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.
Vicki, for the first time in our lifetime Agriculture in the UK looks like having to bid for money from the same pot as every other priority, rather than having a ring fenced grant. Farmers are a tiny minority and far from hardening their position they need to think carefully about where broader support is likely to come from - and working more effectively with mass-membership environmental advocates like RSPB looks the obvious way to go.