This story was first published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Frogs hop aroundDavid Reay knew from the sheep in his field that the land was boggy. It had been grazed for centuries, and maintaining a certain area dry was a constant struggle. “The frogs were still coming back, as if to say, ‘where’s my pond?’ So what I want to do as part of this is give them back some of their pond,” says Reay who is creating what he hopes to be a pioneering carbon farm on the Mull of Kintyre, a remote peninsula on the west coast of Scotland.
Reay, a professor of carbon managementThree years ago, he bought his farm. It is located on the west coast of the peninsula in Glenbarr. This village is best known for its inspiration of the Paul McCartney song “The Song of the Same Name.” Reay’s dream was to buy some land that could enable him to remove his and his wife’s lifetime’s carbon footprint from the atmosphere.
His outcrop of land lies between stormy seas & low-hanging cloud. The farm is already embracing its rebellious streak—bouquets of rushes are appearing between scruffy grasses, and gullies are stuffed with bracken, thistles and gorse, despite sheep grazing them last winter. It has more that half a mile of beaches, coves, and a family full of otters.
Reay uses core samples of soil to measure how much carbon can be packed into this land. scientists do in the Arctic. He is a self-proclaimed “carbon nut”: he hasn’t flown for 17 years, drives an electric car, has solar panels, efficient loft insulation and when the time comes wants to have a green burial instead of being cremated. “It just makes sense in terms of carbon,” he says. “With cremation you’re losing a lot of good stuff into the air that you could be putting into the trees and soil.”
Reay plans to transform the sheep farm into a mixed leaf wooded area with large, wet bogs as well as wildflower-rich grassland. The farm currently has 100 sheep and some areas have been fenced. Reay will gradually eliminate the sheep over five to ten years, and eventually the farm won’t be home to livestock.
Sequestering carbon in the land is one of humanity’s greatest challenges, and although there has been an increase in “nature-based solutions” and tree-planting programmes, there is still a lot we don’t know. There are a few carbon farms in Australia and although lots of regenerative farmers and rewilders in the UK are probably increasing carbon in the land, Reay doesn’t know of any others whose primary focus is to measure it.
The soil is the second largest after the oceans active store of carbon, but a third of the planet’s landAccording to a UN-backed study the environment is in serious decline. This is largely due to intensive agriculture. The goal is to discover how carbon farming can work on a very small scale. This might have greater implications. “It’s quite nice to be robust,” says Reay.
Reay’s plans mean the 74-acre farm should suck an average of 99 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year for the next 50 to 100 years. The average UK citizen emits around 1.2 tons of carbon dioxide annually. 6.5 tons of carbon a year, so over a lifetime that’s about 440 tons. The biggest part of the carbon stock on Reay’s farm is in the soil, and the way to measure this is by digging a lot of it up. “It was like a Swiss cheese by the time I finished,” he says.
Reay set up a grid to take nine cores. He then used a tube to dig 12 inches into soil and sucking out the sample. The soil was then taken back to the lab where researchers determined the percent of carbon at specific depths. Once you work out the “bulk density” of the soil—essentially how much soil there is in each cubic centimeter—then you can calculate how many grams of carbon it contains.
The soil at our feet has about 5% carbon. In the woods it is closer to 15% and 20%. This is due to more carbon-rich organic matter such as dead leafs being incorporated into the soil. The less carbon you can see the deeper you dig into the earth,
Reay will continue the process every five year. The last sampling cycle took six month. Reay hopes that carbon levels will eventually rise to around 15 to 20% in the top four inches on the farm. “Only a small change of a few percent of carbon over the whole farm is an awful lot of extra carbon taken out of the atmosphere and kept in the soil,” he says.
As the sheep leave their farm, he will block drains that have cleared boggy areas and ponds. Already, irises have taken over wetter areas, creating more interesting habitats and more carbon. While the soil will still hold the largest carbon stock, most of the increases over the next 50-years will be above the ground due to the trees.
The Highland clearances were a process that saw most of the land in this area of Scotland lose its trees. They began in 18 century when crofters were forced from their land to make way on larger, more profitable landholdings. Reay aims to plant 50,000 native trees through natural regeneration and planting. He’s already planted 500 trees and was meticulous about their locations. “They got the deluxe treatment,” he says.
“They’re kind of local league players compared to the Premier League in terms of yield classes, but what they are is, in my view, more sustainable,” he says. Up on the hill near Reay’s house are the rigid blocks of a non-native sitka spruce plantation, a common feature in the Scottish landscape. There will be no sitka on Reay’s farm, because despite its fantastic carbon-sequestration potential, it has few other benefits.
“We need to achieve the Paris goals. But if we do them at the cost of biodiversity, and at the cost of people’s livelihoods—like the sheep farmer that we work with—and we do it at the cost of everything else, like food production, then it’s completely unsustainable, it’s not worth it. I’d rather fail on net zero than take that route. Even as a carbon geek with carbon blinkers on, it has to be sustainable, it has to be resilient,” says Reay.
Reay is likely enthusiastic about many things, but his love for this piece of land is evident. “It’s one of those things where I almost want to live forever just to see it, because I’ll never get to see it in its maturity,” he says. “A lot of the trees we’re planting won’t be mature until I’ll be the equivalent of 130 or something. So I’m gutted I won’t see it.”
He wants to persuade university students to visit and learn about what he’s doing with the promise of beer and pizza.
Reay lives on the farm’s beach with Ginny, his black labrador. Reay hopes to build an eco home in a small part of the land that is hidden from the rest. It will have a view overlooking the Atlantic. He is able visit his home near Linlithgow which is not far from Edinburgh a few days a month. But he wants to make this his permanent home in the coming years. “I love it. Carbon is my thing and being here in Kintyre, it’s the best job in the world.”
When I ask Reay what lessons he’s learned, he immediately says it was “sobering” to discover that it will take 12 years to absorb all his and his wife’s emissions. “In the big scheme of things, this isn’t the answer … I really hoped it would be. I was worried that someone had overlooked a great way to sequester carbon in soils.
“When you do the numbers there’s no way you can do this for everyone in Scotland or the world. There’s just not enough land. So it’s going to help. But it really brought home to me that actually, nature—nature-based solutions, tree-planting and soils—is definitely part of the solution but there’s no way it can do the whole job.”