Modern day land use challenges

23 February 2023 | 10 minute read

Estate management used to be so simple. Agriculture produced a healthy surplus which allowed a landowner to employ and house a large workforce with modest accommodation requirements. There was no want for the manpower to work the land, keep the woods in good heart, and generally maintain the Estate in tip-top condition. Granted, life did not feel simple at the time, but in hindsight, life was more predictable then.

The choice of whether to rewild, farm regeneratively, sustainably, or even robotically is just the beginning.

Fast-forward to today, and you could forgive landowners for being paralysed to a standstill by the myriad of choices and obligations that appear before them at an alarming rate. The choice of whether to rewild, farm regeneratively, sustainably, or even robotically is just the beginning. Farmers are hefted to subsidies like a flock of lake district herdwicks to a mountain side. They are faced with a choice not only as to how they would like to farm, but how they must farm to best replace the subsidies that are disappearing. Even the disappearance of the subsidies is uncertain at the moment, and all farmers know is that the clock is running down and one day, relatively soon, the old schemes will end, and with it will disappear the main profit centre of their farming enterprise. So much of what incentivises land ownership is the non-financial dividend of enjoyment, and landowners are understandably keen to understand how the new world will fit with shooting and conservation.

So how do they make their choice of what to do next? It is not, after all, just about food production. Before covid and the war in Ukraine, the Government was not in the least bit concerned about food security. We were told that food is a global commodity and the supply chain would ensure that we received the necessary resources to feed ourselves.

At that time, Natural Capital, biodiversity net gain (BNG) and carbon sequestration were front and centre of the conversation. A farmer would be forgiven for having reduced his herd or flock and now be mob-grazing a smaller stock of animals in a regenerative fashion, may be even converting his fields to woodland pasture in the bargain. But today the political landscape is very different. Russia can dictate how much grain leaves Ukraine and food security is right back at the forefront of the Nation’s agenda. The war has probably set the environmental movement back a decade, and refocussed the national eye on food security.

The genie is well and truly out of the bottle when it comes to carbon, and regardless of food security, it remains on the agenda.

So what does this mean for carbon? The genie is well and truly out of the bottle when it comes to carbon, and regardless of food security, it remains on the agenda. The fortunes of the sitka spruce tree could be likened to a prickly green rollercoaster. In vogue one minute, and a red herring the next, or even worse a carbon emitting green desert, harbouring nothing but redlist species-devouring predators. The answer is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. ‘The right tree in the right place’, is the refrain. We must also remember that we do not plant sitka spruce trees solely for their carbon capturing abilities, but also for their timber. The UK is very sparsely forested compared with other European countries, and we are a large consumer of wood. 

We are being forced to learn about self-sufficiency in grain at the moment courtesy of Vladimir Putin, so when we think of food security we would be as well thinking about timber security too. In any event it seems unlikely that planting sitka spruce trees is going to solve the carbon crisis on its own. It is unlikely that re-profiling peat hags will solve it either. When humans first settled in the Falklands in the eighteenth century, they were able to burn peat that they found there immediately. It must have been dry for that to have been possible. Man cannot be solely responsible for peat hags. They must have occurred naturally for millennia. So it would seem perfectly reasonable for landowners to be slightly baffled at the spending of millions of pounds for helicopters to fly around the uplands planting sphagnum moss plugs or spreading coconut husks in order to save the planet. It is argued by some that, at best, this is tinkering at the edges.

But the money is good, and one thing everyone agrees on is that the carbon needs to go back into the ground; so, crucially, the landowner always has a seat at the table where sequestration is concerned, and this is a good thing. And it is not just carbon. Quite rightly, the bandwagon that is calling for the country’s soils to be better protected for the sake of our carbon stores has been leapt on by the BNG brigade, who likewise call for the soils to be better managed for our Nation’s flora and fauna. So the ‘phoenix’ of the piece (rising out of the ashes of the old subsidy regime) is a multi-headed thing, and this is a source of so much of the confusion that faces landowners today. It will also be the source of all the cash.

And the reason why it is all so confusing, is that the rules are not yet properly formed, and a landowner who commits to a 30- or 40-year planting scheme or woodland pasture agreement does not know yet whether that is the best deal he is ever going to be offered. Faced with uncertainty and the need for such long-term commitment, he could be forgiven for hesitating.

Faced with these dilemmas you can see why landowners crave advice and guidance on this topic, and actual take-up is low.

We are told that some schemes will be ‘stackable’ so that the same land might get funding for storing carbon and funding for BNG, and may also actually produce some food that can be sold as a biproduct. And farmers can sell their carbon, but the price fluctuates, and the metrics used to measure the carbon are regularly updated and made more accurate. There is a real possibility that farmers sell too early and under-measure what they sell. Faced with these dilemmas you can see why landowners crave advice and guidance on this topic, and actual take-up is low. It is not always the case that the various heads will complement each other either.

