Before I get onto the serious stuff regarding the implications of the Aussie trade deal that was signed off this week, I have to admit being wrong about how supportive Scottish Government were on livestock production compared with the greenie blob in Defra.

How times change. No sooner had Fergus Ewing been ejected for being in farmer’s pockets, than his replacement, Mairi Gougeon, hit the headlines claiming the proposed Aussie trade deal would effectively finish Scottish farming.

This shrill stuff would’ve been OK if she had any role or influence in trade deals which, unfortunately for her, she doesn’t.

Perhaps she should spend more time proposing sustainable solutions for the future of Scottish livestock production along the lines of the Suckler Beef Climate Group’s report, which Ewing supported but was in danger of being over-ruled by what appears to be meat industry-hating civil servants. We can but hope.

It’s not too long now until the great COP26 malarkey hits Glasgow, where pressure will be put on on high-emitting countries, like Australia, to cut GHG emissions. If climate change could be cured by hot air, then COP26 will surely produce enough to save the world in one fell swoop. More on this another day.

So, as the ink dries on the UK Australia trade deal, what might this mean for farmers in Scotland?

The direction of travel on quotas and timescales is well documented, so I shan’t repeat it here. There is more detail to be released as I write this, but we broadly know what we face. With hormone beef now off the menu, what are we looking at in trade terms.

Firstly, will the Australians have the production capacity to meet the agreed annual tonnages and will there be a demand from the UK for their beef and lamb?

A quick look at some of the UK’s meat wholesaling businesses shows that Australian beef and lamb is already available within the UK market.

One wholesaler’s website proclaimed: “Procuring from accredited producers and processors throughout the UK, Ireland, EU, South Africa, US, Australia and New Zealand ensures first class quality and assurance guaranteed,” whilst another, shows that they currently stock Australian beef and lamb.

According to Meat and Livestock Australia, the UK already accounted for 66% of Australian lamb exports to the EU in 2019-2020, which amounts to a figure 9500 tonnes, meaning that the trade deal will allow for a significant increase.

Looking at the UK’s National Beef Association’s figures, the UK imported 242,828 tonnes of beef in 2020. Much of this will have come from the Republic of Ireland, though some will have come from other EU member states, as well as South America. No doubt, the Australians will be hoping that their new trade deal will displace some, or maybe all the South American imports.

Of course, the South Americans have their own issues with beef at present, with Argentina imposing an export ban and increasing negative press towards Brazilian output because of deforestation. If China shifts its sourcing policy away from a reliance on South America, it will most likely be towards Australia.

So where is the Australian beef that currently enters the UK being sold? In the main, it goes into 'foodservice'. That means pubs and restaurants who don’t need to display country of origin on their menus, will quite happily sell steaks cut from Australian striploins.

Many of the UK pub chains like the Australian product because, when they order 10 tonnes of 2.5kg striploins they receive 4000 by 2.5kg striploins. In other words, they get what it says on the tin, which is something we need to improve on here. For sure.

Then there is the NHS and school meals. Both of these are targets for the climate change lobby, who are pressurising for a reduction or, in some cases a total ban on red meat consumption.

Procurement managers baulking at the UK’s prices for beef and lamb could move to plant-based, or alternatively use imports. They are, most likely, to be already using some imported Australian beef and lamb.

But, of course, Australia already has a large ‘common market’ into which it sells its meat. Known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partners (TCTPP) this group of 11 countries consists, along with Australia, of Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

The UK has applied to join and if accepted, no doubt the same trade deal we have just signed with Australia will become the deal we have with TCTPP meaning that New Zealand lamb and Canadian beef will be entering the UK in ever larger numbers.

Against this backdrop, I pose a question. With Australian beef and sheep prices through the roof and pressure on South American production, where is all this cheap beef and lamb going to come from which will undercut UK producers whilst worldwide demand for protein sky rockets?

Post-Brexit, when many were convinced leaving CAP would finish us and prices were relatively low, I asked what if lambs where to average £100 and beef went back to over £4 per kg?

It’ll never happen they said. What do they say now? It won’t last!

I also said that in English farming, which was being forced to jump through hoops to get Defra environmental payments, would imply a level of destocking. Looking at livestock prices now and prospects for the future suggest strong prices for some time.

Who knows, but the increase in values may make the option of not taking environmental payments, but higher livestock prices instead attractive to many?

Life is full of risks, but my bet it that the future for livestock production is set for a better future than most think. If I’m wrong, I expect the Fergus Ewing treatment! We shall see.