Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Head of SRUC’s Hill & Mountain Research Centre, Professor Davy McCracken, explains why it is essential that we increase markedly the area of lowland farmland that is managed for wildlife.
Number 20: Radically reform government incentives to ensure an average of at least 12% of the land area of individual farms is devoted to wildlife
Across Scotland (as elsewhere in Europe), agricultural modernisation and intensification have had significant adverse impacts on the biodiversity value of our farmland. These adverse impacts have been especially widespread in the lowlands.
For example, the mechanisation of agriculture has resulted in the elimination of many landscape elements, such as hedgerows, the drainage of wetlands and the ploughing of semi-natural grasslands. Habitat diversity and plant, insect and bird species richness have also declined due to increased pesticide and fertiliser use, the simplification of crop rotations, increases in livestock grazing densities and changes to the timing of grazing, cutting and cropping practices.
All these changes have resulted in very simplified lowland agricultural landscapes, dominated by intensively managed grassland and arable fields and with the more biodiversity-friendly habitats confined to small scattered fragments. Protecting these remaining habitat fragments must remain a priority in the short-term. But in the medium to long-term we also need to reconnect them through the reestablishment of a range of much more wildlife-friendly features on farmland.
The current situation
The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a major driver of agricultural production and land use change across Scotland and the EU over the last 50 years. There has also been an increasing emphasis on biodiversity and the wider environment over the past 25 years, particularly with the establishment of agri-environment schemes within EU Member States’ Rural Development Programmes.
However, although it is mandatory for every Member State to offer agri-environment schemes, it is not mandatory for farmers and land-managers to participate in such schemes. Hence, Member States are relying on farmers wanting to engage voluntarily in agri-environment schemes.
But, the level of funds available to support agri-environment measures to help address biodiversity concerns on farmland has historically been very low here in Scotland. In addition, farmers on the more intensive, and hence biodiversity poor, lowland grassland and arable farming systems, are less likely to be willing to voluntarily release productive areas of farmland to implement biodiversity actions.
The current CAP does now include a requirement to manage 5% of a farm’s arable area in a manner that promotes biodiversity (within features known as Ecological Focus Areas) in order to continue to receive agricultural support payments. However, the types of exemption that apply to this requirement mean that only a relatively small proportion of Scottish farmers will need to establish such Ecological Focus Areas.
What more needs to be done?
Landscape simplification is the key driver of biodiversity declines in lowland agricultural landscapes. It is also clear however, that marked increases in habitat and landscape diversity required to increase biodiversity in and around lowland farms has not occurred as a result of the approaches taken to-date.
Nor is such landscape simplification likely to be addressed in the foreseeable future unless we radically reform agricultural and environmental support mechanisms to increase significantly the proportion of agricultural land managed for the benefit of wildlife. This could be achieved in a number of ways, for example:
- making it mandatory for all farmers to manage a much larger proportion of their farmed area in a manner beneficial to biodiversity in order to qualify for their main agricultural support payments;
- moving a large proportion of the current budget for agricultural support payments into the budget for agri-environment measures;
- moving the focus of support completely away from the historic CAP model and developing a new support mechanism based on payment for ecosystem service production.
However this radical reform is achieved, the scale of the changes needed to make a difference on the ground in lowland Scotland are such that the Scottish Wildlife Trust suggests that it needs to result in all farms having an average of at least 12% of the land area of each individual farm devoted to management for wildlife.
This would not necessarily mean reducing the agricultural production capacity of each farm by 12%. Many of the remnant lowland habitats we are concerned about (such as hay meadows, wet grasslands, lowland heathlands and weed-rich arable crops) have been created, and need to continue to be maintained, by less intensive farming practices. The creation of other biodiversity rich habitats (such as hedgerows, wide field margins, wildflower strips, wetlands and wooded riversides) could be achieved by using areas of the farm where the land is not so agriculturally productive in the first place.
In this way, the onus would be put on all farmers to achieve a minimum level of appropriate habitat diversity and/or agri-environment management at the farm scale. Such an approach would help achieve the more equitable balance between agricultural and environmental outputs that society is now expecting in order to justify the continued use of public subsidies to support farming in the 21st century.
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Professor Davy McCracken is Head of Scotland’s Rural College’s Hill & Mountain Research Centre and a member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Conservation Committee