Andrew Stark, RSPB Scotland Land Use Policy officer, discusses the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme and why it is so important for our nature and wildlife.

Decision on farm funding for wildlife needed urgently

What do Marsh Fritillary, Curlews, Brown Hares, Machair habitats, Great Yellow Bumblebees and Skylarks have in common? They are all part of the diverse range of beautiful species and habitats found on some Scottish farms, crofts and in our uplands.

They’ve also got something else in common. They all benefit from the land management carried out by farmers and crofters that is funded through the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS). Sadly, the fate of this Scheme hangs in the balance and with it the future of this amazing wildlife.

What is the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme?

The Agri-Environment Climate Scheme was introduced to Scotland in 2014 to help support nature and climate friendly farming methods, as part of the Scotland Rural Development Programme. Similar schemes have operated in Scotland since the mid-1980s and have played an essential role, helping both farmers and wildlife. This vital funding source provides Scottish farmers and crofters with payments for maintaining or, in some cases, changing their farming practices to benefit wildlife or the climate. Farmers apply to the Scheme and, if successful, get offered five-year agreements and receive payments annually for the activities they undertake.

Some of the ways in which AECS helps nature and our climate is by:

  • supporting the management of carbon rich soils and grasslands and peatland restoration which are all essential to tackling climate change
  • helping to address the decline of vulnerable species such as corncrakes, corn bunting and waders
  • providing habitat with a higher number and diversity of pollinators on farms in AECS
  • protecting ancient woodlands which provide a valuable and rare habitat for a variety of wildlife

great yellow bumblebee on grass
Great Yellow Bumblebee

So, what’s the problem?

AECS plays a vital role in protecting Scottish wildlife and a lot of farmers and crofters across Scotland depend on this source of funding to achieve this. As we look ahead, many AECS agreements are coming to an end and unless the Scheme is continued, and farmers can enter new agreements, all the positive action taken by farmers and crofters to date could end.

The last year the Scheme opened fully for applications from farmers was in 2019. In 2020, the Scottish Government only offered those with agreements coming to an end a one-year extension. Whether the Scheme will be funded and continue in 2021 or beyond is not known and its fate appears to hang in the balance. This is bad news because, after December 2021, large numbers of agreements will end and those currently in the scheme will no longer receive the funding that is so essential to protecting Scottish wildlife.

In some cases, this could mean an immediate loss of certain habitats and an end to farming practices vital for certain species. One example is changing the timing of mowing farm grassland to a later date, which reduces the risk of damage to certain ground-nesting birds such as corncrake, their eggs and fledglings.

marsh fritillary butterfly
Marsh Fritillary

And what’s next?

The decision about the future of this vital scheme is in the hands of the Scottish Government. RSPB Scotland, along with other groups such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Scottish Wildlife Trust and the National Farmers Union of Scotland, have appealed to the Scottish Government to find the funding and commit to continuing AECS and reopening the scheme for applications in 2021 and beyond. We will continue to call for the vital support farmers and crofters need in creating a farming system that supports the wonderful array of wildlife across Scotland.

Scottish nature depends on it.