7th June 2018 By Andrew Wells
The policy drivers for agriculture and land management within Scotland are changing, with a much greater focus on actively working with nature and developing a better appreciation of our dependencies on the natural world to promote a more sustainable future. Post-Brexit policy, while uncertain, is anticipated to have a greater focus on public payments for public goods, while improving the long-term productivity of rural land through the sustainable management of resources.
Businesses from all sectors are moving towards a greater level of understanding of the impacts and dependencies their activities have on natural capital – the soil, minerals, water, air and living organisms on which their products, services and supply chains are based. Wider consideration is now required to encourage land based businesses to embed this new thinking into their planning, management and investment activities to assess how their current practices impact the environment and to identify where opportunities for business efficiency and development based on enhancing natural capital can be exploited, to ensure a more sustainable future for land based enterprises.
Crown Estate Scotland tenant farmers have taken part in a pioneering project to assess the value of natural assets in helping them to make decisions that will protect the environment and the land that they work on. The project applied the international Natural Capital Protocol on the 23,000 hectare Glenlivet Estate (with its range of farming, forestry and leisure activities), an upland tenant farm on the same estate, and a lowland arable business on the Fochabers Estate.
The trial looked to explore the degree to which the Natural Capital Protocol is applicable and useful to land based businesses in Scotland. This was undertaken in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Forum on Natural Capital, the James Hutton Institute and SRUC.
The project, undertaken by Cumulus Consultants, involved desk-based analysis, interviews and data gathering with the land based businesses, using publicly available data sets and locally held information. As well as looking at the businesses as a whole, the work also applied the Protocol to a specific case study within each business boundary. These were around improving soil, woodland planting/wetland restoration and peatland restoration.
The trial established that the Protocol can be applied to land based businesses, however several lessons emerged during the assessment. The availability and reliability of necessary data, gauging which impacts to assess, and integrating the generic assessments into the business overview were areas that proved challenging. It was found that at an estate level, although the Protocol could be applied, it was more challenging than applying the Protocol to a specific project or land use, given the very wide range of impacts and dependencies resulting from an extensive range of integrated land based activities.
For the tenants involved, the Protocol was useful in improving their understanding of natural capital assets and ecosystem services, the business dependencies and impacts and the wider societal benefits generated from their farming activities. A range of risks and opportunities to the natural capital on the farms and estate were also identified. The assessments dovetailed well with existing business planning tools and schemes such as farm assurance schemes and agri-environment schemes, with potential to help provide evidence for funding applications and verification. It was also useful in helping to better understand the inter-dependencies between enterprises at the estate level.
All participants felt that the Protocol would help in improving economic and environmental performance and resilience, and that it helped link existing tools and schemes. It was however stated that to encourage wider adoption and application land managers would need to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ and how it can link to changes in support mechanisms. Promoting the message that this process is very much about business resilience, managing risk and identifying opportunities is, therefore, going to be crucial as this work is taken forward.
The outcomes from the work show that the Protocol has the potential to be of great benefit to farms and estates across Scotland and further afield. There is, however, more work required to develop guidance, templates, tools and data and to convey the benefits of this approach and how it can be used to ensure a more sustainable future for land based businesses.
Andrew Wells is the Head of Poperty at Crown Estate Scotland.