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.

5. Production-based efficiencies

Suckler beef and sheep enterprises form the most dominant types of agriculture amongst hill, upland and crofting businesses. A review on suckler beef emissions reductions has already been carried out by the farmer-led Suckler Beef Climate Group (SBCG) and is currently being taken forward by the SBCG Programme Board to develop and implement a meaningful scheme. For the purpose of its initial findings, the HUCG review therefore focused predominantly on the sheep sector although some recommendations are relevant to cattle as well. It should be noted that although a large proportion of the HUCG's remit covers upland and hill areas, the recommendations contained within this chapter are outlined within the context of the whole sheep sector and therefore apply to all types of sheep production systems including lowland, upland and hill farms and crofts that may be managed intensively, semi-intensively or extensively.

It should be noted that due to the wide remit that the group had to consider within a relatively short timescale, this section does not include a literature review of existing research, nor does it analyse or discuss current emission levels associated with different aspects of livestock / sheep production, or the likely emissions abatement potential of different recommendations. The literature was reviewed and discussed by group members to develop relevant recommendations, and an analysis of the extent to which different options may be adopted by the industry and the resulting potential to reduce overall and individual business emissions will be outlined at a later stage using the initial findings of this report.

Improving production-based efficiencies can be achieved by maintaining high animal health and welfare standards and by better targeting inputs and resources in order to match these to the specific requirements of an animal or crop. This can deliver climate and environmental outcomes by reducing the emissions intensity of a production system as a result of improved livestock performance that is not limited by underlying health issues and through reduced input wastage which can typically arise from an untimely or over-supply. Combined, these factors can also help to (significantly) reduce use of and reliance on agro-chemicals and antibiotics. Improving performance efficiencies through better animal health and input management can therefore not only deliver climate benefits by reducing enterprise net emissions and the emissions intensity of outputs, but it can also have distinct environmental benefits by driving down the use of and reliance on a range of animal health products which can have a negative impact on ecosystems and the wider biodiversity found within, not to mention issues associated with antibiotic resistance which is of particular concern with regards to the future effectiveness of antibiotics used in human medicine.

Sheep are an efficient converter of grass and have a fairly short breeding cycle which means that they respond well to any strategies that target breeding and grazing management in addition to maintaining good flock health.

Any future outcome-based support scheme should therefore endeavour to capture the following key areas of sheep production, making sure that they reflect different types of production systems across Scotland:

  • Improve lambing and rearing percentages (by reducing mortality and barren ewe rates)
  • Improve sheep health through disease prevention and targeted use of agro-chemicals
  • Improve grassland and/or grazing management to optimise the quality and availability of grazing
  • Improve outwintering systems and/or homegrown feed and fodder production to reduce reliance on purchased supplementary feed

The above focus areas should form the pathway to achieving production-based scheme outcomes and will enable businesses

  • To improve production efficiencies and animal health by aiming for increased returns on inputs provided and a better utilisation of resources available, and to ultimately reduce input and resource wastage as a result
  • To optimise production outputs by producing more and heavier lambs from a given resource base where this is feasible; this may include more kilogram of lamb reared per kilogram of breeding ewe, per hectare, and/or per unit of input
  • To optimise the quality and quantity and improve overall management of homegrown grazed and conserved feeds in order to reduce the reliance on purchased supplementary feed where this is feasible

The HUCG recommends that any performance-based efficiency outcomes must be based on production optimisation and not maximisation so as not to encourage environmentally unsustainable management practices and increased use of inputs simply to increase outputs.

5.1. Breeding management

There are many different tools that are available to sheep farmers to improve the reproductive performance of their flock through general flock management and good animal husbandry, as well as through more targeted precision performance recording and genetic evaluation. Whatever outcome-based structure will be developed as part of an agricultural support scheme going forward, it is important to ensure that the outcomes are closely aligned with the concept of good breeding management and stockmanship. A multi-trait selection approach for performance optimisation will be key to achieving the desirable outcomes given that a singular focus on individual traits for output maximisation will risk unintended consequences in the form of a loss of desirable traits or subconscious selection for undesirable traits.

