Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill: Scotland must not miss this chance to help farmers survive the climate breakdown – Steve Micklewright

Enabling the people who manage our land to protect and restore nature while making a secure living is essential

From the storms that have battered Scotland recently to the heatwaves that now mark our summers, we are all living with the impacts of climate breakdown, linked to the decline of nature. Those increasingly at the sharp edge include Scotland’s farmers, crofters and growers. The environment around them is changing – and faster than they can cope with. The interconnected climate and nature emergencies are hollowing away their ability to make a living.

It has been estimated that extreme weather events are now costing Scotland’s farmers more than £160 million a year, with this autumn’s unprecedented floods alone causing millions of pounds of losses. It’s a situation that is only set to get worse. This really matters. Food production depends on us having healthy ecosystems and a stable climate. In fact, our natural world makes possible everything we all need to survive – and thrive.

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For these reasons and more, the Scottish Government’s recently published draft Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill is both welcome and hugely important. Once the Bill becomes legislation, it will help shape the choices made by farmers, crofters, growers and rural communities nationwide for years.

Extreme weather, such as the major floods in October, pictured at Kingussie, is a growing problem (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Extreme weather, such as the major floods in October, pictured at Kingussie, is a growing problem (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Extreme weather, such as the major floods in October, pictured at Kingussie, is a growing problem (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But will the plans outlined in the draft Bill provide a framework fit for the future? Will they play a key role in helping us all adapt to, and be safe from, a changing climate? Will they protect the livelihoods of those who manage the land by restoring our fractured ecosystems? As the Bill stands currently, the answers are all no.

There are some positive objectives around more sustainable agricultural practices, high-quality food production, and support for rural communities. But the Bill needs to be far bolder for nature. That’s because major nature restoration is crucial for halting and reversing biodiversity loss. And nature is our best ally for tackling climate change, with healthy ecosystems soaking up atmospheric carbon dioxide and helping to mitigate impacts including flooding and droughts.

Because Scotland is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet, there’s a real imperative and responsibility for the government to act meaningfully to turn nature loss around, while empowering rural communities and ensuring they benefit fairly. There is a real opportunity too. Across Scotland, rewilding projects are offering hope and showing what’s possible through large-scale nature recovery.

Farmers, communities, crofters, charities, estates and others are restoring and connecting habitats, benefitting wildlife, and bringing social and economic benefits for people, from green jobs to improved health. Much of this is about restoring habitats such as native woodland, peatlands, wetlands, rivers and coastal areas.

More than 80 per cent of Scotland’s land is agricultural. So the scope for major nature recovery and upscaled conservation, working hand-in-hand with food production, is huge. How then, with the nature and climate challenges now outpacing our communities, do we future-proof the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, so that Scotland can benefit from a modern rural support framework that’s fit for purpose?

First, the Bill needs to place the restoration of natural processes – like the water cycle, pollination, oxygen production, soil formation, and seed dispersal – and the repair of our ecosystems front and centre as overriding objectives.

Agriculture and food production depend on these processes. Wild insects pollinate our food and improve harvests. Healthy soils feed crops, shield them from disease and boost yields. Meandering river systems and wetlands store vast amounts of water – crucial during droughts or floods.

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Yet across Scotland, natural processes have been disrupted or broken on a grand scale. Business as usual, and restoring nature in dribs and drabs, is no longer an option. Instead, we need to urgently kickstart natural processes wherever and whenever we can. This is key to turbo-charging nature’s recovery, and so in turn to providing agriculture with a much more secure future.

Second, the Bill needs to be strengthened to embrace and invest in the extensive opportunities that restoring nature offers for local economies. While rewilding across Scotland has been unfolding at a remarkable pace, this has mostly been without significant financial or political support from the government. But with this support in place, nature recovery could begin to happen on the scale and at the speed we require.

On land that can’t easily be traditionally managed for agriculture, perhaps because of soil quality or location, nature restoration can work well alongside food production by offering ‘ecosystem services’ such as carbon sequestration, reduced flooding, and improved air and water quality, as well as benefits like public access to nature.

Those who work and manage the land can play a pivotal role in delivering such public goods, as part of a mosaic of nature-based land uses that sustains thriving rural communities. They should be rewarded accordingly, just as farmers should receive fair prices for their products.

Finally, the Bill needs to support training and professional development in natural, process-led, land management, empowering land managers across the board to make more choices that help nature get back on its feet. If the Scottish Government is to meet its commitment to protect at least 30 per cent of our land and sea for nature by 2030, enabling those people managing our land to protect and restore nature while making a secure living is essential.

If human activities like agriculture are to survive climate breakdown and the unpredictable years ahead, we need urgent and meaningful ecosystem restoration on a huge scale, carried out in ways which strengthen social justice and opportunities. The Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill is a major opportunity to make this happen.

Helping nature bounce back in a big way – and moving the dial when it comes to trusting, respecting and investing in our farmers, crofters and land managers – can offer us all the chance of a more secure and prosperous future. We desperately need our government to grasp the importance of this – and fast.

Steve Micklewright is convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and chief executive of Trees for Life



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