21 November 1997

Sympathy for hills – no cash

By Allan Wright

SCOTTISH farm minister, Lord Sewel, took to the hills this week, visiting a farm in Glenshee that runs to 914m (3000ft).

But, although dispensing some sympathy, he offered no hope that government would reverse its decision to freeze hill livestock payments at 1996 rates.

He continued to shelter behind the line that government had to remain within previously set public spending limits. Despite that, the minister claimed he could not be more committed to Scottish hill farming and its future role in caring for the countryside as well as producing top quality meat.

That was enough to prompt Scottish NFU president, Sandy Mole, to claim the visit had led to "a certain degree of commitment to the future of the hill farming sector".

Farmer Lovat Fraser welcomed the sympathetic hearing. "I think he now understands the difficulties we face on this sort of unit and I am hopeful that the sympathy will be translated into continuing help."

Far better living

He told Lord Sewel that his tenants capital of £130,000 would earn him a far better living invested outside agriculture. But the way of life, and continuing hopes that things would improve, kept him in farming.

His 4856ha (12,000 acres) at Old Spittal Farm, Glenshee, supports 1500 Blackface ewes and 20 suckler cows. Only 48ha (120 acres) can be cropped, leaving 70% of winter feed to be bought in. Although achieving 100% lambing, he explained to Lord Sewel that a third of the offspring had to be retained as breeding replacements. That left about 1000 lambs to sell each year from the end of September onwards.

"Last year our market prices did not match the cut in ewe premium and we finished up about £4 a lamb down on the year. This year it looks as if we will be down a further £6 a lamb on the year. We still have 500 to sell and the price is dropping."

The minister preached quality assurance, niche markets, and countryside care payments as the future for such farms. But SNFU hill farming convener, John Scott, said he could see no way that such incentives could ever replace the current level of support through headage payments.

Asked if he would like to change places with Mr Fraser, Lord Sewel said: "I think people should stick to what they are good at, and I would be a very poor hill farmer."

"He would certainly be poor," said Mr Scott.

Farmer Lovat Fraser, SNFUhill farming convever John Scott, and Lord Sewel took to the hills this week in Glenshee.