Primary breeding goals

At a basic level, a ewe should be able to successfully rear a lamb on an annual basis to the point where that lamb can be either sold or transferred into the breeding flock as replacement stock. This means that the primary aim of good flock management is not necessarily to increase the lambing and rearing percentage but to decrease the barren percentage in a first instance. This may sound very simple and obvious, but unless the basics of good flock management are in order, there is little justification to devote attention to specific management tools such as genomic profiling.

Therefore, primary focus should be on two basic key performance indicators:

  • Low mortality rate
  • Low barren rate

Because both these indexes can be heavily influenced by the weather and wider environmental challenges including predation, scheme design would have to be developed in such a way that can capture these challenges. Within the context of breeding management, the mortality rate is being discussed on the basis of underlying genetic issues rather than animal health.

Lowering the mortality rate is difficult where blackloss[5] occurs due to the unknown factors at play in such typically extensive systems. This should however not detract from focusing on the culling of problem animals where this is possible, i.e. in semi-intensive and intensive systems and on extensive units where ewes are lambed inside or in fields. Targeted culling should include any ewe with lambing or mothering issues not caused by external factors along with sires causing problems such as heavy birth weights any bloodlines with recurring problems. Besides the obvious animal welfare benefits achieved by removing problem animals from the breeding flock, a strict culling regime can help to increase ewe longevity and improve production efficiencies by reducing the extent to which inputs and resources have to be devoted to dealing with preventable incidents.

The HUCG therefore recommends that the reduction of breeding-related mortalities through the adoption of a strict culling regime of problem animals should form a key focus of a future support scheme, albeit that this will not be practical for the most extensive systems.

With regards to a low barren rate, a practical way to avoid issues associated with system-specific production limitations would be to cull any ewes and gimmers identified as barren at scanning to ensure that inputs and resources are not unnecessarily wasted on unproductive breeding stock.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that scanning is common practice within semi-intensive and intensive (lowland) enterprises but not necessarily carried out by every extensive (hill) unit, and this is therefore a distinct area of opportunity to encourage every sheep farmer to cull barren females on the basis of scanning results.

However, the HUCG notes that there are sometimes practical and logistical issues associated with scanning hill ewes, especially where sheep gathering can take several days or weeks and/or the farm does not have sufficient infrastructure to be able to hold all the ewes. In remote areas in particular, access to a scanning contractor can be challenging at best and the ability to arrange several visits to scan different management groups as they are being gathered off the hill may therefore not be possible.

In addition, it is also important to consider weather as often being the key factor impacting on ewe production in hill systems.

The HUCG therefore recommends that scanning is considered as a simple but very effective and cost-efficient tool to improve production efficiencies, but stresses that consideration will need to be given to supporting or recognising businesses that struggle to scan all their ewes due to logistical and/or remoteness issues.

Secondary breeding goals

Moving on from the primary focus of producing live animals, secondary focus should be on the production of offspring in line with traits that are of economic importance and which are typically closely linked to a lower emissions intensity. This is achieved by optimising the weight of lamb produced per ewe, i.e. the wean weight ratio, but has to be considered within the context of a given input and resource base to ensure that superior performance is achieved from superior genetics and not simply by increasing inputs or ewe size. In extensive hill systems where a ewe may not be able to rear more than one lamb per crop, this will typically involve the rearing of a heavier lamb in relation to the dam's liveweight where as in semi-intensive and intensive systems, this can also be achieved via increased prolificacy to produce more lambs per ewe per season.

It is however important to note that weight-based performance metrics should not be used as an absolute tool to determine production performances as this does not take into account any environmental production limitations and/or the level of inputs supplied to achieve a certain performance. It is therefore important to consider weigh-based KPIs within the context of input levels and the availability of infrastructure to better target inputs and reduce the influence of external environmental impacts.

The HUCG recommends that weight-based performance metrics, possibly including those relating to prolificacy, should be included as part of a wider selection of KPIs to identify performance efficiencies and better target breeding management via multi-trait selection strategy, but that any such tools and indicators should be considered within the context of environmental limitations, input levels and resource availabilities.

Higher-level breeding goals

At a higher level, there are many opportunities to take advantage of detailed performance recording and data capture using precision livestock technology. This includes DNA-based genetic evaluation which can in itself provide useful information on the likely breeding potential of individual animals, or can be used together with phenotype data to more accurately identify the likely performance of different animals within the context of a given environment.

