Solid science from second 'focus farm'

THERE may well have been a change in the political focus of the Scottish Executive following the recent elections to Holyrood, but some things are unlikely to alter, among them the focus on environmental issues.

Farmers are now, as never before, under huge scrutiny regarding each and every move they make in their day-to-day practices.

Loading up the slurry tanker on a whim and spreading the contents on the nearest vacant field is no longer permissible. Just about each waste disposal movement is governed by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).

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Nitrate Vulnerable Zones are a fact of life throughout many of the main livestock regions, with producers facing the prospect of having to invest large sums to concur with the regulations imposed by SEPA, but it is likely to be become even more uncomfortable if SEPA takes the guidelines drawn up by Brussels to the ultimate conclusion. The Nith Valley in Dumfries and Galloway, together with parts of Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire, could well witness a major reduction in farming output.

But farmers increasingly question whether the projected science of higher than acceptable nitrate levels in watercourses is soundly based.

So far, there has been minimal practical evidence on either side of this potentially costly financial debate. If SEPA has its way, some dairy farmers are faced with having to invest as much as 500,000 just to remain in business. Those of the older generation, and they are in the majority, will just walk away.

However, the Scottish Agricultural College has stepped into the breach with the news that its second "environmental focus farm" is to be at Low Holehouse in Ayrshire, courtesy of host farmer Willie Campbell, who is a former chairman of NFU Scotland's milk committee. The farm, and the forthcoming monitoring process, is designed to give the rural community an accurate and cogent response to those who claim that farmers are the greatest polluters of the countryside.

Farmers are more than ready to accept their responsibilities, and many have made major moves to clean up their acts.

However, future constraints must be based on sound science. That was the message from Professor Bill McKelvey, the principal and chief executive of SAC, when he spoke at Low Holehouse. He said: "The issues of diffuse pollution and the use of nitrates have caused much debate and some concern within the farming community. It is vital that our response to new environmental regulations should not only be grounded in good science, but also be practical and acceptable to farmers.

"This farm, like our other 'focus farm' at Mains of Balgavies in Angus, is in a priority water catchment water area as identified by SEPA. It is our ambition to develop practical and economically viable solutions that are applicable, not just here, but throughout most of rural Scotland where potential problems may exist."

John Scott, the local MSP, said: "Farmers have always looked after the countryside. However, a greater focus on environmental legislation is putting increasing demands on them to make changes that will safeguard the environment still further. But I welcome this initiative from SAC and its vision of involving the community in trying out new ideas and sharing best practice in the control of diffuse pollution and water quality improvement. This is a positive move for farmers in Ayrshire and beyond."

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The host farmer, Campbell, said: "I anticipate this will be an excellent forum for farmers, environmentalists and regulators to exchange views with a common aim of enhancing our sustainable food production base while complying with the best environmental standards."

The farming industry at large - and many other countryside organisations - still await the deliberations of the new Executive on whether it will seek to cut SEPA down to size, and possibly seek an amalgamation with Scottish Natural Heritage. That was an early pledge of the SNP in its election manifesto. SEPA has a wide range of responsibilities, but its staff has increased at a rate many say is hard to justify. There are now more employees of the Stirling-based body than there are full-time shepherds or dairy herdspersons in Scotland.