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Farming with Nature Showcase

Farming with Nature Showcase

Soil Association Scotland’s Farming with Nature Showcase on October 17 2019 at the Rottal Estate in Angus brought farmers together with agricultural and environmental organisations to discuss how agroecology in farming can help us meet the twin challenges of climate change and wildlife collapse.


conference speakers Picture: L-R Bruce McConachie, Charley Walker, Dee Ward and Denise Walton CREDIT Andy Buchanan

Farmers are a vital part of the solution to climate change and wildlife collapse. Four  farmers told our conference how they incorporate nature into their farming, whilst retaining or increasing profitability. 

  • Bruce McConachie of Culfoich Farm on nature as a business indicator
  • Charley Walker of Barnside Farm on increasing output through regenerative grazing
  • Denise Walton of Peelham Farm on farmign for wildlife
  • Host Dee Ward of the Rottal Estate on river remeandering, riparian tree planting and catchment-scaleworking

Host Dee Ward, landowner of the Rottal Estate, was one of four nature-friendly farmer speakers, alongside Bruce McConachie of Culfoich Farm, Denise Walton of Peelham farm and Charley Walker of Barnside Farm who presented on their methods to a packed out room of 60 delegates.

Soil Association Scotland director Aoife Behan kicked off the day, saying: “In Scotland, 98% of land is rural, and 73% of that land is farmed. This makes Scotland’s farmers a vital part of the solution to our twin challenges of climate change and wildlife collapse. 

 “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.”

"Every single bit of nature is an indicator of how we are farming"

Speaker Bruce McConachie farms sheep and Highland cross and Aberdeen Angus cattle in the Cairngorms, where he also works with the Royal Highland Education Trust and the Cairngorms National Park. He says: “My grandfather used to say, ‘You have to make the farm fit the land – you can’t make the land fit the farming system,’ and that’s how we farm here."

Visiting Rottal BurnPicture: Visiting the remeandered Rottal Burn and tree planting on the Rottal Estate CREDIT Andy Buchanan

He farms organically, which he may or may not continue with, but which he says has taught him and his father “phenomenal lessons” about grassland management, mainly through rotational grazing. “We use as few inputs as possible, and every single bit of nature is an indicator of how we are farming,” he says. “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. 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. These are all decisions to save money - strip grazing, bail spreading, pit silage (because plastic is too expensive) - but everything we do to save money ends up being good for the environment too.”

Watch Bruce's talk at our Farming with Nature Showcase

"We think success should be measured by profitability and impact on the environment"

Charley and Andrea Walker, who farm sheep and cattle organically in the Lammermuir Hills in the Borders, recently won Farmers Weekly’s Grassland Managers of the Year and were Agriscot’s Sheep Farm of the Year 2017. Charley says they have increased output by 50% thanks to regenerative grazing. He says: “We feel that as farmers we’re privileged to live amongst nature, but we were initially drawn into a system that had a lot of inputs. You’re taught that high productivity equals high profitably but actually we have found that not to be true. We think success should be measured by profitability and impact on the environment.

He says the Walkers 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.”

Discussing tree plantingPicture: Visiting tree-planting on the Rottal Estate with landowner Dee Ward CREDIT Andy Buchanan

Mainly, though, their success is down to their grazing methods. “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. 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.”

Charley and Andrea are part of Soil Association Scotland’s Mob Grazing field lab, which aims to measure the benefits, including soil carbon, of this kind of grazing. They are also part of a QMS grazing group. “Good discussion groups like these two have really moved things forward for us,” he says.

“So we’ve increased our stocking rate by 35% in five years and, in terms of kilograms of liveweight per hectare, we’ve increased by 50%. Our whole farm is a habitat and it’s all linked – there are benefits to all species and it makes me happy.”

Watch Charley's talk at our Farming with Nature Showcase

pointing out remeanderingPicture: Craig McIntyre of the Esk Rivers and Fisheries Trust shows off the remeandering of the Rottal Burn, which has brought fish back to the river five-fold

"Where you have strong habitats and connectivity you get resilience"

Third speaker Denise Walton agrees that “the greater the connectivity of habitat, the greater the biodiversity.” She and her family took over “decrepit, hard-pushed, entirely arable” Peelham Farm in 1995 and set about making it 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 says. “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."

Watch Denise's talk at our Farming with Nature Showcase here 

"We can do more good by planting trees than anything else"

Dee Ward worked with neighbouring estates and local organisations like the River South Esk Partnership on a landscape-scale tree-planting and river remeandering scheme in the hills and valleys the Rottal Estate. He says: “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.” Setting the river back on its natural course has led to a five-fold increase in juvenile salmon and trout in the river, he says.

Watch Dee's talk at our Farming with Nature Showcase

Picture: Discussing challenges and opportunities of farming with nature

Inspired by the speeches, facilitated group discussions followed, to pull out key challenges and opportunities of improving soil health and water quality, farming with trees, increasing farm wildlife and working together. Mindsets and subsidies emerged as key themes.

After an excellent lunch of lamb hotpot and beef lasagne featuring meat from Hugh Grierson Organic and Peelham Farm, the attendees split into two groups to visit the tree planting and remeandering work on the estate, and continue discussion there, accompanied by other involved in the projects, such as Kelly Ann Dempsey of the River South Esk Partnership and Craig McIntyre of the Esk Rivers and Fisheries Trust.

The scale of challenges like climate change and wildlife collapse is big, but the consensus of the day was that, in farming with nature, there is hope.

To find out more about our farming work visit our programmes page

Soil Association Scotland’s farming work is funded from the SRDP Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (jointly funded by the Scottish Government and the European Union), with partner funding from Scottish Forestry, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Water, Innovative Farmers and The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation.