Vicki Swales, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Land Use Policy, sets out why more must be done to make farming greener.
Farming green payment needs strengthening, not weakening
Following last week’s EU Referendum it’s not yet certain what the future arrangements for supporting Scottish agriculture will be. However, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to farmers look set to continue in the short term at least. One important element of these existing payments requires farmers to undertake some simple environmental actions designed to help wildlife and protect the environment, known as the ‘green payment’.
In the last few days the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) has called on the Scottish Government to weaken the greening rules. This seems contrary to recently published evidence that CAP greening is already not doing enough to help the environment.
Under current greening rules, arable farmers must ensure that 5% of their land is managed to benefit wildlife and the environment – these are called Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs). Farmers can choose from a range of options to fulfil this requirement including growing nitrogen fixing crops such as peas and beans. Landscape features such as hedgerows and grass strips alongside cropped areas can also count towards a farmer’s EFA.
The European Commission published last week the results of a 'Review of greening after one year'. This found that the environmental benefit of greening very much depends on the choices made by Governments in designing the rules and on farmers’ choice of options. The review found that nitrogen fixing crops and catch crops are the most common type of EFA option used but they are least likely to help wildlife. Few EU countries have made use of the option to limit the use of pesticides and fertilisers in these areas. Landscape features which are particularly important for the protection of wildlife were not among the most declared choices of EFAs. The review concludes that the current pattern of choices made on EFAs tends to limit the intended contribution of this measure as regards helping wildlife on farms.
It is important to make clear that the greening rules come with a payment attached; farmers are not being asked to do something for nothing and are being supported for the action they take to help the environment. Across Scotland, these payments amount to approximately £130 million per annum and represent 30% of the total direct payments to farmers. Scotland needs to look at how to improve greening to do more for wildlife and the environment, not weaken what is already in place.
All this week we’ve been celebrating National Insect Week 2016 and to round off the final day RSPB’s Will George gives an insight into surveying a rather rare insect.
I've spent the last two weeks in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland on the trail of a rare and enigmatic creature, the pine hoverfly. This beautiful little fly is a specialist of the ancient pine forests of northern Scotland, and as these forests have declined, so have these flies. Now pine hoverflies are known to occur at just one site. The RSPB, in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Malloch Society has been trying to help pine hoverflies by providing the species with some custom made homes in the form of specially cut pine stumps, with a hole in the centre for the flies to lay their eggs in. These stumps have been created where the hoverflies are still known to occur, and also at a couple of new sites, including RSPB Scotland Abernethy where the pine hoverfly used to occur, and a reintroduction was attempted a few years ago.
My aim was to survey all of these sites to see if I could find the adult flies, which are distinctively marked in black and red. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate at first; heavy rain and temperatures in single figures are not good news for hoverflies or hoverfly surveyors! Things improved this week, and I've spent many happy hours in some beautiful locations, seeing lots of wonderful insects. These have included some highland specialities like the impressive bumblebee robberfly, one of the largest flies in the UK, and the beautifully camouflaged longhorn beetle Rhagium inquisitor, whose larvae munch their way through dead Scots pines.
Unfortunately, as my time in Scotland comes to a close I haven't been able to find any pine hoverflies; perhaps the cold weather last week meant they're late emerging this year, or maybe they emerged early this year, and the bad weather was too much for the adults. Despite my lack of success, I'm very glad to have been part of the work to try and help pine hoverflies, and more broadly to preserve the unique range of wonderful species that make the pine forests of the Highlands their home.
There's still a lot of work to be done to understand and conserve this critically endangered and elusive denizen of the Highlands. In the meantime I'm off to have one last look - wish me luck!
Allison Leonard is a warden with RSPB Scotland who looks after five reserves in Central Scotland, including the Forth Islands Fidra and Inchmickery. Allison brings us this update on how different seabirds are faring in the Forth this year and tells us about a couple of exciting opportunities for you to get out and see them!
Seabirds of the Forth
It can’t be easy raising your young whilst perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, being bombarded with everything that the Scottish weather can throw at you. But each year thousands upon thousands of seabirds manage it. The 2016 season seems to have been a mixed one for the birds in the Firth of Forth though, with some species showing an almost 100% increase in numbers, whilst others have fared less well.
Those not doing so well include the UK’s albatrosses and fulmars, as well as kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots, with numbers nearly 20% down on 2015. However, the number of eider duck nests across the Forth has gone up by nearly 75%, with over 100 more nests than last year. All three gull species found regularly in the Forth have also increased, with herring gulls more than doubling in number.
One seabird, which is harder to count thanks to the fact it nests underground, is the puffin but this year’s monitoring has shown some very encouraging results. This colourful little bird, which last year was added to the IUCN red list of birds considered to be facing the risk of extinction, spends its winters floating in large flocks on the sea before heading back to shore in summer to breed.
On the southern edge of the Forth, they mainly nest on the islands of Fidra, an RSPB Scotland reserve, and Craigleith. In the past, both of these sites have shown a massive crash in numbers, which we know is due to an infestation of tree mallow. This is a plant which is not native to the area, but was probably introduced a very long time ago, perhaps as far back as the 1600s by soldiers on the Bass Rock.
Lighthouse keepers may also have planted it, or just used it for both its medicinal properties and the fact that the large, soft leaves make good toilet paper (when you have nothing else to use and can’t just pop to the shops!). Tree Mallow didn’t spread to Fidra until the 1990s.
It can grow up to three metres tall, and grows so densely it blocks the entrance to the puffin burrows and prevents them from breeding. But thanks to the hard of work of many, many volunteers over the last few years (through RSPB Scotland and SOS puffin) the tree mallow is slowly being reduced across the islands, allowing puffin numbers to return to pre-mallow numbers.
With a 2% increase in occupied burrows on Fidra this year, we can safely say that our management is having a very positive impact on puffin numbers in the Forth.
For anyone interested in getting closer views of all the wonderful seabirds of the Forth, you can join RSPB Scotland for two special seabird cruises with the Maid of the Forth. This Sunday (26 June) there will be a three-hour tour of the Inner Forth islands (departing 6pm from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry).
While on Saturday 9 July, there’s a two-hour cruise aboard the 'Seafari Explorer' to the islands off the East Lothian coast. This trip in particular is not to be missed if you want to see the world's largest gannetry out on the Bass Rock. It departs North Berwick harbour at 6pm. For more information and booking see either www.maidoftheforth.co.uk or http://www.seafari-edinburgh.co.uk.