A natural progression

23rd March 2007 at 00:00

Where agriculture and environmentalism go hand in hand

A student at Oatridge College in West Lothian, which specialises in land industry studies, could be the future face of farming.

Alistair Findlay, 19, a farmer from near Falkirk, is aiming to pioneer a way of looking after the countryside by combining his commitment to agriculture with formal training as an environmentalist. This is a way forward for the industry, according to the European Commission.

Mr Findlay, who was brought up on his family's Strathavon Farm near Slamannan, is part-way through a Higher National Diploma course in countryside management at Oatridge College, and he intends to continue his studies at Stirling University.

His objective is to complete his education, then split his time between helping his father run a beef cattle operation and working part-time as an environmental education officer, which would mean touring schools and teaching pupils about the issues facing the planet.

Mr Findlay completed the first year of his HND studies as top student, receiving the college medal, but his career almost went in a totally different direction after he left school. "I had been accepted by Stirling University to do environmental geography and a diploma in education, so that I could become a geography teacher. But I didn't want to get so far away from the land and farming, so I thought about it and decided it wasn't for me," he says.

He changed directions again after opting for Oatridge College, initially to do agriculture. "After reflecting on the state of the farming industry, I decided I wanted to do something similar to agriculture - but to help the environment, because I think that is the way things have to go."

Mr Findlay's unusual career path chimes with the efforts of the college to break down the traditional "them and us" barriers between the farming community and the environmental lobby.

The college, which has its own 283-hectare mixed farm, has only recently joined LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming). As a member, this means it will be audited regularly to ensure that it adheres to the highest standards of good environmental practice.

Agriculture students undertake two units of environmental studies and the course is being revised to make it more relevant to the changing demands on farming.

Peter Scott, the director of farms at Oatridge, says: "Two years ago, the European Union changed the face of farming by introducing new rules on support and subsidies. Farmers' incomes are no longer based purely on what they produce. Instead, they are charged with being stewards of the countryside and land managers.

"The best land will be farmed even more intensively than before, but less fertile and marginal land is to be turned over to a variety of projects for improving the environment or supporting bio-diversity."

The changes are not lost on Mr Findlay: "If people are not able to make a go of farming, they will have to put their land under trees or recreate natural habitat, such as ponds, to get grants and funds," he says. "The only way to survive and stay on a farm could be through government and European initiatives."

Having a foot in both camps could, he says, guarantee a future working in the countryside he loves. "If I end up in my ideal job - working three days a week in education and three days a week at home - it means that I will have an income and will not have to draw a wage from the farm, which makes sense."

Mr Findlay is currently in Norway with a group of Oatridge countryside management students, as part of an annual exchange scheme, studying how environmental issues are dealt with there.

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