UK ENVIRONMENT Secretary Michael Gove has visited UA's Stirling Mart to meet with local farmers and representatives of the National Sheep Association.

The NSA raised two important issues for the sheep sector – the possibility of compensation for Brexit-induced buyers' lack of confidence, and the abrupt government u-turn on promised changes to the official procedure for ageing hoggs.

Mr Gove was told that the hill sheep sector was dependent on the income from late summer and autumn sales of calves and lambs from early August through to the end of October, which is also the UK's new date for leaving the EU. Although Defra has already given assurances of financial support for the UK sheep sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the NSA explained its concern that by the time sales start in August, no decision on Brexit will have been reached and buyers of hill lambs and calves will not have the confidence to buy.

If, subsequently, a Brexit deal was reached at the end of October, confidence would be restored, no compensation would be necessary for the UK industry, but hill producers would still be left seriously out of pocket, said the NSA.

With regard to sheep ageing rules, the NSA stressed that the failure to change the system was a particular problem facing producers of smaller, long-keep hill lambs, as the current tooth-eruption method means that their carcases are more likely to be classed as 'adult' and split so the spinal cord can be removed, which impacts on the price buyers are willing to pay.

Mr Gove said: “It was enormously helpful to meet local farmers and the NSA and have an open discussion about the concerns of the Scottish hill farming sector, which plays such a vital role in sustaining this beautiful landscape.

“I am all too aware of the current uncertainty for this industry, which is why we are determined to deliver on the referendum result that people voted on as quickly as possible.

“I am also very mindful of the need to press ahead on introducing a new protocol for ageing lambs at slaughter. We are continuing to plan for this change and will keep the NSA and others updated as this work progresses.”

Chair of the National Sheep Association, Jennifer Craig, said: "We were very pleased to have the opportunity to bring these issues to the attention of Mr Gove. They are crucially important to many hill producers already on a knife edge. We hope that politicians can soon make up their minds about Brexit and end the uncertainty which could prove very damaging for the sheep industry."

Mr Gove's visit was arranged through Stirling MP, Stephen Kerr, who commented: "It is crucially important that our farmers have the opportunity to talk directly to ministers at the highest level. Michael was very happy to come and engage. The meeting was extremely useful and helped further inform the Secretary of State on two very specific but significant issues affecting this important business."

Managing director of United Auctions, George Purves, added: “We thank Mr Gove and Stephen Kerr for visiting Stirling Agricultural Centre to meet with local farmers. The visit allowed the farmers to express their opinions and ask questions directly to Mr Gove in an open and forthright discussion.”