By Pat Wilson

I WANT to open my opinion column by offering my support to The Scottish Farmer’s 'Take a lead in responsible dog ownership’ campaign and its aim for tougher laws for those whose dogs are caught worrying farm livestock.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many reports and pictures of this heinous crime. In fact, sometimes I can’t read the article because the pictures are so distressing and make me turn the page to avoid looking at them. So please lend your support to this extremely important campaign.

Now for the thorny issue of Brexit! I’ve avoided it like the plague, probably more so because of its complexity and because I don’t know enough about it.

However, with just short of a year before B-day I felt it was time to go on a steep learning curve to find out more about it in layman’s terms and how it will affect our industry. As a young broadcast journalist (that wasn’t yesterday) working for the BBC in the 1980s, I remember a senior reporter telling me to 'write a story like you were telling it to a pal in the pub'.

I’ve had plenty of practice over the years – writing, not down the pub – so here’s my Idiot's Guide to how I perceive it.

If you look up the word Brexit, it reads: 'A term for the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union”. We voted for a British exit, or Brexit, from the EU in a historic referendum in June, 2016. England and Wales were strongly in favour of leaving, while Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain.

The result led to jubilant celebrations among euro sceptics around the Continent – it did, however, send shockwaves through the global economy. The pound fell to its lowest level for more than three decades and David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister.

We now have less than 12 months until the UK and the EU divorce, but much still to agree on. No-one knows clearly what the process entails or how long it will take, as Britain is the first country to take its leave of the EU.

There is no doubt that Theresa May and her government have a complex path to follow, with many hurdles along the way before Brexit becomes a reality. The truth is, though, as farmers who like to plan ahead, we don’t know how things will work in the long-term.

I cannot advocate whether it is a good thing or a bad thing but let’s see how it could affect the dairy sector ...

Not surprisingly, dairy farmers in the UK are concerned the industry will take another blow following the Brexit vote. A really worrying notion is that Brexit will cost the industry 'millions of pounds in promotional funding' from the EU.

At the moment, Dairy UK, the Dairy Council and AHDB Dairy, are able to lever EU support for our campaigns. But as we prepare to walk away, we will lose significant funding for promotion – in hope, more than anything, perhaps Defra will bridge the gap!

As we approach this momentous event in UK modern history, the UK dairy industry must be market led and innovative. More importantly, we need to make sure we are internationally competitive and 'best in class'. Probably, most important of all, we need to ensure that we are 'open for business', wherever that business takes us.

Many farmers are making business decisions now for the years ahead. These decisions are difficult enough without knowing what trading environment they will be operating in. There has to be an agreement which will ensure farming and food production has a resilient, long-term future outside the EU.

I also have concerns about what lies within the labour market. It’s reckoned a third of the global population work in agriculture – making it the single largest employer in the world.

A third of permanent staff in the dairy sector are non-UK. We employ a Polish dairy man and, like us, I’m sure anyone else who employs foreign labour needs to know that we can hold onto them. The word on the street is that EU workers who come to the UK right up to the date of its exit – will have the right to stay.

But, a lack of clarity over our future relationship with the EU has accelerated an already-existing decline in the number of EU nationals working within the industry, so fingers crossed this disruption is at an end.

Another issue which is coming under the microscope is, of course, the Basic Farm Payment. Various agricultural leaders and dairy lobby groups have already urged the government to outline how it is going to replace this payment farmers receive from the EC. It's not a small ask that the 180,000 farmers in the UK, who receive around £3bn in subsidies each year, have the right to know what the future holds.

The UK and the EU are to have a 21-month implementation period to adapt to Brexit, which will end on December 31, 2020. Despite this, the farm payment system is unlikely to change radically for several years beyond 2020.

That is because Defra Secretary Michael Gove has plans for an ‘agricultural transition’ which will last longer than the implementation period. He wants to remove, reduce or improve inspections to cut red tape for farmers. He admitted this review is not only long overdue, but also timely as we design future farming policy and maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU.

The opportunities for leaving the EU, of course, depend on your point of view. Let’s hope he puts his money where his mouth is.

Mr Gove’s review might lead some of us to think there will be a light-touch approach to future farm inspections. Don’t expect this.

A group of high-ranking former British diplomats and civil servants, claim a new system of support based on public goods will require more controls and inspections than those needed to deliver the current Basic Payment Scheme. That dashes any hope of seeing how these inspections can be removed, reduced or improved as some voted for in the Brexit referendum, so don’t hold your breath!

I don’t think any of us are under any illusion that Brexit scenarios may be more complicated than they first seem when looking to the future of our sector. Leaving the EU will certainly bring challenges and no doubt opportunities. One thing we do know, though, is that there are a lot of bridges still to cross and a lot of unanswered questions. We’re stuck with it, so it’s a case of like it or lump it.

Finally, I would like to offer my congratulations to John Smith, fondly known as Smeesh, on his appointment to the chair of the NFU’s milk committee. If anyone can fight our corner, he can – he might need to!.