The Eeyore of Pessimism or the Lion’s Roar of Optimism? Options for Agri-environment schemes post Brexit.

Optimism, pessimism, cultural change, payment-by-results and delivery of public goods were popular words and phrases at the BES’s Scottish Policy Group’s latest Pie and a Pint (PAAP) on agri-environment schemes post Brexit.

Ruth Mitchell

Around 25 people from a range of organisations gathered for the discussion on Monday 9 October 2017 in Summerhall, Edinburgh.

The event was opened by five minute introductions on the topic from five key speakers: Professor Robin Pakeman from The James Hutton Institute; Professor Davy McCracken from Scotland’s Rural College; Eleanor Harris, a policy researcher at Confor; Richard Lockett, an independent advisor from Lockett Agri-Environmental and Susan Davies, Director of Conservation at Scottish Wildlife Trust.  Following the short talks the participants discussed the following questions:

  1. What agri-environment schemes have been successful in Scotland so far? What evidence is there for the positive or negative effects of different agri-environment schemes?
  2. How can agri-environment schemes be best coordinated at the catchment or landscape scale and by whom?
  3. Thinking beyond agri-environment schemes: what other initiatives should we be looking at or trying to incorporate in a future land management policy and who should pay for them?

Pessimism versus optimism:

Throughout the evening there was a mixture of pessimism and optimism. Each speaker acknowledged a degree of pessimism; admitting that they remembered many discussions over the past decades on the topic of how agri-environment schemes could better benefit biodiversity, yet not a lot seemed to have improved! It was generally acknowledged that current agri-environment schemes worked well if they were targeted at specific species such as those for the corncrake or pollinators. However current agri-environment schemes have failed to reverse the decline in the populations of most species. The schemes largely benefit birds, vascular plants and butterflies (when targeted), thus failing to benefit the majority of species on Scotland’s biodiversity list which is dominated by lower plants and invertebrates. Many habitats are completely missed out of the schemes such as sand-dunes and other coastal habitats. So what might happen post Brexit? As Richard Lockett suggested there are two viewpoints to agri-environment schemes post Brexit: the Pessimistic Eeyore option or the Lion’s Roar of optimism. The points from the speakers and the following discussions could largely be grouped into these two options.

 The Pessimistic Eeyore:

The Eeyore option after Brexit would see agri-environment schemes:

  • Continue with a “one size fits all” approach which hasn’t really benefited biodiversity very well in the past. Thus we would continue with prescriptive management that does not really cope with the complex requirements of ecology and biodiversity and detailed site specific requirements.
  • Have less money for biodiversity measures.
  • Prioritizing intensive agricultural and productivity at the expense of the environment.
  • Continue to have complex administration for the schemes.
  • Continue to provide no or very little benefit to biodiversity from the millions of pounds spent.

The Lion’s Roar of optimism:

The Lion’s Roar of optimism would see Brexit as a huge opportunity to change our agri-environment schemes for the better.  The speakers and discussions from the participants could see future schemes including the following elements:

  • Payment by results – inform the farmer what is required in terms of species and/or habitats and leave the farmer to work out how to manage his/her land to achieve the target.
  • Agri-environment schemes decoupled from productivity and used to pay for delivery of public goods.
  • Properly resourced monitoring of the schemes with at least some of the monitoring done by the farmers themselves.
  • Long-term payment schemes that encourage long-term habitat restoration while at the same time providing the farmers with a yearly, regular incomes
  • Smarter methods to target resources where they can most benefit biodiversity. (Have you ever thought of trying to use alpha, gamma or even beta diversity to prioritize farm payments – a suggestion from Robin?).
  • Greater support and advice for farmers throughout the life-time of the schemes to advise on adjustment to management to achieve results.
  • More flexible forestry schemes that are better integrated with the agri-environment schemes to encourage more farmers to plant forestry with net benefits for greenhouse gas emissions and more available timber to replace non-renewable materials.
  • An integrated land-use policy that views farming, the environment, forestry and other land-use policies alongside one another and not separately.
  • Greater buy-in from farmers and understanding from the public as to what agri-environment schemes deliver.

Is a change in mind set required?

So is this optimistic approach pie in the sky? (No it was a Pie and a Pint event!) On a more serious note, such optimism is not necessarily unfounded. A payment by results approached has been trailed elsewhere and worked well, for example in the Burren Life: Burren Farming for Conservation Programme in Ireland. So there is no reason why such a payment by results approach shouldn’t work well in Scotland. However it would certainly require a change in attitudes. “Slipper farmers” (farmers that rent empty land and, as long as it’s maintained in good condition, don’t have to produce any food or farm in any way but can claim subsidies) would be a thing of the past.  There would be have to be a change of mind set for farmers, governments and civil servants, with an acknowledgement that biodiversity and conservation objectives are a legitimate uses of land and deliver many public benefits. However it occurs to me, while writing this, that such an optimistic approach may also require a change in mind set of us, the general public. If agri-environment money is no longer to be used to support productivity, are we, the general public, prepared to pay the real price for our food? For too long we have got used to cheap food (see PAAP on protected areas). Maybe now is the time for us to pay for our food and use agri-environment money to benefit biodiversity?

If you are interested in reading more about this PAAP read the full report. In addition both the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Confor have released very informative discussion documents on how agri-environment schemes and countryside policies could be managed post Brexit.

Interested in the next PAAP? Become a member of the SPG and follow @BES_ScotPol on Twitter – see you there!