12. Further considerations and recommendations
The Suckler Beef Climate Group proposes a scheme that is targeted at and directly relevant to Scottish suckler beef production. However, the group recognises that there are a range of ongoing projects, studies and approaches to land management which, although falling out with the remit of the SBCS, are worth noting. The group recommends that where possible and feasible, collaboration should be sought and the multiple interests and benefits of different land management practices and uses integrated with one another.
Outcome-based agri-environment management
The group notes the recent news release regarding the ongoing pilot project aimed at developing a successor scheme to the old agri-environment climate scheme (AECS), and supports the proposed move towards an outcome-based scheme approach. This concept closely aligns with the outcome-based measures and principles proposed as part of the SBCS where participants will also be rewarded for actions that deliver actual results. The group recognises that the potential and need to deliver environmental, climatic and ecosystem benefits alongside the provision of domestic food security has become a key priority within agricultural policy, and that agri-environmental and climate-friendly measures will likely form a fundamental part of any future Scottish agricultural support schemes.
This may potentially include minimum requirements across all farming sectors, meaning that farming businesses wishing to access any agricultural government grant funding may be required to carry out basic environmental on-farm measures.
To this end, the group has proposed the inclusion of a minimum requirement aimed at biodiversity enhancement on participating farms as part of the SBCS, and close collaboration with relevant stakeholder organisations and experts has been initiated as part of the scheme development in order to design this minimum requirement in such a way that it is meaningful and effective. Various potential approaches are currently being reviewed, including a concept which requires participants to prepare a simple environmental audit of their farm in order to identify key biodiversity outcomes generated by the holding which would also inherently deliver climate benefits. This could potentially include the following four broad biodiversity priorities:
- Areas of grazed, semi-natural, species-rich, permanent habitats through the maintenance of sustainable grazing regimes; this would include grasslands, heaths, moorland, wetlands, flood plains, coastal land, field margins and corners
- Areas of ungrazed permanent habitats that form biodiversity corridors through the farm which would be continuously protected from potentially damaging activities; this would include hedgerows, water margins, watercourses, woodland and un-grazed permanent grassland, wetland, heath and bog
- Areas across the farm that could be released as a result of efficiency gains through this scheme in order to create or restore habitats to enhance the biodiversity potential of the farm through management supported by other agri-environment, woodland, or peatland restoration schemes
- Non-native invasive species that could be removed through participation in targeted agri-environment, woodland or species control schemes
As part of this requirement, farmers could prepare a range of outcomes and assess how well their management maintains habitat quality, and specific categories of outcomes could be listed for each of the above four main biodiversity components to assist participants.
Farmland forestry and hedging
The group supports well-planned and integrated farm woodland and agroforestry projects including the preservation of existing native and riparian woodlands, scrubs and natural regeneration, as well as silvo-pasture and hedges where the mutual benefits of forestry alongside farmland can deliver distinct benefits for the climate, local biodiversity and towards flood risk alleviation without jeopardising Scotland's domestic food security and the associated socio-economic and environmental benefits of a thriving agricultural sector.
Peatland restoration and preservation
The group also recognises the importance of preserving, restoring and properly managing peatlands, and therefore fully supports ongoing works and funding being made available to carry out peatland restoration across Scotland. In addition to restoring degraded peatlands, the group recognises that continued targeted and careful management of peatlands is crucial to ensure that they maintain current carbon stores and, where possible, are maintained in an actively growing state to sequester additional atmospheric carbon for long-term soil carbon storage.
Although peatland restoration falls out with the remit of the SBCS, appropriate peatland maintenance and preservation relies on good livestock management. The group has therefore proposed a management option which takes upland grazing management into consideration in an attempt to encourage participants to preserve the condition of on-farm peatlands and prevent (further) deterioration by maintaining appropriate upland grazing by cattle. The group recognises that despite the management option having the potential to deliver important benefits, there is an opportunity to develop the proposed measures further in an attempt to fully utilise upland livestock systems as a tool to enhance and protect fragile upland habitats rather than risking damage caused as a result of poorly informed and poorly applied agricultural activity. The group therefore welcomes any suggestions that the proposed management option can build on once the initial engagement has been secured from upland farmers.
