Ground-breaking new data on soil carbon

The Northern Irish farmers finding pathways to tackle climate change

15th October 2021

“We’ve learnt about the variety of soils, habitats and areas where we can sequester and improve our carbon footprint across the farm.

A group of Northern Irish farmers have come together to find out more about soil carbon, and show how farming - a mainstay of the Northern Irish rural economy - can be part of the solution to tackle climate change.

The group are contributing to a rigorous study known as ARCZero (Accelerating Ruminant Carbon to Net Zero), which is creating carbon balance sheets for farms in the region, and which released initial findings in December 2021 – read more. We visited the group when they met recently, to hear what they’re learning.

John and William Edgerton

Father and son, John and William Edgerton, are livestock farmers at Rosslea in Co. Fermanagh and have been surprised by what they've learnt so far about their land. John says, “I didn’t realise my ground was sequestering as much carbon, and there was as much storage of carbon overall within the ground.” William agrees, “It was surprising what was emitting the most carbon and where it was coming from... and the difference between the cattle and the sheep. The sheep are producing less carbon than the cattle, but there's more to explore on that.”

They’re gradually starting to learn about where carbon is being sequestered and emitted on their farm, which John says is already having benefits; “It has us looking more at the things we're doing. Pinpointing areas we can make improvements, ways that we can sequester more carbon, where we can properly monitor ground. We have to try and reduce the emissions and we are particularly trying to sow less fertiliser.” This year, they have already been working to reduce input costs, such as fertiliser, and make the most of resources. John explains, “We have been trying to correct the pH [of the soil] and have sown more multispecies to try and reduce the amount of fertiliser we need, and find out how multispecies work on our farm. In the longer term, I think more clover and more multispecies grasses.”

They recognise the big changes happening in Northern Ireland around farming, policy and climate legislation which make planning for the future more daunting for some in the sector. “Things will need to change”, John thinks, but it’s important to “be open minded about the changes and to embrace them” if individual farming businesses are to thrive. When asked if farmers can be an important part of delivering on climate change, John is confident, “The world needs to be fed and farmers can do that in an environmentally-friendly manner... slight changes on our behalf can yield success in this area. We [farmers] are more than willing and up for the challenge.” Although, he’s less optimistic about how the wider public sees this; “It would be great if there was more acknowledgement that farmers aren’t bad or the destroyers that we’re made out to be. Get the public, press, out on the farm... and let them see the good work we are doing.”

Roger & Hillary Bell

Husband and wife, Roger and Hillary Bell, are also involved in the ARCZero project, and farm in Co. Antrim. They are predominantly grassland sheep farmers, with some cattle. They also think that ARCZero has been positive for their farm business. Roger says, “We’ve learnt more about our soils. We’ve learnt that we’re storing a whole lot more carbon than we thought, it’s been very interesting so far.” Roger and Hillary’s farm has undergone extensive soil sampling and levels of organic matter have been taken. Roger explains that it has been helpful to obtain scientific evidence, “The levels of organic matter were very mixed throughout the farm which I was expecting. Our levels are quite high - very high on peaty ground, less on other ground. That’s what I was expecting but it’s good to see it and actually find that out in practice.”

Finding out accurate data about their farm, particularly the amount of carbon within their soil, is helping their business succeed. Roger says, “Ultimately, we’re trying to produce kilos of meat off grass... all our sheep are grass-fed all year and our lambs are finished off on grass. If we don’t know what our soil is doing, we can’t grow the grass. So, as we are finding out more about our soils, we’re growing more grass, our lambs are finished better – it’s all win-win.” For Hillary, sharing the journey has been important, “We’re learning a lot. It’s a great group to be involved in, we’re learning together.”

Considering the bigger picture in Northern Ireland, Roger agrees with John Edgerton that farming can be a force for change, “I think farming has a good story to tell, and I think ARCZero is going to show that. We’re sequestering a whole lot more carbon than anybody really realises. We are the people looking after the countryside, and we just want to learn how to do that better.”

John and Simon Best

Father and son, John and Simon Best, also involved in the ARCZero project, farm in Co. Armagh. John says, “I have farmed all my life, mainly beef and gradually progressed into an intensive arable farm with a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd.” Simon oversees the arable side of the farm whilst John is focused on the livestock. Both John and Simon have found the ARCZero project to be beneficial; “Firstly, we’ve learnt about the variety of soils, habitats and areas where we can hopefully sequester and therefore improve our carbon footprint across the farm. On top of that, what we hope to find out is what our verifiable baseline is for carbon output on this farm and what mitigations we can undertake to help improve that over time”, says Simon. The project learnings have also presented some surprises. He adds, “As a cereal farm, the main surprise has been around the levels of organic matter in our soil.”

Both John and Simon see the ARCZero project as a real opportunity. Simon says, “Farms like ours, who are taking action to reduce carbon outputs and are gaining a better understanding of carbon, I think will have great opportunities in the future.” John adds, “I think the ARCZero data will focus livestock production on improved efficiencies, which is good for everybody. The data we have will drive down inefficiencies.” However, John is concerned that too singular a focus on driving down carbon footprints can lead to unintended consequences and impact farmers’ livelihoods. “My big fear is... the simple way for government to drive down carbon footprints is simply to forget about our indigenous livestock production, and import our beef, lamb, milk. I think we must make the public aware of the consequences of that.” He’s worried about the carbon emissions caused by longer supply chains and the offshoring of emissions.

When asked what their plans are going forward, as a result of ARCZero, Simon says, “I think we’ve always had a focus on sustainability on this farm... we want to continue to support environmental habitats, continuing that route, so the policy shift allows us to continue to be in higher level environmental stewardship.” John and Simon also think governments could be doing more to stimulate farm businesses to become part of the solution to the climate and nature crises. John says, “I think it’s as simple as protecting the livestock sector. Livestock farming has become dirty in the public eye. There needs to be recognition of the importance of livestock in managing grassland and upland areas, and the carbon that can be sequestered through well managed grass. Nobody’s recognising the inputs that livestock can make.” Simon adds, “For me, some leadership agreement on policy going forward is important. It allows us to make plans, so that we can start acting now rather than down the line. We need to start now, implementing interventions that will help in the future.”

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.