We need agriculture policy to work for, not against, nature

As the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill starts its journey through the Scottish Parliament, RSPB Scotland director Anne McCall offers some thoughts about where agricultural policy needs to go.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting our farms on Islay. Some people may be surprised to find out that the RSPB actively farms and produces food like any other farmer because a great deal of public debate positions farming and environmental interests as opposites, but we have four farms in Scotland, two of which are on Islay. When we acquired these sites, we didn’t stop the farming activity to make a ‘nature reserve’; we kept on farming because we think it is the best way to achieve our biodiversity objectives. Farming can help deliver positive outcomes for nature.

But clearly while farming can help nature, it can also damage it. There have been big changes in farming since the 1970s with knock on impacts on biodiversity. Farmers have had to grapple with the difficult challenge of how to make a living in a market place where they have small profits and little power and so they have had to change how they farm to stay in business. The unintentional consequence has been that nature has tended to be pushed to the margins.

A farmer is mending a fence in a field full of black cattle. There are pools and grasslands behind, with rolling hills in the distance.

So, the relationship between farming and nature is complex. While there are negative trends for some species, others are doing well, and while some farming activity can damage nature, it is also true that farming can be essential for the maintenance of biodiversity.

What was obvious on my visit to Islay was just how important policy is for shaping what happens on the ground. Whether it’s the availability of agri-environment schemes or the basic rules around the eligibility of particular types of land for farm funding, policy has a huge impact on the industry and on nature. That’s why the development of a new post-Brexit agricultural policy is so important and why we in the RSPB are so interested in it.

The new Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill that is currently before the Scottish Parliament is an important step in the development of a new policy. It doesn’t provide the detail of what the new framework will look like – that is being developed separately in dialogue with the industry and with stakeholders such as ourselves – rather, it focuses on creating the powers that Ministers will need to implement the new policy.

We will, like other stakeholders, continue to engage with the government on their ideas for the actual policy, but with reference to the Bill I thought I’d point to a few things we have noted and would like to see.

It’s worth saying that some elements are welcome. We welcome the reference to nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation in the objectives of agricultural policy and we welcome the proposed Rural Support Plan. We believe this must require the government to set out clearly what schemes and funding it intends to use to meet its objectives and get good value for public money.

We do, however, think there are some things missing. The Bill could include specific targets to reduce the impacts of modern farming. These could be to reduce pesticide use or the use of artificial nitrogen. Or there could be targets to increase organic or High Nature Value farming. There is also a lack of any real requirement to monitor the effectiveness of policy or the outcomes delivered.

A juvenile Lapwing is walking through a field of grass and dried earth. Its feathers are still soft and downy, white on its chest and grey on its head, back and wings.

The biggest issue, though, is not technically in the Bill and that’s to do with how the government plans to allocate the funding available. The government has acknowledged the challenge of reaching Net Zero and of becoming Nature Positive, but it looks like it does not intend to significantly boost those parts of the budget that can really help deliver those outcomes. There has to be better funding for agri-environment schemes and things like advice, co-operation, training and knowledge exchange.

It’s important to recognise that the government has said a lot of encouraging things and looks like it is trying to take farming policy in a positive direction. But the real test of whether or not the government really means what it says will be reached in the coming months when political decisions about funding, and what schemes and measures to allocate it to, have to be made.

This blog was first published on the RSPB website on 13 November 2023.

All photos credited to Andy Hay.

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.