Give farmers the ecological advice they need and want!

03 December 2021 - Published by Francis Buner
Agri-environment schemes (AES) are mechanisms which provide financial support to farmers in exchange for wildlife-friendly management practices. They are publicly funded and consume not insignificant amounts of money. For example, in Scotland spending on agri-environment measures totalled £181m between 2015 and 2020, with management plans in 2021 covering more than one million hectares, or around 16% of farmland. Yet many species dependent on farmland have not increased in range or abundance. Indeed, several have continued to decline and are in dire straits, with species like Whitethroat and Greenfinch just added to the red list of Species of Conservation Concern. So what might be wrong?

The Interreg-funded PARTRIDGE project aims to show how AES can be improved to better help farmland wildlife and to help land managers understand how to bring about appropriate changes. Part of this project has included surveys of key stakeholders in each partner country (e.g., England and Scotland), as well as many farmers and hunters across the area, some of whom utilise AES schemes and all of whom are eligible for them. One key finding that is already clear in how successful AES can be is the importance of the correct advice when designing and implementing management plans

Although farmers are often keen environmentalists, not many know enough about the wildlife they enjoy to design management plans that get the most out of the AES funds and produce maximum gains. In some countries, like England for example, it is considered good practice for the government body, Natural England, to help farmers to not only design their plans at the outset of an application, but also guide them throughout the period of their agreement to overcome the inevitable snags that pop up. This means that farmers have greater confidence in the outcomes of their efforts and are more likely to embark on an AES application in the first place. Contrast this with the situation in Scotland, for example (which is not alone in this), where no such routine advice and support is available and where applicants have to seek the advice of private consultants. Some funding is on hand to help Scottish applicants, but it is regarded as insufficient. This was flagged in our Scottish surveys as an impediment to individuals applying.

It also raises the question of who ends up giving advice to farmers? There is no current requirement for advisors to be qualified or experienced ecologists. Many consultants no doubt have expert knowledge of agroecology, but a lot do not and the scheme applications that result don’t produce the necessary biodiversity bang for the tax-payer’s buck. On top of this, the screening process – whereby an application is scrutinised and judged – won’t necessarily check this aspect of an application, focusing instead on whether the measures in the plan comply with the guidance, are of the correct dimensions, etc. and are suitable for the area.

We believe that the lack of relevant advice, or sufficient funding to support advice, is one reason why AES uptake is relatively low in places like Scotland. Coupled with a similar lack of ongoing support for the duration of agreements, this is probably one important reason why schemes haven’t yet had the impact on biodiversity that would be expected. We strongly urge the Scottish government to consider including this transformative element in the new support mechanisms that we hope will be rolled-out in 2024.

Written by Dr Dave Parish, Head of Scottish lowland research and PARTRIDGE co-coordinator for Scotland

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