If any confirmation was needed that the sheep industry is at the sharp end of Brexit it came on Monday when Defra Secretary Michael Gove went head to head in debate with his Scottish counterpart Fergus Ewing.
Debating the issues in front of an invited audience at SASA headquarters near Edinburgh they were warned by past National Sheep Association chairman John Fyall of the dangers of no deal.
“Brexit is now only a few weeks away and we may see a huge reduction in lamb prices if things do not go well,” Mr Fyall said.
Mr Gove admitted that producers faced a possible 40 per cent reduction in price although a likely drop in the value of sterling would offer some relief.
“But remember this, if we have a Brexit deal the problem goes away. We just need Scottish politicians to back the Prime Minister,” he said adding that the no-deal scenario would be made worse by the need for 100 per cent inspections of live exports.
Mr Ewing quoted the managing director of Shropshire based Euro Quality Lambs who had said a no-deal Brexit would be the equivalent of a self- imposed foot-and-mouth crisis only much worse.
“The rumour in recent days is that International Trade Minister Liam Fox is doing a sweetheart trade deal with New Zealand which would see zero tariffs on lamb. If that was to happen it would put the kibosh on sheep farming in Scotland,” Mr Ewing added.
Mr Gove said he had not heard any such rumour but he expected some New Zealand lamb to come to the UK under the Tarrif Rate Quotas which would replace current arrangements.
The creation of a compensation scheme for the sheep industry in the event of a no-deal Brexit was a possibility which Mr Gove had already floated at a meeting a few days before in Aberdeenshire.
He was unwilling to estimate the cost but Mr Ewing, who had asked for such a package, put it at between £100m and £300m for the UK.
“It would be welcome but I doubt if any scheme could make up for the damage caused. Far better to avert the danger altogether,” he said.
Mr Ewing thought the first farmers to cut back on sheep would not be in hills but in the lowlands where alternative enterprises were available.
Inevitably future funding for agriculture featured in the debate with NFUS president Andrew McCornick asking if Scottish farmers would be supported to the same extent as farmers in the EU who would become the major competitors.
Mr Gove said: “We will do better than the EU. We will have more funding in the Exchequer once we leave the EU and we will not ‘Barnettise’ farm funding.”
Although the farming budget is assured until 2022 Mr Ewing pointed out that this was not the case for areas such as forestry, LEADER and the Agricultural Environment and Climate Scheme (AECS).
“Liz Truss [Treasury Secretary] has not approved funding for these beyond 2020 which is causing real practical problems with planning ahead. These measures account for £120m of support per year,” he said.
Michael Gove seemed well aware of the need for EU migrant workers in the agricultural and meat processing industry, hinting strongly that the £30,000 per year minimum earning level would have to be reduced.
“I know that there are many people employed in the meat processing who are highly skilled but not earning that level,” he added.