Stakeholders and policymakers from across the industry spoke about the importance of sustaining hill farmers and crofters at the national hill farming conference in Argyll and Oban this week.
While hill farming is crucial due to the contribution it makes to food production, communities, local economies, tourism, biodiversity and landscapes, the sector is ‘vulnerable’ and most farmers and crofters are still reliant on support.
NFU Scotland director of policy Jonnie Hall, who was speaking at the conference, said: “Hill farmers, often working in remote areas, face an array of rising costs which are never likely to be met by returns from the market place.
“While that merits support in itself, it is important we remember many of the genuine benefits from active hill farming don’t have a market value.”
The two-day event, which started yesterday (Wednesday), heard changes to direct support arrangements for 2015 onwards would undoubtedly add pressure to producers in some of the most remote areas of Scotland.
It is hoped estimated payment rates of €10 per hectare (£7.40/ha or £3/acre) for region three land and €35/ha (£25/ha or £10/acre) for region two, along with the voluntary coupled support schemes for ewe hoggs and beef calves, have the potential to deliver fairer returns back to those who are most active in the hills and uplands.
Mr Hall said Pillar Two support had always been a ‘lifeline’ for the country’s farmers, but changes to Less Favoured Areas Support Scheme (LFASS) could alter the amount of support delivered – currently £62 million each year.
He added: “LFASS is to continue in its current form until 2017, with some minor changes, but from that point Scotland will have to replace it with Areas of Natural Constraint [ANC] where compensation will be based on income foregone and the extra costs of farming more disadvantaged land.
“There will be no historic, remote, coupled, or enterprise elements to the new ANC making it dramatically different.”
Mr Hall said it would be a challenge to devise a new scheme but it was one which ‘must work’.