A hundred of the richest farmers in Scotland have had a massive £115 million hand-out from the government over five years, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
More than 50 farmers, including some well-known members of the landed gentry, pocketed over £1 million each. Five received over £2 million each, and one lucky guy got £3.5 million.
The hand-outs have been lambasted as "galling" "astonishing" and even "virtually Biblical" by environmentalists. But they have been defended by farmers and landowners as "nothing to be ashamed of" because of the contribution they make to the rural economy.
After two and half years of secrecy and prevarication, the Scottish Government has been forced by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, to name those who have benefited most from agricultural subsidies in the past.
Dunion conducted a prolonged investigation and found the government guilty of breaching the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. He ordered the release of a list of the 100 farmers receiving the most subsidies between 2000 and 2004 - information which was originally requested in March 2005.
The resulting spreadsheet (36KB xls), made available to the Sunday Herald by the Scottish Government on Friday, reveals that George Barbour from Auchengibbert Farm near Dumfries topped the list, receiving £3.55 million over the five years. He refused to comment yesterday.
Four other farms were given over £2 million each. They were Ross Brothers, sheep farmers from Stricken near Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire; Tom Macfarlane, a beef farmer from Westruther in Berwickshire; Moray Estates owned by the Earl and Countess of Moray near Forres; and Genoch Mains Farm near Stranraer in Wigtownshire.
Next in line is Cullen Farms, near Buckie in Aberdeenshire, which received just under £1.9 million in subsidies. The farms are part of the 5,000-acre Seafield Estates, owned by the Earl and Countess of Seafield.
Seafield's chief executive, Sandy Lewis, insisted they had nothing to hide. "When you add any figures over a number of years you get a large total," he said. "A similar amount or greater would have been paid if the area had been farmed by others."
Among the 55 farmers who received more that £1 million are several more aristocrats. Southesk Farms near Brechin, owned by the Earl of Southesk, David Carnegie, got £1.5 million, while Dunecht Home Farm near Aberdeen, belonging to Viscount Cowdray, got nearly £1.4 million.
Others that breached the £1 million barrier included B. Q. Farming Partnership in Selkirk, part of the vast estates run by the Buccleugh family; Lord Morton's Dalmahoy Farm near Edinburgh; and the Earl of Roseberry's estate at South Queensferry. Balbirnie Home Farms near Cupar, run by Robert Balfour, a former convenor of the Scottish Landowners Federation, also netted just over £1 million.
The naming of the farmers has been greeted by a chorus of criticism from environmental groups and campaigners, who have long protested over the unfairness of agricultural subsidies. "This situation is virtually Biblical," said the Green MSP Robin Harper.
"To the rich shall be given, and from the poor will be taken away even that which they have. The growth of massive farm units reflected in these payments is a failed agriculture policy that rewards production above all else."
Harper pointed out that while big grants were handed out to rich farmers, small farmers had to struggle. The point was echoed by Jack Thurston, who runs www.farmsubsidy.org monitoring handouts under the Common Agricultural Policy across Europe.
"Politically, the policy survives on the myth that it is helping the small guy," Thurston said. "But the more data we see, the more it becomes clear that wealthy landowners and large agri-businesses scoop up the lion's share."
The figures released by the Scottish Government show that the top 100 farmers were given a total of £114.95 million between 2000 and 2004. In contrast, over a hundred farmers got less than £100 each, with John McLellan in the Highlands listed as receiving precisely 1p.
Similarly, 2,000 farmers received less than £1,000 each, 8,500 less than £10,000 each and 17,000 less than £100,000 each. Altogether 22, 889 farmers were given £1.78 billion over the five years (the spreadsheet showing all the subsidies can be downloaded below).
The money was provided under five different subsidy schemes designed to support cattle, sheep and arable farming. The system dates from after World War 2, when Britain was suffering from a shortage of home-produced food.
There have been several attempts at reform, but they have always met with fierce opposition from farmers' groups. Current subsidies come under the Single Farm Payment, and since 2005 names of recipients have been published - but critics say there has been little improvement.
"The astonishing thing about the figures is not just the size of the sums involved, but that farmers are still being paid the same amounts this year," said Lloyd Austin, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland. "The public, whose taxes fund these payments, will rightly ask what this money is being paid for."
Adam Harrison from WWF Scotland said: "This is particularly galling in a year when many farmers and land owners have been unable to get onto environmental and forestry schemes due to a lack of funds."
The subsidies were defended, however, by Jackie McCreery from the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association. "These figures do not reveal the total contribution made to the rural economy by the businesses involved, nor do they give any indication of the benefits generated," she said.
"Farmers have nothing to be ashamed of in acknowledging receipt of this funding. The sums involved look large when you aggregate them over five years, and it makes sense that larger businesses will inevitably be in receipt of larger amounts of money."
Download an Excel spreadsheet showing the subsidies given to all farmers in Scotland 2000-04 here (21MB xls). But beware, it is very large so may take some time.
The long quest for information on farm subsidies
9 March 2005: The Sunday Herald asks the Scottish Executive to name the 100 farmers who received the most subsidies between 2000 and 2004.
7 April 2005: The Executive refuses to provide the information.
8 April 2005: The Sunday Herald requests an internal review.
6 May 2005: The Executive again refuses to provide the information.
10 May 2005: The Sunday Herald appeals to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion.
8 March 2006: Dunion asks the Executive to reconsider its refusal.
31 July 2007: Dunion orders the Executive to release the information within 45 days.
14 September 2007: The Executive releases the information - two and a half years after it was first requested.