A Scottish Government consultation on a transition to a new rural policy closed last week. The theme was ‘Stability and Simplicity’, setting out plans to make the next few years as smooth as possible for land managers and rural businesses as we transition to a new system post-Brexit.

According to the Scottish Government, the aim of the transition is to ‘enhance [farmers and crofters’] role as stewards of the natural environment, and embrace an integrated approach to land use which seeks to deliver multiple benefits from the land’. They suggest any changes should take us closer to a ‘comprehensive new rural policy which helps to protect and enhance the natural assets on which our farming and other rural industries depend’. These are things that RSPB Scotland certainly agrees on.

But the consultation does not get as far as telling us what this new policy might be. A well-planned transition is necessary, but unless we know what we are transitioning to, planning is difficult. Rural Scotland urgently needs a vision for the longer term.

The policies and funding frameworks that we have now under the EU Common Agricultural Policy have had very mixed success. While schemes like the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) are a vital way of funding landscape scale interventions for biodiversity, climate and other environmental needs, other schemes lack evidence and a logic for spending public money beyond simply land ownership and farming activity. There are few strings attached to major funding streams like the Basic Payment Scheme, allowing public money to fund practices that contribute to, rather than solve environmental challenges.

The Paps of Jura with Scottish Black Face sheep grazing in the foreground. Image: www.rspb-images.com

At RSPB Scotland, we have a vision for a different system. The current one-size fits all approach leaves too many smaller, more remote, more nature-friendly farms without adequate support. In the future, we want a system that is fully focused on delivering public goods in return for public investment, and takes regional and local differences into account.

Public goods include wildlife and functioning ecosystems, a stable climate, beautiful landscapes for recreation and cultural identity, and other goods and services not paid for by the market but which are vital for us and future generations. As part of Scottish Environment LINK, we have outlined what a new support scheme could look like, that prioritises public goods while supporting land-based businesses to become more nature-friendly, efficient, and sustainable.

The transition period planned by Scottish Government should help us get there. We agree that stability and simplicity are sensible principles in the short term, but with caveats. A period of limited change in the short-term must mean that we use this time to plan for a fundamentally new policy and funding framework post-2024. And stability for the sector relies on everyone knowing what’s ahead, so that we can all plan for the future.

Simplicity in the system is also welcome, but this mustn’t come at the expense of maintaining environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards, or get in the way of achieving environmental and other public goods goals.

In the short-term, we believe that the sector needs to come together to trial some fundamentally new approaches. Regional land use planning should set priorities and shape funding frameworks at a regional level. Individual holdings should be supported to look at their whole business in the round, planning for environmental and business performance in the long term. For this we need much better advice to be available, from people who have the right knowledge, especially when it comes to environmental issues. And finally, we should test out some different ways of structuring schemes, focusing on the outcomes that land managers achieve, in the context of a much more supportive system.

If you are interested in reading more on these proposals in detail, you can request a copy of our response by emailing anna.brand@rspb.org.uk