SCOTGOV must act with 'urgency and certainty' to plug the funding gap facing farmers and crofters in Scotland’s less favoured areas.

NFU Scotland this week wrote to Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, asking him to find the £13million needed to replace the money being taken from hill farmers' cashflows by the enforced reduction of the Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme.

Under the European Union's longstanding plan to dismantle the LFASS, payments for the 2019 scheme, due to reach farmers and crofters in the Spring of 2020, are to fall to 80% of their 2018 levels – reducing the total budget of £65 million by some £13 million. In the 2020 scheme year, the planned cut in funding would be 60% from those 2018 levels.

At the start of this year, the Cabinet Secretary made a parliamentary statement outlining his intention to 'effectively reinstate funding levels to 100% of LFASS'. In its letter to Mr Ewing this week, the union has stressed the need for that cash injection to be confirmed as a matter of urgency.

President Andrew McCornick said: “Recognising that we can’t simply top-up LFASS, we are seeking immediate and effective action by Scottish Government to address the LFASS 2019 shortfall of some 20%.

“At a time when political noise drowns out practical need, those farming and crofting Scotland’s more disadvantaged land need certainty and support. Our Brexit survey, launched at the recent Highland Show, clearly shows that confidence levels amongst our farmers and crofters are eroding at an alarming rate. Many have already faced poorer market returns and increased costs to their business related to the Brexit uncertainty.

“The union’s LFASS survey carried out in 2018 indicated that 8 out of 10 hill farmers and crofters would reduce cow and ewe numbers over the next five years if there was no LFA support," said Mr McCornick. “LFASS 2019 applications closed in May and NFUS members from Shetland to Stranraer are increasingly seeking an absolute commitment from Scottish Government to effectively make up a very damaging drop in funding in what is proving to be an increasingly turbulent time for Scottish farmers and crofters.

“We are of the clear view that the LFASS 2019 shortfall can and must be made good to prevent the risk of land abandonment and the loss of all the many rural development benefits that hinge on active farming and crofting in disadvantaged areas," he warned. "Effective support is critical to farmers and crofters if they are to continue to deliver all they do for food production, rural economies, local communities, habitats and landscapes.

“In addition to the 80% LFASS 2019 payments being made under existing regulations, we urge Scottish Government to separately commit to making de minimis payments to LFASS applicants under the state aid provisions or identify another deliverable solution," said the union president. “I repeat the urgency of the situation. It is imperative that Scottish Government acts now and in an entirely positive fashion. In doing so, a significant element of the current uncertainty that is undermining already fragile confidence would be removed.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is our priority to provide people in rural businesses with as much financial stability as possible. The Rural Economy Secretary is aware of the importance of LFASS funding in Scotland, which is why we are the only part of the UK to offer this support.

“We urge the UK Government to honour promises made during the 2016 EU referendum and replace lost EU funding, providing a fair share to Scotland following the intra-UK funding allocation and ensuring the £160 million in convergence funding is returned to the Scottish farmers and crofters for whom the funding was intended.”