Category Archives: scotland

‘Act now to rescue Scotland’s birds of prey’

THE SCOTSMAN – JENNY HOWARTH

DOZENS of conservation groups have banded together to call for efforts to tackle the illegal killing of birds of prey to be stepped up.
They want laws protecting the birds to be properly enforced.

The 26 groups, including RSPB Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland, the Ramblers’ Association Scotland and the SSPCA, made their demand in a joint report, On a Wing and a Prayer.

It highlights current levels of Scotland’s 15 species in the wild and shows that although some have recovered dramatically from near-extinction – such as the buzzard, which now numbers more than 40,000 across the UK – others are still at risk.

One of these is the white-tailed eagle, which was reintroduced in Scotland in 1975 after it was hunted to extinction. The birds have not been able to reach a stable level, due to deliberate killing and egg collecting.

The report says that even though nine of the UK’s 15 birds of prey have seen numbers increase in recent years, illegal activity remains a key threat to the future of some species.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said it was very difficult to find out about crimes against birds of prey.

“Most of the crimes against birds of prey take place in remote areas. It’s much easier to conceal an incident than to find one,” he said.

But he also said more could be done by police.

“Wildlife crime needs to be treated as if it was any other crime. We have long been saying that perhaps it is the poor relation of the justice system.

“We are not saying that wildlife crime deserves the resources that are devoted to serious human crime but it should be at least treated as a form of normal crime.”

And although he thinks many landowners have played an important role in helping protect birds of prey, he added: “I’m afraid there’s a persistent number of people who are still involved in wildlife crime.”

Keith Arbuthnott, chairman of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association and Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming, chairman of the Scottish Estates Business Group, have also called for landowners to step up their vigilance over wildlife crime.

They are urging members to report any suspicious incidents.

In a joint statement, they said: “A small number of rogue owners and their contractors continue to flout the law.”

But they said: “Landowners and land managers across the vast majority of Scotland’s estates recognise that the future success of some of our most iconic bird species, and in particular birds of prey, lies in their hands.”

They said their members had been involved in numerous bird of prey initiatives.

The calls for action follow a report by Scotland’s police watchdog that said more needed to be done on wildlife crime.

It said insufficient police officers dedicated to catching offenders, inadequate reporting and poor use of intelligence were among the problems.

It suggested every police force should have a full-time wildlife crime officer, and that a minimum standard for investigations should be set.

The environment minister, Michael Russell, is due to give a detailed response to parliament later this year.

Spreading their wings

• Hen harrier: Hunted nearly to extinction in UK by 1900. Now 800 pairs but illegal killing still a problem.

• White tailed eagle: Reintroduced in 1975 after being hunted to extinction; now 42 pairs. Threatened due to egg-collecting and illegal killing.

• Golden eagle: Fell to 80 pairs in late 19th century. Now about 420 pairs, almost all in Scotland, but still suffering illegal killings.

• Honey buzzard: Scarce summer visitors to the UK; about 100 breeding pairs.

• Kestrel: Once the most common bird of prey in the UK – now 36,800 and falling, possibly due to lack of prey.

• Marsh harrier: Extinct by 1898 due to killings and drainage of wetlands. Now about 360 breeding females.

• Merlin: Dropped to 550 pairs in mid-20th century due to killings and pesticide use. Now about 1,300 pairs, but loss of habitat a problem.

• Montagu’s harrier: Scarce visitors to the UK; fewer than ten pairs.

• Ospreys: Extinct by 1916. Started to breed again in 1954 – now more than 200 pairs in Scotland.

• Peregrines: Numbers at highest for 50 years, with more than 1,400 pairs. Has not recovered in north of Scotland due to persecution.

• Red kite: Reintroduction started in 1989, but today just 40 pairs in Scotland, against 350 in England, though the same number were released in each area.

• Buzzard: Numbers have recovered rapidly as rabbit population rose – their prey. Now about 44,000.

• Goshawk: Hunted to extinction but re-established by falconers from 1950s. Now more than 400 pairs.

