For over ten years, Scottish agriculture has come to recognise the importance of sustainable management of the farmed environment, mainly in response to the growing climate crisis and biodiversity decline. To that end, farmers across Scotland have participated in environmental schemes for many years now, including Rural Priorities (RP) and the current Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS).
As focus on environmental and conservation concerns continue to climb the agricultural and political agenda, a number of retailers and suppliers in the dairy sector have looked to incorporate auditing of various forms of natural capital. These include soil health, waste management planning and biodiversity reviews, as well woodland planting potential and targets for social involvement and training.
Hedges present a great opportunity for dairy farmers, who typically have a high forage demand and find it challenging to set aside land for conservation and climate benefit. With carbon sequestration becoming a metric for mitigating climate change, hedges offer a way for dairy farmers to lock in carbon, fight soil erosion and help incorporate organic material into the soil.
The importance of hedges cannot be overstated when it comes to habitat linkage. The natural capital on a farm is most resilient when connected. In isolation, habitats are often unstable with limited long-term viability, particularly when you consider the species that utilise those habitats and their natural ranges. Linking these habitat niches across the farm provides a green corridor for species to move across with reduced chance disruption.
It is worth noting that hedges can be counter-productive to biodiversity. Hedges can cause the drying of wetlands and can provide cover for predatory raptors that stalk ground nesting wading birds, species of a high conservation priority for Scottish Government.
On that point, ground nesting wading birds are in general decline across the country and there are a number of reasons for this, including the abundance of predatory species and the presence of grazing livestock. Grazing livestock are obviously critical to farms across Scotland and particularly the dairy industry, so how do we balance the needs of farmland birds with the herd? One answer would be to identify areas on the farm where grazing can be limited or excluded entirely for a limited period of time. Your typical ground nesting wading bird: snipe, curlew, oystercatcher, redshank and lapwing in particular, have a breeding period that covers late spring through to early summer, so can grazing be staggered from turnout? Can you limit stock numbers over a parcel of land? Do you have fields set aside for dry cows or youngstock?
It might seem counter-intuitive but evaluate the potential for a pond on the farm. Generally, beef and sheep units (especially those in the uplands) can deliver on land management at a scale that dairy farming struggles to, but the role of dairy farming in protecting and enhancing the water environment cannot be overstated. Fencing off water margins, for example, is something that can be hugely beneficial, not only for the water environment but also to act as habitat linkage. Much like hedges, riparian buffer strips can develop a diverse range of habitats in an area where potential utilisation is limited. The creation of a dense grassland buffer will also aid to control diffuse pollution on a farm as well as provide a valuable habitat for small mammals and pollinating insects.
Creating or managing native grassland is often contentious within the dairy sector, mostly because of the limited productivity and the application of fertilisers and manures being counter to the development of a diverse multi-species sward. However, a species-rich grassland sward can be highly palatable to grazing livestock as well as more resilient to extreme weather conditions and hugely beneficial to a range of pollinators. Incorporating some conservation grassland can be a challenge. A compromise may be to establish and manage field margins as species-rich, restricting the application of inorganic fertiliser or sprays.
Soil carbon and soil organic matter are both becoming hot topic issues and soil health has been linked to required farm audits for producers now. A soil with a sustainable and healthy organic matter content is typically more resilient to soil erosion and decomposition. It also retains nutrients better, which are more available when it comes to grazing, growing silage or cropping. For those interested, something like a Loss on Ignition (LOI) test will measure soil organic matter and is very accurate. By contrast, soil carbon testing can provide highly complex and variable results. In addition, the test itself also produces a toxin that is harmful.
Overall, it is important that the dairy sector engages with what could be a very “green” focused policy agenda as Scotland moves beyond Brexit. The sector must put its best foot forward in taking a pro-active approach to the issues of climate change and biodiversity conservation.
Alex Pirrie for the Farm Advisory Service
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