The Scottish Farmer:

“Farmers have a job to do and we want to make sure they can get on with it and not have to spend so much time caught up with bureaucracy. Post-Brexit, we need to make sure we simplify our policies to allow farmers to get on with their jobs and not get bogged down in too much red tape.”

Those were the words of Scotland's minister for rural affairs and the natural environment, Mairi Gougeon, who is now six months in to her remit and is determined to remove some of the burdens placed on farmers moving forward.

She has made it clear that animal welfare is a priority of her government and she will work with the industry to ensure standards will constantly improve. She believes that it is their responsibility to make sure they protect and support farmers in times where industries such as the red meat sector are under threat from vilifying campaigns.

Born and raised in Brechin, her grandfather was a dairy farmer and she personally has always been passionate about raising the profile of the rural community through her work as a councillor for Angus city council, where she served for 10 years. A large part of her role was promoting food, drink and tourism in the area, which has given her a passionate understanding about the importance of rural life and its unique needs, in order to thrive as part of the wider economy. She was appointed to her role in June 2018 and six months on, explained why her post is so important:

“My position is a new post within government – I share some of the responsibility between Fergus Ewing and Roseanna Cunningham, which is really interesting as I get to cover both the environment portfolio and the rural remit. By sharing the work load between the three of us, it allows all of us to meet more people and get out and about in to the rural community, which is so important. Seeing how much work we all have to do, I can’t believe my post has only just been created in the last year.

“I don’t like to see agriculture and the environment placed in to two separate camps when they very much work hand in hand. If we don’t take care of the environment, it will affect farmers and rural communities further down the line. We, as the government, have a responsibility there too and that is one element I have enjoyed in my post so far, as I am able to balance the position between them both.

“A huge part of my portfolio is animal health and welfare and has dominated my remit so far. There are so many issues to look at and many are emotive and controversial such as fox hunting and the live transportation of livestock.

“I took time to meet as many dairy farmers as possible and speak with them directly to find out the challenges they face and what matters to their businesses. It is so important that I get a chance to meet different organisations and hear about the innovations which are happening but also to discuss how we can support them better. Farmers have a job to do and we want to make sure they can get on with it and not have to spend so much time caught up with bureaucracy. Post-Brexit, we need to make sure we simplify our policies to allow farmers to get on with their jobs and not get bogged down in too much red tape.”

Raising the rural profile

In order to ensure a sustainable future for Scotland’s rural economy, there is a need to address the huge disconnect which exists between farming and non-farming communities. Ms Gougeon explained how many people are unaware of the opportunities on offer in rural areas and how she hopes to champion the sector by profiling their valuable contribution to wider society.

“There are so many different types of opportunities available in rural areas and I don’t think people are really aware of them. It can be perceived that to work in farming you have to own a farm or come from a farming family to get your foot in the door. This is why some of the work ongoing to change these preconceptions is brilliant. We recently awarded more funding to Ringlink and I think initiatives like theirs are so important, as they give young people opportunities like apprenticeships, which give them a taste of what a career might be like in the sector. Ultimately, we want sustainable rural communities and we want young people coming into them to keep them sustainable and vibrant.

“When I was visiting some of the dairy farmers around Scotland, I became acutely aware that their work can be quite isolating and how little control they have over, for example, feed costs, which in cases have doubled, having huge repercussions on their businesses. There was a lot of talk about innovation and improving their businesses, but I became aware of the conflict between how much time they can dedicate to looking in to developing their business plan, when at the end of the day there is a job to be getting on with. I can see why farmers can develop a lack of self-worth and I am very keen to see what work we can do moving forward to ensure farmers realise the valuable work that they do. It should be so obvious – they are responsible for feeding the people of our country, it is the most basic thing humans need to survive and is so vitally important. If there is more work to be done there, then we as a government need to do it.

Removing red tape

Post-Brexit, Scotland has an opportunity to remove the chains off farmers who are bogged down in red tape. I asked Ms Gougeon whether we can look at minimising the restraints on farmers and if the Scottish Government are making sure that Scotland is being heard at the decision-making table.

