Counting the carbon

A project to measure and analyse carbon at the Rhug Estate is providing important data to improve the understanding around how land use influences carbon management.

Two separate but compatible carbon measurement tools are revealing the carbon balance of the Rhug Estate in North Wales and creating a better understanding of the impact of land use.

The estate, which covers 12,500 acres in Denbighshire and a further 8,000 in Gwynedd, comprises a 6,700-acre in-hand organic farm in Denbighshire, the Glynllifon Estate, near Caernarfon – a 1,500-acre in-hand farming enterprise, and 170 tenancies including let farms, in-hand and let forestry, let cottages, commercial premises and storage.

The estate is measuring and analysing its carbon over three years using the Farm Carbon Calculator (FCC) and Agrecalc. Low Carbon Manager Mared Williams hopes that the results will create a greater understanding of how land management strategy and changing conditions affect the formula and how to manage the balance of the estate as a vital business asset.

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Mared Williams

“We have made an important start on the main in-hand farm, and we will progress with the second. We will then spread the project to capture the wider diversified businesses, including the customer-facing enterprises.”

Carbon management may be the greatest force for change. It’ll change farming forever

“A key part of the work is to use the feedback to modify the strategy. We have already come to a key conclusion that small changes in soil organic matter content have a significant carbon measurement impact.”

“A key part of the work is to use the feedback to modify the strategy. We have already come to a key conclusion that small changes in soil organic matter content have a significant carbon measurement impact.”

“For example, livestock (6,000 sheep and 500 cattle) account for 80% of our emissions. What we call plant and machinery (including renewables) account for 12%, and crop residues and purchased fertilisers are responsible for 2%. We have learnt that our annual carbon balance amounts to a surplus of around 400 tonnes of CO2e.”

Measurement tools

Both of the carbon measurement tools used – FCC and Agrecalc – focus on crops, livestock ground conditions and land type, as well as the performance of different enterprises. “They vary in their focus on habitats – moorland, wetland, the presence/influence of wild margins, hedgerows and trees,” says Mared.

Other resources such as the Peatland Carbon Code and the Soil Carbon Code, which is currently in development, can be applied to benchmark results against the most relevant standard.

“This science is still in its early stages. We have been able to factor in all parts of the productive formula – even the use of materials like steel and concrete, fencing materials, vehicles, plant and fuels. These present difficulties where there has been reuse and recycling, but for these, we rely on the system algorithm to account for their supply chain.

“There are still missing links. For example, we need to be able to take better account of our existing mature woodlands.”

Graduating from Harper Adams University with a degree in agri business, Mared has just completed a post-graduate certificate in rural property management and is undertaking a masters in rural estate and land management.

Mared Williams, Rhug
Mared Williams

A sustainable vision

Owner Lord Newborough leads the business vision for the estate. Its 6,700-acre farm has been organic for many years, and the estate can generate as much as 6.4MW (megawatts) from ten solar PV sites and 450KW (kilowatts) from two wind turbines. There are also four hydroelectric schemes delivering 250KW and seven ground and air heat pump systems. The annual carbon balance of the estate amounts to a surplus of around 400 tonnes of CO2e.

The farm business includes a shop and butchery supplying its own high-quality meat and other local meat, as well as a restaurant and drive-through.

An early adopter, Lord Newborough doesn’t want to wait for sector-wide or government solutions. “I do think he wants to be a leader in this area,” Mared says.

Thanks to the investment in a wide range of renewables and long-term organic and sustainable farm management, we are confident about confirming carbon neutrality.

“We want to understand the potential for our carbon balance surplus. We are focusing on tiny changes in our measurements over many years to fully understand how to improve our carbon management and maximise the surplus benefit.”

Carbon Sequestration

“Alongside this, we are equally interested in sequestration capacity. We are using a specialist service provider to test seven different soil samples for organic matter density. We expect to see changes in results over several years, and – accounting for natural factors such as meteorological influences which influence soil structure, oxygen content, friability and density and type of natural life – we are understanding how land use influences carbon management.

“The result is that we can focus on this as a service to society in specific areas. It is also throwing up new assets. For example, the salt marshes on the coastal in-hand farm have an organic process known as blue carbon, which is academically very interesting. The carbon sequestrating capacity may be double that on dry land.”

Beyond data

Transforming the data into a realistic commercial value remains a holy grail. Mared says: “Farming already has concepts like CommodiCarbon, which allows farmers to certify carbon credits to third party verification (ISO14064). This enables trading on a platform, and tools like this are providing important first steps. But they are the first steps.

“We’ve come a long way in a short period of time,” Mared concludes. There are many questions yet to be answered. One issue this does raise is Government’s definition of a supportable public good being a benefit to society not rewarded by a functioning market – this may need revision.

“We are seeing the nascence of a market, and it will need nurturing and protecting from misuse. On top of the many complexities of creating new farm support schemes in England and Wales, carbon management may be the greatest force for change. It’ll change farming forever.”