Learning from a countryside ramble

Hello, my name is Alex, and, just like everyone else on the planet, 2020 was not what I expected.

Six months ago, triggered by the pandemic, I left the city and moved to (relatively) rural Scotland, back to the farm where my husband grew up. Four months ago, I took a new job, in a newly established organisation with a mission to drive sustainable economic development in the rural region I now call home.

It is a region of immense natural beauty and assets, but is not without its economic, social and environmental challenges. An ageing population, comparatively low productivity, wages and business start-ups, and remote and fragile communities in need of regeneration to name some key issues. And of course, it faces the same global issues as everywhere else, and needs to play its part in the response to the climate and biodiversity crises.

I know that, to be able to truly step up in my new role to help us realise our mission of delivering inclusive and sustainable development, I need to intimately understand this region. So that’s my challenge: to better get to know my new home so I’m better equipped to be a sustainability leader at work. Over the course of my Master’s studies, I’ll document my journey to learn about the land around me, and reflect on how this has shaped my perspectives and actions at work.

The question is, how do you get to know somewhere new in the middle of a pandemic, when visiting shops, cafes, visitor attractions or social enterprises is more difficult than ever?

The answer: walking.

One of our first walks took us to Greenlawdean Farm, a mixed arable (used for growing crops), pasture (used for grazing animals) and woodland farm in the East of the region. Around 80% of Scotland’s land mass is under some form of agricultural production, so the farming industry has a huge role to play in our economic, social and environmental future (1). Like every farming operation, Greenlawdean needs to make its land work hard enough to be a viable business. Making farming work can be a real challenge, and often leads to intensive farming to maximise yields to get the economic return needed, but with negative environmental and social consequences including soil degradation, biodiversity loss and increased flood risk (2).

Greenlawdean has taken a different approach, and is well known locally for its sustainable land management practices (it was my father-in-law who mentioned it on our walk). They’ve planted mixed woodland instead of single species to provide habitat for a wider range of birds, mammals and insects, enhanced their hedgerows as wildlife corridors, manage a conservation-based shoot and appeared to be allowing their livestock to free range on the land. Their efforts have earned them Wildlife Estates Scotland accreditation for best practice in wildlife and habitat management (3).

It was really encouraging to hear and then read about the approach that they have taken, but it also raised a lot of questions: how easy is it to be environmentally sustainable and economically viable? How does each element subsidise or rely on another? How easy is it to shift to a sustainable farming system? What are the costs and risks involved? Do you need to be a certain scale to make it work?

Asking myself these types of questions in my new role, across every industry that I might be working with, will help me balance big ambitions for change with a sense of realism and understanding of context. This will be essential for building relationships with the people and organisations in the region, and influencing change in the right way.

Who knew you could learn so much from a countryside ramble through a few fields?

References

(1) https://www.nfus.org.uk/farming-facts.aspx
(2) See for example: Dudley, N. and Alexander, S. (2017) Agriculture and biodiversity: a review. Biodiversity, 18(2–3), 45–49, DOI: 10.1080/14888386.2017.1351892; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26466653
(3) https://www.scottishlandandestates.co.uk/helping-it-happen/case-studies/blending-farming-habitat-and-species-management

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