Conference 2016

UNDER-USED CROFTS – Realising the Potential

a scientific and practical approach to crofting agriculture on ‘peaty’ soils
presented by the Blackland Centre and SRUC Research (Edinburgh)
23 FEBRUARY 2016, Kallin, Grimsay, North Uist

There is increasing pressure on land managers to make better use of crofting land.  Will the new support system enable improvement to the thousands of hectares of small, old, underused crofts that we see all over the islands and west of Scotland?  Can scientific knowledge help continue the diversity of traditional land use and support the vitality of crofting communities?  How do we balance productivity, climate challenges, sustainability, and practical skills, particularly on the old agricultural soils often referred to as blackland?

To address such questions, a series of short talks followed by questions and discussion were given by:

Dr. Ken Davies (SAC Vegetation specialist, ret.)
Causes and Effects of Under-use

Dr. Bruce Ball (SRUC Crop and Soil)
Soils in the West of Scotland

Prof. Tony Edwards (SRUC Crop and Soil)
Nutrient Cycling and Availability

Prof. Bob Rees (SRUC Carbon Management Centre)
Carbon Balance in Agriculture

introduction by Mary Norton Scherbatskoy (Blackland Centre)
Techniques for Reading the Land

Some of the main points included:

– Many grasses and clovers grow much better than predicted on black soils.  Even though blackland tends to test low in pH and in P (Phosphorus), it seems to have other properties which encourage plant growth.

– Air is crucial!  getting more air into the system whether by keeping drains open, mowing old overgrown vegetation, using a mechanical aerator or taking care of soil structure by appropriate management and avoiding compaction by stock or machinery is essential.  It is air that starts all kinds of beneficial reactions in the soil, both chemical and microbial.

Learning to understand your land is the most important thing.  Most crofts are very varied and changeable.  In a wet year, one area may be most useful, in a dry year,  somewhere else may be better.  Most blackland fields have been under-used since the 1960s, and a quick look today does not necessarily indicate their potential.

– Shell sand, seaweed and manure are very useful.  Shell sand has liming value but also improves trafficability.  Seaweed adds some Phosphorus and Potassium, but also seems to support desirable microbial reactions in the soil.  Manure does the same and adds P.   Buckwheat as a cover crop concentrates P and makes it available. Becoming aware of where nutrients are coming from on your croft, whether they are available to plants, and where they are going, is essential to grow good grass and not waste money.

– Trials of traditional potatoes (British Queen) and modern (Maris Piper) showed that the old variety was more productive, and also that rotted seaweed produced the best results on raw ground.  The historic rotation beginning with potatoes on fallow ground, then oats, then grass is being studied to see what are the effects on pH and soil nutrient levels.

– All agriculture releases CO and other green house gases, but also absorbs them depending on management.  Crop growth uses up CO₂.  We know that the climate is changing: projections for western Scotland in 2050 indicate that summers will be warmer by 2.4º, winters warmer by 1.9º; summers dryer by 12%, winters wetter by 15%.

– There are no quick fixes.  Land has a large, slow, complicated cycle that can be gradually tuned through observation and trial-and-error.  Better to try to take advantage of the resources that we have here – local grasses/cereals, native breeds, nutrients – than try to adjust the land to grow something else.

– It is possible to use blackland in a modern way, so then it’s down to individuals to observe, to learn and to make choices.

The aim of this Blackland Conference was to discuss the characteristics of  blackland today, as well as tips to make its use easier.  The Blackland Centre will continue working with both scientists and crofters towards rediscovering the potential of these old agricultural blacklands.  Our second Five Year Plan aims to produce some answers.