How the Scottish Government chooses to implement regulations surrounding farming activity will determine whether or not a new era of “slipper” farmers emerges under the new Common Agricultural Policy.
An estimated one million hectares of wild land could potentially slip into the new system triggering area payments worth more than £20million a year, industry leaders warn.
CKD Galbraith partner Tom Stewart says this land – a lot of which is currently leased out by landowners as naked acres for others to trigger entitlements – could now be used to claim entitlements in the rough grazing region, estimated to be around 25 euros (£20.65) a hectare, of the government’s proposed two-tier area payments system for the new Cap.
He says a payment of this level could be attractive enough to lure landowners into low-intensity farming as it is more than double that achieved renting out the land as naked acres.
“There’s a fundamental flaw in the thinking that came up with that. It’s taking support away from areas that are being actively farmed and that’s where the real gripe is,” he said.
The pressure is now on the farm minister, Richard Lochhead, and his team to ensure any active farmer test under the new regime does not allow low-intensity farmers to become the next slipper brigade.
In a week of Cap surprises – EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacion Ciolos shot down Scotland’s calls for an extra 5% in coupled payments – the Scottish Government was given the green light to go ahead with its “Scottish clause”.
The government says this clause will allow it to set a minimum activity level, which a landowner must meet before being allowed to receive any direct subsidy support. Originally, it hoped to base this on livestock numbers only however this was found to be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules, and now an alternative activity test will have to be offered to landowners.
The details of each test will emerge when the government announces its plans for full Cap implementation.
However a Scottish Government spokesman told the Press and Journal that the clause will be based on farmers having to keep livestock at an “appropriate level linked to the carrying capacity of their land” or by demonstrating “significant active efforts every year to maintain agricultural land in good condition”.
He said examples of land maintenance included mowing or cutting vegetation to agreed specifications.
NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller said the Scottish Government must get the active farmer test right otherwise a lot of “almost empty land” will get sucked into the system.
He said the system also needed to make sure the land maintenance clause was “so difficult, time consuming and costly” it would prevent non-farmers being tempted to trigger the £20.65 a hectare payment on their land.
Equally, he warned the introduction of minimum stocking rates could “knock out some farmers” and the government needed to ensure there was a safety net in place to ensure they were supported.
“On a straight area payment system you tend to push and overcompensate low-intensity farmers and leave it open for slipper farmers to get money for very little. While the hill farmers who are carrying quite a lot of stock will probably have to destock,” said Mr Miller.
He urged the Scottish Government to take its time in deciding how it will implement the active farmer test, warning every farmer would have to pay if a mess is made of the budget. “It’s not at time to panic and look for a quick fix,” he added. “It’s time to go back to the drawing board and redesign a system that is fit for purpose.”
Mr Stewart added that the government needed to ensure it set the minimum stocking density at the right rate, and not too low as to encourage landowners to keep sheep for the sake of getting a subsidy payment. He called on the government to also provide clarity on whether the stocking density rules will apply across the whole holding or on each individual land parcel.
The Scottish Government last night said it was confident it could use the “Scottish clause” effectively. A spokesman said: “We are confident we can use it to clamp down on slipper farming but acknowledge that getting the detail right will be crucial, so that genuinely active farmers with extensive areas of land are not inadvertently shut out.
“The analysis and fieldwork we have been doing on this with stakeholders for the last two years will stand us in good stead as we take decisions in the coming months.”