Agricultural funding must encourage methods that protect and restore nature - Deborah Long

Farming has profoundly shaped Scotland: our people, our economy, our traditions, our landscapes and our wildlife.

Deborah Long is chief officer of Scottish Environment LINK.
Deborah Long is chief officer of Scottish Environment LINK.

Nature is also a key part of Scotland’s identity. In a 2019 survey for Scottish Environment LINK, 94 per cent of the Scottish public saw our natural environment as ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’ to both Scotland’s economy and its national identity. With 75 per cent of Scotland’s land under farming management supported by government grants, how we farm our land is clearly central to our future.

The Scottish government is currently considering how to replace the decades-old system of funding for farming. This provides a key opportunity to encourage farming methods that protect and restore nature and guard against climate change, instead of methods that contribute to climate change and damage the natural environment.

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As an issue, this reaches right across Scottish society. In rural communities, farms able to produce healthy food and support jobs become a key part of the rural social fabric. Where those farms are also maintaining areas of natural habitats, where species can live and move, rural communities benefit even more – not just through the healthy environment but in having natural assets that visitors are more likely to want to see.

And then there are the benefits to nature too: agricultural management is one of the most significant pressures on biodiversity, with intensification, greater use of pesticides and fertilisers, and changes to land use all impacting on species decline, soil and water quality and carbon storage. To date, Scottish agri-environmental schemes have been used to balance production against nature and ecosystem integrity and when they have worked, they have resulted in positive changes – in breeding farmland birds for instance. But with the scale of the nature and climate crisis we face this piecemeal approach is not enough.

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The new system of agricultural funding must be focused on supporting farmers to manage their land for nature, the climate and our people. Taxpayer funding must lead to the outcomes the public expect: a healthy, vibrant and resilient natural environment that is able to provide clean water, healthy and productive soils, carbon storage, healthy and nutritious food, diverse and resilient pollinators and the native species and habitats that are part of our national psyche.

From LINK’s perspective this is about supporting all farmers, large and small, to make changes to embed action for nature and climate into farming practice. Farmers must be able to access expert knowledge, advice and training to support and develop sustainable local opportunities through thriving nature, local food and resources, be that employment, accommodation, services or becoming part of wider green tourism initiatives. What we shouldn’t do is fund farming practices that harm biodiversity, fragment habitats, degrade soil or water and emit carbon.

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On a recent visit to Monzie Farm in Highland Perthshire, we explored these issues with the Cabinet Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, and showed her the sorts of farming practices we’re talking about and that need more support.

Independent farm conservation advisor Richard Lockett said: ‘Farms like Monzie have a great track record of managing land sensitively and producing good quality food in a diverse, wildlife rich environment. We took this opportunity to show the Cabinet Secretary how well-funded, targeted incentives backed by good advice are essential if we want to address the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change.’

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Now is the time to be thinking about the future for farming. With reform coming, we must get the changes right and ensure the industry is sustainable today and for the future. Scotland’s record of action during this UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration must look towards our legacy to future generations as well as supporting people and nature today.

Deborah Long is chief officer at Scottish Environment LINK.

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