Hill, Upland and Crofting Farmer-led Group: climate change evidence

A summary of existing evidence around Hill, Upland and Crofting (HUC) farming, including greenhouse gas emissions produced by the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) division.

Executive Summary

This report highlights evidence on hill, upland and crofting in Scotland and its contribution to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

Data on the hill and upland cattle and sheep sectors are not readily available. However, the elevated areas of the hills and uplands in Scotland will typically be on land designated as Less Favoured Area (LFA). For the purposes of this report, farms (also referred to as holdings) categorised as specialist LFA are used as the best proxy for hill and upland livestock farming.

The main findings from this report are:

Context and structure:

  • In 2019, the standard output from LFA cattle and sheep farm types in Scotland (5.6 million sheep and 0.9 million beef cattle) accounted for a quarter of agricultural output with a value of £718 million.
  • These farms accounted for 3.2 million hectares, over half of all of Scottish agricultural land and roughly 30% of all Scottish holdings. An additional 0.6 million hectares of land associated with crofting is classified as common grazing.
  • In 2018-19, the average LFA farm[1] had a farm business income between around £11,800 to £24,800, depending on the main enterprise. This includes income from support payments and diversification. This is substantially below the average Scottish farm business income of £38,700.
  • When including support payments, over 60% of LFA farms are profitable. However, when excluding support, this falls to less than 10% – the lowest of all sectors.
  • In 2016, 7% of all LFA cattle and sheep farm types made more than half of their turnover from diversified activities, lower than the 9% average across all farm types. A further 7% made 10-50% of their turnover from diversified activities. For the remaining 86% of LFA farms, diversification activities account for less than 10% of turnover.
  • Since 2001, the volume of beef and veal purchased by Scottish consumers has decreased by 10%, while the volume of lamb and mutton purchased has halved. In 2019 around two-thirds of beef outputs and just over half of sheepmeat outputs from Scottish abattoirs were exported to the rest of the UK.
  • Crofts account for approximately 1% of Scotland's cropland, 11% of its sheep and 4% of its cattle.

Greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity:

  • Large reductions in emissions are required from all sectors of the Scottish economy to meet Scotland's legally binding 2045 Net Zero target, and the target of a 75% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Agriculture represented 18% of Scotland's emissions, or 7.5 MtCO2e[2] , in 2018. The Scottish Government's Climate Change Plan update requires the equivalent of a 31% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2032 from 2018 levels, a pace nearly four times faster than historic declines.
  • Emissions from less favoured area farms account for around 3.4 MtCO2e, or 45% of total agricultural emissions, nearly all of which are from cattle and sheep. This highlights the imperative for the group to consider practical measures for reducing emissions.
  • Evidence on technically feasible mitigation specific to cattle and sheep covers feed additives, selective breeding, improved health and slurry storage, of which feed additives provide significant potential.
  • Evidence suggests these measures could deliver reductions around 0.38 MtCO2e, if applied to their maximum technical capacity based on current levels of livestock in LFA areas. This scale of reduction would not be sufficient to meet agriculture's envelopes by 2032, even if matched with equivalent reductions across all sectors. In fact it would fall short of targets by around two-thirds.
  • The Climate Change Committee states changes in farming practices, woodland planting and reductions in livestock numbers are all required to achieve net zero. Their advice also highlights three key changes required to reduce agricultural emissions:
    • diet change with their main pathway to net-zero assuming a 20% reduction in UK consumption of red meat by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050
    • low-carbon farming practices, similar to those outlined above
    • productivity measures to improve crop yields and reduce stocking rates
  • The Climate Change Committee have also stressed that not only are the changes outlined critical for agriculture to reduce its emissions but also critical to free up the land required for other sectors to achieve the emissions reductions needed.
  • Overall biodiversity benefits from a mix of habitats and land use intensities. Where livestock numbers have fallen in upland areas reduced grazing pressure can be positive for biodiversity due to recovery of habitats such as heath, blanket bog and native woodland. Other herbivores will generally increase however under grazing can become a problem leading to loss of biodiversity. Some farming systems in hill, upland and crofting areas are considered of High Nature Value.

Performance and productivity:

  • Evidence suggests that Scotland is mid-table in international comparisons when it comes to agricultural productivity growth. This report sets out some potential options for increasing agricultural productivity in Scotland.
  • LFA farms typically have lower profitability and efficiency than other farm types in Scotland, and many rely on support payments to turn a profit.



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