TENS of thousands of acres of land which support some of Scotland’s most endangered species could be ploughed up because of the end of schemes which pay farmers to work their land in an environmentally friendly way.
Conservationists are warning of a looming crisis, with entire species of birds likely to disappear from swathes of countryside.
The three main sources of Scottish Executive funding for environmental schemes are due to expire at the end of the month, with no replacement initiatives yet available.
And the European Commission is on the verge of ratifying proposals to abolish about 170,000 acres of so called “set-aside” land in Scotland.
This arable land has become a haven for birdlife including the corn bunting, skylark, and partridge and animals such as the brown hare.
The charity Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB Scotland) has warned the Scottish Executive that the ending of the funding arrangements would be “potentially disastrous” for ecosystems.
One farmer in the Borders, who has spent the past six years establishing a series of wildlife habitats and beetle banks, told The Scotsman: “After all our work, we’re going to have to plough the land back in. It’s financially unsustainable to continue without help.
“It’s very disappointing. Where we would have had intensive farming right up to the fence we have all sorts of insects, birdlife, and field mice, but it can’t continue. These habitats can’t just be funded for a couple of years. They need to be long-term ventures to allow the wildlife to settle.”
The Executive schemes which are due to come an end on 31 August cover over 900 sustainable agri-environment projects worth about £5 million. The rural stewardship scheme (RSS), for instance, which pays farmers to manage agreed habitats, has aided 226 projects on agricultural land, 120 of which lie within sites designated as EU special protection areas or special areas of conservation. It would cost just £2 million to continue the RSS projects for a further year. In addition to this, a number of environmentally sensitive areas projects and organic aid scheme projects are also due to expire.
The planned replacement scheme, the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), which will last until 2013, has been delayed, with no timescale set for its introduction.
In a letter to Richard Lochhead, the environment secretary, Stuart Housden, the director of RSPB Scotland, writes: “Many of those [farmers] who have been carrying out agri-environment work, designed to maintain and enhance key species and habitats, plan to revert the land in question to traditional agricultural use this year. We have been contacted by several farmers with whom we work closely hoping they will not be forced to plough in the habitats created in the past five years, but in the absence of the financial incentive to continue their agri-environment management, many will reluctantly do so.
“The environmental implications of this are potentially disastrous, especially as it comes at the same time as the potential loss of set-aside.”
Alan Crichton, chairman of the environment and land use committee at the National Farmers’ Union Scotland (NFUS) echoed those concerns, adding that in some cases, “a decade’s good work” could be undone.
He said: “The NFUS has been meeting Executive officials to consider how this can be resolved without undoing, in some cases, five to ten years’ good farmland conservation work at significant cost to the taxpayer.”
But while farmers and environmentalists are united in wanting the Scottish schemes to be renewed, they differ over the likely scrapping of the EU “set aside” scheme.
Set aside funding has injected about £11 million a year into Scottish agriculture, paying farmers to keep areas of land free from commercial use and thereby providing a home for insects, small mammals and endangered birds.
Environmentalists fear that without it, key habitats will be lost. Farmers’ leaders believe the move will allow their members to bring acres of land back into production, boosting the economy.
RSPB Scotland points to numerous incidences where wildlife has prospered on set-aside land. In Tayside and Fife, farmers have worked with the organisation to plant grain-rich bird food crops on set-aside areas. One such seven-acre plot, for example, held a flock of 70 corn buntings last winter, while another site in Fife has held up to 80 of the birds every winter since 2002.
Hywel Maggs, RSPB Scotland’s corn bunting officer, explained: “These set-aside areas are providing a vital lifeline for one of our most threatened species. If the set-aside scheme is allowed to disappear without the Executive providing a viable alternative, the total extinction of cornbuntings in Fife and Tayside is a real possibility.”
But Stewart Wood, the NFUS vice-president, said: “It is unacceptable that one sector still has limits put on its ability to meet market demand, and a restriction put on its production capacity,” he said.
“It is worth pointing out that farmers will still have the option to set aside land voluntarily if the compulsory rate is set at zero. If they are seeing a benefit of set-aside on their own farm, they will still be able to retain it.”
Jim Hume MSP, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ spokesman for the environment and a former farmer in Selkirk, said he intended to raise the issue via a motion to the parliament.
Mr Hume, who until his election to Holyrood served as a director of the NFUS, said: “The gap in funding could mean a great deal of good, in terms of the environment, might be reversed extremely quickly.
