HARSH weather conditions have affected the output of Scottish agriculture over the past year, the latest official statistics have confirmed.

Sheep and cattle numbers fell and there were reductions in the areas of cereals and potatoes. However, the area of soft fruit, which is less dependent on weather conditions, saw an increase.

This was the message as the Scottish Government’s chief statistician released the results from the June 2018 Agricultural Census, which also highlighted the difficult growing conditions the cereal sector faced due to adverse weather – the data shows the total area of cereals in Scotland dropped by 3%, or 12,900 hectares.

The snow storm in the spring affected sheep numbers, which fell to a five year low. The total sheep count dropped by 6% or 392,000, with lamb numbers falling by 8%. The number of breeding ewes also decreased, by 4%. Cattle numbers have followed a similar trend and are down to 1.76 million, continuing a long term decline since the 1970s. Both dairy and beef numbers were down slightly.

The area of barley, which is Scotland’s biggest crop, fell by 1% or 3300 hectares. It has been a similar picture for wheat (9%) and oats (2%). However, rye continued to rise with an increase of 6%. This is still a minor crop, with only 5800 hectares planted.

Vegetables used to feed animals have increased for the first time since 2010. This rise of 5% coincided with a decrease in vegetables grown for human consumption for the first time since 2011.

The statistics also showed an estimated increase in poultry numbers of 2% to 14.5 million chickens. This meant an increase of 4% in birds used for meat production, yet for the second year in a row the number of egg-laying birds outnumbered broilers. In addition to these statistics, the number of people estimated to be working in agriculture has decreased by 400 to 66,600.

Rented agricultural land has also fallen to around 22%, its first noticeable drop since 2014. There were over 11,000 hectares of land rented under the new Modern Limited Duration Tenancy arrangements.

Nonetheless, agriculture continues to dominate the Scottish landscape, with around 80% of the area used for farming and agriculture related activity, with a total of 51,200 agricultural holdings.

Commenting NFU Scotland livestock policy manager John Armour said: “These results demonstrate the impact of a challenging year for the Scottish livestock sector which has been compounded by the exceptionally poor weather last winter and over the summer. The 4% decline in the breeding ewe population represents a worrying statistic which will clearly have an impact on the local economies of remote communities.

“The reduction in cattle numbers, while less significant year on year, demonstrates yet another period of decline for the national herd. The Government and actors in the supply chain must act to ensure that beef production in Scotland is supported and enhanced in future and halt the decline in the national herd.”

NFU Scotland crops policy manager Peter Loggie said: “The areas planted in Winter-sown cereals and oilseeds all fell from 2017 due to the poor planting conditions in Autumn 2017, so those figures are not too surprising.

“Due to the weather dependency of these results, it is more important to compare the year’s figures to the five year average rather than the year before. Comparing the five years to 2017, the changes look a bit different. Wheat is down but by only 5%, Spring Barley down by 4% rather than being up and oats up 10%, both winter and spring. The fall in Winter Barley looks even more extreme – down 23% on the five year average. Rye has grown significantly since 2014 but the rate of growth has slowed a lot over the past couple of years.

“When generally lower yields are taken into account, an effect of the dry summer, growers have significantly less grain to sell this year and that is likely to hit incomes," said Mr Loggie.

“The potato area was also down, partially down to the late spring. The ware area is actually just about on the five year average but the seed potato area is down by 5% from average.

“The Vegetable area, though down a bit from last year was up 9% on the five year average. Both the soft fruit and orchard fruit are up as well. However, the volume of fruit crops reaching consumers will not have fully reflected the increase in crop area as tonnes of fruit were lost because of the shortage of workers.

“In all, the total area of crops was down 4% on the five year average and was the lowest cropped area for more than ten years. This is a reflection of the difficult weather during planting and of prices insufficient to encourage higher levels of production.”