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Glensaugh: Improving Climate Resilience

Submitted by Hamish Mackintosh 19th March 2014 18:18

Summary

Glensaugh is an experimental farm that has implemented several measures aimed at reducing the impact of future climate change. These measures include the creation of renewable energy schemes and researching the best methods to combat unseasonal and extreme weather events.

Introduction

Glensaugh was set up as an experimental hill farm in 1943 and is used to support research for the James Hutton Institute. It covers 1,000 hectares and lies in the Grampian foothills about 7km north of Laurencekirk.

It has over 700 ha of acid moorland complemented by improved pasture and arable land (about 70 ha) which is used to feed a flock of 400 Blackface and 500 crossbred ewes, 50 Blue Grey suckler cows and 90 breeding hinds.

Glensaugh lies in a transition zone and is typical of many farms in upland Scotland. Its main natural advantages are an extensive land area allowing low stocking densities, isolation from neighbouring livestock farms, a useful core area of fertile improved land and its proximity to the arable farming area and local markets, plus the space to grow timber and be self-sufficient in woodfuel.

How might climate change affect Glensaugh?

In spite of its relatively low altitude, Glensaugh lacks shelter from the north and west and is shaded by Finella Hill, resulting in a long period of low or no growth, prolonging the winter feeding period. Adverse weather that tests grazing systems is not new to hill farmers and the combination of a poor summer followed by a poor winter places a severe strain on production systems in hill farms such as Glensaugh (as in 2009/’10 and again in 2012/’13).

While winter weather is often the focus of attention, poor summer weather is a bigger threat. Summer rain, low soil temperatures and impaired plant growth lead to discontented animals with poor growth rates. The variability in weather conditions makes farming more of a challenge, and this challenge could increase if there is more ‘un-seasonality’ in current weather patterns, as predicted under climate change, and has been evident in the past 2-3 years.

Reducing emissions and increasing climate resilience at Glensaugh

Working to Strengths

In order to create a climate resilient farm one must understand the farm’s annual cycle. For example, farm systems which rely on conserved winter feed (suckler cow herd and low ground sheep flock) are vulnerable to poor summer weather because feed quality will be impaired. Conversely, those which rely on extensive grazing throughout the year will be less vulnerable, but will be at the mercy of winter storms. It is easy to provide winter feeding if feed stocks are plentiful and of high quality. Glensaugh’s farm manager believes that the main risk to farms like his is from poor summer weather.  A shortened summer weather window (e.g. due to cold, late springs) can be dealt with by substituting silage for hay and introducing new technology like the use of silage preservatives and inoculants. Reducing reliance on conserved winter feed is brought about by substituting sheep for suckler cows and hill sheep for low-ground crossbred ewes. Such changes align with the aim for production systems that are less reliant on external energy support and so more resilient to both climate and energy challenges.

Energy and Renewables

In 2010 the farm commissioned a 50 kW Atlantic Orient Canada AOC 15/50 wind turbine, the power from which is sold directly into the grid. This turbine unfortunately fell short of its designer’s expectations. In the year of commissioning it was beset by problems relating to its PLC (programmable logical controller). After resolving that problem it operated more reliably, but was frequently “outed” by voltage over-runs. For no known reason this no longer seems to be a problem and the turbine is now generating about 4,000 kWhrs per month, which is about half of the original projection. The siting of the turbine, which was a compromise, is a problem which will only be overcome if the AOC turbine is relocated as part of a larger wind power development. 

In 2011 the farm commissioned a 70 kW Ekopal RM20 biomass boiler which burns metre length cordwood to heat Glensaugh Lodge and adjoining buildings in a mini-district heating scheme. The project budget was £46,000, 50% of which was met by the SRDP (the Scottish Rural Development Programme). It has displaced the burning of about 6,000 litres per annum of LPG (£4,000 p.a.) and generates some income.  In justifying our investment we budgeted income plus costs foregone at £7,300 and additional costs (labour and power) at £3,500 (which turned out to be overstated), giving an annual surplus of £3,800. In simple payback terms this would repay the net of grant investment in 7 years with a service life of 25 years. If the budget is presented with depreciation as an annual cost, the net annual surplus generated by the investment is around £1,200.

Woodland planting is well supported by the SRDP and the farm’s manager, Donald Barrie, is restocking former woodland areas which were cleared through emergency wartime felling. This will provide valuable shelter, provide a long term fuel wood resource and enhances carbon sequestration.

Coping with weather extremes

The importance of ‘hefting’* in our Blackface ewes is demonstrated during severe winter weather by the ability of these ewes to make use of natural shelter and to continue to forage over snow covered ground. When potentially lethal snow storms are predicted by modern weather forecasting, ewes can be removed from the hill and sustained by feeding hay or silage. This is then withdrawn in a controlled manner as ewes are encouraged to return to their own ground.

*Hefting is a system in which lambs graze with their mothers and develop a life-long knowledge of where optimal grazing and shelter can be found throughout the year. The old wisdom of never feeding hill sheep was based on the knowledge that ewes would not forage once removed from their own ground.

Policy Influences

The shaping of grant schemes such as the SRDP can play an important role in promoting climate resilience in farms by subsidising a range of activities and investments that increase resilience.  In the case of Glensaugh this has included support for woodland planting and the installation of the biomass boiler and mini district heating scheme which contribute to reduced emissions and energy independence.

Acknowledgements

This article has been adapted from a Farming for a Better Climate farmer case study.  The authors would like to thank Donal Barrie (Farm Manager, Glensaugh) and Willie Towers (Soil Scientist) of the James Hutton Institute for all their help in providing the source material for this article.