Scotland is full of world-beating natural landscapes, from the rugged hills and mountains of the north west, down to the stunning coastlines and patchwork of arable land on the east coast. These landscapes are frequently being used by big business to ‘sell’ the Scottish brand. This begs the question – what is the true value of Scotland’s natural landscape?
To value anything, you would normally look at what the production capacity is. So for landscape, or ‘land’, land use and soil capability are the normal starting point – usually with the outputs of these elements being agricultural products. However, our landscapes and those responsible for managing our landscapes provide a much larger function than to just produce food.
These ‘hidden’, less obvious services are what could be used to base any future support payments on.
Take hill farming as an example – one of the most exposed sectors of Scottish agriculture from Brexit. Hills and mountains provide the fodder for sheep, which provides consumers with lamb meat. Such is now the divide between rural farmers and urban consumers, many of the people who eat our lamb products do not connect the food they eat with the landscape from which it is produced.
However, this same hill landscape also provides areas of natural flood defence. It keeps consumers’ homes downstream free of unwanted floodwater, acts as a sink of carbon-reducing CO2 levels, works as a filter for rainwater coming through peatlands and keeping consumers water bills as low as possible.
These things are what consumers value and can relate to, and these are the things that currently farmers are not getting the recognition for providing. This method of valuation, recognising ecosystem services, provides the opportunity post-Brexit to naturally bring the consumers and the natural environment – including farming – closer together.
Looking into the post-Brexit landscape, one of the biggest challenges Scotland will face is retaining communities in some of our most fragile areas. Farming has a huge role to play here, being the only industry in some remote areas.
If we lose this primary industry, then the services to consumer described above will be much harder to deliver – rural skills are in short supply and demand high from other non-farming industries.
While forestry and renewables can provide monetary investment in our remote areas, they don’t have the same need for permanent people and communities that food production does.
By basing a support system on services that Joe Public can relate to, we have a chance of doing just that, and keeping the social fabric of Scotland in place.
The true value of the farm has not been recognised for many years now, so let’s use Brexit as an opportunity to give renewed recognition for all the hard work and services that our farmers and land managers provide all over Scotland, and put farming firmly back in the public eye as a positive asset to be celebrated.
l Sarah Allison is past SAYFC Agri and Rural Affairs chairwoman