"FARMING NEEDS to become more flexible if we are to attract new blood in to the sector. We have a great story to tell and excellent produce to promote, but we need to get people in the door who are willing to champion the industry and reinvigorate our rural economy.” 

Those are the words of Donald Cameron MSP, who has taken over the mantle of shadow cabinet secretary for the rural economy for the Scottish Conservatives. 

As the local MSP for the Highlands and Islands, he voiced his concerns over the disappearance of shepherds and farmers from the hills in recent years. Acknowledging LFASS as a lifeline to many upland farmers and crofters in Scotland, he delivered a clear message – that this is a bespoke Scottish subsidy scheme and the responsibility for its persistence lies with the Scottish Government, not Michael Gove. 

Addressing the future survival of Scotland’s rural communities, Mr Cameron touched on his concerns around rewilding plans; the decline in abattoirs across the country and the need to sell a positive and prosperous story of the industry, in order to attract vital new blood in to the sector. 

Sitting down in his office in the Scottish parliament, Mr Cameron explaine his own connection to the farming industry and how he has witnessed the landscape change in recent years.

“I’m from the west Highlands and have been involved in farming since I was a youngster. My family have owned land and farmed in the region for what seems like forever but sadly the farming landscape has greatly changed since my youth,” he recalled. “Over the last 30 years there has been a real decline in livestock farming; sheep are disappearing from the hills and certainly in the region I represent, there isn’t the same buzz at the local market, it is a shadow of its former self.

“I remember as a boy, seeing the lambs being gathered off the hill to head for market and at the other end, seeing my family butchering a lamb on the kitchen table – that was real farming, but this way of life has sort of diminished,” he reflected. 

“As a lifestyle, people don’t find farming as attractive as they once might have done and with the financial downturn for the industry, there are wider economic forces at play. People don’t value farming as much as they should nor do they recognise the hard work that goes in,” he said. 

“If you speak to a hill farmer in my part of the world, they work extremely hard trying to make their business profitable; working close margins and feeling the impact of the smallest market dips or weather changes.

“I became acutely aware of the multitude of challenges facing the farming industry during my time as a lawyer, where I specialised in agricultural and crofting law,” he continued. “I did a lot of work for the Scottish Government in subsidies appeals, which gave me a great insight in to the subsidy system and the difficulties farmers have with the bureaucracy of the whole thing. 

“Having been on that side of the fence, I can both empathise and use my expertise to protect and support this industry,” he said.

Industry hangs in 
a Brexit balance

The future of Scotland’s agricultural industry hangs in the Brexit balance, but Mr Cameron made it clear that the Scottish Conservatives would be supporting Theresa May’s Brexit deal and that his party would continue to push for the best outcome for the industry.

“Brexit provides a real opportunity to design a system which will allow Scottish farming to take off,” he insisted. “Yes, it is challenging and yes, there are worries and anxieties around it at this point; but ultimately it is an ideal chance to promote a sustainable positive new vision for Scottish farming.

“The Scottish Conservatives support Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, just like NFU Scotland has likewise given its support. It is a pragmatic answer which will ensure at least, in the transition period and further on, trade between us and the EU,” he assured.

“We export huge volumes of lamb to the EU and that is an important trade to maintain. My constituents from Lochaber are all due to lamb after Brexit in the spring – it is critical to them that we achieve a deal that allows their trade to be protected. 

“In any future trade deals outwith the EU, we do not want to see any diminution in the high standards we operate in, as that is part of the attraction of our high-quality produce. Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson have given as much reassurances as they can on this issue and it is something we will continue to push for,” he stated. 

LFASS support vital for upland areas

Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme (LFASS) payments provide a vital injection of funding for hill farmers and crofters, supporting the most vulnerable areas of Scotland. Mr Cameron stressed that more needed to be done to make sure this payment is protected for years to come.

“In 2019, we are looking at farmers and crofters receiving 80% of their LFASS payment and then the year after, only 20%. I don’t believe people have fully woken up to this as an issue. This drop in funding will have a devastating impact on rural communities and that is a direct result of the European Commission imposing that on Scotland,” he stressed.

“Michael Gove has said in several speeches that he is aware of the different topography we have in Scotland, but LFASS isn’t the UK Government’s problem, it is a bespoke Scottish subsidy scheme that has been in place for more than 10 years. It is changing because the EU Commission is changing and I must say the responsibility for sorting it out lies with the Scottish Government,” he explained. 

Mr Cameron suggested that the Scottish Government are failing to support the future of Scottish agriculture by choosing not to take a schedule in the UK Agricultural Bill.

