Changes to Scottish support risk ‘forcing farmers out’

Planned changes to agricultural support payments in Scotland risk “forcing farmers out of the industry”, insiders have warned.

An element of direct support will be retained in tier one as part of the four-tier scheme proposed by the Scottish government, but there are fears that increased conditionality attached to these payments will lock some out of support altogether.

Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon has, for example, recently committed to introducing cross-compliance on peatland, while other interest groups are demanding public access be included as a condition for future support.

See also: Environmental schemes: Should farmers make the switch now?

It has also been suggested that tighter requirements around slurry storage, which would need capital investment, should be made a part of conditionality.

Jim Walker, a former NFU Scotland president and Quality Meat Scotland chairman, said: “With support payments getting squeezed and the stick of conditionality being applied much harder, you’re going to see a lot of farmers who, whether they want to be involved or not, simply wouldn’t be able to because they don’t have the money to invest in the farm.

“If they don’t have the money to invest in the farm and don’t meet the conditionality rules, they don’t get the payments in tier one, two, three or four.

“So they’re excluded from the support system and forced out of the industry. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Leaked document

The concerns were raised as a document was leaked to Farmers Weekly setting out a number of options for how tier two payments might be delivered.

These payments will focus on reducing emissions and enhancing nature.

It suggests a points-based system which will reward existing activities, such as membership of an accreditation scheme.

It would also incentivise positive land management change offered by a third party, such as peatland restoration or woodland planting, and incentivise new activities (see panel below for further details).

One source said: “There’s no appetite or indication at all that there’s any serious attempt to encourage efficient farming and food production. It is absolutely environmentally driven.”

The view that food production is not being taken seriously enough was shared by Andrew Moir, a member of the Agriculture Reform Implementation Oversight Board (Ariob), which is jointly chaired by Ms Gougeon and NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy.

“They haven’t actually understood where we are in the world at this time, with a war still going on in Europe, with drought and floods,” he said.


Others were critical of how the Scottish government had handled talks with industry about the changes.

“You just end up with panic, because the department is not talking to people,” said a second source.

This source said the Agriculture and Rural Development group (ARD), set up by government, had not met “for months”, adding that it had been “sidelined” in favour of Ariob.

This lack of meaningful engagement within the ARD had led industry to set up its own group, the Food and Agriculture Stakeholders Taskforce (Fast).

But even within Ariob, some are concerned about the level of discussion taking place and the fact that members who have requested modelling and impact assessments have been told they are not available.

Mr Moir also suggested members of the board were “upset” by the Scottish government’s tendency to “hide behind” Ariob.

“They will run things past us, then they will come out with it and they will say it’s been passed by Ariob, but we might not necessarily agree with it,” he said.  

But he added: “We’re still in the room and they’re still asking us. It’s just frustrating that sometimes when we should be moving forward with something, someone in government tends to think another way is better.”

The Scottish government has been invited to comment.

Proposals for delivering tier two payments

Activities could be attributed a level of points or a percentage proportion, both of which could be changed on an annual basis to reflect changing ambition or shifting priorities.

There is also a suggestion that regional multipliers be applied to certain measures to incentivise greater uptake in certain locations – such as an increased payment to reduce pesticide use in areas of heavily polluted water.

To determine payment rates, three options were laid out:

  • An all-or-nothing unique threshold, which participants have to meet to receive the full entitlement. If they do not reach it, they receive zero payment.
  • Multiple tiered thresholds (gold at 100%, silver at 60% and bronze at 30%) where participants can receive proportionate payments.
  • A sliding-scale threshold where participants can undertake any activities they desire at whichever percentage of their points threshold they desire, with appropriate remuneration.
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