You are here

Alternative approaches to sustainable land management

Work Package 2.3 - Agricultural systems and land management

Research Deliverable 
2.3.8 Alternative approaches to sustainable land management
Leading Ideas 
Land and Communities


Delivering the desired outcomes of both profitability and a reduction in the adverse environmental impact of food production requires a combination of alternative management practices and approaches to “input substitution” (for example, use of alternative fertilisers or biological pest control) as well as options for redesigning agricultural systems. Agroecological approaches aim to apply our understanding of ecological processes to develop agricultural land management practices that enhance ecosystem services (ES) (e.g. productivity, pest and disease control, pollination) whilst minimising negative environmental and socio-economic impacts. The impact of alternative management practices such as cover cropping and the use of renewable resources and locally sourced wastes is fundamental for “closing the loop” in nutrient management strategies and reducing reliance on inputs derived from fossil fuels and non-renewable resources.

Aim of Research

Our overall aim is to investigate the potential productivity and environmental impacts of the introduction of alternative land management practices including measures introduced as part of CAP Greening. We will investigate both technological and knowledge based solutions, involving participatory approaches with farmers and land managers, in order to deliver profitability and step changes in environmental performance.

The research builds on previous work within the RESAS Strategic Programme and on collaborations with UK and International partners.



Research on soil and vegetation management is being translated from small-scale experimental trials to larger-scales that are more relevant to farm settings using experimental and modelling approaches. Initial findings from the diverse vegetation mixtures are showing promising outcomes for ecosystem services.  In particular, increased floral diversity (wild flower strips) are encouraging pollinating insects and increased crop diversity (cereal-legume intercrops) are improving productivity and soil nutrient status. Theoretical analysis using mathematical modelling has highlighted that the effects of diverse vegetation on pest biocontrol depend on its spatial placement in the landscape. Promising results have been detected for the effects of alternative soil nutrient management on soil quality and enhancing crop and non-crop vegetation diversity on beneficial insects and crop productivity. Assessment of soils with long-term addition of alternative fertilisers (green manure or compost) shows that there is accumulation of nutrients in the surface of treated soils but these bulky organic fertilisers provide relatively small amounts of nitrogen to crops. We have been developing farmer-friendly tools for assessing changes in soil quality and testing these in our long-term trials and on-farm. As soils rise up the political agenda this is a way of helping farmers  understand the impact of changed management practices. These include VESS (visual evaluation of soil structure (Hargreaves et al. 2019) and a tea bag index (this involves measuring the rate of decomposition of two different kinds of tea as an indicator of biological activity). We also developed a framework for understanding direct and indirect connections between soils and the people who use them for livelihoods or recreation (Ball et al. 2019)


  • Several scientists from RD 2.3.8 gave presentations at the European Society for Agronomy Congress in Geneva in 2018 on a variety of topics including nutrient budgets and cropping system design with grain legumes.
  • Joanna Cloy won an award to attend the International Society for Soil and Tillage research (ISTRO) conference in Paris in September 2018.
  • Additional funding gained in 2018 included an H2020 Thematic Network on Translating knowledge for legume-based farming for feed and food systems.
  • Research on the benefits of enhancing crop and overall biodiversity in production systems was presented at the SEFARI Showcase ‘Food and drink’ event at the Scottish Parliament building on 30th May. (see
  • Research on intercropping was demonstrated by MRPs at the Royal Northern Agricultural Society EcoAgritech event in Huntly, Aberdeenshire on 18 July 2018. An intercropping Field Lab with Soil Association Scotland was initiated by Hutton and SRUC researchers in October 2018 to assist farmers and crofters with trialling cereal-legume intercrops on their own land.
  • Hutton held an IPM@Hutton and Centre for Sustainable Cropping stakeholder group meeting on 13th December 2018, attended by stakeholders from farming, land use and industry organisations, as a basis for discussion on IPM research that is needed to address industry needs (see

Field experiments are being used to investigate both short-term (alternative fertiliser treatments including green manure and compost application) and longer-term (rotation combined with different management inputs) management approaches.  These alternative practices have the potential to enhance the environmental sustainability of Scottish agriculture by reducing the need for inorganic inputs, and by locking up carbon in soils. Importantly, these benefits are achieved without a large penalty in yield, and in some cases (rotation) can enhance the overall impact positively.

Research has continued to identify the optimal composition of Nitrogen-Fixing mixtures and catch crops for beneficial invertebrates (e.g. insect pollinators and natural predators). Cereal and legume varieties that perform optimally in mixtures (e.g. improved crop yield and weed suppression) have also been identified from the work.

It is important that managed ecosystems not only provide outputs for the farmer and the food quality chain (crops, grain, food, drink, etc.), but also improve the environment (water, pollution) and benefit wider society (the cultural landscape, iconic biodiversity).  To allow us to compare the capacity of differently managed ecosystems to provide these services a decision-aid which compares the pros and cons of future cropping systems in Scotland  was developed based on frameworks used by regional (e.g. EU) and global organisations (e.g. the United Nations). 