“It would only take around £5 million to address the issue, and I hope the wildlife habitats on Scottish farms can continue.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said: “We have submitted the SRDP to the European Commission, who are currently considering it. The Scottish government are in agreement with NFUS and RSPB Scotland that this is a difficult situation. Ministers have asked for an assessment as to whether there is an interim solution to the programme to be investigated.”
• Additional reporting by Ian Johnston and Daniel Parker
CORN buntings have undergone a dramatic population decline, making them a globally threatened species. In Scotland, there are around 800 pairs – about 10 per cent of the UK population. It is usually seen perched on a wire or post.
A Red List endangered species according to the RSPB, Scotland’s population of grey partridge has declined by 80 per cent over 25 years. There are only 14,000 pairs left – slightly under one fifth of the UK population.
THERE are 557,000 pairs of skylarks breeding in Scotland, just under one-third of the UK population. The number halved during the 1990s,
due to the decreasing changeover time between crops and over-use of arable land for grazing.
ONCE prolific in Britain’s countryside, many species of bumblebee have suffered in recent years due to the continuing disappearance of large tracts of suitable farmland habitat. Colony Collapse Disorder is another threat.
THERE are around 32 different species of butterfly in Scotland. The main threat is the increasing destruction of their habitats, in particular the conversion of semi-natural grasslands to ‘improved’ pasture or arable land.
LADYBIRDS are found amongst plants and vegetation across the UK. They hibernate amongst dead stem plants. Some experts believe half of Britain’s 46 species could be wiped out in a decade.
THE water vole population has rapidly declined in recent years as a direct result of habitat degradation and an increase in the mink population. Scottish National Heritage estimate that in 2005 there were at most 354,000.
Dormice, which are nocturnal, are one of Britain’s most endangered mammals. They are generally found in deciduous wood and dense hedgerows. A sharp decline in numbers led to it being given legal protection.
NUMBERS of brown hares have fallen sharply over the last century, although they are still relatively common in parts of the country. Modern arable farms provide little cover for hares in the autumn and pesticides and farm machinery pose a risk.
SCOTLAND has 61 breeding pearl mussel rivers and is home to half of the worlds pearl mussel population. Threatened by agricultural run off, they are now extinct in two thirds of rivers they occupied.
GREEN FARMING: THE SCHEMES THAT HELP TO PROTECT OUR COUNTRYSIDE
AGRI-ENVIRONMENT schemes have been in place in Scotland for two decades. They are designed to encourage farmers and crofters to work their land for the benefit of wildlife.
RURAL STEWARDSHIP SCHEME
The RSS was introduced six years ago. Farmers receive one-off payments for environmental audits of their land, and annual payments for managing agreed habitats.
Farmers must adhere to “good farming practice” to protect animals and birds that use grassland or hedgerows, by avoiding rolling, harrowing, grazing or use of chemicals at critical times.
Farmers can earn anything up to £619 a year for a single category. However, last year, some 77 per cent of applicants were turned down for the scheme, mainly because of lack of funding. Some 1,696 were unsuccessful, with only 504 getting in.
ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE AREAS
Introduced in 1987, the ESA initiative was designed to conserve designated areas of countryside where the landscape, wildlife or historic interest was of particular significance and where environmental features could be affected by farming.
ESA closed to new applications in 2000, but some Scots farmers have continued to use the scheme, which has been very successful in the Uist islands in particular. Similar concerns were raised when the ESA scheme closed as are being felt now.
ORGANIC AID SCHEME
Lasting from 1994 till April 2006, the OAS approved 1,080 applications. Farmers had to convert a production unit to organic farming during the minimum five years of their agreement.
SCOTTISH RURAL DEVELOPMENT
Intended as a replacement for the above schemes, the SRDP will last until 2013, but it has yet to be approved by the European Commission.
The Scottish Executive intends to invest almost £1.6 billion over the seven years, though some environmental groups say that is too little.
The cash will come from the Scottish government, the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development, and national modulation of the Single Farm Payment.
Introduced across Europe 15 years ago, set-aside was intended to curb “grain mountains.” The plan to scrap the 10 per cent of farmland which must be set-aside is welcomed by farmers, who say it is necessary to avoid shortages of wheat and other cereals next year. Strong demand from Asia, drought in Australia and growing demand for biofuels have slashed Europe’s reserves and demand is still rising.
The RSPB fears that if the set aside requirement were to be fixed at zero in 2008, farmland birds would significantly decline.