SCOTLAND’S most polluting farmers are receiving more public money than their counterparts who protect the environment, according to a Sunday Herald investigation.
Environmentally damaging farms along the east coast get up to 10 times more government cash than wildlife-friendly farms in the northwest. The bias has been lambasted as “unfair” and “indefensible” by conservationists and crofters, who are demanding urgent reform.
An analysis of the £450 million Single Farm Payments scheme in 2005 shows that the vast bulk went to farmers in Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus, Fife, East Lothian and the Borders.
Yet these are the very areas where intensive use of fertilisers pollutes rivers and endangers wildlife. That’s why the Scottish Executive has designated them as “nitrate-vulnerable zones” in an attempt to stop harmful chemicals and slurry leaking from farms.
Over on the other side of the country, however, Highland and island farmers who help birds and plants are given much lower subsidies. Crofters in Barra, for example, received average payments of £27 a hectare, while farmers in parts of Aberdeenshire got £262 a hectare.
“It is essential that we remedy this unfair distribution of funds if we are to achieve real benefit for Scotland’s countryside,” said Stuart Housden, the director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.
“It is hard to see how the current payment system can continue to be justified. Rewarding farmers for being historically productive in no way targets public funding to anything they currently do in the countryside.”
Farmers in the north and west who help create a landscape rich in wildlife are struggling to survive, Housden argued. “We are often told by farmers and crofters that it is hard to be green when you are in the red,” he said.
Even the additional £63 million in grants for “less favoured areas”, which are meant to help redress the balance, turn out to favour high-polluting east coast farmers. The average payment in North Uist is £14 a hectare, against £52 a hectare in Elgin.
“The viability of agriculture in the more marginal areas is threatened, and this is not being helped by the current indefensible distribution of support to less favoured areas,” said Becky Shaw, of the Scottish Crofting Foundation.
“It cannot be the case that parishes in Aberdeenshire or East Lothian are four times as disadvantaged as parishes in Skye or the Western Isles, yet that is what the payment levels imply,” she said.
Shaw called on the Scottish Executive to redirect subsidies so that they favour upland, island and peripheral areas. If that wasn’t done, she warned, Scotland would be in breach of its international obligations to protect farms that benefit nature.
However, the subsidies were strongly defended by the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland. “No farmer can receive any support payment unless he or she adheres to strict agricultural and environmental conditions,” said the union’s Anna Davies.
“Every farmer who receives payment, regardless of who they are or where they live, is fully justified in receiving that payment and delivers public benefit as a condition of it,” she said.
The Scottish Executive is consulting on a new rural development strategy to improve natural heritage. “Rules of the single farm payment are designed to reward farmers for delivering environmental and other public benefits,” said an Executive spokeswoman.
“These rules are accompanied by sanctions where there are breaches to the environmental conditions, including those that apply to nitrate-vulnerable zones. Failure to comply with environmental conditions can lead to loss of all entitlement to payments,” she said.
Earlier this month the Executive, for the first time, released the names of the farms that receive the largest public subsidies. The data so far provided for 2005 show that 26 out of the top 30 farms are in the Grampian, Central and southeast regions of Scotland.
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