A FREE 'skills-matching' service set up to help the rural economy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been successfully placing able youngsters with livestock businesses to fill gaps in the workforce.

Supported by the Scottish Government and delivered by rural skills body Lantra Scotland, the service looks at the skills and experience of potential employees, before putting them in touch with relevant employers.

For dairy farmer David Murdoch, of Laigh Smithstone, Kilwinning, the Lantra Skills Matching Service located 'the exact person' he was looking for after COVID-19 left him short-staffed because of childcare and other reasons: “I was in a really difficult position with staff not being able to work. Registering for the SMS was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done and would recommend all other businesses to register who are looking for help.

“Registering my business for the SMS took minimal effort," he reported. "The application took me a couple of minutes and gave me the exact person I was looking for, which has been huge for myself in these difficult times."

That was Heather McNeil from Kilmarnock, a veterinary student-to-be, who registered with the SMS to offer her expertise in animal care: “It’s been really nice to work on David’s farm, it’s been four weeks now and it’s a bit of normality amongst this chaos," she said.

Ms McNeil will be entering her first year of university later this year, and was looking to get experience of working on a farm: “I will be working with animals the rest of my life and I don’t have a farming background so it is a great opportunity for me to gain experience. I’m learning something new every day and even when you think you know something I learn something new!”

Mossburn community farm near Lockerbie has also made good use of the SMS to stabilise its staffing. The farm, established in 1990, is run by Juanita Wilson MBE, who explained: "The very worst thing that could happen right at this moment would be for either of my regular staff to get the COVID-19 virus, as I am still recovering from a hip operation.

“So I signed up for the Lantra scheme, and it didn’t take long before they matched us up with someone. It was all very simple, and after I called the potential employee to check that she had been taking all due precautions against catching the virus herself, she was here within a week," said Ms Wilson. "It was totally free and has made a huge difference to us."

Mossburn's new signing is Beth Black, an animal care student from Dundee, who was delighted with the opportunity to get work experience: “I don’t like sitting around doing nothing, so I was getting really stressed just being in the house during lockdown. I like being out and doing something. It took me a while to pick up everything at the centre, but now I know what I’m doing its going well.

“My daily tasks are feeding the animals, cleaning out their beds, taking the horses to the various fields and paddocks and just making sure that the animals are really well looked after and happy," added Ms Black.

Businesses and individuals interested in similar arrangements should visit the Lantra Skills Matching Service online or call Lantra Scotland on 01738 310164.