Mike Thornton, Operations Officer for the Forth Area reports on a workshop hosted by SNH, and Lochhouses Farm in East Lothian that considered the future of agri-environment work in the arable sector.
Although protected sites, such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) provide an important mechanism for protecting our natural heritage, they are insufficient on their own to deliver landscape scale conservation. These protected sites often occur as small, isolated islands, in highly managed agricultural landscapes.
This is very much the case in East Lothian, where intensive arable farming is the dominant land use and SSSIs make up only 7% of the land area. Therefore, effective nature conservation also requires wider countryside measures, such as agri-environment schemes These schemes promote land management practices which protect and enhance our natural heritage by protecting biodiversity, improving water quality, reducing flood risk, and mitigating the effects of climate change.
However, the uptake of these schemes in East Lothian has been relatively low; the general feeling is that they have been overly complicated and prescriptive, taking little account of environmental variability. We wanted to hear directly from East Lothian farmers about how we might improve uptake of these schemes to deliver more for our natural heritage. That’s why SNH Forth Area, in partnership with Lochhouses farm, recently hosted a workshop for arable farmers.
Many farmers expressed the need for regional, more flexible agri-environment schemes with less complex rules and regulations. They recommended that future schemes should account for the unique circumstances of individual farms, perhaps by giving farmers flexibility over how to achieve defined environmental outcomes, such as the number of breeding birds or wildflower species in grassland.
Farm conservation training would also help farmers gain a better understanding of their farm’s environmental assets, and identify how to maintain and enhance those assets.
We also discussed the importance of collaboration amongst farmers. One example of this is cluster farming, a farmer-led approach to conservation in which a group of farmers devise their own conservation plans supported by an advisor. It was originally developed by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) in partnership with Natural England.
Although cluster farming has been popular in England, it has yet to take off in Scotland. However, farmers at the workshop did express interest in getting the right support to develop cluster farming initiatives.
Farmers are increasingly expected to deliver a range of public benefits, such as sustainable food production, environmental protection and recreation. However, this will depend on the right balance of public funding, regulation and advice to deliver this. This workshop clearly demonstrated that farmers want to engage in the debate to help achieve a sustainable future for both farming and wildlife.
A future workshop is currently being planned by GWCT, in partnership with SNH, for later this month.
Further info on cluster farming available here.