Farmers must join together and ‘steer the agenda’ in the debate over hill farming policy.
Opening the hill farming conference in Oban, Angus MacFadyen of Bragleenmore Farm in Argyll argued for stability in the sector and reflected on the fact most of the income on Scottish hill farms came from support payments.
“We should not be in this situation and we don’t want to be there,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the Scottish Government, Kirsten Beddows highlighted the imminent changes to support for hill farmers as a result of the introduction of Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) in 2017, replacing the current Less Favoured Areas system.
She said: “The introduction of the ANC will result in changes to the area and the funding distribution. Options are currently being considered and there will be a full consultation in the second half of 2016.”
Jonnie Hall, NFUS director of policy, urged farmers to think further ahead to the medium term, but recognised the reliance of most hill farmers on support.
“Fundamentally, we do not get adequate return from the market place so we continue to rely on support in the form of financial and advisory services. It is vital we target this support in smarter ways,” he said.
Mr Hall highlighted the many benefits from food production in the hills for which farmers are not compensated through the market place.
“We must make policy makers think about activity rather than occupation of land. We do not want people simply to maintain land, we want them to farm it.”
Demonstrating the power of energy, determination and drive, David Cooper, a 27 year-old farmer from Tardoes Farm, Muirkirk in East Ayrshire told delegates how he had made a success of farming in the hills without Single Payment monies.
Moving from Devon 10 years ago when he bought a partially restored opencast coal site, he has since expanded rapidly and now owns four holdings plus additional blocks of land.
“It is really important to make the most of the better ground,” he said.
“It is how you make your system work and it gives you the flexibility you need.”
Mr Cooper does not assist any ewes at lambing, only breeds from single ewe lambs, culls anything with foot or mouth problems and finishes all his lambs off grass.
This reduces the demand on his time and allows him to earn more money off farm from his fencing business.
He added: “Keep it simple: know your margins and keep costs to a minimum because this is the only thing you have control of.”
Heard at the conference
‘Specialisation is happening but the linkages between the hills and the lowlands are breaking down.’ Workshop group – Upland and lowland collaboration
‘Define the system – do not be defined by others.’ (David Cooper, Tardoes Farm)
‘We should leave ewes on the hill and let them get on with it.’ (David Cooper)
‘If farmers sit back, Scottish agriculture will be influenced by so many other people who would like to have an input into the future of support.’ (Jonnie Hall, NFUS)
‘We want to see a green, innovative and profitable agriculture which is outward looking and resilient.’ (Kirsten Beddows, Scottish Government)