BBC Scotland's rural affairs correspondent Ken Rundle investigates the impact of Rural Development Programmes on Scotland's countryside.
Over 90% of Europe is classified as 'rural,' with rural areas being home to half of Europe's population. However, rural areas have just half the GDP and purchasing power of the urban areas.
For this reason, rural development has become the "second pillar" of European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which seeks to support fragile rural communities and protect the environment.
The “first pillar” of the CAP was subsidised farming. Introduced in 1958, the subsidies were designed to rebuild European farming and food production after the war.
Biodiversity under threat
By the 1990s this approach was becoming harder to justify amid stories of grain mountains and wine lakes. Critics argued the CAP had failed to halt the decline of rural populations or to address threats to important and fragile habitats.
A series of reforms gradually restructured the CAP, and it now is able to address some of those issues. The latest reform package began in 2005, with changes which finally broke the link between the size of a farm’s subsidy cheque and what it produces. Farm incomes now depend more on the market economy than on the number of sheep kept or the hectares of grain grown.
Increasingly, funds to support the countryside will come from pillar two of the CAP, which is rural development.
Scotland’s version of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) is expected to be approved by Brussels by mid-November 2007. The programme is to be rolled out in spring 2008, with £1.6bn to be invested in rural Scotland by 2013.
Under the CAP rules the RDP must cover three main areas. It must improve the competitiveness of farming and forestry through training, supporting new ideas and investment.
The RDP also has to meet a series of environmental objectives through schemes which pay farmers to do such things as converting to organic practices, replanting hedges, creating wetland habitats or providing winter fed for birds. There is a whole menu of these "rural stewardship" projects available for application.
The RDP must also cover wider rural development such as alternative job creation and tourism.
In addition, the programme is obliged to provide support for farming in remote areas and a small amount of money for community schemes such as local rural mini-bus services.
There have been previous Rural Development Programmes which tackled some of these areas through a variety of individual initiatives. The latest RDP has a far more important role inside the CAP and offers these items as part of new unified menu from which farmers can pick what suits their farms best.
Critics argue that like the old RDP, the new version it is still weakened by a lack of appropriate funding. Organisations such as the RSPB have expressed concerns that there will (as in previous years) be more farmers applying to join rural stewardship schemes than the funds can cover. The RSPB would like funds to be taken from other parts of the programme to cover this shortfall.
Farming bodies such as NFU Scotland have argued that finanical support for the less favoured must remain a priority alongside funding for the improving the Scottish farming industry's competitiveness.
Where the farming bodies agree with the RSPB is over the position of farms which entered the previous stewardship scheme and are coming to the end of that scheme but have been given no guarantee of any priority in the new programme.
Their mutual fear is that with increasing grain prices frustrated farmers will abandon their rural stewardship work and returning the protected areas of their land to production in order to increase profits. This would have an impact on Scotland's biodiversity, perhaps permanently.
Page first published on Thursday 25th October 2007
Page last updated on Tuesday 17th June 2008