FARM POLICY needs to move away from production-driven financial incentives to farmers, and towards new mechanisms that will reward a 'broader range of goods and services' – and in particular, agriculture that makes ample room for nature to thrive.

The importance of ensuring a future for ‘high nature value’ farmlands across the globe was highlighted this week in a new paper published by a consortium of European scientists, including a hill-farming expert from Scotland’s Rural College.

By definition, HNV farmlands use low-intensity farming systems and are rich in natural and semi-natural vegetation which support species and habitats of important conservation value – as exemplified by the extensive livestock grazing used across much of Scotland.

But according to the consortium, the extent and condition of HNV farmlands globally has been declining due to agricultural intensification in some areas, and the collapse of traditional farming systems in others.

The latter loss, often in remote or mountainous areas undergoing demographic declines, was due in part to the 'failure of markets' to recognize and remunerate farmers for the ecosystem services that those farmlands deliver to society. As a result, many of the remaining HNV farming communities are becoming unviable due to declining farm incomes and poor social infrastructure, such as healthcare and transportation.

Moreover, noted the report, many of these HNV farms are owned and operated by elderly farmers, and are at risk of being converted to other farming systems or being abandoned following the retirement or death of the landowner.

The scientists – including agricultural ecology expert Professor Davy McCracken from SRUC – noted that more than 30% of all agricultural land in the European Union was considered to be of high nature value. Similar farmlands supporting high natural, social and cultural values also exist in many rural areas worldwide, including the satoyama landscapes in Japan, farming systems in the Western Ghats region of India, and the Hani rice terraced landscapes in southern China.

In addition to providing humans with food and fibre, these areas support biodiversity conservation and deliver a wide range of vital public services such as managing flood risk, protecting soils from erosion, reducing wildfire risks or having cultural value. Reversing their decline would depend on increasing the public's appreciation of the range of goods and services they provide, and creating systems to reward the people who maintain such environments.

Consortium leader, Angela Lomba, from Portugal's Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources said: “HNV farmlands are valuable assets that can aid society in addressing current and future environmental challenges. But change is unavoidable and a paradigm shift is required to ensure that the underlying systems persist and that HNV systems appeal to future generations.”

Prof McCracken, of SRUC’s Hill and Mountain Research Centre, said: “Such a shift entails moving away from current production-driven financial incentives to farmers, towards novel incentive mechanisms rewarding a broader range of goods and services and integrated landscape-level approaches where direct links between people and nature are fostered to build economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

Their paper considers five alternative scenarios – associated with different levels of management intensity and socioeconomic viability, ranging from abandonment to intensification – and highlights how the future of HNV farmlands can be secured by improving social services in rural communities, designing new uses for their goods, and developing new business opportunities for their populations.