Uses and challenges abound outside cities

Realising potential requires rural reform, says Davy McCracken

Scotlands rural areas face major social and economic challenges. Picture: Tony Marsh

Even the most hardcore city dweller has an opinion about the countryside and how it should be used. After all, 98 per cent of Scotland is classed as rural so all of us need it for something. The problem is there are so very many things we need it for.

For instance, food security is an increasing priority for the limited amount of very productive land that we have in the lowlands, but how that food is produced can affect our water quality, wildlife and carbon footprint. Food producers in the lowlands therefore need to strike an appropriate balance between maximising yields and increasing food security while recognising they must minimise the environmental impacts.

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Our uplands produce food as well. But land uses in the uplands and the associated benefits we get from them are many and varied. Our hills and moorlands not only support farming, forestry and renewable energy production but also offer protection against flooding, maintain nature reserves and support a wide range of country sports and other recreational or tourist activity.

But we must not forget that Scotland’s rural areas also face major social and economic challenges, including limited economic regeneration and employment opportunities, a lack of sufficient affordable housing, high energy costs for business and homes, poor transport infrastructure and an ageing population as the young migrate out and older people find retirement homes.

Successfully addressing the economic, environmental or social challenges facing Scotland’s rural areas will mean ensuring the right things happen, at the right time, in the right places. However, the actions taken to address any one of these issues can also have the potential to complement or conflict decisions and actions taken to address each or all of the other concerns.

The advocates of different priorities are passionate and their arguments about how our land should be used are keenly honed. But the reality is that there is only so much land available and it cannot be used solely for one purpose. Achieving multiple benefits from our land is therefore not simply a nice thing to do, but is essential if we are to address effectively all the economic, environmental and social challenges that we face.

This recognition is not new. Scotland’s first Land Use Strategy was published in 2011, developed as a result of the government’s response to the need to address climate change.

It sought sustainability of the economy, environment and communities and offered a guide to public sector policy making and an action plan for taking the Strategy forward.

At a recent conference, organised jointly in Edinburgh by Scotland’s Rural College and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, delegates learned about the progress being made to date, particularly with regard to embedding the Land Use Strategy policy framework within all sectors of Scotland’s economy and starting to test how best to implement that policy on the ground at a regional and local scale.

But it was also clear that much more needs to be done. The discussions emphasised not only the essential role that land managers play in helping deliver benefits but the need to get them more help and advice about delivering those benefits in practice. We also heard that we need to ensure greater wider public understanding about what Scotland’s land use systems are for.

Achieving multiple benefits from our land will not just mean tweaking existing systems. In many cases it will require major changes and the establishment of new systemsm, which at least narrows existing divisions, like the present divide between farming and forestry.

As the conference highlighted, it will also require scientists, industry groups and campaigners to think hard about they way they work and communicate with each other.

Progress, trust and commitment can be hampered because one side doesn’t understand the way the other thinks. Whether we are policy specialists, land managers or the public, we need combined understanding and enthusiasm if we are to achieve the major changes that will be essential to maintaining the future economic, environmental and social health of our rural areas.

• Professor Davy McCracken is head of the Hill & Mountain Research Centre at Scotland’s Rural College