Why changing farm funding is key to tackling Scotland’s nature crisis

By Kirsty Nutt, RSPB Scotland

The harvest is in for most of Scotland’s farmers. Those of us who enjoy the countryside will have seen the familiar autumn sight of straw bales in the fields and we are starting to hear the familiar sound of winter geese arriving.

At this time of seasonal change, there are also signs of systematic change coming down the track.

Due to the UK’s exit from the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), all the governments of the UK are having to develop replacement farm funding systems. Scotland now needs to decide how it will use the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money – given to our farmers and crofters via the CAP – in new ways in the future. New laws that will govern our food and farming system from 2025 onwards are being drawn up, with the Scottish government inviting views now.

It is essential that everyone who cares about nature seizes this opportunity to influence the way ahead.

Three-quarters of Scotland’s land is used for farming, so there is huge potential to make a difference.

Many farming practices in recent decades have impacted on wildlife.  Some species are clinging on thanks to beneficial farming in certain areas. But many have seen severe declines. Between 1995 and 2020, lapwings and curlews declined 60%, kestrels by 65% and oystercatchers by 36%.

infographic with silhouettes of three species of bird each with the species name and declines on - 60% for curlew and lapwing and 65% for kestrel

As well as impacting nature, agriculture affects our climate. It is one of the top three contributors to Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Scottish Government spends around half a billion pounds of public money each year supporting the farming industry. Large parts of the industry depend on this funding to stay in business but very little of it supports nature- and climate-friendly farming. Most of the grants given to the industry are based purely on the amount of land someone owns. The system simply isn’t working.

RSPB Scotland supports continuing to use this public money to help farming but wants the majority used to support practices that will benefit us all.

This means providing better support to those farmers already doing the right things and ensuring more farmers are supported to:

  • Create new habitats and nature corridors
  • Plant trees and hedgerows
  • Create or restore wetlands such as ponds and peatlands

These habitats would also act as carbon stores, helping us address climate change.

Farm pond with trees and bushes around

By shifting the focus of funding to be nature and climate positive, we can ensure farmers and crofters are able to produce food and provide employment in a way that is genuinely sustainable. Done right, this shift will improve the resilience of Scotland’s farming businesses and food security too.

As well as tipping the balance in favour of nature- and climate-friendly farming, we need to see investment in advice and support services. You may be familiar with the idea of a just transition for those working in oil and gas – retraining and upskilling so workers can easily move into greener industries. Scotland should adopt a similar approach (investing in advice, support and training) so our farming system becomes genuinely sustainable and has a vibrant future.

With so much at stake, it’s vital that the Scottish government reaches out and engages with a broad range of people. The voices of those involved in the farming industry are important but, given the wide impact of food and farming in our daily lives, everyone’s voice matters. Getting this system right will deliver benefits for all of Scotland.

In inviting views on the way forward, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs has made clear that the Scottish government is “committed to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises” and that “we are on a journey of significant transformation.”

Alongside almost 30 other organisations, as part of Scottish Environment LINK, we are urging the Scottish government to listen to the public and develop a new system of farm funding that works for nature, climate and people.

You can add your voice by signing this petition: farmforscotlandsfuture.scot/action.

And please share this blog and the petition using #FarmForScotlandsFuture

This blog was first published by RSPB Scotland on 3 October 2022.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of all the organisations backing the Farm for Scotland’s Future campaign.

Close up of cows against a blue sky with the words Act Now and a logo top right saying Farm for Scotland's Future