Scotland’s rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead, has firmly ruled out a demand from NFU Scotland for the early payment of £61m of Less Favoured Area support (LFASS) due to be paid to farmers in January.

In a Scottish parliament debate on hill farming, Mr Lochhead said the early payment of LFASS could jeopardise the single farm payment, worth £240m, due to be paid out in December.

EU guidelines clearly state that SFP must be paid ahead of LFASS payments.

Scottish lamb

A Lib Dem amendment calling for LFASS support to be paid in October/November was defeated.

“The Scottish parliament agreed not put the £240m SFP at risk by defeating the amendment,” said Mr Lochhead.

But he promised to work “flat out” to make payments in December provided the SFP was paid first.

Earlier, Mr Lochhead announced a consultation on continuing the interim LFASS support scheme into 2010-2013 in view of uncertainty over future EU support. The EU Commission is seeking to redraw boundaries dictating which areas are eligible for support.

“The consultation is vitally important,” said Mr Lochhead. “Less favoured areas comprise 85% of Scotland’s land and the recent loss of livestock from the hills is a matter of serious and growing concern.

“We want to work in partnership with the industry to respond to the challenges we face and ensure hill farming and remote rural communities can look forward to a viable future.”

NFU Scotland president, Jim McLaren, said early payment of LFASS could have alleviated the serious cash-flow problem faced by many hill farmers, but accepted that it would have been irresponsible to put the SFP at risk.

But he added: “I struggle to accept that early payment could not have been achieved, with the appropriate will, give that we asked for early payments a month ago. This can and must be addressed in time for next year’s payments.”