The HUCG recommends that genetic profiling should be considered to be more widely used for the identification of superior and inferior animals in order to accelerate genetic improvements across the flock. This needs to be considered within the context of different production systems, and (initial) focus may therefore need to be put on genetic evaluation of (purchased) breeding males. Within more intensive systems, this could be extended to complement existing parentage/progeny recording with genetic data to better identify superior bloodlines.

Whilst the use of such genetic information can prove to be extremely valuable to businesses in terms of financial enterprise performance and improved production outputs, it can also deliver potentially significant environmental benefits by accelerating genetic improvement of individual animals and the flock as a whole. Furthermore, specific traits that can be evaluated have a direct beneficial environmental impact and this specifically includes the feed conversion rate which expresses the extent to which an animal can utilise inputs efficiently to produce outputs.

Overall, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the genetic makeup of an individual animal can potentially significantly influence the level of methane output produced by that animal, and genetically superior animals appear to have lower levels of methane output than genetically inferior animals.

The HUCG recommends that more research should be undertaken into the concept of naturally low methane emitters. This should be investigated within the context of wider traits of environmental and economic importance to avoid unintended consequence of focusing on one specific trait, and such a review should also explore whether there is a potential positive or negative correlation with other traits that can be identified more easily via phenotype data so that the selection of animals with a naturally lower level of methane output can be considered within a practical farm and croft environment and form part of the general breeding and culling strategy.

Regardless of the chosen approach to defining breeding-based scheme outcomes, the HUCG stresses that production and output-driven performance indexes must not be prioritised over, or directly compromise or disregard the genetic stayability and survivability (or hardiness) of upland and hill breeds. These are crucial traits and are often undervalued because many genetic breeding programmes are much more applicable to more intensive systems where the focus is on increasing outputs within a relatively controlled environment.

In a hill environment, ewes have to first and foremost be able to survive in a challenging environment and cope with extreme weather events and harsh conditions. This means that her ability to produce offspring can be severely constrained compared to her more intensively managed counterpart, and sometimes this leads to a wrong conclusion that she is 'less efficient' or 'less productive'. Attempting to change her productive performance through singular focus on those ewes with higher outputs can have far-reaching unintended consequences by subconsciously selecting for ewes that mobilise a greater amount of their energy and reserves for production. This can eventually lead to a deterioration of the ewe's genetic ability to retain sufficient reserves for herself which reduces her resilience and can increase the risk of metabolic disorders and other nutritional imbalances.

The HUCG therefore recommends that stayability and survivability are considered as part of any scheme outcomes relating to breeding management.

5.2. Health and welfare management

Animal health is closely correlated to the ability of an animal to thrive and be productive, and therefore significantly influences the emissions intensity and overall net emissions of a production system, the latter being affected because unthrifty and poorly animals generally require a proportionately higher level of inputs to sustain themselves and achieve some level of production.

Climate and wider environmental benefits can be delivered from targeting different aspects of general animal health management, including the following key areas which are typically discussed within an animal health and welfare plan:

  • Animal health and welfare planning
  • Preventative measures including biosecurity and livestock isolation
  • (Routine) treatments and disease control
  • Monitoring and record keeping

Regular animal health and welfare planning forms a key aspect of good livestock husbandry and should form the basis of for any health management and decision-making by outlining enterprise and location specific preventative and control strategies and identify priority actions that need to be taken by a business to address any existing issues or manage risks.

The HUCG therefore supports the proposal of the SBCG to introduce animal health and welfare planning as a baseline requirement of a future scheme but stresses that this should not be a simple form-filling exercise but instead a meaningful aspect of general business and enterprise planning which is implemented.

In addition to the prevention and control of potential or actual health issues, there is an opportunity to further reduce the environmental impact associated with health management by better targeting animal health products including, in particular, anthelmintics and antibiotics.

Anthelmintics are typically used as part of a routine treatment regime forming part of an annual health plan and should ideally consist of different active ingredients being used at different times throughout the year to target parasites at different stages of their lifecycle. Anthelmintics can negatively impact on the local biodiversity, particularly on beetles and insects that rely on dung as (one of) their food source, and it is therefore imperative that they are properly targeted and only used when necessary.

