Any hope that March might have granted us a timely start to the spring sowing has, like an early top dressing of nitrogen, long since been washed well out to sea.

So, as we get ready to change the clocks and see March tick over into April, I’d hazard that it’s been a long time since there was so little crop – both winter and spring – in the ground at this turning point of the year and such little sign of encouragement forthcoming from the weather forecasters.

Now, I’ve heard it said a few times by some of our industry leaders that we in Scotland aren’t as badly off as our counterparts in the south – but such comments don’t really help when you’re staring once again over sodden or snow-covered fields and fast-running drains and ditches.

True, we might be more used to well, let’s just say, ‘iffy’ weather in Scotland, given that we regularly have to balance the well-used old adage that it’s better to have a poor crop in the ground to worry about than to have no crop at all. But this year that first option simply hasn’t been available to us.

And consider the fact that, earlier this week, Defra had to move to put a limit on the amount of land any individual business in England could put down to some of the environmental options which didn’t require crops to be sown or grown.

This has to say something about either the desperately poor weather the whole of the UK has been experiencing, or the attractiveness of many of the environmental options offered to growers south of the Border under England’s new farm policy (possibly especially in light of the current slump in grain prices).

Out of production

With more than 15,000 signed up for some of the Sustainable Farming Incentive measures, six of these options have had a ceiling placed on individual claim levels, with Defra stating the intention was to ensure that too much land wasn’t taken out of production under the scheme.

And while it admitted that there was only limited evidence of farmers entering large amounts of their land into actions that cut into food production, Defra said that some of these options were being used more than intended – adding that the changes would ensure the scheme ‘continued to support farmers to produce food sustainably alongside improving the environment’.

The scheme is designed to have maximum flexibility and to be simple to apply for. However, we always said that we would learn and adapt as new information became available.

The targeted restrictions will mean that SFI applicants will only be able to put 25% of their land into schemes which take land out of direct food production while drawing payments of between £700 and £800 per hectare. These included: flower-rich grass margins; pollen and nectar flower mix; winter bird food on arable and horticultural land; grassy field corners and blocks; improved grassland field corners or blocks out of management; and winter bird food on improved grassland.

Complete disaster

But the fact there is even such a list to look at highlights the point that, on the policy front, it’s beginning to become more than a little noticeable that while the English system was originally excoriated and condemned as a complete disaster, there’s a growing acknowledgement that the adjustments, alterations and reworking of the schemes which have subsequently been introduced have, when taken in the round, put a bit of a different slant on things.

And at the recent SAAVA spring briefing, it was clear that a number of those with units on both sides of the Border were now happier with the knowledge that, despite its faults, Westminster had bitten the bullet.

This meant that from an early stage farmers had a pretty good idea of the changes they would have to make, a fact which at least allowed some planning to take place. And even if this was only because the bad news had been served up nice and early, at least they’d had some time to get the message over that it simply wouldn’t work.

Of course, all this makes it clear that the first draft of any new policy is unlikely to come up to scratch – and that it’ll need to be tested then subjected to revision, modification and adaptation before it’s ever likely to deliver the desired results.

And that’s not only the case with the English and Welsh schemes – for it was announced last week by European Commission president Ursula von der Layen that the EU has also been forced to have a major rethink on the so-called ‘Green Deal’ which was supposed to be the cornerstone of the new Common Agricultural Policy.

It, too, has introduced a raft of changes, rolling back many of the limitations placed on farmers who had made plain that many of the measures would lay waste to the industry while doing nothing for the environment.

Break-neck speed

So it almost beggars belief that, according to the Scottish Government’s much-vaunted agricultural reform route map, our own policy in Scotland isn’t likely to be fully revealed in all its glory until closer to 2027 – meaning the break-neck speed of change required for the country’s farmers to meet fast-approaching targets over an extremely short time-scale is almost bound to result in chaos.

Because even discounting the sort of additional delays we saw over the suckled calf scheme, that leaves only a few short years to reach legally-binding targets which lie at the heart of the Scottish Government’s conceited and, as was highlighted in the recent Climate Change Committee report, ultimately undeliverable response to global warming.

Like the 32% reduction in agricultural emissions required by 2031 and for 30% of the country’s land to be managed for nature by 2030.

And while my eye was caught by the Scottish Government’s announcement earlier this week that ‘further details about the actions farmers and crofters will have to take to receive agricultural support payments from 2025 have been unveiled’, any hopes of full clarity were swiftly dashed.

The major issue was the revelation of the calving interval for suckler support (which we had been promised we would be told more than two months ago), along with the news that some involvement in the Whole Farm Plan would become compulsory – oh, and also new conditions for peatlands and wetlands under the Good Agricultural Environmental Conditions (GAEC) 6 of Cross Compliance.

So, if this continues to be the rate at which we’re drip-fed information, the sheer scale and speed of change which will be forced upon us – and only revealed when our noses are tight up against the deadline – is likely to do untold harm to Scottish agriculture.

And, of course, this will leave no time at all for any changes or rectifications to be introduced – or the industry to make its own adjustments – before the damage is done.

All in all, it’s a bit like the weather forecast: very little cheer is on the cards, you don’t know whether to believe it or not – and you won’t be able to do much about it when it arrives.