What lies ahead for upland farmers?
He also visited the land of two farmers and witnessed first-hand the unique challenges Scotland’s upland communities face.
What is the state of upland farming in Scotland?
John Macpherson: It is a dying industry. If you go back to my father’s generation, the amount of people who worked the mountains and hills of Scotland was three times what it is now, and yet we are still meant to make a living from farming. We are not getting [the price] we should be.
Donald McLaren: We have been on the farm for 40 years and used to employ a shepherd. When I came home from university I took a wage, but for the last 30 years we have had to find something to do off the farm. You cannot keep a family now without doing other things.
John Paterson: It is essential we have income coming in from off the farm because we would not be able to have the right standard of living if we did not.
What is wrong with the farming infrastructure which means it does not provide people a living?
Dougie Ford: We are not getting the prices and they have stood still. People’s expectations and standard of living are also higher [and cost more].
JM: I have a piece of paper which goes back to my grandfather’s time and shows what everything cost. If you work out what a dozen eggs or pint of milk or fuel cost and work out what it is now it is phenomenal. We should be making £120 a lamb if you take these other commodities into it.
JP: The price of wool used to pay for the shepherd but now it does not even cover that.
Sybil Macpherson: As the price of inputs has gone up, the lamb price has stood still and it has made life very difficult for those who are left behind because of lack of staff. The neighbours are not there any more and we are teetering on the edge because skills have been lost.
JM: I farm two farms and George and Sybil farm two farms. I worked out there were nine people farming on our two units [at one time] and there were at least five married couples and they prospered and could rear a family. Now me and my son have to run those two farms and have to run more than 10,000 acres.
SM: The impact of this is not just the financial cost but the impact on the rural infrastructure. There used to be a primary school but now there is hardly anybody left apart from the retired folk. We are losing the schools because the whole infrastructure was based around hill sheep farming.
Is the next generation there to come through?
JM: I thought there was no demand but I encouraged my sons to go to a young farmers’ event in Lochgilphead and there were 30 lads under the age of 30 who turned up which surprised me. We could have found another 30 on top of that.
DM: The young ones’ aspirations are so much higher than ours were. They would not sit down in Dalmally village hall and have the crack like we used to. Take Sybil’s farm – you can get around part of it on a bike but for the younger ones to be spracking about in the mud is not something they want to do.
George Macpherson: And do you honestly think [new entrants] want to go to a hill farm?
JP: We definitely need new blood in this industry.
SM: But where is the opportunity for them to take on their own farm? They are being taken along to that point by the likes of Dougie but where is the next step?
Do tough times in the rest of in the industry have an impact on those at the top of the stratification?
GM: For lambs coming off the hill we struggle, but the old ewe coming off the hill is seeing increased demand through Dalmally. This is a real high health sheep area and folk are starting to recognise coming to Dalmally to buy sheep means they get stock which thrives.
SM: We are at the top end and this turns the cog in the middle which is the guy with the Mule which turns round the guy at the end who is producing the fat lamb. They need us for the females. The problem is we have to have our store lambs and calves off the farm where they are born before winter. We are reliant on enough people turning up during the Saturday sales at the back end.
We really need to be pushing Scotch Lamb much more in the way we do with Scotch Beef. Reliance on southern European countries such as Italy and Portugal has also been a problem [because of their financial problems].
What does the CAP need to be doing in Scotland to support farmers?
SM: I hope it is only paid to those who are active. More intensive farmers find it hard to disentangle us who are relatively unproductive and working as hard as possible with those who are doing nothing. The amount of Scotland paid on inactive ground is unacceptable and we could get more support from the arable and intensive beef guys if it was only going to those doing their best.
JM: We will have to downsize if the money does not come up the hill. It is interesting that in England it is now starting to go up the hill.
But it will be too late in Scotland like it was too late in England.
DM: All the money we get is spent. And in the north of England all the sheep have gone [because the support was not there].
SM: We knew it would become area based but some have built up ridiculous subsidy payments. The guys in the East and Aberdeenshire are screaming because they are sat on this inflated sum.
What is the impact of forestry on the Scottish uplands?
DF: If anything comes up for sale now farming cannot compete because of the inflated prices.
JP: If I need to get hold of my neighbour, he is more than six miles away. You cannot just phone up and ask for their help to get a cow in and it makes life very difficult. There are no services left in our area and if we did not have Kintyre at the other end with transport and feed stuffs we would be in a tough place. It has an impact on the local market as well because at Dalmally at one stage we would have had 10,000 or 12,000 lambs to sell, but now you only have 5,000 on a good day.
DF: We would be scuppered if it were not for wagons going to Kintyre. And you can now go to a sale and be home by 2pm.
How can upland Scottish farming be boosted going forward?
DF: It needs the support payment and this starts in the hills and feeds its way down the chain.
DM: If CAP went tomorrow, the forestry ploughs would be in straight away.
JM: Where the claims for independence are concerned, CAP support is far more important for us than independence. If we cannot get into Europe then independence is pointless, but we are not getting our questions answered by the Government.
The roundtable farmers, all of whom live within a 20-mile radius of Inveraray, Argyll:
Sybil and George Macpherson