By Neil Wilson,

Executive director of the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland

Civil servants are there to serve, the clue is in the name.

And so when the Scottish Government commits farming to reducing its green house gas emissions (GHGs), we deserve a fully engaged and motivated civil service to work hand-in-hand with us to deliver on this. Unfortunately, I have witnessed anything but this from some Scottish Government officials over recent weeks.

As a board member of the Suckler Beef Climate Group Programme Board (SBCGPB) I, alongside other industry representatives, worked closely with officials to deliver a policy and scheme that would work for suckler beef farmers across Scotland.

I wholeheartedly agreed with the co-chairs of the group, Fergus Ewing and Jim Walker, that we wanted a vibrant and progressive suckler beef industry that had an opportunity to grow and prosper whilst improving efficiencies, reducing emissions and embracing biodiversity.

It is a pity that a couple of senior civil servants let their personal agendas cloud their judgement of our industry and ultimately attempted to derail the progress we had made by trying to introduce a livestock reduction policy.

With a looming election and purdah in full swing, all of the farmer-led groups (FLGs) and boards saw their papers published at the last minute and then seemingly ‘shelved’ as time ran out for any meaningful outcomes before Parliament dissolved.

My frustration grew further as, without reference to the board, the SBCGPB secretariat declared that the policy paper that I had signed up to was now just a ‘discussion paper’.

Were we run out of time on purpose, like so many others before? Will our work be left to gather dust on a civil service shelf? I certainly hope not and more importantly, I believe that we can resurrect the process after the election is settled.

However, some of our senior civil servants will need to have a good hard look in the mirror and ask if they really want to help our farms and rural economies, or if they want to bludgeon them with a blunt policy of livestock reduction. It will also take major strides in the communication powers of officials, as our board has had no Government feedback for over a month. Surely a board of industry stakeholders should expect better?

Our whole farming industry needs to reduce GHG emissions to meet legally binding requirements. We are all aware that those legally binding requirements have been set in the Scottish Parliament by our elected politicians, no doubt with civil service advice.

I don’t recall a discussion with primary food producers about the amount, or timing of these GHG emissions and whether they were realistic and achievable. Politics doesn’t always align with realism, or viability, however and since we have been committed to the magic GHG emissions reduction number, government set about asking the industry how it could achieve it.

The work of answering this questions was led by the Suckler Beef Group, which published last October and was followed by the recent reports of the other FLGs. Whilst the recommendations made across the groups are challenging, they are also achievable and will start us on a positive journey to a lower emitting, more productive sector that supports biodiversity and primary food production.

That sounds to me like a great outcome from a large and enforced policy change and a first of its kind. What doesn’t sound positive, is a policy of livestock reduction.

The whole of Scotland's rural economy relies on a productive suckler beef and red meat sector, which provides incomes and employment on farms across the country.

Integral to this are auctioneers and live marts, which offer a Scotland wide service connecting buyers and sellers in a transparent price system that sees over £0.5bn of livestock traded annually. Processors and butchers then add value to the primary product for retail, whilst also providing high levels of employment and social benefit across urban areas.

How can it make any sense to think the only way to reduce emissions is to reduce livestock numbers? The socio-economics of such a policy don’t look very good and the fabric of Scottish rural society would be ruined.

Rather than damage businesses and rural communities through a policy of livestock reduction, government must offer well-placed support and incentives to guide businesses to change, and improvement.

I am sure that many of the government officials we have worked with understand the importance of the red meat sector to the Scottish economy and its communities. I am also sure that once they take the remaining weeks of purdah to reflect, they will want to revive the boards and groups so that we can all make progress towards a cleaner, more efficient sector that supports the needs of Scotland, from food production to social benefits, and enhanced biodiversity.

This was the key role of the SBCGPB and, I believe, we delivered a thorough and forward-looking policy document to aid Government officials with their planning and delivery. I also believe our proposals are the only way forward if we are to protect our suckler beef and wider red meat sector.

We now we need officials to pick up this work, put aside any personal dislikes of farming and get it moving. The longer we delay, the more difficult it will be to reach the imposed emissions reduction targets. The industry has the door open – we just need engagement and support from our civil service and the show is back on the road.