In Scotland, nearly 80% of land is farmed in one way or another[i]. Scotland’s Natural Capital Asset Index – the subject of a future blog – suggests that, after declining in the last century, natural capital is currently stable. If we are to build our natural capital, in the context of increasing global demand for food and fuel, we’ll need to do this in a way that integrates with farming. Public policy and financial markets have a big influence but farmers themselves have a key role in finding innovative ways to sustain and strengthen natural assets.
Earlier this year I was involved in organising an event which SNH hosted in partnership with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Land and Estates, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The event was for farmers and their advisers on “Delivering multiple benefits from nature: new opportunities and new challenges”.
The event showed that many farmers are looking for better ways to manage their land to work with nature (‘natural capital’ is not a term they would use) and to enhance their business. One farmer talked about finding the ‘sweet spot’ where working with nature rather than against it works best for his hill cattle. Another talked about including biodiversity in the ‘balance sheet’ for the arable farm that he manages using the latest technology in strip tillage. And another about how a new system has significantly reduced the inputs to his organic dairy farm with benefits for the health of his cattle. There was much talk of farming being about accumulating marginal gains.
The idea of working with nature isn’t new: advisers at the event talked about going ‘back to basics’ – looking after the soil as a key asset to the farmer. But there was a call for policy makers to listen to farmers and to develop a clearer, more joined-up policy agenda that supports an integrated approach rather than hindering it. And farmers would like more opportunities to share ideas on ways to bring benefits for business as well as nature.
Sometimes individual farmers can achieve a lot, as can estates with large landholdings, but often collaboration will achieve more. In the Carse of Stirling, a Partnership involving farmers and other members of the community is finding ways to collaborate on flooding, wildlife and recreation issues.
As public bodies we need to facilitate these bottom-up approaches as much as trying to steer from the top down. There is no single solution for everywhere.
In my opinion, instruments that aim to support ecosystem services from farmland, like Payments for Ecosystem Services initiatives, also need to promote a place-based, flexible and multi-benefit approach or they may hinder integration and locally appropriate solutions.
So my plea for discussions on natural capital is to make the most not just of our natural assets but also of farmers’ own knowledge and ideas.