A Fife farmer who removed six miles of drystane dykes from his land is being investigated under environmental legislation.
James Orr was stripped of most of his taxpayer-funded support payment in June, after demolishing the dykes at Pitlochie Farm at Gateside, creating a “prairie”.
The 75% penalty, applied to any support scheme payments Pitlochie Farming Company will receive this year, is the highest ever imposed for a breach of the conditions attached to the scheme.
It is not clear what that amounted to in monetary terms but official UK Government figures show the firm received £103,795 in direct aid in 2018.
North East Fife Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie criticised the punishment as “little more than a slap on the wrist” as Mr Orr cannot be forced to rebuild the walls under the rules of the EU-governed payments.
Dating back to the early 1800s, the walls were regarded as a haven for wildlife while protecting local communities from flooding.
Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for rural economy, has now confirmed the removal of field boundaries is covered by Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations.
“My officials are currently assessing the implications of the dyke removal at Pitlochie Farm under those regulations,” he said.
Mr Ewing added: “With the current pressure on farm gate prices, a penalty of this scale would represent a very significant reduction in the total farm income of any agricultural business and therefore I don’t agree that the penalty is insufficient to deter others from carrying out similar action.”
Mr Rennie said he welcomed the investigation.
“Although I am disappointed that the government doesn’t feel it appropriate to fine Mr Orr more than 75% of his farm payment, I am pleased that he is being investigated under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations.
“Whatever his justification for the removal of the walls, it was a flagrant disregard for the rules which every farmer works hard to comply with.
“It’s also had a significant impact on the biodiversity and the local landscape.
“The government must explore every avenue of the law to make sure this is never repeated.”
Mr Orr has declined to comment on the issue but in his defence, a neighbouring farmer said: “I think he has done an excellent job in making the farm more efficient.
“The stones from the dykes have been made into roads on the farm so he doesn’t have to take his tractors on to the main road. That’s a big plus for motorists.”