Taking the long view to guarantee a greener land

Landowners can get a bad press. Field sports, overgrazing by sheep and too many acres owned by too few people are regular criticisms. But those running the farms and estates of Scotland see themselves as “guardians of the land” and are making huge efforts to tackle climate change and increase biodiversity, while also making their businesses viable, supporting economic growth and local jobs.

Picture: Jan Holm/Shutterstock
Picture: Jan Holm/Shutterstock

But is it enough, and is it sustainable to last for generations in a sector where long-term planning is the norm?

Stephen Young, head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates, which called its annual conference 2021 The Business of Climate Change, says: “We are making strides but it is difficult because we’re asking people to make big changes to their lives and we have to ensure we aren’t going in the wrong direction. The land management sector works in long cycles so we cannot chop and change every year. We need to make sure sustainable is really sustainable, not just of the moment.”

The strides being made are particularly in tree planting, with Scotland planting 80 per cent of the UK’s new woodland. About19 per cent of the country is covered in trees, against a UK average of just 13 per cent, with Scotland also having much more ambitious targets for future planting than the rest of the UK.

Young re-emphasises the long timescales of rural life – tree planting takes time, he says, as does peatland restoration. Peat bog makes a great carbon sink but when it dries out, it begins to emit carbon instead. To restore water levels to stop that happening, by reducing grazing and stopping long-standing drainage systems, can be a long-term undertaking.

NatureScot says Scotland’s soils contain more than 3,000 megatonnes of carbon, about 60 times the amount of carbon held in the country’s trees and plants. Peatlands hold most of Scotland’s carbon store, at 53 per cent of it.

Renewables have been a success story in Scotland with onshore wind providing about 70 per cent of capacity. The issue is upgrading the grid to carry energy from often remote locations, especially in the north of the country. Young says: “If you imagine a grid is like a train line and we have only got a single track which carries a train every hour and what we really need is four tracks.”

One area growing in popularity is carbon offsetting and trading carbon credits – a system where pollution can be offset through the planting of trees or restoring peatland. Young says criticism that it still allows pollution to happen should be tempered with the knowledge that businesses will try to save money before spending it on offsetting. “Companies offset because they are emitting carbon. If you make stuff, it’s quite difficult not to emit carbon.”

But he adds that businesses will try to become more efficient before spending on carbon credits, or investing in projects where carbon is sequestered, as it is often cheaper and easier to do so.

Young adds that there is an economic, social and environmental aspect to any development in a rural land business that needs to considered.

“Too often we define success and failure through the single lens of carbon, but there is biodiversity to consider as well, and in rural Scotland there is the social element – are there houses, schools and jobs? And then you have the economic bit, does that make sense?

“Landowners should look at all of their business, what’s best for their land, and choose a mix that suits the situation. But they should remember it’s not all about carbon, or food production, or biodiversity – we have to do all these things.

“It may be viewed as a cliché, but our members see themselves as guardians and stewards of the land, rather than owners. Some land is held for generations so they can take a long-term approach. But they are businesses too, so they have to try to wash their face.”

Nick Green, head of energy and infrastructure at Savills Earth, says as well as land-based, carbon-friendly projects such as afforestation, peatland restoration and hydro-electric schemes, landowners are also looking at green options for heating buildings, sourcing electricity and “looking at their farming practice in terms of reducing the amount of disturbance to soil or reducing the amount of input of fertiliser”.

He says: “For a lot of farmers and landowners, it is root-and-branch stuff, going back to basic principles. It is not an overnight fix, it is incremental.”

Interest in Scottish land is growing as the opportunities are available to invest in green initiatives. Green says: “Afforestation, potential for siting renewables projects or simply having access to peatland for restoration or rewilding is driving the new green buyer.”

Andrew Farquharson, a rural property expert with Womble Bond Dickinson, is seeing a huge growth in interest in solar power from landowners across rural Scotland. “It’s gone from one or two a year to about 50 per cent of the work coming across my desk,” he says. “Landowners are looking at solar as an alternative source of income to help plug potential gaps with the subsidy regime changing post-Brexit. They see it as a kind of retirement pot.”

Some landowners are going into partnership with investors to build eco-friendly projects and practices, Green says. “This is not green-washing or capitalising on the market,” he says. “Landowners will have their own objectives about how they use their land and they might tie up with somebody who is interested from an ecological and environmental perspective. We’re moving into a more mature market and landowners want to do this in a meaningful and responsible way.”

The future will see land used and cared for in many new ways. “Scotland’s landscape is a natural patchwork of different habitats and environments. We will see more woodland creation, more areas left fallow in terms of rewilding and greater afforestation.

“What we are finding at the moment is you have competing pressures – ten years ago an estate would have bitten my arm off if I offered them a wind farm, now there is a real debate around whether wind farms are the best way of delivering a low-carbon agenda or whether afforestation is better, or if carbon sequestration and peatland restoration is better.”

Housing in rural Scotland is also likely to see more pressure with an increasing number of people wanting to move out of towns and cities. There will also be a change in the way we grow food, with systems like vertical farming offering potential solutions for competing land uses.

Green says: “The countryside will look very different in 20 years’ time, and the way it is farmed and the way farming is incentivised through subsidies is going to change. We can’t get to net-zero without some mechanical carbon sequestration but for nature-based solutions, peatland restoration and tree planting are the two big things.”