Administration rates depend on the liveweight of the animal and anthelmintics are therefore usually administered using a rate that is sufficient to treat the estimated heaviest animal within the treatment group. There are some issues associated with this strategy which can have animal health and wider environmental implications.

Firstly, estimating the liveweight of different animals can be challenging and anecdotal evidence suggests that the weight of livestock is often underestimated when based solely on visual appraisal. Administering an insufficient dosage rate can be problematic as this can accelerate the development of parasitic resistance to the active ingredient contained within the product.

Secondly, administering health products on the basis of the estimated heaviest naturally leads to input wastage across lighter animals.

Thirdly, a set routine treatment strategy does not consider any weather-related fluctuations to parasitic population levels and activity. This means that some routine treatments being administered may not be necessary and vice versa.

Better targeted use of anthelmintics including a potential overall reduction in anthelmintic usage can be achieved by:

  • Carrying out faecal egg count (FEC) analysis before a routine treatment is due in order to identify whether the parasitic burden is sufficiently significant to require treatment
  • Using weighing equipment, potentially along with an automatically calibrated drench gun, to administer health products at the correct dose on the basis of individual liveweights for each animal

Antibiotic use has also been identified as an area where potential gains can be made. Antibiotic use can result in significantly increased methane emissions from the dung of the animal that is undergoing treatment and can negatively impact on dung beetles. Good animal health management helps to maintain a low reliance on antibiotics and should always be given priority, but where antibiotics are needed to address an issue, it is important to ensure that they are properly used and targeted. The animal health and welfare plan should to a certain extent help to guide farmers and crofters on different types of antibiotics and when they should be used. In addition, it is crucial to ensure that antibiotics are administered at the correct rate and, as already discussed above, regular weighing can help to ensure that the correct administration rate is chosen.

The HUCG also notes that the above best practice methods could be further complemented by the adoption of the 'targeted selective treatment' (TST) strategy which uses an algorithm to predict expected performance levels. Any animals that have failed to reach a minimum performance level are treated as their performance may be held back by parasitic presence. Various trials have shown significant reductions in the use of anthelmintics and improved overall animal performance. TST is still in the early stages of development and is not currently available commercially. It is also likely that training along with some (initial) support will be required once a TST tool becomes commercially available in order to ensure that it is being used correctly.

The HUCG recommends that a future support scheme should include an animal health option on responsible use of anthelmintics and antibiotics to encourage large-scale uptake of best practice methods including FEC analysis prior to routine treatments and the use of weighing and precision application equipment to administer accurate dosage rates.

The HUCG also recommends that further research is carried out to accelerate the development of a commercially available TST tool, and that uptake of this tool is encouraged through the provision of training and support.

Sheep diseases and health schemes

The HUCG recognises that there is a likely need for a future support scheme to include management options or actions to address the issue of various sheep diseases as these can significantly impact on animal health and welfare and cause poor performance efficiencies.

The following diseases should be considered for individual/specific management, but further discussion is required to determine how significant their impact is on productivity, efficiency and GHG emissions of sheep systems, and how feasible detection, control/treatment, and prevention is:

  • Parasitic gastroenteritis (PGE)
  • Maedi Visna (MV)
  • Enzootic Abortion of Ewes (EAE) – this may potentially include accreditation through the Highlands and Islands Sheep Health Scheme (HISHA)
  • Scrapie
  • Caseous Lymphadenitis (CLA)
  • Johne's Disease
  • Ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA), also known as Jaagsiekte
  • Sheep scab

The HUCG notes that there are distinct challenges associated with the prevention, detection and control of some diseases, and that any disease control is very difficult to achieve in extensive flocks that graze on hills with open marches and where they can mix with neighbouring sheep. It is nonetheless imperative that every step is taken to try and bring diseases under control as much as is realistically feasible.

The HUCG therefore recommends that greater focus is put towards the prevention, detection and control of livestock diseases as part of a future support scheme or government-run health scheme. In order to ensure that such an undertaking is effective, a possible approach may involve the provision of suitable incentives for early participation before the required actions as part of such a health scheme become regulated.

