Vice President's Blog - 27 September 2018

When it comes to conservation and the promotion of biodiversity, farmers and crofters must be part of the discussion writes NFU Scotland Vice President Martin Kennedy.

At today’s (28 September) workshop on curlews, hosted by Scottish Natural Heritage at Battleby, I made it clear that farmers and crofters must be round the table if we are discussing how best to achieve the desired outcomes on conservation and biodiversity.

I am certainly not an expert on curlews, and I made that point clear at the conference.  However, I have a good amount of knowledge when it comes to how best to deliver for all sorts of biodiversity, and in my case – like many other farmers and crofters - we have been involved in agri-environment schemes for many, many years now.

Farmers and crofters manage around 5.7 million hectares of land right across Scotland (73% of Scotland's land mass) of which more than 1.5 million hectares are currently managed under agri-environment schemes.

This is something we should be very proud of.  The achievements of farmers and crofters in managing the land in a fashion that has provided so much for the current environment we are so keen to protect deserves better recognition. It also creates a reservoir of skill and experience that should be tapped in to.

There's no doubt that we are the ones who are in pole position when it comes to having the ability to do something that will make a difference.

The economic reality is that, in the clear majority of cases, farmers and crofters introducing environmental measures require some form of incentive as that land is also required for food production which, in turn, is a farmer’s income.  That is something we cannot afford to forget.

Yesterday’s announcement (26 September) that the Agri-Environmental Climate Scheme will open again in the New Year is welcome. Uncertainties relating to Brexit might have threatened the continuity of this funding, and a potential reduction in the good work being done for wildlife, water quality and the climate. The Scottish Government has clearly recognised this issue and listened to our calls for environmental measures to be an important part of any future support regime, so that valuable momentum in this area is maintained.

Unfortunately, for quite a few years in the recent past, we have been in the position where we are not so much recognised for what we do in terms of the environment or conservation but criticised for what we don't do.

Things are changing.  The big difference I am beginning to see now, especially over the past couple of years, is we are now being asked more and more to the table when it comes to how we should progress.  Those discussion recognise the need to not only maintain a profitable agricultural sector, which is vital to our rural economy, but also how we can best deliver for our environment.

We, as a union, have had an increasingly positive dialogue with SNH, which can only be a good thing, and I recently welcomed SNH staff to my farm to show them productive upland farming in Highland Perthshire, working hand in hand with the natural environment.  

Such meetings give the opportunity to understand each other's points of view. Scotland’s farmers and crofters are delivering on Scotland’s conservation and biodiversity ambitions while still being able to recognise how important food production is in Scotland.

Away from our hills and uplands, undoubtedly there are measures that could be taken by those farming our prime land that could enhance biodiversity.  However, Scotland’s prime agricultural land is limited - only 8% of our agricultural land is of the highest quality - so measures that could be taken by those on this land to enhance biodiversity cannot be too prescriptive to the extent there will be no buy in or that the productive capacity of this land, which is a vital part of our industry, is limited.

Getting the balance right in bringing forward measures is important

Experience has shown that a top down, prescriptive approach is more likely to have a negative effect with little will to be a part of any type of conservation.  Instead, we must adopt a bottom up approach whereby those on the ground highlight what they can deliver in terms of environmental benefits while preserving the productivity of the farm.  That has the real potential for a win win situation.

The opportunity to speak today shows how, more and more, the environmental contribution of those who work and receive their income from the land are appreciated.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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