Discussion and Debate at Agriculture and Environment Conference

Published Thursday, 10th March 2016 in Research news

Davy speaking

Presentations by 25 high profile speakers from the UK and Brussels stimulated successful discussion and debate at the eleventh Agriculture and Environment conference held last week in Edinburgh.

Over two days, what is now Scotland’s premier event, asked what future for our farming systems? In so doing considering the environmental challenges and integrated solutions

Initiated in 1995 by SAC (now Scotland’s Rural College) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the biennial event now has other partners with close collaboration between SRUC, SEPA, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Forest Research, the James Hutton Institute and Scottish Natural Heritage.

These organisations offer a wealth of experience of the agricultural and environmental challenges facing Scotland’s farmers and crofters. Their event was a forum for researchers, land managers and policy makers to discuss how collectively they can help develop and support multi-functional agriculture within a healthy environment and thriving rural economy. 

One hundred and ninety delegates from 8 countries were drawn from a wide range of UK and European research institutes, from NFUS and Scottish Land and Estates and various agencies within Scottish (and Welsh) Government. They heard that while there can be marked differences in the agricultural and environmental challenges facing lowland, upland and crofting farming systems they have one thing in common. To be truly sustainable they, like others across the globe, will need to change markedly and involve a more sustainable use of resources and a greater integration with other land uses, especially woodland management. There are real complexities involved in achieving such integration in practice.

In his keynote presentation on the future for upland farming and crofting Professor Davy McCracken, Head of SRUC’s Hill and Mountain Research Centre, explained they face many pressures, including maintaining livestock productivity on poor grazing, conflicts with native and reintroduced predators, and an increase in diseases linked to an increasingly wet climate. But he also stressed the need to address the fragile economic viability of these systems, ongoing conflicts with other land uses and importance of taking the existing nature conservation, social and cultural values of these systems into account in the rewilding debate

Reminding them about the adverse impacts of flooding on farming in recent months Professor McCracken highlighted concerns about farm soil degradation on the likely impact on future productivity. 

“Changing aspects of our farming systems is just as much about maintaining long term economic viability and agricultural productivity of farms as it is about providing any other benefits that society needs,” he said. 

Firstly, to do that required more investment to help upland farmers and crofters restore degraded peatlands by re-vegetating bare areas and blocking ditches to re-wet the peat. This stops the processes causing greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane. Peatland restoration also alleviates flooding by slowing down water flowing off the hill and improves water quality by reducing the amount of sediment.

Secondly there is a need to establish more woodland on the lower parts of our upland farms and crofts. This would make more shelter available to livestock exposed to increasing extreme weather events and provide more wildlife habitats. If trees are planted in the right places they would also reduce downstream flooding by holding back the water from saturated moorlands. 

Thirdly, the challenge on lowland farms is to maintain profitable food production while increasing the diversity of habitats like woodlands, unmanaged field margins, wetlands and wooded riversides. Combining some of these elements with recreating meanders on rivers, establishing field storage ponds to retain flood water, and managing those fields to reduce soil and water run-off would also provide ways of mitigating flood events by slowing the flow of water through the lowlands.

There was much more discussion on what the countryside should be managed for with agreement of the need to seek multiple benefits (food production, timber production, water management, biodiversity, carbon storage etc) from all our farming systems. But delegates also recognised the importance of rewarding land managers for creating the non-market services society needs, like flood protection, aesthetic value and carbon storage. The big and as yet unanswered question is how do we achieve this in practice?

The outputs from the conference well were covered by the media. BBC Scotland’s Out of Doors included interviews with Allan Buckwell from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, Philip Skuce and Beth Wells from the Moredun Research Institute and SRUC’s Davy McCracken. The programme is available on BBC i-player https://t.co/rB5dlPjXFQand is available to listen to for the next 25 days.

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