• Hobby: Thriving – about 2,200 pairs – perhaps due to rise in dragonfly prey.

• Sparrowhawk: Pesticides caused decline in mid-20th century. Now stable, with about 40,000 pairs.

STAMPING OUT WILDLIFE CRIME

THE Scotsman is committed to helping the SSPCA catch those responsible for killing birds of prey and wildlife.

Information about raptor poisonings and other incidents of wildlife crime can be passed to police via the National Wildlife Crime Unit in North Berwick on 01620 893607.

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Scottish walkers asked to report wildcat sightings as numbers fall

 Mark Hughes – Independent

They were once widespread throughout the forests of the United Kingdom, fierce, feline creatures rumoured by some to be man-eating predators and revered by others as quasi-mythical beings harbouring the malevolent spirits of witches. But decades of relentless hunting took their toll on the population of the wildcat, so that by the mid-19th century they were declared extinct in England and Wales.

Now, conservationists are launching the first population survey in more than 20 years to discover whether the dwindling numbers of Scottish wildcats are suffering a similar fate.

Walkers will be asked to keep an eye out for the beasts after scientists said they feared they were nearing extinction in the one part of the UK where gamekeepers had originally failed to eradicate them.

Calling for members of the public to report sightings of wildcats in forests and other remote areas, Scottish National Heritage hopes the population survey will help to fix the numbers. It estimates that fewer than 400 of the animals exist in the country.

The survey will aim to establish the size and distribution of Felis silvestris grampia, the Scottish wildcat, and to draw conclusions about the plight of Britain’s last large mammal predator.

And it could lead to measures including voluntary neutering of domestic cats to prevent them from interbreeding with wildcats in areas where the species is most at risk.

Ro Scott, policy and advisory officer at Scottish National Heritage, said the public would be asked to pay attention to markings on cats seen in the wild and to report these to its officers, along with the location of sightings and video footage or photographs.

She said: “We want to involve as many members of the public as possible who are out and about in areas where they might come across wildcats. We will be asking them to fill in a short questionnaire asking what they have seen.”

The typical British wildcat is similar in appearance to a domestic cat. However, wildcats are larger with a wider face and jaw and have well-defined brown and black stripes and a bushy tail.

The twin perils of persecution and disease led to a dramatic reduction in the numbers of wildcats and, by the 1860s, the species was declared extinct in England and Wales.

Numbers also fell in Scotland but sightings in the north of the country, particularly in the Highlands, ensured that they were never said to be extinct. The species is listed as vulnerable.

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Extinction threat to Scots bird

BBC News

The Scottish crossbill, the UK’s only endemic bird which is native to the Highlands of Scotland, faces extinction, according to a new report.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds warns that unless action is taken to halt a rise in global temperatures, the species is under severe threat.

The bird, which lives only in Scots pine forests, is already on the conservation body’s endangered list.

Other Scottish species, such as the capercaillie, could also suffer.

The Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds – published by the RSBP – shows that three quarters of all of Europe’s nesting bird species are likely to suffer declines in range.

The results of the study have hastened calls by the RSPB for urgent action to cut greenhouse gases.

Professor Rhys Green, an RSPB scientist and one of the authors, said: “Climatic change and wildlife’s responses to it are difficult to forecast with any precision, but this study helps us to appreciate the magnitude and scope of possible impacts and to identify species at most risk and those in need of urgent help and protection.”

Red and black grouse, ptarmigan and snow bunting are other birds likely to be affected in Scotland. The birds could be left with few areas of suitable climate and populations could drop.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: “We must heed the wake-up call provided by this atlas and act immediately to curb climate change.”

He claimed that some investment should also be made to help wildlife adapt to an “inevitable” level of climate change.

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Anger as poison kills endangered kites

Telegraph – Auslan Cramb

Three red kites that were part of a species re-introduction project have been found poisoned.

One of the birds was part of a pair that had produced 16 chicks since 1999.

The birds were found in central Scotland a month ago but tests have only now confirmed that they were killed with poisoned bait.

