The plough is history. A new breed of farmers are redefining the rules of farming as they take on the climate change fight. Just don't tell them we all have to go vegan. Vicky Allan reports

THERE'S a rumble of movement at the top end of the meadow. A herd of cattle – sleek, muscular Aberdeen Angus – is shifting. They stream through a new gate opened in an electric fence. Cows with their calves, two bulls, lunging, seemingly mob-happy, down the field, grasping bites of the lush grass, roaming this way and that, as if they have only just been let into some new adventure park.

“This is the mob,” says farmer Doug Christie. “They’re moved to a different patch every day.” They graze as he speaks, tugging at long, green blades. “Ah they love it,” he says. “They get a fresh bite every day. And it breaks disease cycles. It lets indigenous plants come through. They’re not going to come back into this area after tomorrow for another 40 days. It lets the grass come away a lot better.”

The cattle roaming this field form part of what Christie describes as “a very primitive form of mob grazing” – a system in which livestock are regularly shifted from one relatively small patch of pasture to another, allowing the grass and soil in those areas sufficient time to recover. Part of the point, he notes, is not to let the grass get overgrazed. “If grass is down below 50 per cent of its height the roots stop growing. You don’t want to over-graze the land. Overgrazing is damaging. That’s why a lot of grazing systems get a bit of a bad press, especially up in the hills with sheep.”

Mob grazing is just one of many approaches I came across in my journey across Scotland, looking for farmers who are attempting to do something to mitigate rather than exacerbate climate change. We often hear about how we need to cut down on beef to save the planet, or read stark figures, like those that suggest that 50% of emissions from agriculture in Scotland are methane emissions from livestock – the burps (etc) of cows and sheep – but it has been striking to me how many farmers see grass-fed ruminants, cows and sheep, not as the problem but part of the answer to climate change. Many I spoke to see cows as tools to help us restore degraded soils and create carbon sinks.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. It's a debate that has raged in climate science circles for some time. Should we ditch beef all together? Eat only grass-fed meat? Or further intensify so the livestock is living off less and less land? Two years ago, a report, Grazed And Confused, sought to eliminate the confusion. But, while some saw it as delivering the stark message that even grass-fed beef was to be avoided for the sake of the climate, others read it as more ambiguous. On the one hand it stated that “in some contexts, it may well be better to use the land and other resources to graze animals”, but, on the other, it warned that, given global rises in meat consumption, a grazing system would require “a massive expansion of grazing land, which would inevitably occur at the expense of forest cover, and a massive increase in methane emissions”.

Mob grazing is a method that Christie started this year on his farm in Fife, inspired by visits to the United States, where he witnessed the practice of what is known as regenerative farming, an approach whose most high-profile advocate is the anti-desertification pioneer and livestock management guru, Allan Savory. Christie describes the theory: “A lot of the cultivated soils of the world are degraded as it is. Sustainable agriculture implies that everything is all right if we leave them as they are, not improving them, whereas regenerative is trying to improve what’s there. It’s trying to bring it back to the pre-degraded level.”

Christie’s Aberdeen Angus mob, it turns out, is just one of many experiments on his farm. Often, as he describes them, he seems more like an enthusiastic lab scientist than farmer. “I am constantly on a new experiment,” he says, “and I’m not afraid of it, but it’s not easy. Changing things is not easy. It’s hard work. But I know exactly what direction I want to go in with the farm now and that’s basically improving the soils.”

Changing things is what he has been doing for the last 20 years, since he took the farm – in his family since the 1770s – over from his father and decided to ditch the plough and practise direct drilling. “I was fed up with ploughing, because it’s such a slow process. It was a cost-saving exercise initially. But, as I’ve kept on not doing it, I’ve realised there are so many other spin-offs.”

It’s this ditching of the plough that I’ve partly come to talk to him about. The plough, after all, was where the idea for this article began – with a conversation with my father, a former farmer, who left agriculture, after the Northumbrian farm on which I lived for some of my youth went bankrupt. I was asking him, given where we are at in terms of the climate crisis, what kind of practice he would use now. He told me that he would probably join the growing movement towards “no plough”.

