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Paying for public goods could save the Highlands and Islands, but farmers want to produce food

Public money for public goods may be the only way to keep the Highlands and Islands viable after Brexit, but politicians shouldn’t forget producing food is what gets farmers out of bed in the morning, says Peter Chapman, ex-Scottish Conservative rural affairs spokesman.

Anyone who knows me will be aware I farm a mixed beef cow and arable enterprise in the north-east of Scotland.

 

However, as Shadow Rural Economy and Connectivity Secretary*, I have a duty to take an interest and fight for the best outcomes for the whole of Scotland.

 

I was therefore happy to attend an event this week which focused on the challenges facing the Highlands and Islands post-Brexit.

 

These are parts of the country which are already facing significant problems.

 

Remoteness

 

Remoteness from markets, poor soils, harsh weather and very often small business size all combine to make finding a profit difficult.

 

There has already been a decline in agricultural activity and land abandonment in some of the toughest areas.

 

This obviously impacts on wider society as local shops and schools start to close.

 

Brexit has the potential to speed up this process unless policy support measures and funding better reflect the distinctive needs of the Highlands and Islands.

 

Survival

 

Crucial to the future survival of agriculture in many of these areas is the type of trade deal we reach with the EU and the rest of the world post-Brexit.

 

Negotiations are continuing, but it is clear to me we will not remain in the single market or the customs union.

 

Nevertheless, the aim is to maintain trade with the EU which is as free and frictionless as possible.

 

We are not alone in this regard, as Ireland clearly needs good trading rules for its beef and milk, which come to the UK in huge quantities.

 

Irony

 

The irony is, under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, our farmers would still receive the same level of tariff protection from third countries, but tariffs would be applied to imports from and exports to the rest of the EU.

 

As a result, prices would rise for commodities of which the UK is a net importer and fall for commodities for which we are a net exporter.

 

The UK is a net importer for most commodities such as beef, milk products and pork. But we are a net exporter of lamb, which is a particular problem for the Highlands and Islands where sheep production is the main and often just about the only agricultural activity possible.

 

Vulnerable

 

So the pressure is on to find a way to protect this vulnerable area.

 

With 40 per cent of the UK’s 1,150 priority species, more than 75 per cent of the UK’s priority habitats and 13 per cent of the world’s blanket bog, Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s mantra of ‘public money for public goods’ could apply and keep the area viable.

 

But we must never forget for farmers and crofters, the reason to get up in the morning and go out in all weathers is to produce high-quality food.

 

*Mr Chapman resigned this week after admitting to a lobbying error


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