Other health-related comments

Cattle health features strongly within the SBCG's proposals and the HUCG supports any efforts being made as part of a future scheme to dedicate a greater focus on livestock health in general as this can potentially generate the greatest improvements to production efficiencies where underlying health and welfare issues are limiting an animal's ability to thrive and utilise inputs for production. Scottish Government's BVD Eradication Scheme is an excellent example to demonstrate that national health programmes are achievable and can deliver benefits, and the group therefore supports any introduction of wider health schemes where these can be implemented in a practical manner.

5.3. Sheep nutrition and grazing management

The vast majority of Scottish sheep enterprises rely heavily and sometimes entirely on grass and other grazed forages although some systems may have a proportionately greater use of supplementary feeding. Good grassland and grazing management therefore forms a core aspect of efficient sheep production and should be captured as part of an outcome-based scheme. The resulting improved production efficiencies not only benefit the climate through a reduced emissions intensity but also because grazing management can provide a key tool to maintain particularly permanent habitats in good condition for wider biodiversity benefits.

The key focus areas to use grazing as a means for improved production efficiencies include:

  • Improved in-bye grazing management to optimise sward productivity through rotational grazing systems which include temporary grazing breaks
  • Outwintering systems incl. deferred grazing or in-situ grazing of alternative fodder and forage crops to reduce reliance on supplementary feeding
  • Homegrown feed and forage production to reduce reliance on purchased feed

The HUCG notes that grazing systems across Scotland are very diverse and influenced by a wide range of enterprise-specific and environmental factors. It will therefore be extremely challenging for a future support scheme to define an outcome which is capable of combining these different systems into one overarching aim because there is no one grazing strategy that is superior to others in terms of its likely benefits for the climate and wider environment.

Attempting to design any scheme outcomes concerning grazing management in such a way that requires a general action to be carried out would has also been deemed problematic by the HUCG. For example, a requirement to maintain a grazing diary, observe regular resting periods at certain intervals throughout the year or maintain swards at a minimum height could prove difficult to implement effectively, especially within the context of extensive systems where the weather can significantly impact the ability of businesses to adhere to specific grazing requirements, and because wild herbivores can potentially significantly impact on a grazing strategy.

Within the context of production-based efficiencies and based on the above, the HUCG has been unable to finalise its review within the given timescale and is therefore unable to provide a recommendation at this stage. However, the group stresses that grazing management arguably provides the most important tool for delivering environmental and biodiversity benefits across permanent habitats and cultivated fields. Such benefits can be achieved by observing optimum stocking densities to maintain the vegetation in good condition, alongside temporary stock reductions or exclusions during the flowering season or bird breeding and nesting season, as well as during the winter season when fragile habitats are more susceptible to overgrazing and/or poaching damage.

The HUCG therefore supports the proposal of the SBCG to introduce a biodiversity audit and environmental enhancement plan as a baseline requirement of a future scheme to ensure that simple but targeted grazing strategies are put in place to deliver a wide range of environmental outcomes for the benefit of the local biodiversity in particular but also a wide range of habitats, field margins, soil health and water quality.

The HUCG stresses that the use of grazed livestock as a biodiversity and environmental management tool is a particularly important aspect of continued sustainable land use going forward because many ecosystems rely on the integration of grazing animals. Sheep offer an extremely valuable means to carry out targeted grazing for environmental purposes on sites that are difficult to access by larger herbivores or on habitats that may be unable to support heavier animals (at certain times of the year). Cattle on the other hand are equally as important for conservation grazing aimed at environmental enhancement due to their less selective foraging habit.

The HUCG therefore strongly recommends that livestock grazing both through sheep and cattle is recognised for the important environmental benefits it delivers, and that this is reflected both within a future agricultural support scheme but also across wider environmental and climate schemes where the integration of targeted livestock activity with other land uses can enhance the benefits and outcomes that can be gained from such schemes.

Feed rationing

In addition to grassland and grazing management, it is important to note that accurate feed rationing for housed sheep and other systems relying on supplementary feeding is crucial to ensure that production demands are met and can therefore help to reduce the enterprise emissions intensity. Overall net reductions may also be achieved where better targeted feed rationing can minimise input wastage. Accurate feed budgeting relies on the use of known parameters where possible and although the proportionate level of supplementary feed including conserved forages typically is typically much lower in sheep systems than is the case in cattle enterprises, basing rations on feed values available from the feed supplier and from forage analysis can help to ensure that livestock performance is supported and optimised.

