Farming through Brexit: A little light at the end of the tunnel?

With much going on at the moment on the home front and the policy vacuum during the recent Conservative Party leadership election, GWCT Scotland’s attentions haven’t been regularly drawn to output from Westminster. Last week saw an exception when the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee published its report on the future of Scottish agriculture post-Brexit. Chaired by SNP agriculture spokesman, Pete Wishart, the committee’s report draws attention to funding disparities across the UK and observes that leaving the EU presents a chance to address this problem.

Pete Wishart MP at Scottish Game FairPete Wishart MP (Chair of Scottish Affairs Committee, Westminster)
at the 2019 GWCT Scottish Game Fair. (Photo credit: Shaun Ward)

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The disparities have resulted from the allocation of funds based on historic values. In future, the Scottish Affairs Committee recommends the introduction of a new system where the proportion of a nation’s Less Favoured Area (LFA) is a key aspect in determining how much funding is allocated. On that basis, it is likely that there would be an increase in the proportion of the budget allocated to Scotland.

The committee welcomed the UK Government’s assurance that Scottish farming support, such as coupled payments, could continue under WTO rules, but it also pointed out the need to ensure common frameworks and consensus between Holyrood and Westminster to make progress post-Brexit. A joint statement on the future of farm payments is proposed.

The committee also commented on non-UK labour requirements. The committee believed that there are limits to the extent that technology can replace labour in the agricultural sector. It nevertheless recommended that the UK government uses its research and development budget to encourage new technologies.

Our view of the report

We broadly support the thrust of the committee’s findings, but our particular attention centres on its funding proposals. Whatever risks Brexit might pose, freedom from CAP provides an opportunity to encourage a thriving and sustainable farming sector, beneficial to both agriculture and wildlife. We set this position out in Farming through Brexit: A Vision for the Future and observe that without payments to support environmental measures, the need to maximise production to make farming profitable would most likely have severely negative effects on our countryside.

With some 86% of land in Scotland designated as LFA, the landscape is dominated by limited, and often harsh, farming conditions. The Scottish Affairs Committee noted that, without adequate funding, there is a risk that land abandonment “would also have environmental consequences as LFA land is the richest source of biodiversity in Scotland and failing to manage this could see a dramatic decline in certain species”.

We share this concern. The risks to farm and upland birds such as curlew and lapwing are already acute. Equally, maintaining active farming on the hill edge and uplands to retain carbon and other public benefits is essential. We need to put in place funding mechanisms that place emphasis on both productive farming and sound environmental management, with suitable measures to incentivise appropriate outcomes.

Farmer clusters – landscape-scale conservation management

Farmer Cluster ScotlandOur Farming through Brexit proposals set out a ‘Foundation Scheme’, which broadly includes the environmental criteria that already exist in current statutory requirements and good agricultural and environmental practice. Above the Foundation Scheme, we envisage short-term measures to support certain aspects of the environment, as well as farmer-driven, personalised schemes. Beyond that, we believe funding should foster long-term commitments by farmers to conservation, with the highest level of support for collaborative, landscape-wide working in Farmer Cluster schemes.

The idea behind Farmer Clusters is that, by working together, with the help of a conservation advisor, farmers and land managers can work more cohesively in their locality, enabling them to deliver greater benefits for soil, water and wildlife at a landscape scale.

The Farmer Cluster concept was proposed to Natural England by the GWCT in 2013. With the establishment of a facilitation fund to support their formation and enable the provision of advice, numbers have grown to around 100 in England. You can read more about them on the Farmer Clusters website.

Scotland’s first Farmer Clusters

We are very pleased to have helped set up the first Farmer Cluster schemes in Scotland this spring, even though there is no facilitation fund as yet north of the border. One of the clusters has been established in Pete Wishart’s North Perthshire constituency. We very much look forward to hosting him on the cluster and discussing how we can continue to encourage their growth both in Scotland and the rest of the UK. The turbulence of Brexit may be profoundly unsettling right now, but suitably funded, these landscape-scale ventures may well hold the key to maintaining farming and good environmental conditions across Scotland.

Working Conservationists - Issue 2

Working Conservationists Issue 2

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