Stephen Carr: Scots need a rethink

Scotland’s livestock farmers are keen to hang on to decoupled support, even if it means a severe decline in livestock numbers

Let’s face it, Scotland’s reputation for canny financial prudence has not had a good year. One by one its banking institutions have crumbled and its formerly most revered and feared banker, Sir Fred “the shred” Goodwin, has become an international symbol of incompetence, hubris and greed. To top it all, another two Scotsmen, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling, have just delivered the most bust Budget in UK history.

I find all this very sad because, although I farm about as far from Scotland as it is possible to be without falling into the English Channel, I’ve always felt a close affinity with both Scotland and Scottish farming colleagues. Their taste in self-deprecating humour and reputation for extreme meanness with money are both qualities I have always aspired to myself. Thus, whenever I have been invited to speak to gatherings of Scottish farmers, whether at Edinburgh or Aberdeen, I have always been made to feel like I am in a home from home.

Imagine my disappointment, then, at the reported result of a recent visit to Scotland by EU farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.

Mrs fischer Boel went to Glenlivet, Banffshire, to discuss the future of the “intermediate” less favoured area support – which affects 85% of Scotland – and, by all accounts, was told “hands off” by the assembled farmers.

Fair enough, but she was also in Scotland to discuss the alarmingdecline in Scottish livestock numbers and what can be done to arrest or reverse it. If the trend since decoupling of livestock support payments since 2004 continues, then, within a decade, Scotland will have lost three-quarters of its sheep and a third of its beef cows.

The reason, of course, for the decline is quite understandable – the financial losses suffered from unsupported lamb and beef production have forced any farmers who wish to hang on to their decoupled payments to reduce the size of their flocks or herds.

But what is not so easy to under­stand is the response of Scottish farmers or NFU Scotland to Mrs fischer Boel’s suggested solution to the problem. At last year’s CAP “health check review” a measure called Article 68 was introduced that allowed countries to top-slice 10% of their farmers’ SFPs to create coupled production payments for “economically vulnerable types of farming”. So far NFU Scotland has rejected the use of Article 68 even though Scottish rural affairs minister, Richard Lochhead, appears open to using the option.

So why are Scottish farmers so resistant to the idea of recoupled support payments? Is it that they resent any reduction in their SFPs? If so they need to remind themselves how lucky they already are. Luxuriating in an entirely “historic” SFP, they have not, unlike their English neighbours, seen their payments pilfered by Margaret Beckett’s “dynamic hybrid” and the highest rate of national modulation of any EU country.

Is it not, then, very short-sighted of Scottish farmers to argue against the reintroduction of coupled support payments for the loss of a mere 10% of their SFPs? Even if modest coupled headage payments do not reverse the decline in livestock numbers at least it shows willing. Otherwise, taxpayers visiting the Scottish countryside, but unable to find a single sheep or cow, might be forgiven for asking what they are paying all this LFA and SFP money for.

To a distant, but concerned friend it would appear that cannyScottish farmers are rapidly becoming rather too fond of a decoupled existence where the money rolls in whether they run livestock or not. How does one put this, without seeming indelicate? Time to get back on the hill, ye wee timorous beasties?

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