Processor-industry collaboration and prime beef definition
The SBCS includes a proposed minimum requirement to encourage collaboration and data exchange between store producers and finisher units via provision of a centralised database. There are already many examples within the Scottish livestock sector where farming businesses work together and feed back or share relevant performance data with one another for the benefit of both businesses. The group proposes that upon successful introduction of the above database, consideration should be given, possibly during the mid-term review, to widening that database in order to bring processors and wholesalers on board as well to increase the flow of relevant information between the store producer, finisher unit, and the processor.
In addition and in light of an increasing awareness of the importance of supporting agricultural businesses in achieving efficiency gains within the bounds of what is feasible within specific production systems, the group also recommends that the current definition of what constitutes a prime animal be reviewed, namely that the minimum age at which a cattle beast can be classed as prime animal be reduced from the current 12 months to 10 months in line with a recent recommendation put forward by the National Beef Association. This will not affect the vast majority of suckler beef producers and finisher units. It will however provide some more intensive finishing systems that work with early-maturing cattle types with a greater flexibility to supply their animals into the system when they are ready, rather than having to delay slaughter due to minimum age restrictions. The group recognises that there are distinct climate benefits which can be gained from providing such a flexibility due to the potential saving in inputs which would otherwise be required to maintain these animals in condition, and the emissions from the rumen activity and manure production generated during that additional period. The group stresses that this system only suits a minority of agricultural businesses where these efficiency gains are possible, and recognises that there are many different finishing systems across Scotland that work with a range of early to late maturing cattle types, forage or cereal based diets, varying resource and input availabilities, and environmental constraints. Whilst an age at slaughter of 12 months and younger may not work within their system, they can achieve distinct efficiency gains elsewhere within their own specific cattle enterprise and deliver equally significant climate and environmental benefits.
The Suckler Beef Climate Group notes ongoing studies exploring options to increase the accuracy of the current approach to reporting on and estimating greenhouse gas emissions from different sources and industries. This includes the recently published research paper by J. Lynch et al. (2020) which discusses the potential of better accounting for the atmospheric lifetime and warming impact of Methane amongst other greenhouse gases by upgrading the currently widely used GWP100 metric to GWP*. GWP100 measures the global warming potential of different gases over a period of 100 years where as GWP*, according to the study, shows potential to be able to provide a more reliable indication of the actual warming impact of specific levels of emissions by considering gases with a lower atmospheric half-life.
Agricultural labour availability
Whilst not necessarily directly related to climate-friendly farming, the Suckler Beef Climate Group wishes to highlight the importance of retaining people within the agricultural industry and encouraging new and young entrants into the farming sector. Technological advances and innovations have over the years contributed a great deal towards enhancing on-farm efficiencies and will undoubtedly continue to do so as new technological innovations and developments are being made. While technological equipment can support good stockmanship, it cannot fully replace the skills of a good stockperson.
The group therefore recommends that measures be put in place that enable new blood to enter the industry by encouraging and assisting existing businesses to take on additional staff, whether temporarily as part of traineeship, apprenticeship or work placement, or longer-term to become part of the team and contribute towards the growth and development of the business into a successful and resilient farming operation. Funding of such training should be provided with a particular focus on encouraging the younger generation into the industry. With an ever-increasing element of technological innovation within on-farm production systems, there are huge opportunities for young people, who tend to be much more familiar and comfortable with technological equipment, to become involved and contribute their own specific knowledge and abilities to complement the skillset already available within an existing business. With the Covid-19 pandemic having adversely affected many businesses and individuals, a successful green recovery as set out by government will need to consider the importance of maintaining a land-based labour market in order to sustain rural communities and the many benefits that these communities bring with them.
The group furthermore supports the use of smaller scale on-farm green energy generation. The use of anaerobic digesters for slurry and manures and the production of hydrogen as an alternative fuel for farm machinery are two good examples of this. Biomass, solar, wind, hydro and CHP systems (combined heating and power) are also extensively used on Scottish farms and should be encouraged, especially as there are already some schemes in place (mainly across the UK) to support these climate friendly initiatives.
Additional government support
Where there is currently no government scheme in place to support investment in environmentally friendly infrastructure, equipment and other projects or programmes where the benefits for the climate are quantifiable, consideration should be given to introducing such technology onto Scottish farms in a scheme funded by the Scottish Government. Such funding could potentially come from the Agricultural Transformation Programme, albeit that this might require a cash injection to ensure that the budget can support the wide-spread uptake of such a scheme.