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Halting Cattle Exodus from Scottish Hills

02 September 2008
National Farmers Union

UK - At a hill farm near Laggan today, NFU Scotland launched proposals to halt the exodus of cattle and sheep from Scotland’s hills and uplands. The Union’s Manifesto for the Hills represents a three-part package of policy options which focuses on better use of existing public funds.

NFUS has been receiving reports from its members across the country who are either selling up their stock or planning to in the face of spiralling feed, fuel and fertiliser costs and a market price which has consistently failed to reflect these costs of production. The recent report by the Scottish Agricultural College, Farming’s Retreat from the Hills, reported a 23% drop in sheep numbers in the last ten years and 11.7% reduction in the beef breeding herd over the same period. However, these figures mask huge regional variations with some parts of the North and West of the country seeing reductions in sheep numbers of between 35-60%. NFUS has huge concerns at the economic, environmental and social impact of this exodus from the hills, which also threatens to undermine any future food policy for Scotland.

The NFUS manifesto stresses that the industry must help itself by focussing on continued improvements in marketing, collaboration, genetics and technical efficiencies. Likewise, improved relationships in the supply chain are critical. However, none of these alone will address the financial crisis in the hills and there is an urgent requirement for new policies from the Scottish Government. There is no single policy solution to the current problems. However NFUS believes that, constructed as a package, the following three elements could protect the future of livestock production in the hills and uplands:

  • A re-modelled Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme, focused on targeting funding at active production;
  • A revitalised list of Land Managers Options under the non-competitive element of the Scottish Rural Development Plan;
  • Retention of the Beef Calf Scheme.

Speaking at the launch of the Manifesto for the Hills at Archie Slimon’s farm at Breakachy, Laggan, NFUS President Jim McLaren said: “We are currently witnessing an exodus of livestock and people from our hills and uplands, unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. We can either let this happen and consider it the unfortunate consequence of market forces or we can recognise the huge social, environmental and economic benefits delivered by agricultural activity in our more fragile areas and intervene. In our view, there is no question that intervention is necessary.

“Clearly any industry in trouble must look at how it can help itself, however we need policy tools to secure the future of these businesses and communities. Our manifesto is not a call for new public funds; it focuses on better use of existing funds. Ultimately, we want a shift of funding away from competitive schemes which support the few to non-competitive schemes which target money at those who are clearly actively producing and delivering social, environmental and economic benefits.

“It is critical to understand that in isolation of one and other, these three policy options cannot do the job. As we have seen from the Scottish Beef Calf Scheme, on its own, it has been powerless to halt the decline in suckler cow numbers. However, we believe that by constructing a package which also includes a re-modelled LFA Support Scheme and a more sensible list of rural development options, a real difference could be made.

“This package does not come without difficult decisions for the Scottish Government and industry itself. We are calling for a re-balancing of support between competitive one-off projects and a broader delivery system designed to maximise public benefits from agriculture.

“Despite what we are proposing, we remain hugely concerned at the timetable for delivering a package such as this. Realistically, it is unlikely Government could deliver much beyond retention of the Beef Calf Scheme before 2010. This re-emphasises the importance of LFA support payments being issued before the Winter.”

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