Funding cuts may take land out of ​​​​​​​enviro protection

Failure to provide full financial backing to Scotland’s farmers in their efforts to address climate change and environmental issues could stymie existing efforts and see a ‘very large area’ of land falling out of environmental management, it was claimed yesterday.

Welcome from the industry that Scotland’s Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) will open once again for applications in January 2021 have been tempered by its limited scope of operation - and uncertainties over the level of funding to be made available.

AECS has been viewed as the main support scheme for biodiversity and climate change on Scottish farms - providing support to farmers, crofters and those who undertake environmental land management.

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But earlier in the year serious concerns were expressed over the lack of any firm commitment to see AECS continue, beyond the one-year extension of contracts offered to agreement holders in 2020 – and in November, a group of 12 prominent farming, crofting and environmental called for an urgent decision to be made.

However, announcing the re-opening of the scheme yesterday the Scottish Government said that while it wanted to provide as much certainty to producers for the scheme as was possible, uncertainties still hung over funding of Pillar 2 schemes:

“We know that some will be disappointed that we are not running a full round of AECS but as it stands, Scotland’s farmers and rural communities stand to lose £170 million over the 2021-22 to 2024-25 period as a direct result of the UK Government reneging on public commitments,” claimed rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing who said that no firm information had been given by Westminster on its intentions to step in and cover the EU’s portion of the budget.

“We have repeatedly asked for clarity and certainty but as we rapidly approach the end of the transition period, we, along with the other devolved administrations, are still without answers.”

Ewing added that his government expected to see full replacement of EU funds from the end of December to allow the introduction of additional measures to rural support which would do more for the environment and cut agricultural emissions.

The round announced – which runs from January 25 to June 30 - will focus on designated sites, organics, management supporting farmland waders, corn buntings and corncrakes, slurry stores and improving public access.

Commenting on the news, NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick said that it was crucial that AECS was opened for applications in 2021:

“While the projects to be supported are known, the level of support for the scheme going forward remains unclear. This is a Pillar Two Rural Development Scheme traditionally co-financed by both Europe and Scottish Government.”

Stating that farmers needed to know the long-term future of the scheme before drawing up plans, he added:

“As for the future, failure to support AECS in the next few years may result in existing contracts ending year on year from 2022 onwards and a very large area of land falling out of environmental management.”