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Supporting Scotland’s Land Use Transformations


Rural land use occupies a pivotal position in some of the major debates about Scotland’s future. It shapes our landscape, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, yet offers significant opportunities to address these ‘emergencies’ through new management approaches. Decisions are influenced by and need to balance, a myriad of public and private sector drivers and landowner objectives. As such, the sphere of influence on rural land use crosses over multiple arenas of government activity.

Sustainable land use is vital for underpinning Scotland’s vitally important food and drink and tourism sectors, and as a resource base for economic development. The foundational role of land use means that the small headline economic contributions mask its role in underpinning sustainable and resilient rural economies and communities.

Scotland’s land use sector faces challenges over the next ten to twenty years in contributing to legally binding climate change targets. Scotland’s challenges and opportunities in land use are being addressed through the adoption of more integrated and cross-sectoral approaches to rural land use, including the creation of Rural Land Use Partnerships, and a greater focus on biodiversity and natural capital outcomes. The response and effectiveness of policy and management changes will vary spatially reflecting socio-economic and environmental conditions creating the need to better understand these spatial patterns and configure policy accordingly.


Key policy drivers

Scotland’s Green Recovery, Environment Strategy, Just Transition and NetZero are the headline policy objectives, that fit under Scotland’s commitment to the Wellbeing Economy. Scotland’s Climate Change Plan (CCP) defines the specific policies and proposals for measures to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the Land Use Land Use Change Forestry sector, whilst the Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme considers how to manage existing effects.

Scotland’s Land Use Strategy (LUS) sets out a long-term vision for sustainable land use and the range of policies that affect Scotland land, including the Regional Land Use Partnerships and their Frameworks.  The post-2024 Agricultural Support policies and developments in green finance will inform the pace, scale, and type of land use change. Important policy windows 2022-2027 include proposed Agriculture and Land Reform Bills, the next CCP, a refreshed LUS and the integration of the Biodiversity Strategy and River Basin Management Plans (2021-2027) with Net Zero will be key.


  • How can we optimise land use to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change (net zero) while also delivering environmental goals?
  • How can we make more effective use of land by joining up approaches to managing land for different uses, and across larger scales?
  • How might land use in Scotland change in response to climate change, and how can we build resilience, or ways to adapt to this?


This project generates new insights into how land use in Scotland could change to meet climate change mitigation, adaptation, and other environmental objectives. We consider how approaches to land use can be better joined up, for example, through Regional Land Use Partnerships.


Emissions and environmental goals 

We integrate a wide range of spatial modelling (map data and systems models) to create opportunity and risk maps for alternative land uses under current and future climate regimes. The spatial analysis considers both current and future capability for agricultural, forestry and sporting use but also what the mix of land uses, and their intensity implies for the basket of ecosystem goods and services delivered at a range of scales (national, regional, landscape). The analysis also links farm structure data with the mapping of ecosystem goods and services to contextualise biophysical analysis with other drivers of change such as business viability, land manager behaviour and changes in tenure or ownership. These components underpin multi-objective analyses: how much change is needed; how an agreed objective can be delivered while minimising unintended consequences; simulating “what ifs” or defining the structure of trade-offs between objectives.


Joined-up approaches to managing land

This project explores policy coherence to support emerging institutions such as Regional Land Use Partnerships. The research is identifying relevant actors (agriculture, forestry, sporting, conservation, tourism), characterising how the institutional landscape joins up horizontally (between policies) and vertically (from objective to implementation), and highlights solutions that can address the issues identified. This is complemented by an analysis of stories about land use change past, present and future, contrasting official sources with those from other actors using an array of conventional, sensory, and ethnographic methods. We are generating joined-up macro land use planning delivering multiple objectives across levels (national, regional and landscape). To do this we are conducting cycles of transdisciplinary Quantitative Story Telling (QST) through co-construction with national or regional policy actors: defining both the scope of analysis and the interpretation of the outcomes. This approach is providing detailed state of play for land use research capabilities. 


Change, Resilience and Adaptation

This project conducts damage screening of climate change impacts across agricultural, forestry and peatland systems (linked to the CentrePeat project). It also assesses the consequences of climate change for resilience, looking at a range of ecosystem functions across scales, linking field and parcel and business-scale analyses with assessments of multifunctionality at landscape scales. These specific analyses are shaped by higher-level analysis that contextualises land use change scenarios by linking the Shared Socio-Economic Pathways developed elsewhere. This tests how these assumptions might play out in space across Scotland and assess their outcomes.


Exploring the wider impacts

We are monitoring and evaluating QST processes to learn how the data, tools, and processes combined to deliver the anticipated impacts and the degree to which QST would shape science-policy processes. The QST processes are good examples of how open science can be delivered at the research-policy and research-stakeholder interfaces to engage the wider public of Scotland by making the research outputs more accessible. To foster wider engagement with other UK social and rural researchers on the data being generated within the project, we are running a mid-project digital-LUC stories hackathon (an event where people come together to collaborate to rapidly develop solutions to common issues).


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