Lynn Bowser, of Argaty Red Kites, a feeding project for the birds on a farm north of Stirling, said there was no doubt that they were deliberately poisoned.

She added: “We are very angry about it. These birds are not a threat to anything, that is what is really galling.

“The typical way that one of these birds gets poisoned is that someone will lace a rabbit carcass with poison and lay it out.”

Red kites, common in Scotland 250 years ago, were hunted to extinction and have been the subject of a re-introduction scheme that has resulted in 80 pairs breeding around Scotland.

But according to the RSPB the illegal poisoning of raptors is on the increase, with 42 confirmed incidents last year, compared to 19 the previous year.

 

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Mediterranean Sharks and Rays in Danger of Extinction

The Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network

A report released today by the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation reveals that the region has the highest percentage of such species assessed as Threatened in the world, due primarily to overfishing through targeted and incidental fisheries.

SSACN is a member of the Shark Alliance which is repeating its call for a strong Plan of Action to improve the status of European sharks and rays in response to new IUCN findings.

European Union (EU) resource managers, are developing an overdue Plan of Action for the conservation and management of sharks. The European Commission is expected to propose the first EU limits for porbeagle shark, identified by IUCN as “Critically Endangered” off Europe, by the end of November for consideration by EU Fisheries Ministers in December.

The report deemed 42% (30 species) of these species Threatened, of which 18% are Critically Endangered, 11% Endangered and 13% Vulnerable. Another 18% (13 species) were assessed as Near Threatened while a lack of information led to 26% (18 species) being classified as Data Deficient. Only 14% (10 species) are considered to be of Least Concern.

The Scottish Government should do something to address the £4.7 million worth of sharks were landed in Scotland.

Never before have the EU’s Mediterranean countries had more reason or opportunity to safeguard the region’s beleaguered sharks and rays.

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Tay salmon stocks ‘facing extinction’

The Scotsman

SCOTLAND’S world-famous “queen” of salmon rivers is being fished to extinction, according to its ghillies, who are pleading with its fisheries board to implement new laws to save its depleted fish stocks.

Anglers from across the world have flocked to Perthshire for decades to fish for Atlantic salmon in Scotland’s longest and most renowned river, the Tay.

But the Tay Ghillies Association has revealed it has been “a dreadfully poor salmon fishing season”, with catches down by 50 per cent and expected to fall even further next season. The association accuses the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board of ignoring a number of warning signs.

A spokesman for the Tay Ghillies Association said: “The annual catch numbers on the River Tay this year with rod and line will not amount to any more than 6,000 fish. The Dee, which is a fraction of the size of the Tay, with a fraction of the anglers, are set to do 5,000.”

However, David Summers, of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, said: “The idea that the Tay has completely collapsed is grossly overblown.”

He said the policy of catch-and-release needed strengthening, adding: “For next season we are advocating that, in the spring, you must put back the first fish every day and you may keep the next one.

“We currently ask that anglers not fish with worms before the end of May and certainly not in September and October. However, we are reviewing this policy.”

In Scotland, 85,901 salmon were reported caught in 2006, with 47,471 – 55 per cent of the total catch – being released.

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The mystery of Scotland’s disappearing common seals

From the Independent

There have been no obvious signs of them washed up on the shore; no evidence that disease or human hand is behind a dramatic reduction in numbers of the sea mammal. But a routine survey has delivered the baffling news that 5,000 common seals have disappeared from the shores of Orkney and Shetland.

Zoologists from the University of St Andrews are so concerned about the slump in numbers of the creature loved by locals and holidaymakers alike that they are now undertaking the first complete survey of Scotland’s common seal Phoca vitulina population in the hope of an explanation. The two teams of researchers, who are equipped with helicopters using military-specification thermal imaging technology, will fly for two hours each side of low tide – the time that offers the best view of seals – in an operation which, it is hoped, may shed some light on a disturbing 45 per cent reduction in the Orkney and Shetland population.

A major, catastrophic event – such as pollution or disease – has already been ruled out by the scientists. “If there had been one, we’d have had carcasses washing up and people would have seen them at the shore and noticed them,” Callan Duck, the university’s senior research zoologist, said yesterday.

