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Phil Knott: Skye – The Agriculture, Biodiversity and Climate Change Network

30 March 2024

This article originally appeared on the Farming For A Better Climate website 

Phil is a crofter based on the Isle of Skye

Farm Type: Croft
Total area farmed: 3 ha (7 acres)
Total cropped area: No arable crops; it is hard to quantify horticulture as it is fragmented and dispersed. our grassland and trees are also crops because they provide food, fuel and fibre.
Total number of livestock: None

What climate/environmental actions have been undertaken on the croft?

“In summary, we want to take our rank croft and make it a productive space, producing food, fuel and fibre all while enhancing biodiversity and the soil, water, local environment. We will use only Nature based solutions to do this at absolutely minimal cost.

Nature based solutions include using trees, shrubs and deep rooted herbs to build and open the soil. Using our own meadows and woodlands to produce mulch and compost to feed our horticulture operations. Using native, perennial plants to build pollinator numbers and overall biodiversity. Managing water to ensure it is slowed down, captured and clean before it leaves the Croft. Massively improving shelter, absolutely vital in the Highlands and Islands. Only working with plants we know will grow here and that can thrive with only the inputs the croft and local area can provide. Knowing when to leave areas for nature and when to intervene. Keeping ground and soil disturbance to an absolute minimum. Let nature deal with soil pans and damper ground. Celebrate wet areas!

We record lots of wildlife, all mammals, birds, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, and any insect we can confidently identify. All flowering plants. We haven’t started on mosses, lichens or liverworts yet.

We welcome groups, individuals, students from all corners to learn about land management and nature. We are not preaching, we are just telling our story and welcome thoughts, comment and discussion.”

What impact have these activities had?

Huge biodiversity.  Nearly 300 species of moth already with non-intensive monitoring. Imagine what’s possible if you really looked? 85 species of bird, haven’t counted the flowers, but lots of scarcities, but more importantly, high abundance of what we do have! It is the assemblage that really impresses.

We produce a lot of our own food and will go on to produce a lot more for ourselves and others.

Our style of nature based solutions means that we know nature, shelter and soil is improving while we wait. No large machinery or industrial inputs needed!”

What was the catalyst for you taking this action?

“It has been our plan from day one. Realistically it is fertility building and almost no extraction for the first 10 years, followed by regenerative harvests afterwards. Luckily, we can afford to not make an income from our tiny croft while our plan is in action. We have received no financial assistance whatsoever in doing this.

We want to show what is possible with the right land management. You can have food, fuel, fibre AND biodiversity AND (probably!) sequester carbon. It doesn’t have to be either or nor does it have to have much if any cost.

The journey is exciting, and the thought of the destination for us and our children is great too.”

Have you completed a carbon audit & are you gathering any other data about the climate/environment impacts of your croft?

“No, our model is wildly different from the majority of others, so not sure if it would even fit into the survey methods. We tend not to fit well with most schemes and monitoring, so many things N/A. We are extremely low input and hardly any fuel. If offered for free under test programme then we will do one but we are happy that we are climate and biodiversity positive, and going forward our massively increased food production will reduce the vast food miles that folk up here have. We record lots of biodiversity in an anecdotal way and take lots of photographs. Phil is a skilled field naturalist and so has observed all of the changes and patterns from day one. It is important for seeing when intervention may be needed and when to trust in nature. “

What are your top tips/lessons learned from the experience that other farmers should consider if taking similar actions?

“It is very important to understand and acknowledge your limitations from day one, be it geology, aspect, climate, topography, soil, past management. It is vital that the decisions for your farm or croft are based on those factors and not what your neighbours or previous owners or tenants were doing. So many farms are miles away from sustainability let alone regenerative. Ask, with almost every decision, is this going to improve, maintain or diminish the farm, even on a micro scale.

Get expert naturalist advice in and learn nature yourself too. It is important to know firstly what you have in terms of wildlife. Is it rare or particularly abundant? Is this wildlife going to stay here based on my current and future farming practices? Being blunt, if you have little worth saving, think about what you could have. I think nature will have to fit in around us, so choose land management that is regenerative and economically viable and see what nature comes.

Stop thinking short term. Grassland needs time. Trees need time. Wetlands and ponds need time. Biodiversity needs time to build up. Make a plan, especially with expert help.

Be patient. Understand what you have. Let your flowers flower. Let your grass grow more than an inch.

Join NFFN. Go to meetings of various organisations. Invite as many people as you can to your farm and Croft. Be open and honest.”

What if anything would you do differently?

“We did not plant the first tranche of trees here, they were 9 years old and planted rather randomly with little thought to future management. We would have made a robust planting plan to allow for more options and better access. That said, wildlife is richer because of the planting style.”

What, if anything, are you planning next around climate and biodiversity?

“It never stops here. Each year we will turn more of our least productive land into flower-rich meadows. We will dig more ponds. We will plant and aid dispersal of many more flowering trees, shrubs, climbers and lower plants. Encourage deeper rooting herbs. Bring many more people here to demonstrate and discuss. Grow lots more food for ourselves and the local community in a chemical free way. Try and host as many niche wildlife experts as possible. All land management done at low cost, low effort and slow speed to allow for easy replication and to give heart to others on the journey.”

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