As pressure mounts on the Scottish government to publish plans for the future of rural payments, the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) has put forward its vision. The proposals would see Scotland move towards low carbon farming without compromising production, according to the union’s president, Martin Kennedy.

The proposals for future farm support were written by Andrew Moxey, an economist at Pareto Consulting, Steven Thomson, an economist from SRUC and Jonnie Hall, director of policy at NFUS.

Steven Thompson, economist at Scottish Rural College, co-authored the NFUS's proposal paper.

Their plans hinge on retaining the area-based payment system and coupled support with additional emissions and biodiversity requirements for farmers.

Farmers going above the basic requirements could expect payment enhancements of up to 30%.

How the union wants Scottish rural support paid

The NFUS is proposing to retain direct payment and coupled support in Scotland, in sharp contrast to plans underway in England. Farmers and crofters would be able to continue to draw down support on the current payment model, if they adhere to increased biodiversity and carbon emissions requirements. The union is calling this scheme ‘Conditional Direct Support’, which would form the foundation of payments in Scotland.

Changes to the support system would start from 2021, through what the union has titled a “Just Transition.”

This would put in place changes in the years running until 2024, when legislation for a new Scottish rural payments scheme would be in place. Enhanced stricter environmental requirements for farmers would be legislated for through change made to the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) rules.

Keeping direct support and headage payments

The Basic Area Support (BPS) scheme and the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme (LFASS) would remain unchanged until 2024. However, the Greening payments, which currently account for 30% of BPS and headage payments under the calf scheme and ewe hogget scheme, would see significant changes.

The union believes that modifying the existing Scottish framework based on an area and headage payment system with a “ratcheting up” of farmer obligations would avoid the time and effort needed to create a new payment system.

This may be popular with the Scottish government, as the last time a new payment system was introduced, millions of pounds of support arrived late to farmers.

In the initial years of the new scheme, farmers would be obliged to conduct soil, silage and slurry analysis on their farms. They would also need to produce nutrient budgets and carbon audits. The headage payments for livestock would require an animal health plan to be produced by the farm. If the farm went beyond the basic requirements, it could expect an enhanced payment up to 30%.

Using feed additives in ruminant livestock is planned for reducing methane emissions by 30%, according to the Farming for 1.5 degrees report.

Further on into the scheme, farmers would be obliged to create a carbon smart farm plan, which is likely to include targets.

Examples of plans include increased calf rearing rate, reduced fertiliser or pesticide usage, or woodland or peatland creation. This, as the union sees it, will be part of the ratcheting up of the requirements for farmers to achieve payments.

Beyond 2024, the LFASS would be scrapped and either replaced with a similar payment model to Europe’s Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC), or a top up on a farm’s direct conditional support of up to 45%, depending on the farm’s disadvantage.

There would be significant grants available to farmers to pay for farm upgrades, which would increase efficiency, reduce emissions or enhance biodiversity. Grants would also be available for woodland creation, peatland restoration and biodiversity measures to help species like ground nesting birds.

The union is not proposing any new money for their rural payment model. The cash would come from the existing farm budget, as well as the increased allocation of funding through the Bew report and the Scottish Government Agricultural Transformational fund.

Rejoining Europe

The SNP-led Scottish government has made it an explicit aim for Scotland to re-join the EU if it becomes an independent nation.

This means that many politicians within government will want to see Scottish rules to be closely aligned to European legislation, which would simplify re-joining the EU.

The European Union (continuity) (Scotland) act 2021 provides powers for the government to maintain alignment to EU regulations with regard to devolved decision making.

This is likely to result in the Scottish government producing schemes which are sympathetic to the direction of travel in the EU and not following England with their rapid winding down of direct payments to farmers.

The science behind support schemes

The cross industry influential report, ‘Farming for 1.5 degrees’ detailing how agriculture will play its part in Scotland becoming a net zero carbon emitter by 2045 was published last week.

The report, co-chaired by former NFUS president Nigel Miller and Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), backs more government intervention in land management decisions.

They want to see economic, environmental and social needs addressed to make balanced decisions over purely market driven decisions. They also see the need for total emissions reduction for agriculture, not a reduction per capita.

The report points out that if the 7.5Mt of CO2e currently emitted by agriculture was to be simply offset by planting trees, it would need 1.25m hectares of land, which is the equivalent of planting all of Dumfries, Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

If agricultural emissions were to be offset purely by tree planting, then 1.5m hectares of woodland would be needed, according to the Farming for 1.5 degrees report.

While this is clearly not an option, it does spell out the scale of change needed if emissions are to be offset under the current calculations.

The report calls for practical on-farm solutions for large emitting sectors like ruminant livestock. This could come in the form of feed additives, which are claimed to reduce methane by 30% and breeding low emissions animals, which could also reduce emissions by 30% within 10-20 years.

More precise application of a reduced amount of nitrogen will also play a big role in helping less nitrous oxide reach the atmosphere.

The report points out that over half of the nitrogen applied in Scotland is on grassland, with only half being utilised by the plant and the rest leaching away into the soil.

CO2 emission reduction targets will also be met through new machinery on-farm becoming more fuel efficient and a future move to alternative power sources.

Tree conflict

Tree planting will continue to be critical to achieving targets, with the cross industry-agreed mantra of “the right tree in the right place.”

However, conflict will not be far away, as calculations show that for tree plantations to lock up more carbon than they emit, they should be planted on the better soils in Scotland.

This will be put planting decisions in direct competition with food production. Tree planting on large extensive tracts of land in the Scottish Highlands may not achieve the carbon capture required, according to the report.

If the report’s recommendations are undertaken, the authors believe that emissions could be cut 24% by 2032, bringing Scotland on its way to net zero by 2045.