A rotting sheep fank on an exposed heather hillside in the Highlands was the symbolic venue chosen by NFU Scotland to launch a plea to government for a fundamental rethink of support for livestock producers.

Unveiling his union’s “Manifesto for the Hills”, NFUS leader Jim McLaren called on the Scottish government to pay the annual Less Favoured Area payment in October, three months earlier than scheduled.

He also called for a transfer of existing funding – what he called a “rebalancing of support” – from competitive support schemes to options which target money at productive livestock farmers in disadvantaged areas.

Disadvantaged areas make up no less than 83% of Scotland and the harsh economics have resulted in an exodus from the hills and uplands.

To personalise the problems being suffered by the sector the union’s launch took place on the 7800ha farm of Breakachy near Newtonmore where the mainly heather-clad land rises to well over 3000ft.

And as some of the area’s annual rainfall of 65in drizzled down on the gathering of NFU officials and journalists, owner Archie Slimon described how he made a loss of £13 a ewe and £110 a cow last year.

Scot manifesto

He also predicted worse financial figures this season for his flock of 1100 Blackface cross Swaledale ewes and 76 Angus and Shorthorn cross cows. Only his combined Single Farm Payment of £20,000 and LFAS of £43,000 gave the family a £20,000 profit which had to be shared among the three working members.

The union president acknowledged that any new funding from government was unlikely, but said a “budget neutral” redistribution of funds could bring an extra £39m into areas which had seen reductions of up to 60% in sheep numbers since 1999.

Most fundamentally he said the money paid out had to be linked to production. The union’s three-pronged proposal involves retaining the Scottish Beef Calf Scheme currently worth £21m, linking the £61m LFAS to stocking densities and adding an extra £20m of top-up payments for environmental benefits and finally revising Land Managers Options currently worth £19.5m but adding an extra £19m to the budget.

There is a poor take-up of the 22 schemes currently available under the LMOs, but Mr McLaren said that doubling the budget and adding new options for help in reseeding, adding lime and slag, gathering in flocks and bracken control could make an enormous difference.

After hearing the union’s proposals Mr Slimon predicted they could make a massive difference to his business by adding an extra £13,000 to support payments. “It would mean I was able to concentrate on farming for a change,” he said. “We would be able to reinvest and do more for the environment.”

NFUS Proposal

  • Retaining Scottish Beef Calf Scheme worth £21m
  • Linking the £61m LFAS to stocking densities plus £20m top-up payments for environmental benefits
  • Revising Land Managers Options currently worth £19.5m but adding an extra £19m to the budget