This surprised me. Ploughing seemed a practice at the heart of farming, one of the first things I, as a 13-year-old rookie tractor driver, had learned to do. Yet many farmers were ditching this agricultural icon in the name of soil health and biodiversity. This made me wonder what else farmers – the more visionary ones – were doing to mitigate climate change. For, if we are going to address the climate crisis, without a doubt farming is one of the sectors that is going to have to change.

This month saw the launch of an independent inquiry Food 1.5, into how agriculture can meet emissions targets, bringing together farmers, scientists and policy experts. Its co-chair Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, observes that for the past three years he has been trying to focus on change in key areas that he feels are holding up delivery of our climate targets – agriculture is one. The sector, he notes, hasn’t seen a reduction in emissions particularly over the past few years – but, at the same time, potentially it could have a very positive role, in terms of protecting carbon sinks.

The jury is out, however, on how it is done. Christie is trying out a wide range of the approaches and new ideas. He is one of a number of rogue farmers trialling new methods for themselves. His farm shows how the patchwork of the countryside may be set to change. It’s not just that the ploughed brown squares of yesteryear are starting to be replaced with green, but also that what’s grown in those fields is changing. Some of Christie's fields look strikingly unfamiliar, containing as they do not just wheat or oats, but of a mixture of plants – swirls of peas among shoots of oats and sprigs of oil seed rape.

Christie tugs at a pea-plant tendril. “This is where we’re going next,” he says. “It’s growing three crops in the field at the same time and it’s getting diversity within the crops. Usually you go around the countryside and you see a monocrop field of wheat, or you see a field of barley or see you see a field of beans. Nature doesn’t like a monoculture – the more species you can get the better. This is oats, peas and oil seed rape. They’re mixed together and they’re sown at the same time.”

Among Christie’s other forward-thinking experiments has been cover cropping – keeping something growing on the land, whatever the season, even through winter. “The ideal thing,” he says, “is to have something growing in the soils at all time – so never have fallow, never have ploughed fields. Because as long as there is a crop growing then that crop is pumping carbon into the soil and taking carbon out of the air.”

Christie is not alone in having a passion for soil. Many of the farmers I spoke to were evangelical about it. Among them, for instance, is David Finlay, who runs the Ethical Dairy in Dumfries and Galloway. Finlay previously worked as an agricultural consultant, in a culture where, he recalls “organic was a joke”. He describes his journey with the Ethical Dairy as a “gradual awakening”.

Now, when he talks about livestock, he’s not always describing his dairy cows. More often, in fact, what he’s referring to is the life in his soil – the worms, the dung beetles, the fungi, the voles, the bacteria. For him, farming is mostly about building “soil life”, and organic carbon, and ruminants play an important role in this. He observes that the depth of his soil has been visibly growing. On one of his permanent pastures he has noticed that the once exposed bottom wire of his fence is now covered, not just in vegetation but actual new soil.

“We started off 25 years ago with a high organic matter of above 10 per cent. Now we’re around 15 over the whole farm on average. We’re still building carbon – because we changed our farming system, we’ve stopped ploughing, we’ve stopped using fertilisers.”

Nevertheless, many experts – and some of the farmers I speak to – still argue that we need to produce and eat less beef, lamb and dairy. Among these is David Reay, a professor in carbon management at the University of Edinburgh who is on the panel of the Food 1.5 inquiry. He observes that the kind of transition we need to make is one in which, on average, we eat 20% less ruminant meat and dairy. "We need," he says, "to on average eat less meat for health grounds as well as climate change mitigation grounds."

Does he think extensively farmed meat is better? Or intensive? Neither, it turns out. He notes that, when it comes to climate change, there are bad intensive farmers and good intensive farmers. The same applies to those who farm extensively. “The key thing with most livestock agriculture is that if you’ve got good animal welfare then your emissions will be lower – a cow will emit less methane per litre of milk or kilogram of beef. It’s not like it’s intensive good, extensive bad. It’s not that simple.”

