When Gill and I started breeding pedigree cattle we had a long and informative chat with Jim Goldie who imparted some useful words of advice and wisdom. One phrase which has stuck with us was 'know your market and watch the market signals'.

A business responds and develops by reacting to the market signals and working out where they fit in the big picture. It has recently struck me that this is perhaps how we should be looking at our national farming business – The Scottish Farming Company.

What is our market and what are the signals to watch?

Consumers are our key customer. Their preferences and behaviours determine what we do, what support we get and what we do in return. Consumers are a broad church and like most churches have many sects and schisms.

Farming, the countryside and what we do, is now facing a volume of challenges I have not experienced in my career. The numbers of issues that demand our attention grow by the day – veganism, rewilding, climate change, sea eagles, changing support systems and Regional Land Use Partnerships.

What can I do about it I hear you say? Are we powerless against these forces that seem to have a better ear of society and our customers than we do? I would reply let’s see what is happening first then consider our response?

So what are the straws in the wind driving all this change, why is it so contentious and who is behind it?

Let’s go back a few decades to the 1980s when bovine TB was almost eradicated in Great Britain. All that was left was a small area in the south west of England and it was determined that removal of some badger setts would resolve the matter.

A badger protection group took the matter to a review and the cull did not proceed. The rest is history. We now have huge numbers of cattle being culled and equally seriously, we have huge suffering in the badger population from TB infections.

Did that group really mean to force such suffering on the badger population? Can this unintended consequence be justified?

Come forward to the early 1990s and the introduction of sea eagles to Wester Ross. I was involved with this as one of the vets supervising their quarantine period. I quizzed the RSPB staff at the time about the consequences of their reintroduction and was assured they would only predate on fish. We now know differently. What went wrong?

These were young chicks taken from their nests in Norway to Scotland, penned for 35 days and released with no adults to teach them to fish. They did what you do when you are starving, eat anything you can find.

We now have the almost total loss of the fulmar population in Skye over and above the sheep predation. The unintended consequence is that Golden Eagles are no longer rearing chicks on a regular basis in North Skye as the fulmar is their main food source. Consequently their numbers are dwindling.

There are pictures and videos of these introduced sea eagles tearing live lambs apart and killing adult sheep; another unintended consequence. Had the same been done by a human they would be facing prosecution under the animal welfare regulations for causing unnecessary suffering and punished with a huge fine or prison.

Can someone explain why a nation of supposed animal lovers has allowed this to happen? Why are some groups and organisations making a noise about alleged animal suffering on pig and dairy units yet are silent about this?

Today we are seeing the development of veganism. Vegan groups are speaking directly to supermarkets. Some supermarkets are looking at increasing their sales offering to 25% vegan within four years. One group has formed a co-operative approach with the Express newspaper to promote ‘eco friendly’ veganism agendas including the purchase of land for rewilding and run a vegan football team.

Rewilding is now racing up the agenda with many groups forming alliances to lobby government and using crowd funding to raise money to do this. I get the argument for rewilding and increasing biodiversity. However, what is the end game and what are the unintended consequences? Those with beavers on their land already know some of it.

When I worked in the Civil Service we had to stand back and look at the big picture when doing something. For example when doing a welfare visit it is always easy to focus on the single issue of the affected animals. Taking a wee bit of time to look at the big picture and ask why it has happened, who is involved, why now, what are the issues behind this; almost always resulted in an intervention with the people rather than a prosecution. Our personal views and opinions had to be set aside and the matter dealt with objectively, fairly and transparently.

Government will always look at all the options and gauge reaction to them all before making decisions. Business folk make decisions; Ministers arrive at decisions, usually the one with the least reaction that comes the closest to their desired outcome with the minimum of political damage.

The civil servants’ role is to advise Ministers on all the options, the consequences and Ministers then make a decision based on need, finance and desired outcomes.

Jim Walker, in his last column, tells us about a paper from Scottish Government civil servants proposing reducing the cattle herd in Scotland by 25%. Why propose this? Their reason was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so they could meet targets quickly.

Removing a quarter of the cattle herd is considered a fast track way to reduce emissions; it appears to ignore the science which indicates cattle production is carbon neutral.

Where did this idea come from? Did the paper consider and explore the unintended consequences? This idea needs robust scientific and business based rebuttal. I would guess Jim and his colleagues gave it that.

What do all these pressure groups have in common? They are all single focus issues. Why should that be a problem? With all these single issue groups we have the same problem as the welfare case. They are only looking at the affected animals or situation. They do not consider the big picture or the unintended consequence.

To stand back and look at the big picture needs the involvement of many others and a wide and round sound scientific and business fact basis, views and opinions that some may not agree with.

Climate change science is still in its infancy. We can identify small areas and work out what is happening. We cannot yet work out the big picture, the interactions and the unintended consequences. Recent discoveries about the movement of water in the oceans demonstrate this.

Our industry will be vital to humanity going forward. We need to ensure that those who represent and lobby for us are funded properly and continue to base their arguments on sound science.

What is our single focus issue? That is the nub of our problem. There isn’t one. The farming unions and associations are dealing with primarily a big picture, a large complex industry with hugely varied issues. They are representing an industry or large parts of it. They do not have a single issue to tug at the heartstrings of the public to open their purses in support. As such it is all too easy for single focus groups to target small subjects and smear a whole sector or the industry by inference.

There is a danger that single focus groups with funding can run campaigns which influence the public and they in turn influence MSPs and MPs. This puts pressures on government to make decisions which we, as an industry, may not find beneficial.

We have a great story to tell, a big role in mitigating climate change, protecting the environment, improving biodiversity, providing space for our communities to enjoy and healthy nutritious food to produce.

To protect and promote the positives I believe we need to work together no matter what our previous personal histories or issues were with our unions and associations. They need to be set aside in the interest of the bigger picture.

We need to invest much more in supporting our farming unions and associations. They are our only voice in a new world of well funded, well informed, highly organised single focus, single issue groups who are intent on imposing their view of the world on the rest of us. What will be the big picture if we don’t?