WITH so much uncertainty surrounding what the summer show season will mean for the industry and, indeed, an audience hungry for a return of farm events, we are publishing our usual list of events for the coming year.

However, as we all found out to our cost, we can never take anything for granted and Covid-19 road a coach and horses through many well-intentioned – and sometimes costly – plans for almost the entire brigade of 2020's shows, that months of preparation had gone into.

Nothing will ever be the same again, we suspect, for Scotland and, indeed, the UK and Ireland's rich tapestry of farming events which breath much needed fresh air into an industry which is sometimes all too often marked by long and lonely working hours.

So, there is a huge economic, social and public relations need for at least some semblance of order to return. We asked Alan Laidlaw, chief executive of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, on what might lie ahead for the industry and its highly relevant shop windows...

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I write this as we begin to fire up our laptops ready to face another year, with the memories of 2020 still fresh in our minds.

There were many low points, including seeing the Royal Highland Centre’s events business grind to a halt and pulling down the shutters on our new members’ area which we were very much looking forward to unveiling at last year’s show.

Without doubt the most devastating decision that had to be made was the cancelling of the Royal Highland Show. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the outpouring of sadness and disbelief was staggering as people grappled with the reality that 2020 would be year without the one event that has become the greatest celebration of food, farming and rural life.

Hot on the heels of the RHS cancellation came the news that other local shows would also not be going ahead. There is no disputing that shows, large and small, are an important platform for people to come together, share best practice and assess how they can work collaboratively to promote Scottish agriculture to the wider public.

Just as importantly, shows provide a hub for local farmers to meet, do business and above all have important time away from the farm and its stresses and strains.

The impact of this and other Covid-19-related realities, has had a significant impact on the sector’s resilience as it strived to carry on feeding the nation and providing a place for recreation.

In times when farmers and land managers face additional pressures, the impact of the virus has and is still having a dramatic impact on rural Scotland’s mental wellbeing.

Mental wellbeing has been something that we have championed at RHASS, with the support of RSABI, the Doug Avery tour and other initiatives we back within the industry.

The agricultural sector has often struggled with opening up and speaking out when we are not feeling OK; Covid-19 has exacerbated this natural reluctance and more people than ever have felt the impact more keenly than ever before.

Initiatives such as Phone 5, spearheaded by RHASS, to encourage showgoers to connect with five people they would normally see at the show by picking up the phone had short-term benefits.

However, what we now realise is this status quo cannot continue as the human impact of poor mental wellbeing is too great to sweep under the mat. RHASS is, therefore, continuing working on projects with other industry partners which we hope will make 2021 a year of change – for good.

When we announced that the Royal Highland Show would not take place in 2020, we made a commitment that we would, if at all possible, host one in 2021.

There were a number of occasions when we felt that that perhaps it was a pledge we may not be able to deliver on due to and the impact Covid-19 restrictions has had on our lives and the society.

However,our team dug deep and detailed scenario planning around all current restrictions has taken place,as well as what we believe has yet to come in the run in to the RHS.

What is clear is that it will not be back to 'business-as-usual', with changes necessary to keep us all safe, including dedicated day-tickets and members’ required to book to attend to ensure we monitor numbers and allow for robust track and trace measures to take place.

As we have all come to expect, there will need to be changes for next year’s show, including increased cleaning and handwashing facilities, use of masks in key areas, track and trace, all of which will be under clear Covid-19 guidance and capacity measures.

The good news is that our determination to host the show is shared by our trade stands and exhibitors who have indicated in the strongest terms their commitment to attending this year’s event.

We have all got used to adapting to the ‘new normal’ and I am confident that we can retain the integrity of the show as we did with a successful show jumping event which took place at the showground in August using the horsescotland guidance.

One of the biggest losses felt as a result of the show cancellation was missing out on livestock competitions, with farmers and breeders having to forego a year when it could have been their turn to take home the coveted rosette.

