Industry leaders in Scotland have warned that farmers are scaling back and holding off on long-term investments after a “pitiful” policy announcement from rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon.
At the NFU Scotland (NFUS) conference in Glasgow last week, Ms Gougeon unveiled an ‘Agricultural Reform Route Map’, along with a list of measures farmers may be expected to undertake in future to mitigate climate change and restore nature.
A new scheme allowing Scottish farmers to access a £250 animal health and welfare payment, which in some cases would not even cover the cost of a vet call out, was also branded “ridiculous”.
The Scottish government has been under pressure to set out a future policy for several years, but much of the key detail remains unclear, despite the latest announcement.
Patrick Lambert, who has worked in the horticulture, cereals and red meat sectors and now runs a consultancy, said: “People running farming businesses at the moment will just despair of the government. We have got to get on and steer our own ships as best we can.
“Farmers are already voting with their feet. They are de-risking by scaling back. We will all need to put more capital into the businesses just to keep them running. The easiest way to do that is to scale back.”
Neil Wilson, executive director at the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland, agreed.
He said: “Farmers planning long-term investments must be holding back, especially those in the red meat sector or more marginal areas in the country.
“They are pushing hard on slurry regulations here, which is fine.
“But if you suddenly need to find the cost of 70% of a slurry lagoon and your costs are higher already, you do not quite know where you are going to be with policy, and a loan might need to be over 10 or 15 years, this is not going to be the most exciting decision to make.”
Concerns have also been raised that senior officials inside Holyrood and Green Party MSPs, who have a power sharing agreement with the Scottish National Party (SNP), are pushing an “anti-meat” agenda.
Jim Walker, a former NFU Scotland president and Quality Meat Scotland chairman who was commissioned by the Scottish government to look at how to reduce emissions in the beef sector, said: “They definitely have a policy to reduce the suckler herd in Scotland by 30%.
“By doing nothing, they are going to get their wish, because farmers are voting with their feet. The best will keep getting better and the rest will give up.
“Gougeon and her officials are overseeing the clearance of cattle from the uplands. There will be a few cows in the Highlands for environmental reasons, but they will not be there because of what they do for the downstream and the upstream industry. It is a joke.”
Mr Walker predicts by June, data will show a 15% drop in suckler cow numbers over the previous 18 months.
Scottish government vision of agriculture support package beyond 2025
Tier 4 complementary support
To support active farming and food producers
Conditional on essential standards to ensure climate biodiversity and business efficiency outcomes
For businesses that are highly effective in:
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Nature restoration and enhancement
Targeted actions to support:
Supply chain support
|New skills, knowledge, training and CPD||Advisory services and business support||
|To measure nature restoration and enhancement||To measure greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration||Agricultural transformation fund|
Source: Scottish government
NFU Scotland president Martin Kennedy, meanwhile, issued an ultimatum to Ms Gougeon on future funding.
Mr Kennedy has been criticised in several quarters for his proximity to Scottish government after agreeing to co-chair the Agricultural Reform Implementation Oversight Board (ARIOB) which advises ministers.
A decision Farmers Weekly understands contributed to the unexpected resignation of long-time former chief executive Scott Walker.
The union has called for all existing direct payments, including voluntary coupled support and the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme, to be wrapped up in tier one and tier two of the new four-tiered scheme, in order to keep the money in the farming industry.
“It would be a break point for us if the 50% of direct support they have committed to under the programme for government is split between one and two and three and four,” he said.
Ms Gougeon, however, refused to be drawn on how any future budget would be split between the tiers.
She also declined to say whether the Scottish government would make up any potential shortfall of money coming from Westminster.
Asked by FW whether she could foresee any cuts to the agriculture budget after the next general election, Ms Gougeon said:
“I think it is a possibility. We are not seeing replacement of agricultural funds in full at the moment, so I do not feel particularly optimistic about the direction that is heading in.”
What will farm support look like in Scotland from 2025?
New conditionality will be introduced to the Basic Payment Scheme. Greening, Cross Compliance requirements (Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions, Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) and the completion of a Whole Farm Plan are being considered, but no decisions have been taken on what will be included.
Other snippets from NFUS conference
- Robert Thompson, NFUS poultry working group chair, to Tesco agriculture manager John Kirkpatrick, who claimed the supermarket wanted to work with egg suppliers: “We told you last year that producers were losing so much money that they would not put hens back in. The problem is yours.”
- NFUS president Martin Kennedy, when asked why the union did not operate a one-member-one-vote system: “Is that not how we got Liz Truss?”
- Borders sheep farmer Stephen Withers: “At the last branch meeting, we spent some time discussing the name NFU and we all agreed it is simple. National Farmers Union – not National Save the World Union or National Greening the Countryside Union, or See How Many Trees You Can Plant On Our Farm Union.”