FOR BETTER or worse, Brexit will be the catalyst that sparks a revolution in Scotland's rural economy.

Meeting in Stirling this week, the National Council of Rural Advisors set up in June this year by Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing, delivered their interim report on the implications of Scotland leaving the EU – and their recommendations for sustaining and developing a vibrant rural economy.

Co-chair Alison Milne outlined the advisory group's main conclusion from their findings: “In some ways Brexit has been a catalyst which has allowed us to take a closer look at what potential exists in the rural economy and how we can capitalise on that across the different sectors. There is also the recognition that our needs are unique and our businesses function in a different way to many in the urban centres.”

Fellow chair Lorne Crerar added: “A focus on the rural economy is something we haven’t been used to and recognising how important it is to Scotland is fundamental to our future.”

The interim report outlines four key areas of focus to be taken forward as preparations get underway for the March 2019 Brexit deadline.

Scotland’s rural sector is already feeling the brunt of a dwindling labour market which cannot meet the demand of the booming hospitality and tourism industry. These sectors along with food and drink are particularly dependant on immigration from the European Economic Area, and without continued access to free movement of people the industry will take a massive hit.

The report stressed the importance of attracting and retaining home grown talent. Connectivity will be of the upmost importance, with factors such as improved broadband and public transport crucial to ensure young people choose to settle in rural areas.

The impact of Brexit on trade is ever on the minds of Scotland’s food and drink producers who currently export £2 billion annually to the EU. The council explained the necessity of maintaining that supply chain and retaining access to the Single Market. Current EU tariffs protect Scottish products from cheaper third country competitors often with lower environmental and production standards. When we leave the EU, the report states the importance of maintaining regulation equivalence with the EU which will allow us to continue to compete on a global level.

Loss of EU funding remains a top concern to rural Scotland and despite its faults, the CAP system contributes heavily to the total income of farming in Scotland, comprising £490 million of the £749 million total in 2016. The report advised that post-Brexit there needs to be a strong and adequately financed policy and delivery framework that supports the needs of Scotland’s rural communities, businesses and environment with appropriate levels and types of funding support.

Similarly linked to the issue of trade, concern over the impact of regulatory requirements from the UK leaving the EU were outlined in the report. Stress was given to the necessity to maintain equivalent standards within certain areas of the rural sector such as natural capital, animal, plant and product standards. The UK will need to ensure that the high standards which we currently adhere to are maintained post-Brexit and apply to both imports and exports.

Mr Ewing welcomed the report’s suggestions: “This report makes clear the fundamental and significant role played by EU membership in the economic well-being of Scotland’s rural economy. It enables unfettered access to the world’s largest Single Market and enables the free movement of workers who are vital to many sectors of the rural economy – all of which is at risk from a hard Brexit.”

“I will consider the recommendations carefully and set out how we might respond and take them forward in due course.”