Livestock showing is more than just a commercial coup. It’s a celebration of years of commitment of striving for better, for making Scotland’s farms, livestock and our produce more efficient.

It’s about competition, but not just with your fellow breeders, but with the past and making our future brighter through agricultural innovation. The Highland is synonymous with innovation and this will continue.

While decisions are still being developed regarding the detail of how the competitions will run, we continue our detailed planning and are calling on the expertise of RHASS directors and their industry specific knowledge, along with guidance set out by bodies like our brilliant breed societies, horsescotland and the showing council which have created blueprints for holding Covid-19-safe shows.

Research amongst livestock exhibitors carried out by RHASS identified that they were in favour making changes to showing and to livestock areas.

We are a shop window for our sector and year after year the public celebrate the RHS livestock and its always in the top three of attractions at the show. We need to ensure that this element of the show can be delivered safely, just like all the other integral parts of a great show day.

Whatever the final details, RHASS directors are committed to ensuring that, from young handlers to seasoned exhibitors, we will ensure that the rings will be filled with the finest livestock again next year, albeit within a different show and with fewer spectators able to witness the spectacle.

And there certainly seems demand, with an overwhelming majority of of livestock exhibitors, of trade stand holders and of hospitality vendors all making commitments to return to the show in 2021.

This is echoed with our regular showgoers as we have experienced significant demand for show tickets when we released them in December with Early Bird tickets selling out for Friday and Saturday in a matter of hours.

Crowd management is always an important factor in delivering a safe show and we have processes in place to manage the numbers attending each day. Clearly, there will be logistical issues to factor in, however we have a large, outdoor site and with reduced numbers we are confident that this can be achieved.

Working alongside other events and professionals in the events sector, we are working towards delivering the best event we can under the circumstances at the time, this may look a long way off in the current climate, but we believe that this can be achieved.

The Technical Innovation Awards was an initiative that was able to take place last year and, surprisingly, we received more applications than the previous few years.

This could be because inventors and manufacturers had more time to apply, or it could be that we are on the cusp of dramatic change in the industry which is now coming to fruition.

Technical innovation is one of our longest running initiatives, going back to our original charters and has seen some of the most exciting transitions in agriculture from horsepower to computer power over the years.

An often unrecognised benefit of attending the show is that farmers get the opportunity to see the latest developments in the sector. For some, this might be uncomfortable as they are challenged to embrace change, for others it satisfies a thirst for the newest ideas agri-tech continues to drive our farming businesses, the show offers the opportunity to see up close what is the next reality and to shape the future of rural businesses of all scales for decades to come.

We have regularly changed the way we work and responded the calls on our sector to make it safer for both the producer and the consumer. We grapple with the challenges around climate change and grasp the opportunity precision agriculture presents thereby continuing the thread of resilience and improvement that runs to the core of RHASS and rural Scotland.

Another one of RHASS’ key charitable activities is education and as the major funder of Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET), we have been heartened to see exciting online initiatives the team have delivered last year with more planned to keep producers and consumers connected.

Sustainable food shopping has come to the fore and while there is more choice than ever in how we choose to eat, it is heartening to see that meat was the most popular food item during 2020 according to Nielson consumer surveys and RHET provides inspirational ways for our younger generation to satisfy their natural curiosity around food and farming.

Yes, the last year might be one we’d rather forget, however I am proud of our achievements and how we have responded.

I am sure restrictions will continue for some time to come, but that we are also making progress towards better days. RHASS will ensure the show will go on, in the best way we can possibly manage and we know we can rely on the sector to help us.

In a landscape of constant flux, we ask that we all work together, recognising the need to be patient and to support those doing whatever we can against a challenging backdrop.

We will make mistakes along the way, but we will leave no stone unturned in making 2021 Royal Highland Show the best it can possibly be, for our members, the rural sector and the whole of Scotland

Stay safe everyone and here’s to a happy 2021.