ALBEIT belatedly, the multiple retailers – led by Tesco – have finally bowed to six months of pressure and criticism and decided to return the hundreds of millions of business rates relief they were handed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These businesses had always remained open and although they had undoubtedly incurred extra costs, their sales and margins have been phenomenal. Compare this to their neighbours on the High Street, who have been shut, then open, then shut again, causing absolute carnage and the multiple retailers’ position was completely untenable.

By being the first to announce this refund as an early Christmas present, Tesco has got some great publicity and why not? We knock them when they get it wrong, so they should get some credit when they get it right.

After a shaky start in the spring, they have also been increasingly supportive of Scottish beef and lamb and long may that continue, especially as we are looking down the barrel of the Brexit gun.

Despite the uncertainty of Brexit, there is nothing in the numbers of cattle and sheep coming forward to suggest that the strong prices we’ve seen for beef and lamb should weaken in the first half of next year. Of course, there could and likely will be some kind of Brexit disruption, but I have always thought that there would be a deal (of some kind!) and I still think that.

I’m also pretty confident that, even with new rules and potential disruption, trade would still happen with the EU. Even if politicians come and go, many of the trading relationships between British and European companies have been formed over generations.

These relationships won’t end overnight. The reality is that once the officials finalise the rules, these companies will find a way of making it work.

The quicker this happens and politicians back off, the better, if the recent performances from the likes of George Eustice are anything to go by. For a guy who is from a farming background, some of his recent outbursts have been extraordinary.

His comments about switching from sheep to beef production could have come out of the mouth of Margaret Beckett when she was Secretary of State and she knew absolutely nothing about farming, and more importantly, didn’t want to know.

But the really damaging utterances from Mr Eustice and Defra recently had been about the future of farm support in England over the next 10 years. Massive cuts and a total redistribution and redirection of the funds that are available to underdeveloped and, in many cases, illogical and irrational environmental schemes across the country.

Lots of fanfare and spin in the media but absolutely no detail for the poor folk who are trying to farm in England. Particularly family livestock farms that will be decimated by this ill-thought out clap-trap from Defra egged on by Treasury.

Having been away from the joys of agri-politics for nearly 15 years, last year when I represented Scotland’s interests on the Bew Group to recover convergence funding, I was shocked at the hard line on post-Brexit agricultural support being taken by UK government ministers and officials in the process.

They displayed a total lack of interest, or understanding of farmers’ role as food producers and as custodians of the countryside, or on the issue of food security. It’s clear in last week’s announcement that is still the case, even with the experience of a pandemic to draw on.

It reminds me of the Thatcher era when her free market policies ripped the manufacturing and productive heart out of British industry. I’m not going to get into any kind of debate about the merits or otherwise of her beliefs, merely to observe that this crusade Defra is embarking upon is just as extreme for the farming sector in England, as 'Thatcherism' was for our industrial sector.

What benefit will exporting our food production, particularly beef and sheep, to other countries actually bring? It certainly won’t help climate change as, for example, beef produced from former Brazilian rainforest has a carbon footprint at least 14 times more intense than suckler beef produced in Britain.

It was this ambivalent attitude that actually spurred myself and others into action to try and offer a different way forward for Scotland. Ultimately, this has led to the development of the Suckler Beef Climate Scheme and its sister versions which will follow for other sectors shortly.

Fortunately, we have a Cabinet Secretary in Fergus Ewing, and a Government in Scotland, that recognise that food production is at the heart of the rural economy and rural communities. And that it can co-exist and prosper alongside environmental, biodiversity and climate change requirements. Food production, climate change and land use change are not mutually exclusive, which is the fundamental difference from the ill-thought out nonsense coming from Defra.

But if some farmers and crofters in Scotland ever thought before last weeks’ Defra announcement that the 'aye been' mentality would be OK in the future, then that has been well and truly blown out of the water.

Firstly, be aware there are some influential folk and organisations in Scotland who would love to follow England’s lead like lemmings off a cliff. Secondly, the massive reduction in funding for English agricultural support needs to act as a wake-up call to all of us.

The colossal cost of fighting Covid-19, £400bn and counting, means the UK and Scottish Governments are skint, plain and simple. If it was going to be hard to persuade politicians, even in Holyrood, to back agriculture post-2024 before Covid-19 (which it was), then it has just got a bloody sight harder.

All this means is that if we want a rural policy that balances the importance of food production with other land use requirements and the fight against climate change, then we need to get on with this new approach now.

Why? Because by 2024 when our lobby organisations are fighting for cash to continue to support the transition of Scotland’s farmers to this new world, then they need evidence to prove that we are reducing GHG emissions and playing our part in fighting climate change.

By then, the majority of farmers who see a future in the industry need to be on a journey of improving resilience and efficiency of their businesses. Fortunately, that can and will go hand in hand with climate change benefits.

Finally – the bit that Defra has fundamentally missed – we will need more from the market for our produce. In Scotland, we have a chance of further premiums for our products because we can and will differentiate the relatively small amount of food we produce (in global terms) even more than we currently do.

The Scottish Government will provide that window of opportunity, that period of transition if we are prepared to go on this journey. As for our farming friends and colleagues south of the Border, many of them are about to be sacrificed on the altar of a cheap food policy, where the political class is happy to rely on imports whatever their impact on global warming, at the expense of rural communities and the family farms that support them.

While these same politicians crow on about improving and enhancing the environment, the hills and uplands of England are about to experience the biggest upheaval in their long and proud history.

The galling thing is that the environment they claim to champion won’t actually be improved as many farming families are forced off their land because their businesses are rendered unviable and it will be abandoned or planted.

We can’t afford to make that mistake in Scotland by burying our head in the sand and hoping it will all be OK. Quite simply, unless we change and adapt it won’t.