Farming systems across Scotland, the UK and Europe can vary markedly from place to place. A range of factors can influence what types of production are practiced in any one place. However, climate and soil type are especially important in dictating the type and intensity of management that is possible.
As a result of these physical limits on production, the possible management practices tend to be geographically differentiated. Hence most of Europe’s lowlands are capable of supporting relatively intensive arable, permanent crop, dairy and beef systems, while soil and climatic constraints in the uplands generally means that farming is based on extensive livestock grazing of natural and semi-natural vegetation.
While there can be marked differences in the environmental challenges facing lowland and upland farming systems, water quality and flooding concerns are not only common to both but management decisions and land use change in the uplands can have important implications for the lowlands. In addition, climate change mitigation and adaptation will strongly influence future lowland and upland farming systems.
Lowland farming systems can offer greater returns on financial investment, but although important for food security the resulting intensive systems of production are also associated with ongoing concerns about diffuse pollution, biodiversity loss and adverse impacts on soil and water resources.
In contrast, although upland farming systems are recognised as being important for the maintenance of many habitats and species of high nature conservation importance, the limited number of livestock produced for market each year and the associated current reliance on agricultural support policies for a major component of income makes them very vulnerable to changes to market prices and Common Agricultural Policy support mechanisms.
There can therefore be marked differences in the issues, and the scale at which they need to be tackled, between lowland and upland farming systems. But all have one thing in common - in order to be truly sustainable into the future the farming systems being practiced will need to change markedly. In particular, whether in the lowlands or uplands, our future farming systems will need to involve more sustainable use of resources and greater integration with other land uses. This will not only help diversify the inputs and income sources on those farms but will also serve to increase their resilience to future climatic, economic and resource supply changes.