Scotland’s new Agriculture Bill: making the most of grasslands for nature, climate, and people

By Joanne Riggall, Grasslands Advocacy Officer, Plantlife

The Scottish Government has recognised that the interlinked crises of climate change and biodiversity loss need urgent action and that more sustainable farming is part of the solution. Permanent grasslands are an iconic part of Scotland’s farmed landscape and the proposed Agriculture Bill offers a crucial opportunity to maximise their potential benefits for nature, climate and people.

The evidence is clear: Scotland’s treasured wildlife and wild plants are in decline; 265 plant species and 153 fungi and lichen species are classified as being at risk of extinction in Scotland. The intensification of agriculture is a key driver of biodiversity loss, and the agriculture sector is the second largest contributor to Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Grasslands are important carbon stores and cover almost 30% of Scotland’s land area (2 million hectares), but less than 1% of this is high biodiversity value semi-natural grasslands.

The Scottish Government’s Vision Statement for Agriculture sets an applaudable level of ambition to reverse this trend; for Scotland to become ‘a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture’, supported by a ‘framework that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration’.

Healthy, semi-natural grasslands are thriving ecosystems, where thousands of different wild plants over millennia have co-evolved alongside farmers managing the land as hay meadows and grazing pasture. Alongside peatland and trees, permanent semi-natural grasslands are important carbon stores; grasslands with greater plant diversity can sequester and store significantly more carbon than agriculturally improved grassland or arable land, with some storing more soil organic carbon than in woodland soils. 

However, a lot of Scotland’s grassland is agriculturally ‘improved’ and is under intensive agricultural management regimes, which can mean regular ploughing, an overreliance on pesticide and fertiliser inputs, reduced soil health, and the degradation of habitats. This decreases plant diversity, impacts on other wildlife, and hampers the potential for permanent pasture to store carbon. Intensive agriculture can be costly and unsustainable for farmers too. Intensive farming methods degrade soil and put long-term food production and security at risk, while artificial fertilisers and inputs are becoming increasingly expensive.

This doesn’t have to be the status quo. Farmers and crofters can manage their land in a way that is good for business, nature, and climate – and many do already. Changing farming practices, such as using rotational grazing, reducing ploughing or curbing fertilizer use, can improve soil health and yields, increase biodiversity, and store more carbon, while releasing fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) in the process.

In tandem with sustainable food production, semi-natural grasslands provide further ‘public goods’ – ecosystem services such as pollination services, flood mitigation, locking up pollutants, and enhancing our health and wellbeing.

Scotland’s proposed Agriculture Bill and agri-environment scheme must invest in grassland management and restoration for rural livelihoods, nature recovery and climate resilience by appropriately supporting farmers and crofters. This means:

  • Appropriate financial and advisory support for semi-natural grassland management techniques that recognises their value as economically productive land and a nature-based solution
  • Support for landscape scale restoration that connects habitats, allowing plants and wildlife to move between them and adapt to a changing climate
  • A clear, robust and integrated regulatory baseline, enabling whole farm management plan which supports farmers and crofters to use nutrients efficiently and reduce air and water pollution
  • Support for tree-planting and woodland creation guided by the ‘right tree, right place, right management’ principle, to avoid unintended negative environmental impacts on semi-natural grassland
  • Bespoke, on-going advisory support for farmers to restore and maintain their semi-natural pasture over the long-term, in order to maximise good environmental outcomes and support rural livelihoods.

Over 70% of Scotland’s land is now managed by farmers and crofters. We need the full strength of their support, backed by the Scottish Government, to ensure that Scotland’s nature and agricultural livelihoods can thrive together, in harmony. Grasslands offer a win-win solution to achieve this, which we cannot afford to miss.

Want to take action? Sign the petition run by Farm for Scotland’s Future asking the Scottish Government to help make farming work for nature, people, and climate.

This blog was first published by Plantlife Scotland on 4 November 2022.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of all the organisations backing the Farm for Scotland’s Future campaign.


State of Nature Report Scotland (2019)

Tim G. Benton, Carling Bieg, Helen Harwatt, Roshan Pudasaini and Laura Wellesley, Food System Impacts on Biodiversity Loss, Research Paper (2021) p.g. 16

Alasdair Reid and Warwick Wainwrigh, Climate Change and Agriculture: How can Scottish Agriculture Contribute to Climate Change Targets? (2018)

Pakeman, R. Grassland Biodiversity: A summary of research outputs supported or facilitated by the Environmental Change Programme of the Scottish Government’s Portfolio of Strategic Research 2011-2016. (2016)

James Hutton Institute Yongfei Bai, M. Francesca Cotrufo, Grassland soil carbon sequestration: Current understanding, challenges, and solutions, Journal Article, (2022), Science, pg. 603-608, 377

UK Parliament POSTNOTE, Restoring Agricultural Soils (2022)

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Stafford, R., Chamberlain, B., Clavey, L., Gillingham, P.K., McKain, S., Morecroft, M.D., Morrison-Bell, C. and Watts, O. (Eds.) (2021). Nature-based Solutions for Climate Change in the UK: A Report by the British Ecological Society. London, UK