We have built population dynamic models of key pest predators and parasitoids species inhabiting a specific arable landscape where we can simulate the effect of introducing ecological focus areas (EFAs). The production of high resolution maps (5m x 5m) and the analysis of data at the land parcel scale illustrated the response of natural enemy abundance to EFAs and other habitat features in the landscape.


  • A research note entitled "Can Agro-Ecology Deliver Multiple Benefits for Scottish Agriculture?"
  • Staff from 2.3.8 led the CREW funded farmer output on “Valuing Your Soils”, as well as contributing to a number of events that took place as part of the FAS network and Nutrient Network Farms.
  • Christine Watson gave the keynote address at the AAB conference on Legume Science and Practice in Glasgow and two talks were presented with accompanying conference papers were published in the conference proceedings.
  • A paper on the effects of off-farm work on farm input intensity was presented by Abdul-Salam and Roberts at the 2018 Agricultural Economics Society conference, University of Warwick.
  • Some examples of funding success include BBSRC Global Food Security funding on Sustainable economic and ecological grazing systems - learning from innovative practitioners (2018-2020).
  • The Cereals in Practice event at Saphock Farm (Oldmeldrum) was hosted by SRUC on its main arable trial site and showcased plot demonstrations of SRUC and JHI experiments to farmers and agriculture stakeholders.
  • Results were presented to scientists at the Royal Entomological Society Insect Pollinator Special Interest Group Meeting at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 24 October 2017 (Cole et al. 2017. Safe-guarding pollinators in intensive agriculture: implications of CAP Greening).
  • Research fed into a collaborative response to EU consultation on modernising and simplifying the common agricultural policy (CAP), and have informed discussions at Scottish (through the Griggs Greening Group) and EU level about crop diversification strategies.
  • A talk was presented to growers and industry at the Scottish Society for Crop Research Combinable and Energy Crops Winter Meeting in Dundee on 6 March 2018 (Hawes. 2018. Crops yield and weed responses to an integrated cropping system and implications for system functions).
  • The LEAF Open Farm Sunday event (11th June 2017) was held to communicate research to the public. The event was successful with over 1000 visitors, and the event was disseminated via the Hutton website and social media accounts.

Policy changes have short and long-term impacts on the agricultural industry.  To aid our understanding of these effects, cropping and livestock numbers from the June agricultural census data and the Scottish farm accounts survey were analysed.  This showed for example that the subsidy for energy crops resulted in the introduction of new crops e.g. rye into Scotland.

We talked to a range of stakeholders to find out what they understood by "alternative" management and found many different interpretations. For example, even the term "agroecology" has a plethora of different meanings from a scientific discipline through management practices such as green manuring and cover cropping to an alternative socio-political movement.

Long-term experimental platforms are key to our ability to understand the long term impact of changes in management practices. We make extensive use of the JHI Centre for Sustainable Cropping (established 2009) and 3 long-term experiments at SRUC at Aberdeen on organic farming (established 1991), soil pH (established 1961) and fertilizer combinations (established 1922). These are used not only for scientific enquiry but are a key part of knowledge exchange strategy.

Research findings have provided scientific evidence to Scottish and EU policy consultations regarding CAP Greening. In this year we established several trials on the use of nitrogen fixing crop species (legumes) to address impacts on productivity, soils and beneficial insects e.g. pollinators. Modelling and mapping work has also been initiated which will help us to assess the impact of agri-environment schemes in future years


  • Work in RD2.3.8 led to a number of successful EU Horizon 2020 involving MRPs and starting in Year 2 of this programme. For example, DIVERSify and ReMIX both of which investigate intercropping using co-innovation with agricultural industries and stakeholders, and optimising the opportunities for impact in the agricultural supply chain.
  • MRP researchers from 2.3.8, along with representatives from Scottish Universities and environmental charities, contributed to the Field of Enquiry public engagement event (August 2016-March 2017). This project was funded by the Climate Challenge Fund, awarded to Whitmuir Organic Farm. Specific 2.3.8 contributions involved soil management and biodiversity.

Future Activities

We will focus on the consolidation of experimental data and modelling to help develop practical messages and policy briefs in two main areas i) biodiversity enhancement ii) soil health and nutrient management to optimise the use and success of alternative land management strategies. Our research in Scotland has been a springboard for developing collaborations with researchers and stakeholders in the UK, Europe and further afield, and we will use these networks to communicate our research widely and emphasise its global relevance and impact. Data management procedures are being established to ensure maximum use of the data now and in the future. We will partner with organisations such as the Soil Association through Field Labs and other events to optimise KE opportunities. Links to organisations such as SASA and SNH will help us to deliver research which will be useful in deriving policy post-BREXIT.