Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond writes a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

A grave warning about the welfare of both Scottish hill sheep and the farmers who tend them has today (Thursday) been raised with Prime Minister, Gordon Brown in light of foot and mouth export and movement bans on livestock.

In a letter to Mr Brown, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond emphasised the key role hill sheep farming plays in sustaining rural communities in some of the most remote parts of Scotland. And he warned “Scotland is in a situation where sheep will be dying from starvation on the hills unless something is done now”.

“It is a sector which is not very profitable at the best of times and the current foot and mouth outbreak could not have come at a worse time,” said Mr Salmond.

Light lambs, he said, are bred exclusively for export markets and many thousands go to Italy and Spain. There is now no export market, nor any alternative domestic markets for this category of sheep.

“Effectively, they are still on the hills with nowhere to go and no demand for them. There are also hundreds of thousands of sheep still on the hills which should have been moved some time ago but have been prevented from doing so by restrictions, particularly the cessation of auction markets.

“The net result is that grazing on the hills is now almost exhausted at a time long past when these animals would normally have been moved onto lower pastures or to other destinations,” said Mr Salmond.

These difficulties, he pointed out, are being compounded by “intransigence” on the part of the Department for Transport.

“There are potentially disastrous consequences for Scotland if the UK Government fails to provide the limited derogation that we have requested from the Department for Transport now. The situation in England and Wales may not be desperate at present but, as I have explained, delays in Scotland are likely to become problems further south as the season goes on,” warned Mr Salmond.

‘Grave concern about the potential human consequences of the situation’

Mr Salmond also expressed grave concern about the potential human consequences of the situation.

“Hill farming is one of the least profitable types of farming enterprise and the current outbreak could not have happened at a worse time.

“Between mid August and the end of this month, farmers in Scotland, through selling stock reared mostly on the higher ground gain around 70% of their total annual income. This is currently denied to them by the disruption to sales and markets.

“This is compounded by the anxiety caused by the impending welfare problems and the prospect of their animals suffering and in many cases having a lingering death.

“There is mounting evidence that many farmers are reaching a high state of anxiety about the future and I am very concerned about resulting mental health problems and potential human tragedies involving those who see no future ahead of them,” he said.

Mr Salmond called for an immediate relaxation of drivers’ hours to enable the backlog of stock arising from the early August outbreak and the September one to be cleared. Secondly, he said a livestock welfare disposal scheme with compensation to farmers fully funded by the UK Government is essential.