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Scope and Purpose

Overview of the 1999 Scottish Environment Audits 2: Agriculture & the Environment

KEY environmental impacts



Nature conservation

Three areas of concern related to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (1994): continuing loss and fragmentation of habitats due to intensified farming practices, land drainage, water abstraction and road construction; loss of habitats, linear features and individual species due to neglect or abandonment and the decline of traditional forms of management; damage to soils, water and ecosystems due to inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides, and atmospheric pollution. Documented declines of flora and fauna associated with farmland (SNH, 1995) e.g. adders, insectivores (hedgehogs, moles, shrews), and butterflies but major increase in rabbit populations with damage to agriculture estimated at £12m in 1994. Reported (RSPB, 1995, 1996) declines in upland bird species, common lowland farmland birds (grey partridge, skylark, linnet, song thrush, reed bunting, corn bunting) and farmland breeding waders (oystercatcher, lapwing, snipe, curlew, redshank). Specific examples of species decline are associated with agro-chemicals (e.g. chough and endectocides like Invermectin) but there have also been increases since the ban on organochlorides (peregrine and sparrowhawk). Highlights the “very controversial” issue of geese and agriculture. Specific goose management schemes being run by SNH on Islay, Solway, South Walls on Hoy, Loch of Strathbeg and the Uists (£364k in 1996), with a National Goose Forum set up in 1999.

A recent, and potentially important, area of conservation concern relates to the potential impacts ofintroducing genetically engineered crops.

Cultural heritage & landscapes

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) have c.120000 sites on their national database with new ones being added each year. Sites in upland areas have been damaged through changes to grazing regimes (under and overgrazing), afforestation or bracken encroachment. Lowland sites have been damaged by ploughing, drainage, and compaction. Historic field boundaries have been lost as farming systems have been simplified. Burrowing by rabbits and soil erosion seriously affect archaeological sites. Barclay (1998) argued that afforestation is the greatest threat in the uplands whereas it is gradual attrition by agricultural management in the lowlands.

The landscape can be impacted by changes in land management (e.g. introduction of oilseed rape and linseed crops). Where management is not in sympathy with local conditions it can erode local identity and distinctiveness (SNH 1995). Farm buildings have become more numerous and prominent, with more housing of livestock, more capital investment and larger machinery. Black bag silage is a recent and very visible innovation. Most changes in agricultural practices and to agricultural buildings are not subject to planning controls.


The Access Forum had advised government that a legal right of access to land and water should be introduced for informal recreation and passage (The Access Forum, 1998). The countryside has become more accessible with greater car ownership, wealth and leisure time, and an improved road network. The effects of recreation have spread to more distant areas, diminishing remoteness and solitude. In 1996 c.75m leisure visits were made to the Scottish countryside and coast for informal recreation, mostly walking (53%), sightseeing (19%) and cycling (6%). A survey in 1995 found that 55% of people had walked in the countryside in the last year and 33% walked at least once a month and 11% of the difficulties encountered on walks were related to land management (e.g. locked gates, farm animals). The Scottish Rights of Way Society has catalogued almost 7000 rights of way covering 15000km but less than the distance covered by rights of way in England . Voluntary initiatives, including the Concordat on access to Scotland ’s hills and mountains and SNH’s Paths for All initiative have been developed to address access problems but The Access Forum advises that further action will be necessary, including public funding for agriculture to support access.

Soil, air and water

Although the extent of soil erosion is difficult to assess, SNH (1995) assert that active erosion of peaty and mineral soils is taking place in parts of the Scottish uplands. In cultivated areas, the problem is even greater, as erosion often occurs where there is no vegetation cover, with 50% of recently seeded fields being affected by erosion, compared to only 10% of those with established crop cover. The general shift from spring to autumn sowing of cereals may have reduced soil erosion in some areas.

Water uses by Scottish agriculture are (in likely descending order): animal consumption, irrigation, on-farm washing and cleaning, domestic human consumption, off-farm food processing, sheep dipping and crop spraying. Current water consumption by farming and farm household was estimated as below 50 cubic metres (Daw et al. 1998). The total area irrigated is estimated to have doubled between 1982 and 1996 with 69% early and 48% main crop potatoes irrigated and 75% of other vegetables. SEPA rarely uses its powers to restrict water abstraction suggesting that “ Scotland ’s watercourses are essentially unprotected against over-abstraction” (Adeloye and Low, 1996).

Water pollution by agriculture results from both point and diffuse sources. Point source pollution events (e.g. leaks from silage clamps) seem to have stabilized but the level of diffuse agricultural pollution (e.g. run-off from slurry spread on fields) is still of considerable concern (Scottish Agricultural Pollution Group, 1998). The Prevention of Environmental Pollution form Agricultural Activity (PEPFAA) Code of Good Practice has recently been revised and distributed to all farmers in an attempt to reduce the level of agricultural pollution. The Scottish Agriculture Pollution Group propose more use of detailed Farm Waste Management Plans to prevent further pollution incidents. Greater use of nutrient budgeting is being promoted through initiatives like the River Ugie Wetland Project run by FWAG/SNH. The full implementation of the Urban Waste Water Directive (91/271) in Scotland in 1998 puts an end to dumping of sewage sludge at sea. This is a particular problem since 57% of all sludge is disposed at sea. Applying treated sewage sludge to agricultural land appears to be the “best practicable environmental option” (Houldsworth, 1998).

Agriculture is an important source of greenhouse gases ; 41% of EU’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions come from the agricultural sector, mainly directly from ruminants or from manure. Of this, the UK contributes 1.116M tonnes of methane (12.2% of EU total) and 0.01M tonnes of nitrous oxide (2.5% of EU total). Given that Scotland has around 19% of the livestock units in the UK , agriculture in Scotland must contribute around 2.5% and 0.5% of the EU’s total agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxides.

Egdell (1999) observed that further reforms to agricultural policy are currently being discussed by the European Council of Ministers, driven by the desire to extend the European Union eastwards, to reach agreement on agricultural trade in the next round of negotiations of the World Trade Organisation , and to keep the Commission’s budget within agreed limits. The Agenda 2000 proposals suggest that the environment should become much more central to agricultural policy, though still secondary to farm income objectives.

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Despite there only being 8 years between them, there are some specific differences in both topics and emphases between this and the earlier State of the Scottish Environment 1991 report of Dargie and Briggs (1991). These are worth noting. Although some of these may be related to their different reporting briefs, it is clear that some issues, like “acidification”, have dropped off the environmental agenda, whilst others (e.g. recreation and access) receive much more attention. There is also a developing awareness of new issues (e.g. GM crops, sewage sludge disposal to agricultural land). Notably, however, the links between and agriculture and climate change exclude any reference to management of soil organic matter. Both reports conclude with comments concerning the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy in relation to future changes in the farmed environment of Scotland implying that they both accept changes in agricultural policy as the principal driver of future agricultural changes in Scotland.

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