As it happens, Reay has bought his own farm – 30 hectares on the west coast – and is beginning his own experiment there. “We’re going to start, in collaboration with a farmer who grazes his sheep there, to see, if we change the grazing intensity and the management, how we can sequester carbon, and how that fits with the new subsidy regimes.”

Because his soils are not great – “only really suitable for sheep grazing” – his chief plan is to plant trees and build up soil carbon. He enthuses about the idea of incentivising farming for the public good, which is worked into Michael Gove’s agriculture bill. “We need policy which incentivises moving to tree planting – and not just in the short term but ones that say we’ll fund you to plant trees and manage them and be the custodian of that carbon sink for decades.”

We know we need to plant more trees. That message is out there – the recent Climate Change Committee report recommended around 1.5 billion. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, giving over huge areas of our land to a monoculture of forest. In fact some farmers are looking at is a form of what’s called agroforestry, in which woodland and crops or livestock grazing are mixed.

Lynn Cassells, who runs Lynbreck Croft in the Cairngorms, with her partner Sandra Baer, is experimenting with this. Since they bought the croft three years ago they have planted around 33,000 trees, setting aside half of their 30 hectares to woodland. Their land, she observes, is mostly heathery, and has poor carrying capacity for livestock. “We were looking at how we can increase biodiversity and increase carrying capacity for our animals, and putting all of that into woodland seemed to make sense. So we planted 17,400 native broadleaf trees, thinking that in 20 years' time that will be multiple hectares of sheltered hill grazing.”

Though this integration of tree and pasture seems like an experimental new approach, in fact it echoes the way we farmed centuries ago. Pete Ritchie, executive director of Nourish Scotland and one of the key figures behind the Food 1.5 inquiry, observes: “There was a period when pasture in Scotland meant bits of land that would have had trees in it. We only ended up with fields without trees a couple of hundred years ago.”

Ritchie is an organic farmer himself and enthusiastic advocate of agroforestry. “All the research shows you get more biomass per acre, better soil, more biodiversity, and all without losing crop, maybe getting a second crop." At his farm, Whitmuir in Peeblesshire, around a quarter of the land is dedicated to trees. He recalls that when they first started selling food there in 2005, they put a methane tax on their beef which went directly towards creating a community woodland.

Cutting down on fertiliser or other chemicals is also a recurrent theme among these farmers. The story of greenhouse gases in agriculture, after all, includes nitrous oxide – a potent long-lasting greenhouse gas released when excess nitrogen fertilisers are applied to the soil. Professor David Reay points out that it’s important that we bring down these emissions. “I’m not saying we need to stop using nitrogen fertilisers. But at the moment for every tonne of nitrogen fertiliser we use, on average, more than half is lost into the environment. So the focus with nitrogen is to be more efficient.”

Among farmers attempting to cut back on chemical use is Hugh Black, who farms on land near Forfar which he says is “best suited to veg and potato production”. Now participating in a Scottish Government funded project, Farming For A Better Climate, he was, he says, brought up using chemicals, as was his father, but he no longer believes in them. “It doesn’t sit right with me."

He adds: "I’m not advocating organic. I just feel there must be a way to do this without chemicals and we want to find it really quickly. I still want to produce potatoes, still want to produce the crops we have. But I want to do it in a minimal input way as possible – so not reaching for the quick fix.”

What’s clear is that regenerating soil is a passion for many of these farmers. Doug Christie roams his field looking for a good patch of grass. “If you come back in five years it will be a lot better than this,” he says. When I ask him if he is obsessed with soil – he says: “Yeah. If you improve your carbon in your soil, it is like putting money in the bank.”

But what about the often-mooted idea that the answer is to farm more intensively over small areas and rewild the rest? “What’s going to happen to the soils on those bits of land?" he says. "They are going to be really degraded. Wilding is great. I think it’s got its place. But I think if there is ruminant livestock on it, that can speed up sequestration of carbon. Livestock are often portrayed as the big bad wolf and I think it’s just plainly wrong.”