“I believe by refusing to take a schedule in the UK Agricultural Bill that the Scottish Government is putting nationalism before the interest of Scottish farming. All a Scottish schedule would do would be to make provision for the framework for payments to be made,” he urged. “The Welsh Governments and Northern Ireland are both quite happy to be part of it and they realise that it doesn’t restrain them in the design of a support system. 

“NFU Scotland has given qualified support to the idea that Scotland should be included in the UK Gov Agri Bill. It is no threat to us, it would simply be designing a framework so that we can then go on and create a bespoke Scottish system.

“Michael Gove has been explicit in saying he is quite happy for Scotland to develop its own support system going forward and I can see us not following the same route that he has proposed. However, one of my criticisms of Fergus Ewing is that he has given very little clarity around his vision of the future support system for Scottish agriculture,” he said. 

“In 2½ years we have seen the appointment of task forces, councils of advisors and lots of well-intentioned reports, which have produced good work. However, it is high time that the Scottish Government started to set out explicitly what they believe the future of a post-Brexit support system will look like. 

“Their lack of progress has been a real dereliction of duty on their part,” he insisted. “I can see us diverging from Michael Gove’s vision for British agriculture as Scottish farming is very different but at least he has put out a plan and has legislation going through parliament.”

The romantic idea of rewilding Scotland has been met by scepticism by many farmers and crofters. Mr Cameron suggested that while protecting wild species is of huge importance, it must not come at the expense of those who work tirelessly as custodians of Scotland’s landscape. 

“There is clearly an important need to conserve and protect our wild species but going beyond that and trying to return parts of the Highlands and Islands to almost an unnatural state, at the expense of farmers and crofters in these areas is unacceptable,” he insisted. “I am really nervous about the drive towards rewilding and believe our farmers and crofters are operating marginal businesses and face a lot of difficulties already without needing to increase their burden,” he explained. 

“I speak to people within my constituency about sea eagles frequently and the worries they face protecting their livestock. It is so important to remember that these are the people who are working and living the land,” Mr Cameron continued. “They are the lifeblood of our fragile and remote communities and I’m nervous further rewilding could threaten these areas even further.” 

Facing up to the goose ‘issue’

“I was in Uist last year where residents face huge issues with geese. No one is saying we want to obliterate the geese population, but the reality is that these geese are making massive inroads into their profits and their lives. Obviously, we need to strike a balance between our natural environment and the farming community but at times we have gone too far and future rewilding must be mindful of this,” he urged.  

Recent discussions within the Scottish parliament have explored the need to combat the decline in abattoirs across Scotland.  Lending his support to the matter, Mr Cameron revealed that future rural policy from the Scottish Conservatives will address this issue. 

“We have seen in the past year, the decline in abattoirs across Scotland, which has had huge repercussions in remote locations such as Orkney, where alternative routes to slaughter have had to be established. 

“As a general policy we need to encourage mobile or pop up abattoirs and it is something that we as a party are looking at, in terms of developing our new rural policy, which we will formally announce in a months’ time,” he explained. 

“Given the controversial issues around live exports, these mobile abattoirs would logically appear to be a solution to that problem, but they would also enable us to process our meat closer to where it is produced. This is key to maintaining the high-quality Scottish brand which befits the industry.”

Time to champion our food industry

In response to the sense of doom and gloom that is so often depicted in the daily Brexit headlines, Mr Cameron concluded by reiterating the positive story that Scotland’s agricultural sector must sell. 

“It is high time that we sell a more positive story about what we have to offer as an industry if we are to attract new blood and ideas in to the sector. Look at the high-quality products we produce on our farms,” he said. “We want to expand our food and drink industry, and this is a success story we can build on and promote going forward. Not only will this draw people to our sector, but it will plug Scottish farming and Scotland overall. 

“I am particularly interested in Young Farmers, they are the future of this industry. I think we need to be more imaginative about the way we go about attracting people to work in farming – we need to challenge and change the work place to make it more appealing,” suggested Mr Cameron.

“Farming has to become more flexible. I know two young people who have recently become tenants in Lochaber and they both have other jobs,” he added. “The system has to allow for that flexibility, but that requires support both from the Government and from the farming community; to help assist and be willing to fill in the gaps. 

Many crofters and farmers will look to pursue other income streams as the current climate isn’t economically stable. Through becoming more flexible and challenging the ‘dawn to dusk’ working ethic, we could revolutionise the way people approach the future of farming,” concluded Mr Cameron.