Supporting High Nature Value farming and crofting is the right thing for Scottish agriculture

By Ruth Taylor, Agriculture and Land Use Policy Manager at WWF Scotland and Andrew Midgley, Senior Land Use Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland

We need food. We need farmers. We need farmers to keep farming and managing the land. Let’s just get that out there straight away. This needs to be said because food production is often pitted against environmental recovery. But these things don’t oppose each other, we need both.

We are all too aware and understand that many in the farming industry feel attacked on all sides at the moment, and worry that an increasing focus on nature and climate will lead to a reduced focus on food production. But we have much more in common than our supposed dividing lines. Like many farmers, we too want to see plentiful, good-quality food produced, but we want to see it done whilst looking after nature and the climate at the same time. It’s in all our interests to ensure that the clean water, pollinators and temperate environment on which we depend are protected and restored and that’s why we at Scottish Environment LINK work hard to highlight evidence on declining nature and species. We know that this sometimes feels challenging to the farming industry – but it’s a challenge to policymakers first and foremost to help us all design systems that work for climate, nature and food producers alike. 

Environmental organisations know that farmers are absolutely critical to reversing the declines we’ve seen in farmland wildlife and are a key part of the solution to the climate and nature emergencies that we all face. Sometimes our emphasis is more on the loss of wildlife than on framing farmers as part of the solution. It’s a tricky communications challenge for environmental organisations and we can do more to get the balance right.

We believe that farming and environmental interests are much more aligned than might be appreciated. Environmental organisations are arguing, for example, for the farming budget to be defended. At a time of incredible pressure on public finances, which, outside of the EU, could see agricultural budgets squeezed, we are working hard to make sure we continue to use public money to support Scottish farmers and crofters. While we may want to see some of this money spent differently in the future, we are fighting to keep the money coming to farming.

Another way in which our interests are aligned is in recognising that the farming system is integral to the continuing biodiversity interest in some instances. The interaction between farming and nature is complicated. Changing farming practices have resulted in declines in some species, but, at the same time, some farming practices play an important part in helping to protect wildlife.

Some types of extensive livestock farming can create the right conditions for nature to thrive and carbon stores to be protected: mixed grazing using native breeds helps to sustain diverse grasslands, which in turn support wildlife including corncrakes, butterflies and bees. Without this farming activity these species could be lost.

On the Western Isles, for example, low intensity cropping is an important feature of these so-called ‘High Nature Value’ (HNV) farming and crofting systems, with machair cultivation providing a rare habitat for wildflowers and birdlife. In effect, much of the farming activity in these areas is beneficial. Not everything is perfect but, in general, maintaining farming activity is important. Losing it would potentially result in more negative impacts for nature, as well as rural communities.

This is why, at the same time as pointing to the general declines in biodiversity, environmental organisations have been arguing that the Scottish Government should properly recognise and support ‘High Nature Value’ farming and crofting systems.  

HNV farming and crofting is where the overall management characteristics of the system provide a range of environmental benefits, particularly maintaining and enhancing a wide range of habitats and species (such as butterflies and birds) that are considered to be of high nature conservation importance.

In Scotland, HNV systems are associated with farms and crofts where semi-natural vegetation makes up a high proportion of the available forage resource and where the livestock grazing that resource do so at low grazing densities. The Scottish Government developed an indicator on HNV farming about ten years ago and estimated that the area under HNV farming and crofting was around 2.4 million hectares of agricultural land. This equates to around 40% of the total agricultural land in Scotland.

Importantly, while we approach this with a particular interest in nature, these farming systems are also integral to rural communities, often in remote areas. We recognise that loss of farming activity would represent a challenge for the future of these communities.

To help wildlife we need all farmers and crofters throughout Scotland taking action and making nature and climate friendly farming the norm. We want to see future farming policy – and the payments given to farmers – encourage and reward this. However, there has to be better recognition within this new policy specifically for HNV farming and crofting systems given the current system of direct payments does not support them adequately.

We, therefore, see an opportunity in the new agricultural policy and funding regime that is being developed at the moment. The government could, if it wanted to, set out to design a system that properly supported HNV farms and crofts as part of a system that encourages farmers everywhere to take greater action for nature.

We are concerned, like others in the agricultural industry, that small farms and crofts might struggle to get the support they need under the proposed four-tiered framework and we think that targeted HNV support might provide an answer. We don’t have an oven-ready scheme to hand to the government, but we do think that the government could explore the creation of an HNV category with input from farmers and crofters and look at how this could be incorporated in the new framework. With this in mind, we have recently written to the Cabinet Secretary to ask that the government pick this concept up as a means of supporting those HNV farmers and crofters that already support nature.

Scottish Environment LINK sees potential opportunities for HNV support within the new framework. Perhaps HNV farms and crofts could be recognised for their HNV status. Equally, the government is going to have to look again at the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme and how it delivers support to areas that are considered constrained or less favoured. But perhaps we could turn that around: instead of being compensated for not being able to produce in the same way as those on better land, farmers could be rewarded for what they deliver in terms of High Nature Value.

We think there is an opportunity in the next few months; an opportunity to develop a new approach to supporting agriculture that benefits both farmers and nature. We just need the government to pick this up and explore it in detail, working with the industry and testing it on the ground.

By writing this article, we want to start a wider conversation. We need to find a way of creating spaces where the farming and environment interests can come together to find solutions to the problems we face. That means us putting forward ideas, whilst also listening to you and your industry and its concerns so that we can have honest and constructive conversations about how we meet the challenges we face. We are much more likely to meet those challenges if we do it together.

This article was first published in the Scottish Farmer on 11 May 2023.

Read Scottish Environment LINK’s briefing on supporting High Nature Vale farming and crofting.

Read Scottish Environment LINK’s letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands on High Nature Vale farming and crofting.

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.