SCOTLAND’S FUTURE farming budget must be protected to allow the industry to have a vibrant and successful future outwith the EU.

Those were the words of the Scottish Conservatives’ new shadow cabinet secretary for rural economy and tourism, Oliver Mundell MSP – who told The SF that for him, rural budget cuts are a red line.

With the clock ticking on a Brexit deal outcome, he wanted to make it clear that if Brexit doesn’t deliver for farmers, then the UK Government would step in to support the industry.

Two months into the job, supporting new entrants into the sector is also high on his agenda, pinpointing a lack of housing as a key setback to rural young people.

He has also called for a level playing field for farming and forestry, criticising the current approach for turning large swathes of agricultural land over to trees.

Prioritising rural policy

Mr Mundell joked that representing the Dumfries-shire constituency for the last 4½ years had meant he served an ‘apprenticeship’ in farming: “I’ve consistently raised the concerns of Dumfries-shire farmers and feel I have a good understanding of the issues in our rural communities.”

He told The SF that it was high time that farming issues took centre stage in the Scottish parliament: “I was delighted to be asked to serve in this position and want to make sure rural issues feature at Holyrood and the focus doesn’t continue to always be on the Central Belt.

“With each passing year, farming issues get pushed further and further to the bottom of the priority list. Rural communities can get forgotten or overlooked and issues important to farmers are not deemed important enough to be discussed in the main chamber and are sent out to committees to deal with.”

He pointed out that the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross MP, comes from a farming background and spent his education at agricultural college, adding that he is determined to start ‘readdressing the balance which has been lost between urban and rural’.

With Brexit looming and a new system of farm support in the offing, he pointed out that his key focus will be on protecting the future farming budget

“My first objective in this role is making sure there is a future support programme in place which works for farming that encourages innovation and helps farming to grow. A red line for me would be to watch the rural budget get cut back.

“In parliament, lots of people are pushing for individual payments to be capped but we must see the same level, if not more investment going into farming moving forward. We have been in the EU and under the Common Agricultural Policy for a long time and everyone know things could be done better but that doesn’t mean farming should get a smaller cake.”

New entrants

From the outset, Mr Mundell has spoken publicly about supporting new entrants in to farming and stressed that practical changes are needed to both attract and retain people in rural areas.

“Too often we think of new entrants as people who are completely new to farming but often forget there are lots of people in existing farming families who struggle to get a foot-hold and we need to find ways of making this easier,” he said.

He pointed out that one of the main issues is around housing and proposed that similar to the government’s ‘help to buy’ scheme, that there should be a similar ‘help to farm’ scheme to allow people to be in a position that they can actually afford to buy for themselves.

“We need to make it easier for farmers to build an additional property on the farm, to allow transfer of ownership or exchange of tenancy to take place in a managed way over time. This is crucial if we are to ensure those who are interested in farming stay in the industry.

“We need to get the balance right in rural communities with good quality schools and housing support if we are to make it more attractive for young families to live and work on the land.”

Future trade

Turning to recent discussions on future trade and import standards, he attempted to quell fears around Scottish farmers being undercut by cheap foreign produce.

“I recognise why people are concerned, but the UK Government has been clear that this is not a road it is willing to go down and they have committed to maintaining high standards which means certain products in question won’t find a market in the UK.

“I am on the side of farmers and I guarantee you that we will be the first ones speaking out if this issue arises. We can be very proud of the standards of our produce here and we need to make sure there is a domestic market for it, but also take advantage of the reputation it has when selling it abroad.”

He added that production and welfare standards are devolved to Scotland and insisted that decisions regarding these areas will be taken here in Scotland post-Brexit.

When questioned on the Internal Market Bill and whether it could threaten devolution, he replied: “The reality is that the market south of the border is huge and is our biggest export market.

“This Bill guarantees Scottish farmers will still be able to sell their produce into the rest of the UK no matter what happens and that is a very important guarantee.

“I see common frameworks very much at the heart of this process as they set out the standards and rules for produce sold across the UK. There has been a lot of attention on the Internal Market Bill, but as far as I am concerned, it is predominantly a safety net.”

Brexit – deal or no-deal?

As The SF went to press, the outcome of a Brexit deal or no-deal was expected to be decided by October 15. Mr Mundell confirmed that although he hoped for a deal, that no-deal would be better than a bad deal: “I think the important thing is the uncertainty of the past few years comes to an end.

“We are not going to get a better deal from talking for longer. Farmers know well from past EU negotiations that all of the movement and deal making comes in the eleventh hour, I’m still hopeful we can get a good deal.

“However, If a good deal is not on the table, we have to be prepared to walk away. There is no point signing up to a long-term deal that is not in the interest of farmers, fisherman or the wider economy.”

Responding to a statement by former NFU chief economist, Dr Sean Rickard, that 50% of UK farming business would be unviable in the event of a no-deal Brexit he said: “I can categorically say that no government is going to watch 50% of farmers go out of business.

“Conservatives MPs the length and breadth of the UK would not be able to go back to their constituency and show their face if the government let that come to pass.

“I am absolutely confident that in the event that there isn’t a good deal on offer that the Government will step in with support for farming.”


There have been concerns over the past couple of weeks that farm workers have not been added to the UK’s shortage occupation list of jobs which do not have enough resident workers to fill vacancies.

Mr Mundell told the SF that the list is constantly evolving and is confident a solution will be found to ensure labour shortages are met in Scotland.

“This list is not set in stone and one of the advantages of taking control of our own immigration policy is that it is able to change and adapt over time and listen to the needs of industry.

“I am hopeful as we move into next year when problems emerge that solutions will be found, it is not a case of this is the policy and there is no room for change.”

Forestry and farming

Moving on to tree planting targets, he called for a more balanced approach for forestry and farming.

“There is room in rural Scotland for both farming and forestry, but this does not mean planting up whole farms. We have to see a balanced approach which ensures the right tree in the right place.

“There is no doubt that in the South-west of Scotland, turbines and trees are an important form of diversification for some farmers but very often this doesn’t work for tenant farmers as they don’t see the rewards. There is lot of help and support out there if you want to plant a large acreage, but it is trickier to get people interested in planting smaller shelter belts and hedgerows.

“If we were able to plant small clusters of trees on every farm across the country – focusing on poor agricultural ground – we would see a big uptake in planting targets without seeing damage to the farming community.”

Mr Mundell defended the accusations which have been thrown at the industry in discussions around climate change. “The positive environmental benefits of farming are too often ignored. I don’t think people understand the work our farmers do as custodians of the natural environment.

“There isn’t enough science around the positive benefits of farming on carbon sequestration, improving soil quality, helping with water course’s, and making sure areas of our countryside are well balanced in terms of wildlife and encouraging balance within nature.”