The HUCG therefore supports the proposal of the SBCG to introduce forage analysis as a baseline requirement of a future scheme to better target feed inputs on the basis of known values but stresses that this requirement should not apply to businesses with a relatively low reliance on conserved forages and smallholders who purchase small quantities of forages at a time due to storage limitations as the benefits from analysing such small batches would not justify the expense of the analysis.

Mineral supplementation and feed additives

Mineral and trace element supplementation forms an important part of many systems to make up the shortfall in key nutrients from grazed and conserved forages. This is a vital management tool to ensure that livestock does not suffer from any deficiencies which can not only limit the productive ability of an animal by affecting reproductive, growth and/or development performance but can also severely compromise the health and welfare of livestock. Often such supplementation is provided on the basis of a routine management program and may not necessarily reflect a deficiency that has been identified through testing. This can result in an actual deficiency remaining unresolved whilst an oversupply of a trace element that is already readily available within the diet for instance may cause (further) production limitations. In both cases, this leads to an increased emissions intensity through poorer performance and input wastage, and can negatively impact on animal welfare.

The HUCG therefore proposes that consideration should be given as part of a future support scheme to encourage better targeted use of mineral and trace element supplementations where there is an actual deficiency.

With regards to supplementation, it is worth mentioning methane inhibiting feed additives which, according to various studies and trials, show promising results with regards to their ability to reduce methane outputs from ruminant livestock systems, and they may therefore offer the most significant solution to achieve immediate methane reductions from enteric fermentation. It should be noted that they are a relatively recent development and are not currently captures within the national emissions inventory. Unfortunately methane inhibitors are not yet available in a form that can be used within extensive systems and this has been identified as a major challenge for widespread uptake across Scottish livestock systems.

The HUCG recommends that further studies are carried out to provide the evidence base that is necessary to update the emissions inventory so that the benefits of methane inhibitors may be captured at national level and reflected within emissions reductions achieved within the agricultural sector. The group also recommends that further research is needed to develop a means by which methane inhibitors can be supplied to livestock in extensive systems and to consider in particular the feasibility, safety and effectiveness of a methane inhibiting rumen bolus as boluses form the most practical way in which supplements can be provided to livestock in extensive systems.

5.4. Soil health and nutrient management

Soil health and nutrient management are not sector-specific and have, within the context of cultivated soils, been covered in detail as part of the SBCG's final report that was submitted to Scottish Government in late 2020. The proposals within the report largely reflect many of the discussions that the HUCG has had over the recent weeks in terms of cultivated farmland management, and the HUCG therefore does not deem it necessary to submit a separate review to cover the same subjects.

With regards to the baseline requirements of a future scheme, the HUCG supports the proposal of the SBCG to introduce conditional soil and manure analysis which has to be used to better target nutrients as part of a nutrient management plan, but stresses that this requirement should not apply to businesses with relatively low levels of manure produced as the benefits from analysing such small quantities would not justify the expense of the analysis.

With regards to any management options or outcomes forming part of a future scheme, the HUCG supports the inclusion or consideration of the following key aspects of soil health preservation and good nutrient management as part of farmland management typically taking place on cultivated soils:

  • Correcting soil acidity
  • Increasing soil organic matter
  • Minimising soil disturbance
  • Maintaining a ground cover
  • Maintaining a living root system
  • Establishing and supporting sward diversity
  • Utilising alternative sources of nutrients including manure and legumes to reduce the reliance on synthetic fertilisers where this is possible
  • Improving organic and inorganic N use efficiency through better (storage, handling and) application methods

In addition to the above recommendations for maintaining and/or enhancing soil health on cultivated soils, it is important to note that soil health management varies somewhat within permanent habitats including permanent pasture, where the focus should be on adopting low input, and therefore low impact, management measures to restore natural soil and vegetation ecology. This ultimately helps to reduce emissions, can capture additional carbon, and delivers wider biodiversity benefits.

