from Scottish Wildlife magazine, March 2013
Lapwings used to be one of those birds that defined the countryside. They were always there, swooping and flocking, flashing black and white in the air, racing across the ground, or standing crested and proud.
Their loud, liquid ‘pee-wit’ call was the soundtrack to every lowland walk. Sometimes, during the nesting season, they would become impossible to ignore as they sought to protect their chicks by dive-bombing anyone who came close.
These days, however, you have to be lucky to see lapwings. According to the government wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), their population in Scotland has crashed by more than 50% over the last ten years.
Distressingly, the same could be starting to happen to another of the birds that has characterised the countryside – skylarks. They have declined 14% over the last decade, says SNH, particularly in the last couple of years.
There is also evidence that kestrels and rooks have suffered, along with other animals, insects and plants. Specialist species of butterflies decreased by 48% between 1979 and 2007, according to a 2010 report by the Rural Policy Centre at the then Scottish Agricultural College.
The feature that all these species have in common is that they live on farmland, suggesting that farming has been eroding biodiversity. There are other species that seem to have done better, like swallows and goldfinches, but experts think that the overall trend could be downwards, and that changing agricultural practices must take a share of the blame.
Farming in the lowlands has become increasingly intensive, using more pesticides and fertilisers to grow larger areas of fewer crops, while the active management of uplands has declined. Dr Davy McCracken, a reader in agricultural ecology at Scotland’s Rural College in Ayr and a member of the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Conservation Committee, calls this “landscape simplification” and says it is “a key driver of farmland biodiversity declines”.
The process has been critically influenced by the huge subsidies paid to farmers every year by the European Union (EU) under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Although efforts have been made to move the CAP from its historical function of boosting food production towards helping the environment, this has not been enough to halt the decline of farmland wildlife.
“Without further major changes to the way that overall CAP support is targeted then farmland biodiversity will continue to decline post-2013,” warns McCracken, “especially on the vast majority of farmland which falls outwith areas designated for nature conservation purposes.”
He is pessimistic about whether the current attempts to reform CAP to make it more environmentally friendly will work. “The ongoing political discussions and debate suggest that biodiversity may again be placed low down the list of priorities which are brought to the negotiating tables,” he says.
CAP subsidies amount to about £575 million a year to 20,000 Scottish farmers. The majority are made as direct income support payments, with just £80 million a year granted under the rural development programme towards environmental and other schemes, such as saving the red squirrel, protecting the corncrake and restoring peatlands.
The payments are heavily weighted in favour of richer, intensive farms in the east of Scotland, and against poorer, less intensive farms in the northwest. Spreadsheets released under freedom of information law by the Scottish government revealed that in 2009 four farmers were made millionaires by handouts of over £1 million each.
Others who benefited included the Earl and Countess of Moray, who got £749,700 to help run Moray Estates near Forres. Lord Morton, who owns Dalmahoy Farm near Edinburgh, was given £448,508, while Charles Pearson, son of the 3rd Viscount Cowdray, was given £347,987 to help run his 53,000-acre Dunecht estate in Aberdeenshire. In contrast, a small farmer near Oban got just £4.19.
Unfortunately, following a German court case brought by farmers concerned about their privacy, details of the subsidies received by individual farmers in the last couple of years are being kept secret. This is, however, under investigation in Scotland by the Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, and the EU has promised reform.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) is calling for public money to be devoted to the public good by moving subsidies north and west in Scotland to support “high nature value farming”. It points out that farmers rely on the natural environment to provide the conditions in which they can grow food and rear animals.
“We are enthusiastic about working with farmers, the Scottish government and the EU to deliver reform that brings benefits over and above food production, such as production of oxygen, clean water, and a good environment for wildlife,” said SWT’s living landscape policy officer, Bruce Wilson.
The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland (NFUS) stresses the subsidies have brought “huge benefit” to Scotland’s environment, people and farmers. But it accepts that there need to be changes.
“There are lessons that can be learnt from recent experiences and improvements can doubtless be made,” said Andrew Bauer, NFUS policy manager. “We are keen to work with the Scottish government and others such as SWT to ensure this happens.”
For its part, the Scottish government argues that farmland birds have done better in Scotland than in England. There have been improvements in hedgerows, for example, that have helped song thrushes, said a government spokeswoman.
“We support the principle of greening and are working to ensure the greening proposals are workable,” she added. “It’s essential that greening measures provide genuine public benefits without creating undue burdens for farmers or administrations and do not stifle production.”
But that may not comfort conservationists. They fear that, unless ministers are prepared to be more adventurous in shifting public subsidies in favour of wildlife, precious farmland species will keep faltering – and the countryside will lose more lapwings and skylarks.