The Scottish suckler beef herd is the engine room that drives economic activity and environmental management across large swathes of rural Scotland from the Northern isles to the Southern uplands.

Suckler cows offer an irreplaceable way of turning grazing land, permanent pasture, and poor quality rough grazing on the hills and uplands of Scotland into a much sought-after, internationally renowned and high quality source of protein.

In June, 2019, there were 16% fewer suckler cows in Scotland than in 2005, and a massive 20% less than in 2000 when the Scottish suckler herd counted just under 520,000 breeding females.

It is estimated that looking after the current 417,000 suckler cows is responsible for providing approximately 20% of Scottish agricultural employment. This means that one in five people working in the Scottish farming industry are directly employed by the suckler beef sector, many of them family-run farming businesses.

With nearly 4500 jobs being created directly in the red meat processing sector and a further 30,000 jobs in the wider supply chain which includes feed manufacturers, vets, auctioneers, hauliers, builders and mechanics amongst others, red meat production including primary cattle rearing is a vital industry for Scotland, particularly in rural areas.

Cattle farming accounts for 26% of total agricultural output in Scotland. This makes it the single largest and most important enterprise type within the Scottish farming industry and proportionally more significant, and, therefore, more important, than elsewhere within the UK where it accounts for about 15% of agricultural output, or compared to the EU where that figure is below 8%.

Cattle production takes place on one out of five holdings in Scotland and any major structural changes to the sector therefore have a significant impact on Scottish farming and indeed the Scottish economy as a whole.

Were we to lose a further 20 or 30% of the suckler herd, as some ill-informed policy makers and lobbyists have suggested in order to meet Scotland’s climate change targets, this would result in a loss of over £160m to the Scottish economy and affect up to 12,000 jobs in areas with few alternative sources of employment, particularly during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

It is a fact that domestic food production will inevitably contribute towards a nation’s total emissions and Scotland is no different in that regard to any other country on the planet.

But shifting these emissions abroad, simply by cutting domestic food production in order to meet certain emissions reductions commitments, does not resolve the issue, it merely exports the problem elsewhere and as such will not achieve a reduction in global net emissions.

However, the conclusion should not be drawn that Scottish beef farmers cannot improve – they can. By being more productive, resilient and efficient, they will become more profitable and less reliant on public support, something the younger generation in particular craves.

They can and will play a full part in combatting climate change by cutting emissions without significantly cutting numbers. A focus on domestic food production can deliver distinct benefits, most notably because every aspect of the land management and food production process can be monitored to ensure that practices are carried out with due consideration to the environment.

Do those that call for a reduction in Scottish cattle numbers in the name of climate change and improved environmental management really believe that replacing beef from Scottish animals with beef from Brazil, Poland or even Ireland will help in the fight against global warming? If they do their naivety is as dangerous as their ill thought out proposals.

Producing home-grown food is a desirable way of managing the land and Scotland’s farmers should shout this from the rooftops. It has the added benefits of creating growth opportunities in the local economy as well as providing some degree of food security, the importance of which has yet again become all too clear during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Scotland’s suckler beef farmers have had to adapt to several seismic events over the years, from changes to the Common Agricultural Policy to the impact caused by foot-and-mouth disease and most notably the effects of the BSE crisis, which closed export markets for 10 years.

As such, they have a history of responding to challenges and the latest one that the world faces is climate change. The sector has already adopted innovative measures to play its part in fighting the challenge of climate change and is ready, willing and able to do more.

The Suckler Beef Climate Group – of which I am chair – has set out a blueprint to reach achievable, clearly defined outcomes which will significantly reduce the emissions from the suckler beef sector, estimated to be just over 2.6m tonnes of CO2e in 2018, in order to help Scotland reach its net zero commitment.

A recent study conducted by S Thomson and A Moxey (2020) shows that the Scottish suckler beef sector has the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions registered in the National Inventory by up to between 24% and 39%, and emissions abatement modelling carried out by J Bell et al (2020) suggests that the adoption of 10 different on-farm measures can lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output by almost 38%.

These studies draw on vast datasets using the most recent and up-to-date suckler beef data from the Cattle Tracing System, and together represent the most in-depth and robust analysis that has ever been carried out to assess and evaluate suckler beef cattle performance and emissions specifically relevant to Scotland.

