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Food for Thought

24th January 2024

By Grant Moir, Chief Executive, Cairngorms National Park Authority.

Last week about 80 farmers and crofters met with senior staff and board members from the Park Authority. This was preceded by a protest by the farmers and crofters outside our offices in Grantown on Spey, which is obviously of concern to the Park Authority. A lot of the disquiet seemed to stem from how the Park Authority engages with the farming community in the National Park and whether it takes account of their views in the work that it does.

There are obviously two sides to every story and I can’t pretend everyone will see eye to eye on this issue. However, I do think it’s worth setting out some of the work that we do with farmers and crofters in the National Park, as well as what we plan to do going forward to take account of what we heard during the meeting.

In the past two years, around 60 farms (40 farmers) have benefited from funding from the Park Authority, over and above national schemes. This includes undertaking wader management on farms, carrying out carbon and biodiversity audits through the Future Farming programme, undertaking goose management across areas of Strathspey, paying for the restoration of dry stone dykes, undertaking mob grazing for diversity, and payments for capital infrastructure.

During the development of the National Park Partnership Plan we engaged with around 1,500 people, 11% of whom identified themselves as land managers within the National Park (a record high). Alongside various other land manager meetings, the Park Authority and National Farmers’ Union, Scotland held a webinar with around 25 farmers in November 2021, at which the main topic of discussion was tree planting on farmland. The views expressed were taken into account in the final plan and a section was added which stated that we would not support the wholesale conversion of enclosed in-bye agricultural land to forestry in the National Park.

An issue raised at the meeting was the feeling that we did not consult enough on beaver translocation to the upper Spey. I think that there is a difference that needs to be teased out here between engagement and agreement. Following the change in Scottish Government policy to allow translocations, the Park Authority board took the decision in public session to progress with the application for a licence in June 2022. There was extensive engagement throughout 2023, involving over 40 site visits and multiple meetings with farmers. This led to significant changes being made to the mitigation framework for beavers in the National Park, which is now well above the national scheme.

Does this satisfy those farmers who wanted a delay to the release of beavers or indeed no beavers to be released at all? No, it doesn’t. However, I would argue that we did engage, listen and, ultimately, change our approach based on feedback we received. The reason we didn’t agree with delaying or stopping the release of beavers was that we – along with nearly three quarters of the 164 residents who responded to the survey – believe that the benefits the species brings for nature and people are significant and are of real benefit to the National Park. The benefit of the Farmers and Crofters’ Group being set up now is there will be an easier way for us all to have early dialogue in the future. 

We do appreciate, though, that people don’t protest if everything is fine, and we want to work closely with farmers and crofters to find a positive way forward that delivers thriving farming businesses and helps achieve the National Park aims around nature and climate. These are not mutually exclusive and I believe passionately that delivering for nature and climate can also be good for agricultural businesses and local employment.

There are three key issues that I think we as a Park Authority need to think about. The first is how we engage: is there a better way to have open and frank discussions as early as possible? The setting up of a new Farmers’ and Crofters’ Group provides a good opportunity to build a successful two-way dialogue. A regular Farmers’ Forum gives the space to have more detailed and nuanced discussions, to dig a little deeper into the issues and work together on a resolution. The Park Authority will benefit from that, and farmers and crofters will also benefit from increased support and guidance on what the Park Authority can and can’t do.

The second is how we work with farmers in a very fast and changing world. We are in a nature and climate crisis, the ongoing war in Ukraine has made everyone more aware of the fragility of some of the agricultural supply chains across the globe, and there is uncertainty about the detailed nature of future farm support at a national level. We must find a way to talk about change and deliver it in a way that is viewed positively by the farming and crofting community, whilst also acknowledging that this change has to happen at a rapid pace to meet our 2030 and 2045 targets. We may not always have got this balance right in the past, but we have to get it right in future.

Finally, and critically, we recognise that the livelihoods of farming families is a key issue. Helping to reduce flooding downstream or helping restore nature is not a priority if your business is struggling. I think that viability and livelihoods can go hand in hand with delivering for nature and climate, but we need to listen more carefully and make sure that the work that the Park Authority does with farmers, and advocates for in national schemes, clearly does this.

So, there is lots of food for thought and, I hope, lessons to learn for all of us. We will not always agree and there are lots of differing views, even amongst the farmers and crofters themselves, but getting round a table and listening to each other’s perspective is definitely the right way forward. When we do this – as we saw last week – I’m always struck by how much more we agree on than not.

You can also read the reflections of one of the attendees here: Ali McKnight’s LinkedIn post.