Instead, the seals may be finding a substantial reduction in the sustenance available to them as a result of subtle changes in the food chain. The species relies for food on sand eels, the population of which has been dramatically reduced; the seabird population is another source which has been faring badly. Competition for food has also intensified because a major rise in the grey seal population.

Another possible cause of the decline is the presence of killer whales, though this probably does not account for the entire 5,000 reduction. “They’ve been seen with increasing regularity in the past five years,” said Mr Duck. Other possible causes could be pollutants in the water – or more prosaic reasons relating to seal population cycles. “You could have something affecting reproductive performance which for some reason is reducing numbers,” said Mr Duck.

Some conservationists are also concerned about laws governing the protection of seals, which allow fishermen to kill them if they believe that their equipment is at risk. “At the moment the law is a joke because fishermen can get away with whatever they want,” said Ross Flett, the chairman of Orkney Seal Rescue.

The survey which revealed the reduction showed that numbers had dropped from 12,635 in 2001 to 7,277 last summer. Although the population on the west coast of Scotland is not believed to have declined and those who live on the east side of the country have only slightly reduced in numbers, the fall comes in a period of concern for the British seal population. The once-thriving population at The Wash, in Norfolk, is still low after the effects of the phocine distemper virus which devastated numbers five years ago.

The virus, which also wiped out half of Britain’s seal colonies in 1988, killed a third of the estuary’s seals in 2002 and last month, conservationists received reports that more than 40 seal pups had been washed up around an island off the Danish coast, with tests later showing they, too, had succumbed to distemper.

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue – an organisation set up in response to the 1988 outbreak – immediately warned that it was “very likely” that the virus would arrive in the UK this year, but there are as yet no signs that the disease has crossed this time. The failure of The Wash population’s numbers to pick up since the 2002 outbreak is a mystery, since the population has revived in northern Europe, where 2,000 dead seals were found when the 2002 virus was at its most lethal.

The first of the two Scottish research teams set out from Berwick-upon-Tweed last week and is working its way around the east and north Scottish coasts, flying at around 90 knots and 700ft above the sea. The other will start this week in the Solway Firth and follow the west coast. They are due to converge in the Outer Hebrides. The thermal imagers they are equipped with can detect a seal up to two miles away, showing it as a small white speck on a sand bank or rock.

With Scotland accounting for a third of the UK’s 30,000 common seal population, an explanation for the disappearance of so many of the creatures, which vary in colour from brownish black to tan or grey, each carrying a unique pattern of fine dark spots, is keenly awaited. “This common seal population is a very significant one and we are actively looking for answers,” said Mr Duck.

Seal facts

There are around 30,000 common seals in the UK, making up 80 per cent of Britain’s total seal population. There are up to 500,000 common seals in the world. As their name suggests, they are the most common species. They tend to stay around rocky shores and sandy beaches. They are not generally considered to be a threatened species, though their habit of staying near coastlines has brought them into conflict with fishermen.

Seals get caught in fishing nets and in the UK, Canada and Norway, it is legal to shoot seals that come near fisheries. It is illegal to commercially hunt seals, though this is known to sometimes occur. Pups can fall victim to foxes and large birds of prey.

The average common seal weighs 140kg and grows to 7ft. They eat up to 5kg worth of fish per day.

Male common seals (bulls) live for 20-25 years and females (cows) can live for 30-35 years.

They are largely grey in appearance, and each individual seal has its own unique pattern of brown spots. They have relatively large faces with large eyes.

Common seals can swim for several days across 50km to find feeding grounds, and dive for up to 10 minutes to depths of 1,500ft.

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Home to rare species under threat

From the Scotsman 

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 BUNTING

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.

GREY PARTRIDGE

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.

SKYLARK

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.

RED-TAILED BUMBLEBEE

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.

BUTTERFLIES

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.

LADYBIRD

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.

WATER VOLE

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.

DORMOUSE

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.

HARE

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.

FRESHWATER MUSSEL

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.

SET-ASIDE

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.

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