The Joy of Moles
By QMS Head of Industry Development, Bruce McConachie
You would have to be living under a rock to not realise that farming is coming under extreme pressure to ensure that it plays its part in the climate challenge we are all facing. The simple fact that we are part of an industry which occupies a very large very visible amount of land means that we will always be in the public gaze, and when it comes to our environmental credentials, very often in the firing line.
We have all watched over the past decade the increase in scrutiny on our environmental performance as an industry. This has come from a lot of different directions both from outwith our industry as well as from within it, but all these observations, criticisms, in revelations have one common thread connecting them. A focus on emissions.
Carbon has become the focal point of environmentalism, spurred on by people who see meat as a scapegoat for all the environmental issues we face as a society. And while farmers are regularly made out to be the enemy in the battle to mitigate the effects of climate change, we know more than any other group in society the stark reality of what climate change looks like. Sudden droughts, long wet winters, and the ‘Beast from the East’; if they are a flavour of what's to come, we have every right as an industry to be obsessing over the environmental impact of our industry.
But, while we are at the beginning of understanding the impact of food production on climate change, I believe that our fixation on carbon, particularly as an emission, could be setting us up for a fall. Many of you will have done carbon audits as part of your farming businesses, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this as an exercise in taking stock of the greenhouse gas emissions produced on farm, but this fixation on farm emissions hides the far greater benefits from Scottish livestock production.
This issue can be tackled in two ways. Firstly, by properly identifying the way that carbon is sequestered in our soils, and the best farming practises to achieve carbon capture, and secondly, through identifying the rich and varied ecological systems that exist because of grazing livestock not in spite of it.
A recent study by Michigan State University established that while meatless burgers such as the ‘Impossible BurgerTM’ may have a lower emissions rating than conventional beef production in the US, in order to fully cancel out the carbon produced by one of these lab-grown, synthetic creations you would have to eat a beef burger produced using regenerative grazing methods that capture carbon.
Thankfully work is underway by our academic and scientific colleagues to establish a way to measure carbon sequestration in our grasslands, so we are not that far away from a solution to this dilemma.
The second point is something I believe very strongly in, and I would wager a lot of money on the fact that the vast majority of farmers are incredibly passionate about it too. Grazing livestock, when managed properly, can produce a huge array of benefits to the natural world around them. You may have heard this referred to by academics as “provision of ecosystem services”, and while this is a very new way of phrasing it, it is a very old concept.
I recently read a book published in 1941 called ‘Advanced Farming Techniques’ which spoke at length about maintaining a healthy and diverse farm, it talked about the importance of invertebrate life in soil, which provided oxygen and organic matter, as well as food for farmland bird species. These correlations exist in more places than just books too.
Speyside is an area that has long been synonymous with high quality livestock production, but the area is known for much more, including the UK's largest population of inland wading birds. Right now, from Fochabers to Laggan, mornings will be filled with a chorus of Lapwing, Curlew, and Oystercatchers who flock to the area every year, not because of the absence of livestock, but because livestock are continually breathing life into soils and providing food for these birds.
This is just one obvious example of how grazing livestock provide ecosystem services, but this kind of behaviour is present across Scotland. From Caithness to Dumfries these animals have been engaging in this natural cycle for thousands of years, long before the term ecosystem services was coined.
I'm always mindful of the perceived competition between food producers and ecologists, but I would argue that if you are producing food, you are a practising ecologist. In order to get the most from your business, you must look at the environment on your farm as a whole, from the organic matter in the soil to the indicator species that live around it.
It’s often intimidating to see academics and external organisations control the narrative of something farmers have been doing for centuries. But we have the opportunity to grab these concepts by the horns and show the world that Scottish Livestock can be a world leader in regenerative agriculture. While this wholistic approach can seem like a new concept, we’re already doing so much of it without realising it.
To see how connected everything is, you only need to consider the mole. Molehills on farms are the stuff of nightmares, they are a pain to flatten, pop up overnight, and risk causing issues with animals. It's tempting to look at a farm with no evidence of moles and think: ‘they must be doing something right’. But if we take a step back and think about why the mole is there, it probably means there are plenty of worms to eat, and if there are plenty of worms to eat, the soil has an abundance of oxygen and organic matter, which means you will be growing better grass for your stock.
So, the next time you swear under your breath while knocking down molehills, remember it could be worse - you could have no moles!