When we leave the EU we will also leave the heavily criticised Common Agricultural Policy, which will allow fresh thinking over how the land is used.
Only 40 per cent of Britain’s contribution to CAP is returned to our farmers, most through the area payment scheme. The largest landowners receive most cash. Sir James Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, gets £1.4 million a year for farming in Lincolnshire, while the Parker family receive £1.1m. Meanwhile small farms receive very little and struggle to survive.
Fraud has also been a problem with the CAP in some EU countries whose policing authority is not as rigorous as that of the UK. Greek farmers declared scrub and semi-desert as pasture while a Spanish farmer received payments for arable land which was actually a motocross track. Subsidies flowed unchecked.
Britain receives about £2.5 billion from the CAP paid to our farmers of the £6.2bn we pay in, so when we leave the EU the UK government will easily continue to afford or increase farm support in a better way, bearing in mind that some farms depend on subsidies for 60 per cent of their income. Farms in the Scottish Borders alone received more than £47m in subsidies in the year to October 2016. The Prime Minister has already guaranteed CAP payments to 2020.
It is also worth noting that leaving the Closed Market or Single Market of the EU would allow the UK to trade openly and directly with agricultural producers of non-EU countries without tariffs. EU tariffs at present on non-EU suppliers of sugar and confectionery are at 20 per cent, beverages and tobacco at 18 per cent, animal products at 16 per cent, fish and fish products at tenper cent.
After we leave the EU the UK government and the devolved administrations must look at farm subsidies afresh with input from farmers, experts, and all land use stakeholders.Woodland planning and re-afforestation is one thing which must be financially supported. Scotland used to be heavily afforested and the country will benefit from tree-planting schemes on our hillsides, roadsides, farms, and around our villages and towns.
Already the Forestry Commission is providing assistance under the Sheep and Trees Forestry Grants Package to allow hill sheep farmers to apply for grants to build forest access roads and plant woods. A 50 hectare woodland will receive as much as £200,000 for planting and £40,000 for track construction. Many would argue that this scheme and others like it should be supported on the basis that we need trees as much as, if not more, than we need sheep.
We need wood for economic use. The rafters of my house were imported from Scandinavia. Why? The fact is that Scottish sawmills cannot produce enough for our needs. Trees also provide shelter, improve biodiversity, temporise rainstorms, take in CO2, and enhance the environment.
Of course we need to produce as much high quality food as possible, but Brexit is a tremendous opportunity to make changes to land use backed by the billions of savings the UK will make by leaving the CAP.
William Loneskie is a retired geography teacher. He lives in Oxton in the Scottish Borders.