50 for the Future – Enable soils and biodiversity to recover

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Professor Lorna Dawson, Head of Forensic Soil Science at the James Hutton Institute, discusses the role of upland farming in the recovery of soils and biodiversity.


Number 10: Enable soils and biodiversity to recover by providing generous government incentives to upland farmers to support mixed cattle and sheep grazing at low stocking densities.


In considering the above statement from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, we need to understand that the Scottish uplands are subject to varying degrees of management – some of which is supported by a publicly funded subsidy regime. However, the uplands are a complex and varied environment. To fully understand the challenges faced, and suggest potential solutions, the relevant plant, soil, animal, economic and social science have to be well understood and deployed. This is as true of the upland grazing environment as in any other environment. Social and economic considerations in land management decisions are also important, indeed essential to deliver a healthy and resilient upland environment.

Upland farming is a sector which faces many difficulties and expectations. In addition to the primary production of food, there are demands, sometimes competing, for managing wildlife, biodiversity, soils and recreational needs – often within the context of challenging climatic conditions and having to face more extreme events. Upland farmers have had to deal with such pressures for many years, latterly supported by a system of public subsidy which has increasingly recognised the need to manage land for multiple benefits.

Upland farmers face great difficulty making money from the market and a challenge of the scale of production. Most recently, advice and support to upland farmers in Scotland has been to look to improve productivity on their farms/crofts and to diversify their income streams through, e.g. woodland planting, Government support programmes such as the Scottish Rural Development Programme, or diversification into tourism and recreation. In August it was announced by the UK Government that farmers in receipt of funds through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) can be assured that “agri-environment schemes agreed before the Autumn Statement will be fully funded”, providing some short term assurance. Greater uncertainty is likely as we move to 2020 and beyond.

Upland farms are important from the perspective of biodiversity, with an estimation that over 40% of Scotland’s upland farms and crofts are considered to be of high nature conservation value; (termed “High Nature Value” across Europe) and are not viable economically without subsidy support. For some sectors this is particularly challenging; for example, the margins in the sheep sector are so tight that sheep numbers on the hill are reducing markedly for some holdings [1].

A mixed upland environment in Aberdeenshire. Source: James Hutton Institute. Coynachie Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

In the upland environment, animal grazing (livestock and wild) and their densities interacts closely with vegetation change. The intimate mix of grass and heather is susceptible to change, often as a result of selective grazing preferences. The density of grazing requires careful management, or else overgrazing can lead to soil damage and erosion. This can lead to the loss of good soil structure, and associated biodiversity loss, characteristics which are quick to deteriorate and very slow to recover.

The need for peatland restoration highlights the damage that can be done by overgrazing or undirected tree planting, each having been influenced by subsidy regimes. These land uses are examples of why evidence-based decisions are important in choosing the most appropriate mechanisms for subsidies.

At the core of this issue is the soil itself. Soils (and the life within them) are one of the most precious resources on the planet, and an understanding of their importance to agriculture and the environment should underpin many land use and management decisions. Soils are diverse in their characteristics and can be vulnerable to human impact which can, for example, lead to losses in biodiversity or organic carbon.

Aligning the land management and grazing density with the soil type is key to ensuring the sustainability of upland farming. As experienced farmers are only too aware, some land can handle higher grazing densities than others. We are in a fortunate position in Scotland to have mapped data available to farmers and land managers in the form of soil maps and digital soil data produced by the James Hutton Institute through long term research and surveys, funded by the Scottish Government [2] and accessible from mobile devices [3].

Approaches to aid the recovery of uplands, in particular, depend upon the initial condition of the land, and how it can support the different grazing habits of cattle and sheep. For example, if there is extensive cover of rushes, sheep can be used to remove the unwanted species to enable more beneficial species to establish. As cattle are selective grazers, they can be used to help establish a broader range of species. However, a crucial question is at what stage is recovery of the soil and biodiversity reached and how can this be appropriately measured?

Damage to soil in field grazed by cattle. Aberdeenshire. Source: Lorna Dawson. 

Support for making decisions about land management helps keep our uplands vibrant and beautiful for future generations. Work funded by the Scottish Government, being carried out by SRUC’s Hill & Mountain Research Centre at their Kirkton & Auchtertyre research farms, near Crianlarich, has shown that restoration plus appropriate grazing densities are beneficial for decreasing Greenhouse Gas emissions and increasing species diversity. The economic and ecological benefits and disbenefits associated with rewilding is also being investigated in research where one large glen remains grazed by sheep and cattle and the neighbouring large glen has been planted with montane woodland for nearly 20 years. Information from this will greatly inform future upland management decisions.

In Scotland, 10,000 ha of peatlands have been restored since 2013, much within the uplands of Scotland. Around 20% of Scotland is covered with peat with restoration and preservation of peatland is providing additional potential benefits in helping to meet ambitions on biodiversity, climate change and natural flood management. Examples of recovery of biodiversity in previously drained peatlands in Scotland can be demonstrated through restoration plans, such as that at the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland (e.g. Forsinard) and at Blawhorn Moss, Central Scotland. Large areas of drains have been blocked and plantation trees removed to help restore the peatland. Examples of the recent Peatland Action work in dealing with eroding peat is at Balmoral/Glenshee. Such initiatives not only contribute to improved biodiversity, but deliver other key policy objectives such as improved carbon storage / mitigating the effects of climate change.

It is certainly true that any future Government policy discussions would need to consider the option of compensating the farmer for any reduction in income from having fewer cattle and/or sheep per hectare. It would also have to take into account any extra management costs incurred. Land should be farmed at appropriate stocking densities – ideally no overstocking should take place. Land may be understocked as a commercial choice, unless the land is crucial to a red book species in which case the management could be whatever is commercially viable plus an ‘at cost’ subsidy for public goods. Subsidies to keep stock in place may not be sustainable. Funding for delivery of specific, verifiable and additional public goods can be justified, but the headline statement provided implies blanket funding which would be, with the information we now have available, unjustifiable.

In summary, we should look after the soil organisms that keep our soils healthy (biodiversity), which in turn support a healthy vegetation, also often supporting healthy livestock for good quality food production, delivering clean air and water, all set in a diverse and often picturesque landscape. 

This integrative approach to upland land use will help to improve life on land (one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals) by adopting land management techniques that prioritise soil health, protect ecosystems and biodiversity and promote a healthy upland landscape, supported by evidence-based subsidy. Scottish strategic research should help deliver this necessary evidence and knowledge to ensure that appropriate incentives are delivered efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner to upland farmers to support sustainable upland husbandry.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Professor Lorna Dawson: Knowledge Exchange Lead for Environment, Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact – Agri, Food, EnvironmentScotland. Head of Forensic Soil Science, James Hutton Institute.

This opinion piece draws on the research funded by the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programmes 2011-16 and 2016-21.


Banner image: © David Brinicombe, Creative Commons

Help protect Scotland’s wildlife

Our work to save Scotland’s wildlife is made possible thanks to the generosity of our members and supporters.

Join today from just £3 a month to help protect the species you love.

Join today


In this week's 50 for the Future article, Professor Lorna Dawson discusses the role of upland farming in the recovery of soils and biodiversity.

Stay up to date with the Scottish Wildlife Trust by subscribing to our mailing list Subscribe now

Back to top