Last December, we wrote about how some of Scotland’s wonderful wildlife was under threat and facing a precarious future. This was due to the lack of a decision by the Scottish Government about the vitally important Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS).
Remind me, what is the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme?
This is a funding scheme which supports nature and climate friendly farming methods on farms and crofts across Scotland. Farmers apply to it and if successful, are awarded with five-year agreements and receive annual payments for various activities. This might include creating and managing hedgerows, providing more habitat for on-farm pollinators and restoring peatlands; activities good for wildlife that can also help to address climate change. AECS also helps protect birds associated with farmland such as corncrakes, corn buntings and waders.
And what was the problem?
As things stood, there was going to be no new round of AECS funding in 2021. This would have meant that the scheme was closed to new applicants and anyone with an agreement that ends this year would not have been able to renew it. Crucially, this meant that farmers and crofters who helped protect Scotland’s wildlife through the scheme would have been left in limbo. Working with farming and environmental stakeholders we called on the Scottish Government to fully reopen the scheme to ensure those vulnerable species and habitats in AECS management had a future.
So, what’s happened?
Thankfully, the Scottish Government announced at the end of 2020 that the scheme would be reopening in 2021, although not fully and with no guarantee of funding beyond this year. They also only committed to funding for specific activities, such as organic farming, managing protected areas, management for corncrakes, corn buntings and waders, slurry storage and improving public access.
That’s great news! Right?
We welcome this commitment from Scottish Government and are pleased to see vital funding continue for a number of key species and habitats. However, by not fully reopening the scheme some farmers and crofters will be cut adrift from receiving the vital funding needed to deliver for nature and climate. The stricter criteria for applicants will mean that some land currently managed in AECS will drop out of management when contracts end, with negative consequences for the species and habitats protected through it.
There are also still unanswered questions about what future support for Scottish farming looks like. Partially opening AECS this year is helpful, but offers no longer term guarantees and will leave farmers and crofters who are protecting Scotland’s wildlife uncertain about the future.
What might come next?
New research from NatureScot demonstrates how farmers and crofters could be rewarded for environmental land management through a payment system that is very different to the current one. Payments would be based on delivering outcomes for nature and the climate rather than how much land is farmed. This adds to the growing evidence base that future farming policy in Scotland can work for both nature and farmers and crofters.
The recent decision around AECS, whilst positive, is not the full solution needed or the long-term commitments required to support farmers and crofters in ways that work for Scotland’s wildlife and help combat climate change. The Scottish Government needs to bring forward proposals for this as a matter of urgency.
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