SCOTLAND’S nature is in crisis and if we are to reverse species loss and reduce carbon emissions, experts agree that more nature-friendly farming across the nation is urgently required.

“Transforming the way we use and manage land will be critical to helping nature recover – and farmers and crofters have a key role to play,” says

NatureScot’s Farming with Nature Programme Manager Daniel Gotts.

There have been profound changes in farming practices over the last century, explains Daniel, resulting in nature being pushed to the margins.

“Changes to ploughing and crop rotations, increased fertiliser use and high livestock numbers have all contributed to the degradation of soil and water quality,” he says.

“Healthy soils absorb water and carbon dioxide; unhealthy soils are increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

He adds: “These changes have contributed to the loss of nearly 25 per cent of our wildlife in the last 30 years – for example, significant decreases in farmland bird numbers, including a 50% loss of greenfinch, kestrel and lapwing, and a long-term decline in pollinators and species-rich grasslands.”

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Biodiversity is central to agriculture as it helps provide pollinator species like bees and butterflies.

Wild plants can act as natural pest controls and more nutritious foods are grown in healthy soils rich in trace elements alongside the main nutrients of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.

Diversity improves the quality of food products by providing resistance to pests and diseases and the ability to grow food in the face of changing climate conditions.

With so much pressure on habitats and the wildlife which depends on them, NatureScot, the country’s nature agency, is keen to support farmers, crofters and other land managers as they work to return nature to Scotland’s fields and countryside.

“Many farmers are already using a variety of nature-friendly and regenerative farming methods, showing us how food production and biodiversity can go hand-in-hand,” adds Daniel.

“These methods range from smaller scale ones such as protecting hedges and wildflower margins, and creating ponds to encourage diversity, to larger schemes such as planting native woodland, which provides clean air, carbon storage and erosion control.”

Some farmers and crofters are now practising low-intensity methods and reducing their use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, while rotating crops, integrating livestock in arable fields, and using no-till systems and cover crops that prevent soil erosion – all helping to improve soil health.

Daniel adds: “Careful grazing management is also important – and ensuring grass crops and hedges are cut at the right times of the year to provide protection, for example, for birds and small animals.”

In 2022, the Scottish Government published its Vision for Agriculture, which outlined the ambition for Scotland to be leading the way in sustainable and regenerative farming.

This bold ambition, it says, gives Scotland the chance to improve wellbeing, with local sustainable foods increasing economic and environmental health.

One of NatureScot’s key aims, says Daniel, is to support high-quality food production while restoring nature and tackling climate change.

“Farming and crofting can produce good, profitable, local food at the same time as helping nature and the climate recover,” he says.

“We want to build on the knowledge that the agricultural community already has, to learn from them about how to manage their land in a way that helps the environment and fits in to their wider business aims.”

NatureScot is leading four pilot projects to develop systems which protect natural capital and biodiversity and will help the Scottish Government reform agricultural support.

“We are developing tools to be used easily, on farmers’ fields and farms, designed to help them deliver benefits for nature and the climate,” says Daniel.

“Our team on the ground has been working closely with farmers and crofters to develop methods of mapping and measuring the condition of habitats and levels of biodiversity; then testing nature-friendly land management practices and how they improve environmental outcomes.”

NatureScot has been working closely with around 100 farmers and crofters across the country, from dairy farmers in Dumfries and Galloway to crofters looking after machair and blanket bog in the Outer Hebrides.

Apps and other digital tools have an important part to play, explains Daniel.

“We want to improve the level of detailed environmental knowledge that is easily accessible to farmers and land managers – apps that they can access and download, for example, so that even when an internet connection is not always reliable – a factor in remote rural areas – the information is still available,” he says.

“We aim to build user-friendly systems which can show complex biodiversity and land mapping information in simple formats. This will allow farmers, crofters and other land managers to decide for themselves which are the best measures to use to build a profitable and sustainable business.”

Partnership working is at the heart of the project and NatureScot has teamed up with a vital group of external advisors, including the National Farmers Union of Scotland, the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), the Scottish Crofting Federation, Scottish Land & Estates, RSPB Scotland, The James Hutton Institute, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland and the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs.

Daniel says there are encouraging signs that change is happening.

“There is a recognition within government and elsewhere that things need to change and also, an awareness that the speed of change has to increase,” he says. “It is encouraging that so many farmers are keen to be involved in playing a key role in improving nature and reducing the impact of climate change.”



Bank on ‘green’ farms to help weather the effects of climate change 

GOING green by changing to nature-based farming methods can mean getting out of the red, according to experts.

Daniel Gotts, NatureScot’s Farming with Nature Programme Manager, explains: “In the future, NatureScot wants to see a Scotland full of nature-rich and low-carbon farms – but those farms need to be profitable to survive.

“Fortunately, adopting nature-based farming methods can help make businesses more resilient and able to adapt to the challenges of climate change, such as more frequent droughts.”

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The Farming with Nature team at NatureScot is working to support farmers and crofters. The agency’s four pilot programmes are helping to develop the Scottish Government’s Agricultural Reform Programme, which will be introduced over the next few years.

“These are big changes for the farming community and we want to play our part in supporting them through this ambitious transition,” says Daniel.

“We are focussed on providing easy-to-use, high-tech tools and supporting expert environmental advice to help farmers and crofters improve nature alongside sustainable food production.”

The longest running trial is POBAS (Piloting an Outcomes Based Approach in Scotland). This project, which has evolved thanks to feedback from farmers and crofters, aims to test innovative approaches to improving biodiversity and natural habitats to see if these can be linked to a payment-by-results approach. 

The trial has been in three phases, working with around 100 farmers and crofters, managing varied farm types on different landscapes and in seven regional clusters across Scotland. Examples include peatland quality and wader management in Shetland, hedges and field margins in East Lothian, and grassland and woodland habitats in Argyll.

“These habitats have been chosen because of the benefits they can bring to us all,” says Daniel. “For example, hedges provide shelter and shade for stock, they capture carbon, protect soils, are vital habitats for farmland birds and can act as wildlife havens for endangered species.”

The trial moves away from a prescriptive approach, in which farmers and crofters are told what they must do on their land to get government support, to a much more flexible model.

“This makes sense, because farmers and crofters know their land better than anyone else, and their livelihood depends on the success of how they choose to take measures forward,” says Daniel.

“Equally, we know this is a steep learning curve for many so building relationships and working together to support farmers is essential.”

The system involves ‘habitat scorecards’ and a farmer-friendly app, developed by NatureScot and Sabbio, with a digital platform to share the information.

This allows users to score their habitats while in the field and see suggested measures to increase biodiversity outcomes.

“Farmers have worked with the designers to make it easy to use; in the future we hope that having these resources at the push of a button can help boost understanding of sustainable farming and lower the amount of paperwork that farmers have to deal with,” says Daniel.

“We think future farming success depends on greater farmer engagement, innovation and flexibility which will result in better value for money and build more resilient land-based businesses.”