Arable challenges tackled at East Lothian Monitor Farm meeting

21 Aug 2023

Issues caused by cover crops and sheep, weeds and agri-environment schemes were big topics of discussion at the latest Monitor Farm meeting at Castleton Farm in East Lothian.

The 164ha arable unit near North Berwick is farmed by Stuart McNicol alongside his father Bill, who works on the farm part time. Stuart grows mainly cereal crops including winter wheat, malting spring barley and spring beans. Some land is let out to grow potatoes and cover crops are grown for overwintering sheep.

The McNicols are one of nine Monitor Farms across Scotland taking part in the programme run by Quality Meat Scotland and AHDB, and funded by Scottish Government. This aims to help farms reach full economic, social, and environmental sustainability by optimising production. Over the next four years, other farmers and experts will be brought together to help the family assess farm performance, explore opportunities, and develop solutions to their challenges.

Visitors at the meeting discussed the impact of sheep on this season’s spring bean crop with Fife arable farmer and speaker David Aglen from Balbirnie Estate. Stuart explained: “We’ve noticed a major problem with soil compaction.” Suggestions for tackling the issue for the following season included shepherding the sheep more intensively so they graze an area as a mob and move on, reducing the risk of repeated poaching and compaction.

Cover cropping is an important part of the system at Castleton, which is based round a strip till system using a Bednar drill and only ploughing if needed. While crops had established well despite a late spring, visitors heard that weeds, particularly brome, were an issue this year, and had added considerably to the farm’s spray bill. Stuart is planning to trial a mechanical weeder as part of a blended approach to control, and hopes this will help reduce costs.

Whole farm soil sampling by SoilEssentials had given a good grasp on the big picture, he added, while an Integrated Land Management Plan was carried out by Christine Beaton of SAC Consulting. This had got into the nitty gritty of the business, which also includes a recently planted 1,900-tree apple, pear and plum orchard, a soon-to-open secure dog walking field, and an award-winning café overlooking the sea called DRIFT.

Stuart explained that the farm was also likely to host trials with NFUS to look at potential environmental measures, and that this would give him the opportunity to feedback directly to policy makers. He explained that he had been unable to take advantage of the current Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS), scoring too few points to apply, which was frustrating.

However, event speaker Alex Pirie from SAC Consulting explained that while the current policy would continue until 2025, this would then change to biodiversity auditing. He said that under this approach, which is about the overall outcome for nature, rather than being prescriptive about what was done, it was very important farmers are able to say to Scottish Government, “I know what habitat I have, I know what condition it’s in and that I’m confident it’s moving the farm in the right direction”.

He added that AECSs ‘still has legs’. A further round of funding was planned, giving plenty of opportunities. The relatively new Nature Restoration Fund offered ‘great funding for very limited but high nature value work’, he said.

Visitors also heard from Alex MacDonald-Smith and Edwin Nicols from Drone Ag, who demonstrated how the Skippy Scout system could make crop walking much faster and more efficient. They also discussed how drones could, in future, spot spray issues in crops, reducing chemical use and compaction issues.

Maura Wilson, regional manager for the Monitor Farm programme said: “It was great to get an update on all of the work going on at Castleton, as well as seeing some of the issues at first hand. It was good to hear from Alex and Drone Ag about future developments too.

“We were pleased to welcome RSABI to the meeting, as well as two Nuffield Scholars, Claire Taylor and Guillaume Tant, and the new chief executive of NFU Scotland, John Davidson. We were also delighted to have meeting sponsorship from Dods of Haddington.”

For more information about future meetings and to join the Community Group for Castleton, visit or contact Monitor Farm regional adviser Maura Wilson at or tel 07721 677556.

For further information on each Monitor Farm visit or contact Christine on 07769 366671 or email