“Removing red tape is something we want to look at and that is what our white paper on stability and simplicity is all about, as we appreciate farmers have work to get on with and we want to make sure that happens. We have had a power of secondary legislation to work through which has taken up a lot of our time. There is still so much uncertainty at this stage and it is scary to think what would happen in a no-deal scenario – which would be catastrophic for the rural environment sector particularly. Looking to the future, I would hope whatever schemes we have in place, hopefully they would be simpler than they are now. Take Leader funding as an example, which is so important for rural communities, but we need to make sure that the application process is less of a bureaucratic nightmare. When we have more of an idea what funds are available and how they will be used to support rural communities, we will take some of that bureaucratic burden off these groups.

“We have a positive relationship with the UK Government and have been involved in regular round the table discussions with other environment and rural ministers. Making sure we are a strong voice for the industry is a top priority for this government and we are trying to do what we can to make sure Scotland’s voice is heard in those meetings and will continue to fight on behalf of this industry.

Rural balance

A blanket approach to agricultural policy won’t address the individual needs of Scotland’s unique farming profile. Ms Gougeon explained how she is addressing this and how this has been at the forefront of the work she had carried out thus far.

“If I take you back to my remit on animal welfare and more specifically my recent announcement on fox hunting – my focus here has been doing what I can to protect certain sets of circumstances. This is a very emotive topic for many and one which the public is very vocal on and as a government we will always strive to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare. However, I hope I made it clear in my statement in the chamber that there are certain circumstances in Scotland where pest control is needed, and we want to find a policy which works for everyone but also recognises and legislates for those certain circumstances.

“When it comes to looking at joint approaches to farming and forestry – I don’t want to see land abandonment on our Scottish hills, but we also must do what we can to plant more trees and find a balance between the two. We are working to minimise conflict between the two but need to explore the opportunities which can come from working hand in hand with both sectors.

“This job is very much about finding the balance. From my experience of being a backbencher in parliament, it is easy to criticise the government, but issues are not as a black and white as they are made out to be. You need to take everyone’s point of view, which at times will mean you are making decisions which prove unpopular in parliament, but it has to be evidence based.”

Championing animal welfare

Ms Gougeon recently delivered her ministerial statement on animal welfare to the Scottish parliament and is determined to champion the highest standards for the industry.

“Within my animal health and welfare portfolio, I want to make sure that in Scotland, we don’t just adhere to current standards of practice, but we constantly act to improve on these, so we have a thriving sector. Our job is also to recognise the health benefits which come with eating meat and the protein within that. We need to champion the meat sector, as I don’t want to see the livestock sector suffer as a result of vilification from others. We need to protect this industry and do what we can to promote it. With movements like Veganuary, we cannot challenge individual choice, but our role is to champion our industry in Scotland, make sure the right messages are delivered and make sure the sector doesn’t suffer as a result.

“One thing that struck me when meeting farmers was seeing how much they care about the animals they have. They are so passionate – that is their life, their day to day business and it is in their best interests to have high animal welfare. I think it is important we get that message across. Especially with issues like live animal exportation – it is not black and white, which is how it can be portrayed as sometimes.”

Industry wish

As we move forward into a year of uncertainty, Ms Gougeon wanted to share her positive wish for the industry; her desire to see local rural communities thriving with young people and making the most of the amazing opportunities in areas such as food and drink.

“The best part of my job has been meeting with inspiring young people and the best event I have attended was the rural youth festival in Kinross, last summer, where I heard amazing stories from young people living rurally all over the UK and wider afield. I have never heard such incredible speeches and stories and it occurred to me how much young people have to give to our industry.

“At a recent food and drink event, I met with young people who were so passionate and cared so much about the jobs they are involved in, promoting and producing Scotland’s fantastic larder and I want to make sure we see thriving local communities, full of these young people.

“We have so much capacity to grow our food and drink sector and I want to see more young people getting involved in the wide variety of rural careers that are out there. I don’t want the environment and rural to be viewed as two camps – we all have a responsibility to take care of the environment and I want us to overcome what are perceived to be barriers, and to work hand in hand.

“There is so much passion in this industry and people care deeply about what they do, and I want them to know that I care deeply and passionately about what I do, too. I don’t want to be seen to be sitting making policy in these offices and not getting out to speak to the people I represent. I see it as my job to get out and immerse myself in this remit and that is something I will continue to do,” promised Ms Gougeon.