WHILE THEY may say that you can make statistics say anything you want – and there may be an element of that in surveys of everything from sea eagles to circuses – the stark facts presented by the annual audit of Scotland's dairy herds is worrying.

We all knew that there were going to be fewer herds and we all knew that the herds that were left would be bigger, but the critical-scale of our dairy industry does not look good. There is also evidence of a shift in geographical spread and, of course, the decline of the West Coast and island element of the industry seems endless, were it not for the fact that it nearly is at an end.

There is every reason to suggest that last year's roll call of producers will actually look quite good when set against this coming year's figures. Everything is stacking up against any recovery in the dairy industry, from lower milk prices, to fewer replacements being bred, but especially due to a labour shortage.

It's a hard fact to face, but the industry has relied upon foreign labour for so long that I doubt many of those who have not milked themselves for some years and who are facing staff shortages, will be willing to pull on the Dunlops and the waterproof gear to do so again. The prediction is that fully kitted out dairy farms will not be a scarce commodity in the land market this year.

From the stats, we can tell that there were almost 40 fewer herds in 2017 than in 2916 and the remaining 918 herds swallowed up 5622 more cows to boost the average across them to a smidgen short of 200 cows. Ayrshire remains the traditional mainstay of the industry, with 222 herds but even in this grass-rich county, its most famous son, Robert Burns, could re-pen those famous words 'Green grow the rashes o' any time now.

The only rationale that we can apply is that it will be more of the same and maybe even at an accelerated pace this coming year. While good land will never be fallow, it will be sad to see highly productive land turned over to 'bed and breakfast' cattle and sheep, with a reduced labour force to look after them and all that this will entail at rural community level.

We have to hope that the ravages suffered by the milk industry in 2016 are not about to be repeated, but it is a faint hope at the start of a New Year.