Scotland’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing has confirmed that Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS) payments to hill farmers will be cut by just 20% in 2020, not the 60% cut he indicated earlier in the week.
Described as a “U-turn” by the Scottish Conservatives, the news that LFASS payments will now be set at 80% of current rates in both 2019 and 2020 has come as some relief to NFU Scotland, even though it maintains that any cuts are “completely unacceptable”.
“It is imperative that the cabinet secretary and his officials continue to work with ourselves, to make up any shortfall and fully restore the LFASS budget back to £65m,” said NFUS president Andrew McCornick.
“The union’s position is that the LFASS payments are absolutely vital and any cut in them must be avoided at all costs.”
Change of heart
On Monday (7 January), Mr Ewing had announced that LFASS payments would drop to 40% of their current level in 2020, as required by EU regulations.
But in a debate at Holyrood on Thursday (10 January), he confirmed he was “absolutely committed to maintaining LFASS at the 80% funding level into 2020”. This suggests some state-funded top-up will be forthcoming.
Mr Ewing also indicated that, should more funds come Scotland’s way as a result of the ongoing “convergence review” into the allocation of EU money throughout the UK, then LFASS funding would be reinstated to 100%.
The cuts to the LFASS budget, currently worth about £65m to 11,000 upland farmers, have been initiated by the EU Commission, which has been trying to encourage member states to shift to an Area of Natural Constraints system, as an alternative method of supporting hill farmers.
But this was rejected by the farms unions as a reclassification of land could disadvantage many farmers, while changing the current system with Brexit on the horizon also seemed to make little sense.
The Scottish government says it is continuing to look for ways of replacing any lost funding, and is seeking further flexibility from the EU Commission.
Donald Cameron, Scottish Conservative shadow secretary for the rural economy, said Mr Ewing must ensure that those farming on less favourable land are properly supported.
“Scotland’s farmers deserve a Scottish government that recognises their importance and actively supports the future of hill farming,” he said.