Guest blog by Sarah Allison, Farming and Land Use Manager, Soil Association Scotland 

Soil Association Scotland has, for the last 15 years, been at the forefront of knowledge transfer between land managers (farmers, growers, and crofters), and researchers and specialists in rural Scotland.  Earlier this year we kicked off a new knowledge transfer programme – ‘Farming With Nature’ – with RSPB Scotland and Scottish Water as partners.

Improving the bottom line is paramount to farm businesses, and is a fundamental objective of the programme, which will explore five key areas over the 3-year lifespan of the project:

  • habitat creation and management
  • crop rotation, clover leys, green manures and catch crops
  • non-chemical pest control
  • animal health planning
  • soil nutrient management

We will look at these topics through a business benefit lens – through increasing production, reducing costs, or improving business resilience. And of course these practices also benefit the environment, so we will make sure we highlight ways of managing land that is both better for the bank balance, and better for the environment.

So, how do we plan on doing this?

Over the next 3 years a network of on-farm workshops are planned, and will bring in expert speakers from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. Our topics will be based around proven, practical research briefs.  We will be working with a range of agricultural research organisations through the newly formed SEFARI group to bring farmers and land managers up to date with the most up to date accurate information out there. In this critically important pre-Brexit period, the guardians of our landscape will be equipped with the tools needed to face whatever challenges they may face in the future.

Habitat Creation and Management

Creating and managing farmland habitats and features such as hedgerows, beetle banks and field margins supports pollinators, natural pest predators and other wildlife. Creating linkages between them can deliver more biodiversity within farmed landscapes.

Peatlands are a vitally important part of our upland areas. They carry out an amazing amount of ecosystem services that benefit everyone: acting as a carbon sink, flood water store, wildlife habitat, and clean water filter. Restoring areas of peatland are now a key priority for the Scottish Government. As our rural policy framework changes, these sorts of areas that provide real benefits for the public could well form part of a new income stream to land managers.

Support for land managers could change in the next few years, and it looks like funding will be linked to land management that delivers ecosystem services.

Dr John Holland of SRUC Hill and Mountain Research Centre discussing wader scrapes with farmers at ‘Worming Your Way to Profit’ held in July 2017. Image: Sarah Allison

Crop Rotation, Clover Leys, Green Manures and Catch Crops

Fertiliser use can be reduced by adopting and improving a range of farming practices, including crop rotation, grass/clover leys, and green manures. Using less fertiliser saves money, and reduces the risk of pollution.  The main cause of agricultural N2O (a really potent greenhouse gas) emissions is the application of synthetic fertiliser to agricultural soils. Increasing the uptake of these practices, as well as improving soil structure and soil health to improve drainage, will also reduce N2O emissions: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the carbon footprint of farm businesses. These practices can also be good for biodiversity. Nitrogen fertiliser is an agricultural input which has a financial and environmental cost. Reducing or eliminating it is a win-win for businesses and the environment.

Non-Chemical Pest Control

Rushes and bracken are invasive grass weeds that are a major problem for many farms, reducing the amount of grazing available for livestock. Controlling rushes with chemicals has created water quality issues in some areas, and there are many wider issues with using chemicals for bracken control. Areas of rushes can also be a wildlife habitat, if managed correctly. 

Increasing the sustainable productivity and profitability of livestock production, especially in areas of natural constraint, is vital to ensure the conservation and enhancement of some of Scotland’s most important areas for wildlife and outstanding natural beauty. 

Davie Black of Plantlife demonstrating how farmers can identify Scottish wildflowers and how good grazing management can enrich the value of these areas. Image:

Animal Health Planning

Animal health planning techniques have shown to produce healthier livestock that are more productive. In addition to this, certain treatments can be detrimental to wildlife including dung beetles that play a vital economic role in livestock production but are under threat from use of anthelmintics (livestock wormers). It is estimated that dung beetles save the UK's cattle industry £367m a year by encouraging the growth of healthy grass and eating animal droppings harbouring parasites harmful to livestock.

Proactive promotion of health, rather than reactive treatment of disease, is important for animal welfare, and also for farm business income.

Soil Nutrient Management

Erosion and climate change have been cited by the Scottish Soil Framework as the biggest threats to Scotland’s soils. Climate change will also exacerbate soil erosion, pollution, and flood damage. The financial impacts through lost production can be minimised if good farming practices are adopted. Soil is a fundamental resource for farmers, and is very important to the Soil Association. Farming With Nature will promote these practices. Farms using soil nutrient management techniques have been shown to increase soil organic matter, improve water retention and drainage, and reduce the risk of soil erosion and flooding. Improving soil health and function can help farm businesses become more resilient as our climate continues to change. It can also play a really important part in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and storing carbon.

Workshop Report - Worming Your Way to Profit
Date: 7th of July
Venue: SRUC Hill and Mountain Research Centre, Crianlarich
Speakers: Professor Davy McCracken, Dr Philip Skuce, Dr Fiona Kenyon, Dr John Holland, Harriet Wishart, Jenna Kyle

Key Messages:

  •  Wormer use on a hill farm can be reduced using precision agriculture
  • Animals are regularly weighed electronically, and any that are below a target weight are treated
  • This significantly reduces the amount of animals treated and the amount of wormers used
  • Managing a farm’s fluke risk requires good information: are stock infected, what fields are risky, and does local wildlife increase risk?
  • There is no simple way to reduce fluke risk on farm, and implementing a management plan and knowing the size of the problem can be a good starting point to reduce the risk

Image: Sarah Allison

If you would like more information on Worming Your Way To Profit please contact Sarah at Soil Association Scotland,