Their findings are consistent with other similar studies that were carried out independently of this report and which came to similar conclusions, namely that Scotland’s farmers can indeed reduce emissions by at least 35% without the need to compromise current production levels.

Suckler beef systems are responsible for more than a third of Scottish agricultural emissions (S Thomson and A Moxey, 2020). Around 75% of these emissions come from methane produced during rumination (enteric fermentation), with a further 12% being generated during anaerobic decomposition within manure.

Nitrous oxide accounts for an additional 14% of total suckler beef emissions and is associated with nutrient management. Carbon dioxide is typically a much less significant greenhouse gas in suckler beef systems, and its proportional contribution towards total enterprise emissions depends largely on the use of farm machinery.

In order to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from suckler beef systems, mitigation actions will focus on those areas causing the largest emissions. This includes enteric fermentation and manure management, along with soil and nutrient management, and the greatest gains can be made by focusing on breeding females.

Within the Scottish suckler beef herd, breeding cows and heifers contribute more than half of the total emissions associated with the beef sector, and any efficiency gains targeting breeding females will therefore have the biggest impact and greatly reduce emissions from the suckler beef industry.

There are already countless studies available to highlight the potential to reduce emissions from the cattle system, and some of these have been captured within this report.

For example, increasing the feed conversion efficiency of finishing cattle through targeted genetic selection can reduce methane emissions by 15% and lower feed inputs by up to 13%.

Improving breeding herd management by increasing the number of calves reared, reducing the mature cow size, and lowering the number of unproductive replacement heifers on the farm by calving down at two years old could reduce the emissions intensity of an average rearer finisher unit by almost 10%.

Increasing cow longevity on farms, where a younger age at calving is not feasible, can potentially generate equally significant benefits by reducing the replacement rate.

Building on the aforementioned gains by complementing such an improved breeding programme with better targeted feed rationing can greatly enhance the finishing performance and potentially allow for quicker finishing. Reducing the age at slaughter by three months, for instance, could therefore increase total emissions savings to more than 20%.

Improving cattle health through the control and, where possible, eradication of diseases such as BVD, IBR or Johne’s could reduce emissions by more than 50%, and better liver fluke control can enhance cattle performance and reduce the associated emissions intensity by almost 10%.

Covering slurry stores and replacing broadcast slurry spreading equipment with low emission precision application attachments can lower emissions by 78% and 60%, respectively.

Although not currently included within the Smart Inventory, methane inhibitors are showing very promising results, and studies have found that the inclusion of inhibitors such as 3NOP could reduce enteric methane production by 20%.

Methane inhibitors are still in the very early stages of commercial use, but if the data collected in the UK and around the world continues to show its benefits, this could make a real impact within the suckler beef and wider cattle industry.

This in itself could offer emissions savings that go beyond the current targets.

These are just a few examples that highlight the huge potential to effectively and efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions on Scottish suckler beef farms.

The scheme is designed in such a way that any suckler beef farmer wishing to participate will be able to join, regardless of business structure, type, size or location. The measures outlined in the scheme will be user-friendly to enable and encourage maximum uptake, and will highlight that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the efficiency of suckler beef production in Scotland can – and will – work hand in hand.

The delivery of the scheme will be farmer-led but independently verified and audited to ensure that the products from participating farms meet standards that currently cannot be matched anywhere in the world.

The sale and marketing of these products will be promoted by a trademark and a certification mark owned by scheme participants which will be licensed to users, thereby allowing these farmers to reduce their reliance on public support to generate a profit margin, and gain some control over the marketing of their produce within a supply chain system that hasn't functioned properly for the last 25 years.

This report represented the first stage on what will undoubtedly be a challenging, but ultimately worthwhile journey for the whole for all Scottish farmers. Similar schemes are designed and implemented for arable, dairy and High Nature Value businesses.

The next stage is the detailed design and development of the scheme that will deliver this new type of outcome driven approach to agricultural support.

This will incorporate climate change, environmental and farm performance outcomes and improvements that offer a real chance of a better future not just for suckler beef farmers but for farmers across all sectors of Scottish agriculture.

Scotland has a unique opportunity to show the world that modern food production can operate hand in hand with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The fight against global warming, the preservation of our precious biodiversity, and improving economic activity, employment and food security are so important we can't afford to wait any longer talking about them.

We need to act now.