SCOTGOV is fully aware of how important LFASS payments are to the country’s farmers and crofters, and fully backs the commitment that at least 80% of current funding be maintained up to 2020.

Minister for rural affairs and natural environment, Mairi Gougeon, reiterated this key point as she addressed those in attendance at the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association annual AGM, held in Stirling the week.

She explained: “Offer letters have now gone out to 10,000 Scottish producers and loan payments of £39.5million are in the process of being paid. It is hoped that this short-term help at what is obviously an unsettling time will be some sort of cushion to our Scottish farmers and crofters.

“We are painfully aware that every scenario that could come out of the current political situation will see Scottish sheep farmers as the worst-off party, and that’s not something we are underestimating.”

She continued: “Moving forward from March 29, everything is uncertain and the there is every possibility that market conditions will vary wildly. The truth is that nobody can really accurately predict what to expect.

“If we do come out with a ‘no deal’ situation, then we have no idea what a support system for sheep farmers would look like and this is work that is ongoing and being taken very seriously within Government.

“The Scottish Government has consistently asked the UK Government to take a ‘no deal’ off the table but this has obviously not been the case. We need to do all that we can to help our producers and exporters. This means looking at as many markets and opportunities that we can and that is work that is currently on going with the Government.”

She continued: “Overall, it is the Scottish Government's intention to retain LFASS payments where at all possible.”

Also addressing the topic of predation – a very important one for the assembled audience of hill sheep farmers – Ms Gougeon strongly reiterated that the Scottish Government and Scottish National Heritage have no plans to back the reintroduction of Lynx into the Scottish countryside, despite the idea's supporters holding meetings up and down the country.

When tackled about existing predators – namely sea eagles and ravens – Ms Gougeon said that there was ‘a fine balance to be met’.

She stressed: “There are two sides to the debate that have to be looked at and we must take a careful approach. We don’t, however, underestimate the seriousness of the situation. These species are already present in our environment and we take the complaints about them very seriously and are looking at how best to move forward in dealing with them.

“We categorically do not, however, sanction the new reintroduction of any other species. I can say that for certain.”

This was a view backed up by the newly elected National Sheep Association Scotland chairperson, Jen Craig, who said: “We met recently with both Mairi and Fergus Ewing, and they told us then that, as far as they are concerned, the reintroduction of Lynx simply isn’t going to happen. I can fully assure you that the NSA will keep up the pressure to make sure that this stance doesn’t alter in any way.”