane, which is represented as a dark green colour on the chart, and which is typically the main contributor to livestock-related emissions as a result of enteric fermentation and manure.

Sheep emissions have also declined somewhat which again is predominantly caused by falling sheep numbers, as is illustrated below in figure 3.

Figure 3: Scottish sheep population in June (Source: QMS using Defra data)
Chart showing a general decline in the Scottish sheep population from June 1990 to June 2020

In terms of the emissions type, methane emissions from enteric fermentation, (represented by the dark green colour in figure 4 below), contributes by far the greatest share of emissions from LFA businesses as would be expected given the fact that ruminant livestock dominates as the main agricultural activity amongst LFA holdings.

Figure 4: Emissions from LFA by source and pollutant (2018) (Source: RESAS [3])
Chart showing emissions in 2018 from Less Favoured Areas by source and type of pollutant

Within an LFA livestock context, any production-based efficiency improvements that can be made by reducing the number of unproductive animals in the system and achieving greater enterprise input and resource utilisation will therefore be key to driving down livestock-related emissions.

In addition, important emissions reductions will also be achievable through better farmland and permanent habitat management, and this offers a key opportunity for upland and hill areas which contain a large proportion of permanent habitats and often less disturbed soils which hold vast amounts of carbon. The preservation of these existing carbon stocks along with sympathetic soil and soil health management to support additional atmospheric carbon drawdown will therefore be a second key area for reducing land-based emissions.

It is important to note at this stage that whilst Scottish Government has committed to meeting legally binding emissions reductions targets, which has led to the establishment of several farmer-led groups including the Hill, Upland and Crofting Group (HUCG), there is an equal need to address wider environmental issues including, in particular the loss of biodiversity. This has been recognised through the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy[4] and heavily relies on suitable farm land and farm environment management, particularly on more extensive upland and hill farming and crofting units where a typically lower input system and greater reliance on natural processes can support a diverse range of key animal and plant species.

The measures and management strategies which are included within this paper, and which form part of the HUCG's recommendations based on initial findings, have been identified because of their potential to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from the hill, upland and crofting sector, in this context being represented as LFA beef cattle and sheep.

Meeting Scotland's climate change and biodiversity targets will be achieved by focusing on the following three key outcomes as already discussed further above:

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of LFA livestock systems by improving on-farm production and greenhouse gas efficiencies through better input and resource utilisation and a reduction in the number of unproductive animals within the system
  • To maintain and, where possible, enhance soil carbon storage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farmland through better soil and grassland management both on cultivated soils and on permanent (grazed) habitats
  • To continue existing and, where possible, encourage further practices that deliver wider environmental outcomes including, in particular, biodiversity benefits

This report represents the initial findings from a review carried out by the HUCG over the past 10 weeks which not only considered opportunities to drive down livestock-related emissions but reviewed agricultural land use within the context of wider land use systems and land use changes including peatland restoration and management, woodland creation and management, and deer management. These three areas were identified as key areas for consideration alongside agriculture due to the fact that they make up the most common land uses across hill and upland areas, and because there are distinct issues and opportunities associated with the relationship between these different land uses.

Due to an extremely tight timescale and a large remit, this report does not include a literature review or discussion of the policy context relevant to the HUCG's recommendations. A shortage of time also meant that the HUCG was unable to quantify likely uptake of various emissions abatement measures or the actual emissions abatement potential of said measures.

Furthermore, the recommendations contained within this report only represent early findings from the work carried out to date, and does therefore not form a final set of proposals.

The HUCG therefore recommends that this report is used as a starting point to consider and outline the desired direction of travel with regards to the development of future agricultural policy.

The HUCG also recommends for Scottish Government to consider that the group may reconvene after the Scottish election period in order to continue its work and prepare a full and detailed set of recommendations in line with the remit it was given.



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