‘SCOTTISH FARMERS are a vital part of the solution to climate change and wildlife collapse’ – was the message delivered by Soil Association Scotland’s director Aoife Behan during a ‘farming with nature’ event in Angus, on Friday October 17.

Over 60 farmers, agricultural and environmental organisations gathered to discuss how farming with nature could be a step towards finding a solution.

The event was organised by Soil Association Scotland and hosted by landowner of the Rottal Estate in Angus, Dee Ward, who along with three other nature-friendly farmers, presented their methods of farming to the delegates.

This was followed by group discussions looking at the challenges and opportunities which can emerge with adopting a nature friendly approach and lastly was drawn to a close by two farm tours around the Rottal estate; looking at tree planting and 'remeandering' work, which has led to a five-fold increase in juvenile salmon and trout in the river.

Ms Behan kicked off the day by suggesting some of the ways in which farmers can look to embrace a nature-friendly approach: “Good grassland and water management, farming with trees, building soil health and farming organically are some of the ways farmers help to reverse climate change and restore wildlife. And because they reduce the need for costly inputs, these agroecological practices are also good for business. They are ‘win wins’, and we call this farming with nature.”

Host Ms Ward urged the group to consider planting trees in order to help reverse climate change: “I feel strongly that we all need to do our bit for climate change mitigation, and that we can do more good by planting trees than anything else. Here it’s been a win for the river water quality and for the fish.”

Fellow speaker Bruce McConachie looks after cattle and sheep at Culfoich Farm in the Cairngorms, where he works closely with the Cairngorms National Park. He explained that good soil management is at the forefront of their operation: “Everything we do starts with the soil. Worms are an indicator of healthy soil. Lapwings and curlew are another indicator, including how they behave. This year they came later to feed, which we think might show a deficiency in the soil, so we’re sending it off for soil testing.

“We’re part of the Strathspey Wetlands and Waders group, who loan out an aerator,” he continued. “We’ve done extensive ‘re-wiggling’ of wet grounds, creating feeding sites for wading birds. We try to keep soil where it needs to be – using buffer strips, for example, to prevent run off. We’ve put clover into the sward so that means we use less nitrogen fertiliser, and there are wildflowers in our grazing mixture.”

He added that these decisions are all made with cost efficiency in mind, but they all serve to be good for the environment too.

Regenerative grazing is to thank for increased output at Charley and Andrea Walker’s organic sheep and cattle farm in the Lammermuir Hills in the borders, they explained: “Over the whole farm we have lifted the output by 50%, mainly through regenerative grazing. That means big groups of animals on small areas for a short time with a long recovery period. We do three days grazing and trampling and 21 days rest,” Charley continued. “The plant group development leads to better soil structure and an increase in organic matter. It also sequesters carbon – increasing soil carbon also takes carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s not a quirk or a gimmick - it offers a real opportunity to increase output and produce environmental benefits.”

The Walkers recently won a Grassland Managers of the Year award and claim to farm with nature in different ways: “We have a selection policy, so we don’t keep weak animals. We use self-shedding sheep that don’t need shearing. We calve and lamb in pasture at a time of fertile nutrition, and we outwinter livestock.”

The final speaker of the four was Denise Walton of Peelham Farm, who converted a crumbling arable operation into a thriving organic livestock farm, where ‘nature has returned in droves and flocks’.

“We’ve brought about a 20% increase in biodiversity due to organic management,” she said. “We’ve dug ponds and planted 50% more woodlands and 75% more hedgerows and linked them all up. Habitat fragmentation can be reversed. We are having draught periods every three to five years now, which doesn’t give much recovery time and has a bad effect on butterflies, for example. But where you have strong habitats and connectivity between habitats you get resilience,” she concluded.

Over the course of the day, the delegates found that in order for a nature friendly farming revolution to take place, mindsets need to change and that subsidies should play a role in pushing forward a nature friendly agenda.