Hill sheep farming has never been the most productive or profitable, but it could well provide the key to a future that not only trumps greenhouse gas emissions, but also maintains peatlands, wildlife and rural incomes while also improving biodiversity.

Add to that an MP confident the UK would have a trade deal with Europe by the end of December 2020, and flockmasters attending the Blackface Sheep Breeders' Association agm in Stirling, had plenty to smile about – despite deepening concerns over Coronavirus.

"I really don't think we'll leave the EU with a No Deal," Douglas Ross MP and under Secretary of State for Scotland, told delegates, adding that he was confident a No Deal is off the table.

He was also adamant the UK's high standards of food production would be maintained and that more would be done to protect Scotland's hills and uplands.

"There is no place for lowering the standard of imports in any trade deal and we will walk away from a deal that undermines our produce," he said.

"Agriculture has been seen as having a negative impact on the environment which until now, has seen a disservice to the industry, but we have to be better at articulating the benefits of meat and Blackface sheep production that are so important in helping to maintain the environment and biodiversity."

It was a point echoed by Douglas Bell, director of industry development at Quality Meat Scotland, who said that hill farming continues to drive the sheep sector, creating 50,000 jobs and £2bn to the economy north of the Border.

However, while it maintains Scotland's cultural heritage and encourages tourism – worth £5bn to the economy – it continues to make a net loss without subsidies. As a result, Mr Bell advised producers to focus on the positives.

"Blackface hill sheep producers have a fantastic story to tell and you have to get out there and shout about it. What you guys are doing is absolutely brilliant. You are not only producing protein from some of the poorest ground in Europe which cannot be used for anything else, but you are also protecting our carbon stocks and Scotland holds some of the highest carbon soils in the world.

"Hill sheep farming maintains wildlife, encourages biodiversity and improves water quality while also reducing the risk of flooding. Sheep also produce plastic free textiles," concluded Mr Bell.

At the agm, retiring president, David Shedden stepped down after a successful two years, to be succeeded by Alec Telfer, with Sandy Smith taking on the role of vice-president.