5.5. Other management options

It is apparent from the above discussion and the wider review of opportunities to improve production-based flock efficiencies that the options available to a sheep enterprise are typically heavily dependent on there being some in-bye land or housing available at key stages of production. This is dictated by the fact that it is more difficult to monitor sheep to the same extent within an open hill environment, and it is therefore important to consider options that are applicable to hill units where there is no in-bye ground available so that they are not dismissed or restricted in their ability to participate in a future support scheme and be recognised for the outcomes they (could) deliver. There is an opportunity to consider the provision of support for enhanced shepherding in more extensive systems, not only to identify individual animal performance within a hill flock but also to help manage hill grazing more sensitively around biodiversity and climate objectives, namely by recognising and rewarding agricultural activity that delivers environmental benefits. Support for extra shepherding is already being trialled as part of the Sea Eagle Management Scheme monitor farms which are facilitated by NatureScot, and the inclusion of enhanced shepherding as part of a future agricultural support scheme could deliver a wide range of public outcomes including crucial socio-economic benefits by creating employment opportunities for new and young entrants wishing to enter the industry. This in turn contributes to rural communities and can also help to ensure that the important shepherding skills that are specifically required for upland and hill flocks can be passed on to the next generation.

5.6. Further considerations

Depending on the type of quantitative data that will be required to measure business progress, it is important to note that absolute figures with regards to livestock numbers may not be a practical means by which to identify outputs and efficiencies given that there is a wide range in animal size between different livestock breeds and production systems. Any area-based performance metrics deemed necessary as part of the scheme, e.g. in relation to optimum stocking densities on fragile habitats, should therefore use the total liveweight per hectare rather than livestock units or animal numbers per hectare.

When attempting to design an outcome-based scheme, a lot of consideration will need to be given to carefully designing such outcomes to ensure that they are achievable by different production systems, and to avoid unintended consequences that can arise from focusing on individual traits at the cost of other important characteristics. For example, focusing on absolute weaning weights or growth rates may favour more intensive systems and encourage a heavier reliance on inputs in order to achieve these targets, and the latter would not necessarily lead to a reduced emissions intensity. Single-trait focus, particularly on weight outputs, can also be dangerous when not considered within the context of ease of lambing for instance as the resulting welfare, survivability and stayability of the ewe may be severely compromised as a result of a difficult lambing.

It therefore follows that:

  • Scheme outcomes must not be outlined by single-trait indicators but should instead be based on multi-trait selection indexes and, where possible, attempt to capture the whole-life performance of an animal rather than different production and performance aspects in isolation
  • Any outcome-based approach to assessing flock production efficiencies should be based on performance metrics which can consider and capture the inherent differences and challenges between different (types of) production systems as a result of the impact of environmental factors. Production-based outcomes for sheep enterprises may therefore need to be designed to specifically target different production categories, for example:
  • Non-LFA
  • LFA Standard
  • LFA Fragile
  • LFA Very Fragile

It should be noted that any sheep-related outcome-based payment approach for improved production efficiencies will be difficult to implement with sufficient opportunity for verification by RPID due to the absence of a sufficiently robust central dataset for sheep numbers across Scotland and within individual businesses. The sheep inventory on ScotEID along with data submitted via Agricultural Census and Single Application Form (SAF) provides an important starting point to capturing sheep numbers at key stages and changes arising from movements, but numbers fluctuate significantly throughout the year and many extensive hill enterprises may not have a full lamb count in time for the Census survey. There is however a notable delay in obtaining lambing and rearing data given that legal requirements allow for individual animal identification to occur when lambs are already several months old.

There are opportunities to align continuous flock records which have to be maintained by farming businesses for cross-compliance purposes more closely with the ScotEID holding register, especially because the ScotEID database offers an option to enter blackloss numbers. Some farm and livestock recording software can already be linked to ScotEID to submit birth, death and movement records, and ongoing uptake of precision sheep recording equipment to move from a flock-based recording system to individual animal-based record keeping may offer additional opportunities to better track up-to-date livestock numbers.

This not only makes verification of animal numbers present on the farm at key points of the year extremely difficult without an inspection involving a full sheep count, but it also means that any changes in sheep numbers and to patterns of animals moving through the system cannot be immediately reflected within the national emissions inventory.



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