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Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI) fellowship Blog - 29 June 2020

Scottish uplands – worth much more than the carbon underfoot? A blog by Dr Gemma Miller, the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI) fellowship with NFU Scotland.

One thing that has really been hammered home to me over the course of this SEFARI Fellowship with NFU Scotland is just how important our soils are.



As mentioned in my last blog (https://www.nfus.org.uk/news/blog/scottish-environment-food-and-agriculture-research-institutes-sefari-fellowship-blog-22-june-2020), Scotland is fortunate to have extremely carbon-rich soils already, particularly in the uplands. The factsheet that accompanies this blog – available at: https://www.nfus.org.uk/policy/environment-and-land-use/sefari-fellowship.aspx - discusses how agriculture on upland areas affects soil carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, but we should be valuing our uplands for more than just their climate change mitigation potential.

Uplands provide a number of important functions beyond carbon storage that are not always acknowledged, and farmers are rarely incentivised for their vital role in maintaining them. These functions include water quality, flood prevention, biodiversity and recreation. These are often put under pressure with conflicting demands for land-use, e.g. livestock grazing, forestry, game and deer shooting, renewable energy and peatland restoration.

Water quality: Around 70 percent of the UK’s drinking water comes from upland catchments. If the catchment soils are degraded, the water entering reservoirs requires more treatment to remove colouration and organic particles. This comes at a financial cost. Some utility companies provide subsidies to landowners in selected catchments for activities that help prevent soil compaction and erosion, thus improving water quality in the catchment.             

Flood mitigation: The highly organic soils of the Scottish uplands have a great capacity for holding water. Drainage on uplands lowers the water table, giving extra capacity for water storage, but can also increase the peak flow of water downstream. Careful management of upland drainage networks, with strategic drain blocking can maintain stable water table levels that are practical for agricultural use, whilst providing water storage capacity for extreme weather events and reducing the peak flow of runoff.

Biodiversity: The extensive nature of agriculture on the Scottish uplands has helped shape the landscape and has had an effect on wildlife. Around 40 percent of Scotland’s agricultural land is extensive and classed as of “High Nature Value”.

However, this requires a delicate balance to be achieved and maintained. For example, both undergrazing and overgrazing can affect the diversity of upland vegetation species, e.g. moderate livestock grazing keeps grasses in check and allows heather to thrive. This provides habitat for wildlife such as the golden plover which benefits from short vegetation for nesting and foraging, but also prevents the regeneration of native woodland. However, overgrazing can have negative impacts on species such as black grouse.

Recreation: Access to nature is recognised as having both physical and mental health benefits. Surveys show that Scottish people are spending more time on outdoor recreation, with an estimated £123 million being spent annually (from 2004 – 2012) on visits to moorland and mountain habitats in Scotland. This figure only includes local day-trippers, and so taking into account domestic and international tourism likely makes the actual monetary value of upland recreation much greater.

Given both the intrinsic and economic importance of these ecosystem services to society, perhaps the elimination of traditional farm subsidies and the introduction of outcome-based payments with environmental enhancement and climate change mitigation built in (such as that being proposed by the UK Government) would be a welcome shift in policy?


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