Whilst the devil will certainly be in the detail, the direction of travel is likely to be welcomed by the shooting community. Landowners who love shooting are already committed to a lot of the tenets of the new order. They understand the benefits of over-wintered stubbles and min-till farming systems, the under sowing of root crops and resisting the urge to trim hedges every year. The management of land for this cohort is a labour of love, where the dividend is not measured purely in pounds sterling, but in a healthy population of grey partridges or in seeing a returning flock of peewits each spring. In the arable farming context there is great deal to be enthusiastic about for these folk. It is very likely that the money that is available will incentivise them to continue their efforts even more so than the agrienvironment agreements that are closing down.

However, one potential conflict area is likely to be the uplands, where of course shooting and the conservation of priority habitats and species have always co-existed hand-in-glove with farming. But what is deemed to be best for carbon sequestration may not be best for BNG or the management of heather moorland. This is probably best illustrated by the raging conflict over heather burning. Moorland managers bristle with anecdotal evidence of the benefits of controlled fires, and everyone knows about the ‘mars bar test’, but the science has not put the argument to bed. Studies are ongoing but take many years to show trends. It is likely that the current University of York study will produce positive results for burning but it is unclear what the cost for priority species will be whilst the issue is debated.

There is also a less obvious moorland management conflict where the financial incentives may not encourage what moor owners consider to be best practice. To put it bluntly, curlews will not thrive in bracken and willow scrub. For the last 20 years we have enjoyed a fortuitous symbiotic relationship between HLS schemes and moorland management. Landowners have been paid to manage sheep flocks on the fell in a way that complements moorland management from a shooting perspective. We may be entering an era where the incentives and grouse moor management goals diverge. Where there is one landowner who controls all of the farming on the hill, then it will be a straightforward comparison of the economic returns that the various options promise, set against the effect that pursuing a particular option will have on the shooting and conservation goals.

However, it is not all that common for the grouse moor owner to be the only stakeholder with an interest in how the moor is managed. There may be commoners, tenant farmers, underlying freehold owners or quangos who all have a claim for a proportion of the subsidy, and an opinion on the best course to take that suits their own agenda. It will not always be straightforward to establish who has the ‘whip hand’. The amount of money that is available for each option will play an important part in whether a conflict arises among the various stakeholders, and effective collaboration between them is going to be more important than ever.

There is talk of ‘sustainability partnerships’ which encapsulate a holistic joint vision between landowner and businesses to include carbon capture, BNG, ESG, employee wellbeing and corporate entertainment.

An extra dimension this time round is that the private sector can play as well. The Government will incentivise and offer grants to landowners to provide ‘public goods’, but the possibility of doing a deal with big corporate might be much more lucrative. There is talk of ‘sustainability partnerships’ which encapsulate a holistic joint vision between landowner and businesses to include carbon capture, BNG, ESG, employee wellbeing and corporate entertainment all rolled into one (lucrative) package. As often seems to be the case, Scotland is leading the way in these innovative arrangements so far. Much rides on where businesses are allowed to offset their emissions, and how closely their actions are audited. We have all read about greenwashing, and landowners are well placed to help businesses produce concrete proof of their good works. It is not yet clear where shooting will fit into these sustainability partnerships but where corporates are seeking to tell a story that gives their customers confidence in their brand, it is quite possible that shooting will be seen as a ‘hard sell’. It could also be an opportunity to demonstrate how shooting has always been a catalyst for BNG and sustainability, and the right corporate partner may embrace this story.

So life has become pretty complicated for landowners recently, and the commitments that they are being asked to make are long term and in some cases will necessitate real change to the character of their land. Any long-term plan needs careful and considered thought. As of today, landowners can sell their carbon but there is no record on the Land Registry of that trade. This has the potential to cause some major headaches in the rural conveyancing sector if the activity ramps up. What happens if assurances to do certain things are broken, or losses suffered outwith anyone’s control? What happens to the money already paid out at that point? What if the metric evolves to an extent that there is a material difference in the contracted rate and the actual performance of the implemented measures? All of these issues need careful thought and the implementation of intelligent paperwork to protect the landowner both now and in the future life of the arrangements.

Some may hark back to the good old days when the seasons passed with a comforting familiarity. There is certainly quite a lot out there to be cautious of. It must also be recognised though, that this is an astonishing moment in time for land ownership and management. If the decline of nature and the temperature trend of the atmosphere can both be reversed somewhat, and landowners properly rewarded for their part in the process, then it will be a very significant achievement for the state of our countryside.

Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall – First published in Fieldsports in February 2023

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